by Sarah Stensland
Do you find yourself sprinting from one activity to the next? Are you out of energy at the end of a long day? Because of this, do you settle for convenience food or go out to eat more than you would like? Some days it feels like there isn’t another choice. However, with a little work in advance, you can have more home-cooked meals, which are often healthier and less expensive than the alternative! Here are eight tips to save you time in the kitchen.
- Have a plan. I am a planner and list-maker at heart, and recently I’ve started meal planning on my phone calendar. Some nights of the week are busier for us than others (dance, tae kwon do, meetings, etc). I can see these on my calendar and plan meals accordingly. On busy nights I plan for something in the Crock-Pot or a quick throw-together meal that I call my 15-minute meals. On nights when I have more time, I plan for foods that take a little more prep, or make a few meals to re-heat later in the week when time is short. The beauty of planning on my phone is many events in our life are recurring, and so I set my menu plan accordingly. If you look at my calendar, on the second Wednesday of every month we are having a roast in the Crock-Pot…forever. If I come up with something better or change my mind down the road, I can change my plan. But, at least, right now, I HAVE a plan. At first I worried this would be too repetitive, but then I realized that there are only a handful of recipes we repeat at our house anyway. Now I just have them written down.
- Keep a running grocery list. My brain cannot remember what I need to get for groceries from my house to the store, let alone from last Tuesday until today. To help myself out, I keep a running grocery list on my phone. I used to keep it on the fridge, but somehow I never seemed to get the list from the fridge to the store. My phone is always with me, so no matter when I have a chance to stop and pick up needed items, I always have my list. As I run out of items in the kitchen, I add them to the list. Before I go to the store, I look at my meal plan for the week and add the last few items I will need to make supper happen.
- Cook meat in advance. For me, the longest part of pulling a meal together is getting the meat cooked. If I have meat already cooked, there are quite a few meals I can throw together in 15 minutes or less (spaghetti, tacos, chicken fried rice, chili, fajitas etc). When I am making a recipe that requires ground beef, rather than browning one pound I will cook three pounds. Use one pound for dinner and put two pounds ready-to-go into the freezer. I do the same with chicken or pork. It doesn’t seem to take much extra time to cook the extra meat, but it saves me boatloads of time down the road on those rushed nights. When I’m meal planning, I try to use this to my advantage and come up with two meals from one meat type. For example, in the summer when we grill meat, I will make extra and use it for fajitas or stir fry later in the week.
- Make a double batch. This is similar to tip #3, but rather than just doubling or tripling the meat, I double the entire recipe and stick it in the freezer. Again, the process doesn’t take much extra time, but I’m always grateful to find supper already made and in the freezer just waiting to be warmed. This was an extra special gift to myself (and my family) when we had a run of illness go through our house this fall. I was in bed and not up to making a meal (or spreading my germs for that matter) but was able to tell my husband, “Dinner’s in the freezer and just needs to be warmed.”
- Make enough for leftovers. If some food doesn’t freeze well, it often times it is as good, or even better, as leftovers. We use leftovers at our house for quick dinner nights or to take to work and school for lunch. If I’m really on top of my “A” game, I pack it in single servings while I’m cleaning up after supper. This makes for a quick and easy item to grab for lunch to reduce the morning mayhem.
- Make breakfast ahead. Speaking of morning chaos, I like to make breakfast ahead and freeze it to free up time in the morning (or so I can hit the snooze button one more time). I find that muffins, breads, and pancakes freeze quite well. I’ve learned a few tips along the way. Muffins do quite well in freezer bags. Breads work best if sliced and then frozen; a single serving can be pulled out without having to thaw the entire loaf. I freeze my pancakes on a cookie cooling rack and then transfer them to a freezer bag. This allows for a single serving to be used rather than a whole lump of pancakes. I have also made oatmeal ahead of time. I like to freeze it in reusable silicone muffin tins for an easy-to-use single serving breakfast. All of these foods get warmed in the microwave straight from the freezer, which allows the kids to each pick out and make their own breakfast.
- Have bite-sized, ready-to-go fruits and veggies. I try to get our family to eat as many fruits and veggies as possible. In my experience, we eat more if they are less work to prepare, and ready to eat. I use canned and frozen veggies (which are already bite-sized) as an easy addition to a meal or a quick side dish. We buy frozen fruit, that’s already bite-sized, to add to oatmeal in the morning or as an easy after-school snack. Sometimes money is tighter and I have to do my own washing and cutting, which just takes a little more planning ahead. But I find if the food is cut and ready for adding to a meal or snack, it gets used up. If I leave it as is from the grocery store (i.e., an entire head of broccoli or crate of strawberries), it gets pushed to the back of the fridge and lost forever.
- A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen. This advice comes from my dad, who is king of all things kitchen. This is his mantra, and I believe it whole heartedly! When my kitchen is a disaster, I have no desire to spend any time making anything. But when my kitchen is clean and tidy, I actually enjoy spending time cooking and baking. I don’t have any magical tips to keep a kitchen clean, except to continue to work at it and clean as you go. My five year-old, who has spent many days in the kitchen with her grandfather, often reminds me, “A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen, Mommy.” I’m glad she’s starting off her years in the kitchen on the right foot, and appreciate her help washing our pile of dirty dishes!
I hope you have found at least one or two tips from the list above to make your time in the kitchen a little more productive, and in turn, a happier place to spend your time preparing food for you and your family.
Sarah Stensland is a married mother to three children. She is a physical therapist, and she has a passion for healthy living.