I don’t know about you but some nights or honestly some weeks or even months it’s nearly impossible for me to get a healthy homemade dinner on the table, and I’m always looking for more shortcuts to make it easier.
Today I’m chatting with guest Cassy Joy Garcia, bestselling author of Cook Once Dinner Fix, Cook Once Eat All Week, and Fed and Fit, as well as the creator behind the food blog Fed + Fit. Cook Once Dinner Fix JUST came out so I’m excited to hear more about that as well as her tips on simplifying weeknight cooking for your family. Cassy Joy is a mom, too, so she totally gets the utter chaos that can be happening below your feet while you’re trying to make things happen in the kitchen.
This is Feeding Toddlers Made Easy and I’m your host, Kacie Barnes, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Master of Clinical Nutrition and a mom of two. This is where we solve all your struggles with feeding your little ones, and make healthy eating easy.
K: Cassy, welcome.
C: Thank you so much for having me.
K: This is so much fun, you’re only I think the third guest that I’ve had on my podcast in its whole life…
C: Oh my gosh, I’m extra honored.
K: Yeah, it’s fun, it’s a lot more fun than talking to myself! So tell us, you are a cook- you’re an excellent cook. You’re doing it all the time. What is different about your new book, Cook Once Dinner Fix.
C: So, Cook Once Dinner Fix is, I think- I even wrote this in the book- it is the most like me and how I actually cook at home. This is my third book, and the other ones I’m still very proud of, I’m really proud of the problems that they solved. But this is actually how I’ve been getting dinner on the table night after night without feeling totally exhausted and run down by the process, and so it’s really just about ‘how do we get a fresh meal on the table in a way that saves us time? And maybe some money, and definitely some energy?’
K: Yes, we all want to know how to do all those things! When I hear meal prep, sometimes I picture what I see on social media- someone getting out all their little containers for the week. But this is different, so tell me- how is meal prep used in your book?
C: Great question! So yes, meal prep is a system that doesn’t work for me because I am a working mom of little ones. I have a three and a half year-old and a one and a half year-old, and number three will be here in a couple of months. My weekend is when I would have to meal prep, but I didn’t want to spend that time away from my girls again. Because in order to be able to pull it off- even though we might be in the same room- it’s still not active engagement. I wanted to play with them, so I needed to cook dinner during the evenings. And so what I did is I break it up into meal prepping for a future meal while we’re making tonight’s dinner, and it might sound a little zany, but it actually really, really works. So what I do is I think, ‘what is the part of the meal that takes the most amount of time to prepare?’, and it’s usually cooking the protein- or if you are choosing a vegetarian dinner, then it might be the veggie-based main component. So I say, ‘Well, we’re already making a protein for tonight’s dinner, how about we double it?’ We double the amount of protein we’re making tonight, store half of it in its most basic form. So don’t make an enormous casserole and then plan on eating the other half in two nights. Instead, store off the shredded chicken separately, make tonight’s casserole, and then two days from now, we’re gonna roll that chicken up and make another dish- let’s say some sort of a chili dish or chimichangas or something totally different. It’s going to save you so much time in the future because I just didn’t have the time at night either to really just pull off a totally involved fresh meal.
K: Yeah, I absolutely love that, especially because I think a lot of us moms really struggle with thinking of something different to do- it’s so much mental energy. So even if I’m going to make a big batch of chicken on Sunday, it takes a lot of effort to think about those different things to do with it during the week.
C: Exactly, it is. And the decision fatigue is real, especially at the end of the day. So instead of meal prepping, I like to put a heavy emphasis on meal planning and let’s batch our work- our thinking work- when we can. Hopefully what I’ve done is as much thinking as possible for those of us who do have really tight schedules and then lead ritually filled lives with lots of little people..
K: I love how you’re not using the word busy.
C: Our plates are really full with a lot of needs. And for me, when I’m preparing dinner happens to overlap with when my girls need me the most, and it can just feel like a frazzled uphill struggle every night to get dinner on the table. So I thought, ‘you know what, if I can just provide an easy button, the thinking is done.” I can’t turn off the switch in my brain- the holistic nutritionist switch- so as I’m developing recipes and putting together plates, I’m mindfully preparing those places so that they’re balanced with macro and micronutrients. You’re not just going to get a recipe for roast, I’m also providing you with the roast potatoes and the salad to serve alongside it, and so I really hope that the decision fatigue, that burden is less by leaning on these series. The decision’s already done and also you’re getting ahead of the game. When you’re washing the dishes tonight after dinner- or your partner, or whoever is- you have more to show for it, there’s more that you get to enjoy going forward, and you just know that you’ve gotten a head start on the next meal.
K: I absolutely love that, and I love that you mentioned the holistic nutrition piece. I can’t believe I forgot to mention that, but yes, it’s so important. Obviously, I care about nutrition, you care about nutrition, and that does shine through in your book. While I was looking through your book, I thought, ‘These meals look gorgeous. They look incredible.’ And so, I guess my one question to you is: if someone is not the most confident cook, is this book still for them?
