Shalu Suri/Lecturer at an Ivy League University, teaches graduate and under-graduate level courses
HOW MANY HOURS DO YOU WORK (ON AVERAGE) ON WEEKDAYS/WEEKENDS?
40-50 hours (mostly on weekdays)
ARE YOUR FOOD CHOICES & PREPARATION INFLUENCED BY ANY FOOD PHILOSOPHY, PERSON, OR BOOKS?
I grew up eating fresh home-cooked food in India where my mom cooked three meals everyday. When I was pregnant 8 years ago , I did a lot of research on eating healthy and adopted healthy eating habits. So during pregnancy, I ate very little processed food. I like to read blogs, search online resources, that offer information on eating healthy. I am aware about the dangers of highly processed foods and don’t want to feed the same to my family. For example, Ramen Noodles, it takes forever for the body to process. Whole grains are easy to digest for the body. I also try to incorporate superfoods in my meals (yogurt, berries, cracked wheat, nuts, beans). After coming to the U.S., I got introduced to a host of new cuisines and I really enjoy them but at the same time make sure that they were healthy as well. For instance, If I cook Italian, I always use whole-grain pasta. I used to make my own marinara sauce, but now due to time crunch I buy the packaged one.
HOW DO YOU FIT COOKING INTO YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE?
Breakfast/Lunch: I wake up early and by 6:45am I am in the kitchen. Every weekday morning, I prepare fresh lunch for my older (71/2 year-old) daughter. My (older) daughter likes variety in her lunch; so, I like to pack different lunch everyday otherwise it comes back home not-eaten. Also, I prefer her eating home-cooked meals. She does buy from school on pizza day, but she takes lunch from home rest of the week. Also when I pack, I know what type of food and how much of everything she has eaten. To make her lunch, I do some preparation a night before. I also make fresh breakfast most of the days. It’s usually omelets with whole-grain toast, dalia (Indian oatmeal), or some Indian breakfast like Upma. For weekday lunches, I normally pack sandwiches/parathas (Indian stuffed bread)/khichdi (lentils and rice cooked together))/or bento lunches for my daughter. My husband and I mostly take leftovers from previous night dinner for lunch. So in the morning, I spend around 1 hour in the kitchen.
Dinner: Since everybody is hungry at that time, instead of offering a snack, I prefer to give dinner. First thing when I come home around 5:30pm is to make Indian masala tea and simultaneously start preparing dinner. I usually don’t pre-plan dinners, but the choice hinges a lot upon what the kids and my husband would eat. I always have staples in my pantry and fresh ingredients in the fridge to make my usual dinners which can rotate between Indian and Western (around five times Indian and two times non-Indian). I often make Indian beans, lentils, curries, biryanis, Mexican tacos, and pasta. So, for example, I always have dry lentils and different types of canned organic beans in my pantry. I also stock a lot of different types of vegetables/fruits and cheeses in the fridge. Dinner, with the time included for some prep for the next-day school lunches, usually takes 1 hr to 1.5 hours.
Snack: I also pack school snacks for my daughter everyday which is mostly always a fruit with cereals/pretzels/nuts/yogurt stick. I also take snacks everyday to work (some common ones are fruits, yogurt, nuts, granola). My kids drink a glass of milk with some fruit before going to bed. In summer, they also indulge in ice cream/popsicles as their evening snack.
Pre-prep: I do some preparation for school lunches a night before (for example, if I am packing khichdi in my daughter’s lunch next day, I put everything in pressure cooker a night before and then cook it first thing in the morning.) When I have time, I also sometimes make a curry base and freeze it; it cuts down the curry-making time by half.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU SPEND ON AVERAGE ON PREPARING MEALS INCLUDING CLEANING?
Around 2-2.5 hours per day in preparing meals and 1 hour cleaning. So total of 3.5 hours. A little longer on weekends, when I like to make recipes that require more time.
HOW MANY TRIPS AND TIME/TRIP DO YOU SPEND ON DOING GROCERY?
I do my grocery shopping from three different stores. On the weekend, I do my big grocery shopping at my favorite store; this usually takes one hour. During the weekday, I stop by stores that are on-the-way to my home from work. On these secondary trips I would usually pick up something urgent. During the weekdays I usually do 2-3 shorter trips, which add up to another 45 min – 1 hour in the week. So a total of 2 hours/week.
