There's a reason why so many people live off of fast food and frozen dinners -- cooking can eat up (pun entirely intended) a tremendous chunk of your life if you let it! We all know that homemade is healthier -- but who has time for grocery shopping, planning, preparing the ingredients, and cleaning up? You do, if you're organized. Here are some quick tips for reducing the amount of time you spend in the kitchen.
When do you decide on your meal plan for the day -- 15 minutes before you're due to get dinner on the table? If you know in advance what dishes you're going to cook for the upcoming week, you will spend a lot less time in the kitchen than if you stand in front of the refrigerator each evening saying, "Hmm…I wonder what we should have tonight." Spend a few minutes on Saturday or Sunday before you go grocery shopping planning out your menu for the next 7 days. Decide what recipes you have the time and energy for -- do you want to keep it simple because you have a lot of other activities going on this week, or are you ready for one of those big Sunday dinner extravaganzas? You're in charge of the kitchen -- you call the shots!
Shopping is also much easier once you have your week figured out. Take a look in your pantry and see what ingredients you have (or lack) before you write out your grocery list -- this way, you won't have to run out at the last minute because you are all out of beans for chili or forgot to pick up enough eggs for all the baking you had planned. You can do all of your shopping at once, instead of making three or four trips throughout the week. And you save even more time by choosing dishes that can easily be combined after the meal is over to form a new dish. My mother's favorite was to serve corn and lima beans as side dishes at two meals, then combine any leftovers to make goulash. Nowadays, I just throw any veggies we don't cook in a pan for stir fry later in the week.
Stick With The Old Favorites
We are often seduced by the colorful pictures and tempting-sounding recipes we find in magazines and newspapers -- and it's awfully hard to resist the latest sexiest cookbook that promises to change the way you eat forever! However, the truth of the matter is that most people make no more than 10 or 20 different dishes on a regular basis. Don't believe me? Pull out a notebook, keep track of a month's worth of your family's meals, and see how often you attempt something entirely new and out of character in the kitchen. You are who you are, you eat what you eat -- and while it's great to experiment with new foods once in a while, you'll reduce a lot of kitchen clutter if you follow the "know theyself" philosophy when it comes to recipes.
Take a few minutes to gather up your favorites and store them together in one ring-binder, card file, or computer program (depending on how you keep your recipes) -- this is your "top 10 file." Focus on those dishes that the whole family loves, are easy to make, take very little time, and use fairly basic ingredients. You can still keep the recipes for Truffle Souffle with Grand Marnier and Lobster Thermidor -- just store those separately from your everyday dishes. You might also consider setting up a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly schedule for cooking your favorites. One of my clients with three busy children has decided that Monday is always pasta night, Tuesday is a casserole, Wednesday is grilling out, Thursday is soup, and Friday is pizza. It saves her time and energy, and she never has to deal with the question, "What's for dinner?"
Cook In Batches
It's a law of nature -- as you do a lot of one activity, it automatically gets easier and quicker. This is why you save up your filing in a big pile, why you do 7 loads of laundry in a single day, why you get into a groove after the 25th email -- and the same is true of time spent in the kitchen. When you first start chopping onions, the going is slow. But by the time you are on your 5th onion, you are breezing through it. So take a few minutes as you are preparing ingredients to do more than you need for that particular recipe. Chop an entire bag of onions, grate a whole block of cheese, make a huge pot of tomato sauce rather than just enough for one meal. You can freeze or refrigerate the extras and save yourself a little effort the next time you get ready to cook.
One of the best time-management decisions I ever made was to do the majority of my cooking all on one day of the week. I usually go grocery shopping on Sunday mornings (less crowded than Saturday), and I'll spend about 2 hours in the kitchen cooking for the entire week. I make about three or four "one-dish" meals that my husband and I can each for lunches and quick dinners -- usually including a casserole, a soup, and a pasta dish. These get stored in our fridge in meal-sized containers, ready to be reheated. I also cut up veggies and store them in Tupperware, make a big jug of green tea for the week, and put together a couple of quick desserts. Then, for the rest of the week, we don't have to do much of anything to eat a healthy meal. We might throw together a salad, or make a stir-fry and grill some fish, or eat one of my pre-prepared dishes. And we save money because we don't end up eating out as much when we've got plenty of good food in the house. It's a complete win-win situation!
Prepare Lunches In Advance
One of the biggest kitchen challenges my clients with kids face is getting those school lunches ready in the morning. Waiting until 7AM to prepare an entire portable mid-day meal from scratch (or 4, depending on the number of kids you have) -- and then doing that over and over again every day -- takes a tremendous amount of time, and it's not a very efficient way to get your children ready for school. In the same way that you would have them lay out the clothes they want to wear or gather up all of their school books and supplies the night before, have your children help put their lunch bags together in advance. That way, no one is rushing around in the morning (running late for school or work) trying to figure out what to pack to eat.
It's actually pretty easy -- on grocery shopping day when you come home with the ingredients for your kids' lunches, have your children assemble their meals for the week. Store individual-sized portions of chips, pretzels, cookies, and other snacks in Ziplocs. Set up 5 brown paper bags for each child, complete with a snack, a drink box, pudding cup, fruit roll-up, etc. in each. Then mark the bags with the child's name and day of the week and line them up on a shelf in the pantry. When that day rolls around, all you have to do is add a sandwich or soup! You will save time each morning, and it will keep your kids from eating all of their school snacks before the school day arrives.
Don't Wait Until It Runs Out
How many times has this happened to you -- you are making dinner, need some (garlic, mustard, milk, basil, whatever), and you pull out an empty container. Someone used the last of your precious ingredient and didn't bother to let you know that you should buy more. And it's particularly annoying when you do it to yourself! The best way to prevent this kind of crisis is to follow the 3/4 rule. Whenever you find that something is three-fourths empty, put it on the grocery list. Keep a notepad on the front of the refrigerator so that family members can add to the list as they notice items running low. You can even mark your containers with a sharpie showing the "buy more" line so there is no confusion about when you are running low.
Another good trick is to buy in bulk whenever money and space allows. This is particularly important for those non-perishable items you use all the time -- tuna fish, rice, peanut butter, cereal, etc. -- your staples. Keep enough of these foods on hand so that you won't find yourself running out at a crucial moment. Shopping at a wholesale club like Costco can also save you a ton of money over the long-run.
Clean As You Go
Cooking scares a lot of people -- not because they dread the act of preparing a meal, but because they just can't face the mess that's left when they are done! But if you will take the time to clean as you go,cooking is more enjoyable, less stressful, and incredibly less time-consuming. Not to mention the fact that your kitchen smells a whole lot better!
So instead of piling everything up for "later," invest a few minutes here and there throughout the cooking process cleaning up. Put those dirty utensils in the dishwasher as you finish with them, wipe up that spill before it becomes a stain, and take out the trash from your food preparation before it piles up mile-high. You'll thank yourself "later!"
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