C: Oh yes! We started developing this book as I was pregnant with my second baby, and now I’m pregnant with my third- that tells you how much time has gone by. And of course, a global pandemic happened in the middle, and production on the book was essentially halted. It actually provided me time to be able to go back and re-think through it and work with a really gifted editor, and I wound up re-writing almost all of the recipes because. I thought some of them were still not as approachable as I wanted them to be. The dishes are gorgeous, and they’re really lovely, and you’re going to be so proud of the meal you make, but they are written so that the most beginner cook is going to be able to move through these recipes- and that was very intentional. I kept thinking, ‘What if now there are some very accomplished, very young cooks out there in the world?’ But if I thought about myself when I was 12 years old, I did not know what I was doing. And so I wanted to write this for 12-year-old me in the kitchen, brand new, with no cooking confidence to speak of to really guide folks through this.
K: I love that so much. And even as someone who feels pretty confident in the kitchen, when I have people talking to me, my kids talking to me, my dog barking, I can’t focus on something that has a ton of different steps and all these different components. It needs to be simple. So us moms, we appreciate that.
C; Oh, I’m so glad. If nothing else, this Cook Once Fix Dinner is a love letter to other moms.
K: So what are the meals that you tend to make over and over for your family?
C: I just made it today, it’s from the poultry chapter. And what I’ve done is roast an entire chicken- and at least for my family, where we’re at right now, one chicken is actually enough for two full dinners for us. if you’re listening and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh, my family polishes off a chicken in five minutes,” then what I would tell you to do- and what I walk through in the book- is how to scale these recipes to feed the number of folks that you need to feed. So I would say double the chicken- or whatever it is. The oven is on, we roast a chicken, and while the chicken is roasting (or two of them)- and it’s really simple roasting. I’m not going to walk you through anything fussy. Again, I want the most beginner cook to feel like this is a huge confidence boost for them. So they get the chicken in the oven, follow the steps, no fail, and then we’re also going to roast some potatoes alongside them. Just some very simple roasted potatoes. Pull those out and serve roasted chicken with roasted potatoes and a fresh arugula salad tonight for dinner. I’m fortunate that my girls love arugula, but if arugula is pushing the limits for your little ones, spinach would be a really great sub. You could use the exact same dressing- it’s just lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper. I serve that up for meal number one. We serve it fresh, enjoy some of the crispy skin while it’s there and delicious, and then the rest of the chicken gets stored because we have extra roasted chicken. So instead of saying, ‘okay, well, I guess we have roasted chicken and potatoes and arugula again in two nights,” we have just the roasted chicken. And what I do is then make an Indian-style Curry- butter chicken- on the skillet. It’s super easy, really straightforward, and calls for ingredients you can find in almost any grocery store. We’re gonna make this sauce and then chop up the rest of the chicken, pull it off of the bone, toss it in with the sauce, and heat it through to create this really yummy curry chicken, and I serve that with fluffy white rice. My girls love it- as long as I serve the rice and the saucy chicken next to each other- they really get into it. What I’ve found is that- at least for my little ones- if I take the chicken out in pieces and it’s just got the sauce on it, and I put it on their plate so they can see it, they’re more inclined to eat the pieces of chicken that they can recognize, eat the rice, and then they usually ask for more, then they’re asking for the bowl of the sauce and things like that. That’s one that they really love.
K: Oh, that sounds so good. And I’m just so obsessed with this idea of doing the work in separate phases, so you’re not redoing that same effort again. I make the chicken and then have the leftovers and you have a purpose for it that’s not just, ‘Oh, I guess we’ll do the same thing again.’ It makes so much sense.
C: Right, it does, and that’s what saves me that time, and in some ways sanity at the end of the day. Because instead of just saying, ‘Gosh, I don’t know!’ I do know! I have this chicken in there, I have the ingredients for the butter chicken sauce, and I’ve got white rice. I can pull this meal together in 20 minutes total time.
K: Yeah, that’s so key. And what’s awesome to me too about it is that when a mom is sitting down to a meal plan at the beginning of the week, with one of your recipes they already have two nights covered. And that definitely cuts down the time.
C: Yes, it does. That’s my hope. And that’s actually how I meal plan. I like to meal plan on Saturdays, and just so that Sunday doesn’t always feel like a catch-all day. I’m always thinking about how we construct the best feelings around this process, and if I get a head start of it on Saturday, it feels a little bit better. So that’s what I do. I find that I really only need to cook homemade meals, for me personally, 4 dinners a week. For the other three, I do a Sunday family dinner with my parents every Sunday- so that’s checked off. On Friday, we do a pizza night. And at some point during the week- this is ‘homemade’, but it feels very, very easy- we do spaghetti and red sauce because it’s like a win. You just know they’re going to love it!
