More Tips for Saving Time in the Kitchen

>> Thursday, April 29, 2010

Recently, a friend was asking me about eating a vegetarian diet. She explained that she'd like to eat less meat and more fresh produce, but she felt like vegetables take more time to prepare with all of the cutting and chopping and cooking. Meat and boxed dinners just seemed easier.

As I've said before, cooking from scratch is an important part of being a Conscious Shopper:

  • When you buy basic ingredients like oats, beans, and rice from the bulk bins, you cut back on your trash production.
  • When you use fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients, you cast a vote for a reformed food system and keep your family healthier.
  • And perhaps most importantly, you save money, making it possible for you to afford those fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients.
But the flip side of all these benefits is TIME. Cooking from scratch takes more time. Time that, like my friend, you may not feel you have.

I've already told you my two biggest tips for saving time in the kitchen: Keep It Simple, Stupid and Have a Meal Plan. Here are a few other ideas:
  • Double and Freeze. It takes about the same amount of time to make four servings as it does to make eight, so next time you're making a soup or casserole, double the recipe and freeze half. Then you'll have a frozen meal waiting for you the next time you feel too tired to cook.
  • Freeze Ahead. Similar to the previous tip, I will often make a huge batch of beans and freeze them in two cup portions (about the same amount that's in a can). Or I'll make a ginormous pot of rice, use some for dinner and freeze the rest for future fried rice meals. Individual ingredients freeze just as well as a whole casserole and can be a lifesaver when you're short on time.
  • Plan Ahead. If you know a specific day is going to be too busy to make dinner, plan for it. When you prepare your menu, choose a meal that's quick to prepare, like burritos or grilled cheese sandwiches.
  • Prep Ahead. I just popped my casserole in the oven, now I get to go take a nap, right? I wish...Instead I use that time to prep veggies for the next day's lunch or dinner. (Or I empty my dishwasher.)
  • Learn to Love Your Crockpot. Here are a few recipes (a year's worth) to get you started.
  • Start a Dinner Co-Op. This is an intriguing concept that I've never tried. The idea is that you find a friend to swap dinners with (preferably one who lives close to you because of that whole carbon footprint thing). You make dinner, doubling the recipe and delivering half to your friend. Then on a different night, she makes dinner, doubling the recipe, and bringing half to you.
  • Go frozen. Now I personally don't buy frozen fruits or vegetables anymore simply because I don't want the extra packaging waste and I can get great local produce year round here in NC. But let's face it - we're not all Marathon Runners in every category. If you need to cut a few corners to keep your family eating a healthy diet, frozen is a better choice than canned because the produce is frozen right after it's picked, preserving it at the peak of freshness. In fact, some could argue that it's healthier to eat frozen vegetables than fresh vegetables shipped halfway across the world.
I have to admit that I'm better at dishing out these tips than I am at following them. In general, I have plenty of time to cook, and it helps that I really enjoy cooking. But a few weekends ago when I was helping out with the community gardens summit and manned a booth the same day for Earth Day, I got home after ten hours of running around, plopped onto the couch, and announced, "I don't know how people who work ever make dinner from scratch. After a whole day of work, the last thing you want to do is come home and work some more!"

I had leftover soup in my freezer that I completely forgot about and a husband who wasn't volunteering to fill in for me, so we ordered a pizza. I'm not proud, but sometimes it happens.

So working readers, what tips do you have for saving time in the kitchen?


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DownDoggin in MN April 29, 2010 at 3:48 PM  

I get up early in the morning because my husband works an early shift. Instead of going back to bed I use the quiet mornings to spend some extra time cooking and cleaning with my morning coffee fueling me. I prepare crockpot meals as you mentioned, I love looking forward to a roast all day and having my dinner ready for me when I get home. I’ll also make a casserole or pan of enchiladas in the morning and throw it in the refrigerator so my husband can just toss it in the oven as he beats me home by a couple of hours. I have found this to be a big help, I enjoy cooking but like you don't always feel like preparing a meal from scratch after a long day at work. Preparing my meals in the morning means I can take the time to enjoy the experience and have a more relaxing evening.

Carrie April 29, 2010 at 3:51 PM  

i spend 30 minutes or so after i get home from the store washing and chopping all my fruits & veggies to the size i'll be using them that week or to bite size eat fresh form. if anything is left during the next week's prep session that might spoil i pop it into the freezer for use frozen. it saves a lot of time and dishes to get it all done at once.

Three Little Brown Kids April 29, 2010 at 11:34 PM  

practise make perfect. the first time I make a recipe it seems to take forever, but once I've done it a few times I can throw it all together in a big hurry.

Sense of Home April 30, 2010 at 9:10 AM  

Just what you said. Excellent post. These tips really work in the kitchen, I have been practicing them for years. Without them I couldn't work full-time and make nearly every meal from scratch.


82andsunny April 30, 2010 at 7:30 PM  

In addition to those in your post, and those listed above, my suggestions include figuring out when steps can be done in advance, so that when I come home tired I can throw it all together and cook. And the crockpot (thanks for the recipes link!)

Also, just today I made a new discovery. Last night I made your dough, fridge overnight, this morning in the final phases, I mixed in okara (soy bits left over from my first attempt at homemade soymilk). It is soooo good in your bread. I made rolls, coated the outside with blue corn meal and voila-- super healthy awesome tasting bread! Your blog really is the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks for the tips and recipes!

Robbie April 30, 2010 at 11:39 PM  

Hey Erin, one thing you didn't mention on freezing is you can buy produce in season and freeze it. I think it tastes far better. We made blackberry breakfast bars the other day with some freezer finds and tehy were wonderful!

Erin aka Conscious Shopper May 1, 2010 at 8:53 AM  

@82andsunny - How did the soymilk turn out? Did you use a soymilk maker? I've always wanted to try making my own soymilk.

@Robbie - That's a great one. We do that too and make wonderful smoothies throughout the year.

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