DO YOU PRE-PLAN YOUR MENU BEFORE YOU GO TO THE GROCERY STORE?
I don’t pre-plan my menus, but I have a general idea what I am going to cook. I buy a lot of veggies that are in season and pantry staples.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE PLACES TO EAT?
We eat out at least twice a week. Once during the weekdays. The choice is largely determined by what the kids like to eat. Our kids love going to Chipotle, Thai restaurants, and other Mexican places.
WHAT IS A FAVORITE DISH YOU LIKE TO MAKE?
Thai Red Curry with Brown Rice (Shalu shared the recipe with Traffic Light Cook and is given below).
TLC OBSERVATION: WHAT MAKES SHALU’s MEAL PREPARATION SUSTAINABLE?
Shalu, with her demanding teaching schedule and two young kids, is always on her toes, literally. This is why she does not designate extra time for exercising. She would have loved to enjoy a cup of Indian chai sitting down, savoring each sip, if she didn’t choose to cook when she comes home every evening after a long day. But she finds investing time in cooking for the family a necessary and rewarding activity. Her food philosophy “food has to be fresh and home-cooked,” drives her choices of ingredients and recipes. She does most of the cooking from scratch. One of the biggest examples of fresh cooking is making chapatis (Indian bread that is similar to Mexican tortillas) from scratch, almost five times a week. Here are some observations from Shalu’s meal-preparing practices that provide actionable insights for making healthy meal preparation sustainable:
- Team work: Although Ankur, Shalu’s husband and a (very) busy professor at an Ivy League university, does not cook in a big way-he helps with the kids in the morning in getting them ready for school and in the evening by taking care of other chores.
- Childhood influence: A strong childhood influence of eating three freshly-cooked healthy meals every day in India. A few research studies posit that children’s eating habits are largely shaped by that of their parents’ (more on this later). Therefore, cooking/preparing healthy meals at home not only results in kids eating healthy food on a regular basis, but also sets a great model for them as they are more likely to follow the prep-your-own-meals practice as an adult.
- Awareness about eating healthy: through self research–reading health/food blogs, , especially during the pregnancy. A strong belief in “processed foods are not good for our bodies,” excludes processed food from the diet of the family, most of the time.
- Creating personal space: Enjoying small pleasures like making Indian Masala tea while cooking dinner (instead of letting go of them completely).
- Restricting big grocery trip to one per week and doing urgent grocery trips closer to home, on-the-way from work.
- Making elaborate recipes on the weekend and keeping the weekdays menu simple (Tacos, pasta, lentils, curries, etc.), but diverse.
- Making some component recipes in bulk when have more time on hand and freezing for later use (such as curry base).
- 1 can light coconut milk
- 2 tbsp peanut butter
- 2 tbsp red curry paste (personal favorite Maesri Brand)
- 1.5 tbsp fish sauce (or sub with soy sauce)
- 2 tbsp lime juice
- 2.5 tbsp brown sugar
- 3 cloves garlic (minced)
- 1/3 cup peanuts (crushed)
- 1/2 cup water (or vegetable broth)
- 1/3 cup onions (thinly sliced)
- 1/2 cup mushrooms (thinly sliced)
- 1/3 cup carrots (julienned)
- 1/2 cup tofu (cubed)
- 1/3 cup zucchini (optional, sliced)
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- crushed peanuts and green onion (for topping)
Add the coconut milk into a small saucepan over high heat. When the coconut milk starts simmering, add the peanut butter, curry paste, fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar. Mix and cook the curry on high heat for 15 minutes. Add Peanuts and cook for another 5 minutes. The sauce should thicken up and coat the back of a spoon.
At this stage, add broth or water and whisk.
In a separate pan, heat vegetable oil and sesame oil. Once the oil is hot, and add garlic and sauté until it turns golden. Add onions and mushrooms and sauté them until the onions caramelize and mushrooms have reduced. Add remaining vegetable and cook them few minutes.
Add the cooked vegetables and tofu to the curry and bring it to a boil.
Serve over rice and top with crushed peanuts and green onions.
Busy People Cook: This “once a month” feature gets a glimpse into the lives of people who are busy, working full time often raising kids, but still make time to prepare healthy meals. If you would like to share your meal preparation practices/philosophy in the “Busy People Cook” section, please write to us at email@example.com. We would love to feature your picture, but if you are camera shy, we can also share the photo of your favorite recipe that you like to cook.