And so that leaves four dinners. So what I do is I flip through the book and think, ‘What are two dinner series that I can pull together?’, and I overlap them. That’s how I think about it: I’ll pull a dinner series out of poultry and maybe I’ll pull one out of beef. And then I’ll alternate the days. Monday we’re having chicken, Tuesday, we’re having beef. Wednesday chicken, Thursday is beef. And it just feels so much easier once I’ve gotten those chosen.
K: Absolutely. These are amazing tips, keep them coming. What other tips do you have for moms to make things a little bit easier? They don’t want to spend a ton of time in the kitchen, they want tasty meals..what’s another tip you have up your sleeve?
C: Okay this one, are you ready for it? It’s one of my favorites. When you either get home from the grocery store or if your groceries are still being delivered to you- I started that during the pandemic and now I just build it into the budget the same..however, the groceries show up in your house- when they’re there, you probably still have top of mind what you ordered groceries for the intended meals. So while it’s still at the top of your mind, before you put everything up, before you put the cans in the can section in your pantry and the veggies in the veggie drawer and all of this stuff, lump your ingredients into the meals- the groups of meals that you would actually need them for, and then store them with the ingredients you need for that meal. Bonus points if you have a bin to put it in, or a basket or a bag- something that you can put them in the refrigerator in together. If you’re making, for example- I just flipped open to the beef chapter for two recipes that use ground beef- the first dinner is a beef burrito bowl with cilantro lime rice, black bean, and corn salsa, and then dinner number two is a cheeseburger pie- my kids love this one! For the first meal I use a can of black beans for the burrito bowls. I would put the can of black beans with the corn, with the bell peppers, with the cheese- all of that goes into a bin together. We’re going to put the whole bin in the refrigerator- same thing for meal two- so that when it comes time, you pull out the bin and you’ve gotten a head start on dinner already.
Because there’s this hill, the invisible hill to climb- I think of it like a false flat in cycling is what I think of. You start dinner and you think you’re just gonna start cooking right away, but you don’t just start cooking right away. The first thing you have to do is remember, “What was I going to make? Oh yeah! And what all goes into it?”
Then you have to pull all the ingredients out and if you have little people that are around your feet that are distracting you or wanting to talk to you, you’re going to get distracted! So this tip makes sure everything is already together and you only have to do that thinking once. That’s kind of a goal of mine: ‘What tasks to get a fresh healthy dinner on the table can we just do once?’
K: Yes! Before, I would never think, “Let me put the can of beans or whatever in the fridge!,” but it makes so much sense to group it all together like that. I’m now wondering why I’ve just been grouping things in my pantry according to the type of food when I should be keeping it with that meal, so I don’t have to do all that extra work.
C: Yes, exactly, right? You’re going to feel so smart and so proud if you do this and pull it off. It just feels like such a winn. And when you pull it out, there’s this moment where you think, ‘Wow, thank you ‘past me!’’ I just saved myself 10 minutes, and it can also make the difference between making the dinner or not, right? If everything is together, you just know that you saved yourself 10 minutes and sometimes 10 minutes makes or breaks it, it makes a break whether you’re actually gonna pull off the dinner.
K: Yeah, it’s almost like getting a meal kit, but not paying the extra amount to have the meal kit.
K: So wonderful. Okay, Cassy, any last things that you want to share before we wrap up?
C: I think that if your confidence in the kitchen isn’t there and you’re thinking, ‘This all sounds great, but I still don’t feel like I’m quite a good enough cook to be jumping into a recipe book like this,” -I don’t know why, but I feel like I want to talk to you specifically. My encouragement to that person would be to flip to the recipes that feel doable to you and start there. There is no award for going with the recipes that feel challenging and intimidating. There’s no award for that. So when you’re flipping through a book like Cooking Once Dinner Fix, I want you to flag the ones that are wins for you, where you think, ‘You know what, I know I can pull that one off. I know I can do a burrito bowl and a cheeseburger pie. I know my family is going to love them.’ Flag those. Even if you flip through the whole book and you only flag 6 that are sure wins, that is huge. Lean on those. Like I said, you don’t have to cook your way through it all. You don’t have to do it all, but hopefully it helps give you an easy button that you can press when you want it.
K: Yes, we all need an easy button in our lives. Thank you so much, Cassy Joy. Where can people find you and your book?
C: Cook Once Dinner Fix is available everywhere books are sold. You could order it from an independent bookstore, Amazon carries it, Barnes and Noble. Target is also carrying it, you can stop in your local Target and grab it. And then all of my work, over a thousand recipes over on Fed and Fit dot com- free content for you there. And I’m most active on Instagram over on the Fed and Fit profile.
K: Awesome. This was great, and I hope that the moms who are listening will go check out your book because I was so impressed looking through it, and I just want to make all the recipes now too, so I’ll probably be sharing them on my Instagram when I make them! Thanks so much for joining me today.
C: Thank you so much for having me.
Resources: Find Cook Once Dinner Fix Here