If I could save time in a bottle, the first thing I’d like to do…Is save every morning for a pancake breakfast (preferably about noon)!
My Millennial co-workers are fond of saying, “Adulting is a thing”. Some of my friends dislike and/or don’t know how to cook. For them, “Cooking is a thing”. I like to cook, and I love to eat. I enjoy having silly conversations around the dinner table. However, life tends to intrude. Even those of us who enjoy puttering in the kitchen have crazy schedules, crazy days, and days we just don’t want to bother.
Unless we can afford (and endure) drive-through breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, we have to find time to feed ourselves and the stray humans we’ve collected. It isn’t just drive-through meals. Ready-to-eat, instant, just-add-water, quick cooking foods are everywhere! When we regularly buy pre-made foods, we pay not only for the ingredients, but for extra packaging, preparation, and someone to cook it for us. To me, this seems a little like paying an electrician to change the light bulbs. Then, paying him to leave the old bulbs for me to throw out.
I know, I am repeating myself, but I’ll say it anyway. Ingredients are cheaper to purchase than meals. Investing the time to cook for yourself turns $5.00 of ingredients into $20.00 of meals. So, we have to make the choice to buy a $5.00 burger, fries, and soda in the drive-through, two $2.50 frozen dinners, or pasta, a jar of sauce, and a pound of ground beef. Depending on my choice, I can feed myself low-quality food, two people small portions of nuked food, or my entire family of five a decent meal. If I’ve planned ahead, I can get more than just pasta, sauce, and beef for that $5.00. It’s all about balancing quality, time, and effort.
Some days, we fight for time to cook. The time available varies not only person to person, but meal to meal. There are lazy Saturdays when hot-off-the-griddle pancakes are perfect. There are workday mornings when coffee and air sound like a reasonable breakfast. Some days, I want to stay in my pj’s and eat cold pizza. The key to saving time and money isn’t typically ready-made food, it’s time management. How can we use good time management in the kitchen? First, we need to realize there are three ‘types’ of time in the kitchen.
- There’s preparation time, which is the part that’s always hands-on for the cook. This is the chopping and peeling part of the job.
- Then, there’s cook time. Cook time is when food is in the oven or on the stove. For some dishes the cook time is hands-on. Fried chicken, for example, requires constant attention. But there are many others, where you might stir or flip dinner, but you don’t have to chaperone the chicken.
- The last type of time in the kitchen is passive time. This is when bread is rising or meat is marinating. It’s happening, but you don’t even have to be in the vicinity.
So, if you need to cook and don’t feel like spending ages in the kitchen, choose something that requires little hands-on time. Let’s look at our last few dinners for examples:
Today: I was home all day.
Dinner: Hasenpfeffer and Rice
Time: 30 minutes prep; 2 hours cook
This was a day I had time to relax and enjoy cooking.
Yesterday: I got home 3 hours late.
Dinner: Chicken Curry on Rice
Time: 10 minutes prep; 15 minutes cook
My original dinner plan wouldn’t work due to the delay, so I punted. Curry sauce takes <10 minutes to make. I threw rice on the stove (2 hands-on minutes tops). The rice needed 15 minutes hands-off cook time. (Note: While the rice was cooking, I mixed this week’s breakfast bars and put them in to bake. It didn’t take any extra time, and having them ready for the week helps our mornings stay smooth-ish. These also help avoid those air-breakfast days.)
2 Days ago: I was home all day.
Dinner: ‘Mini Quiches‘ and oven fried potatoes.
Time: 15 minutes prep; 40 minutes cook
We normally eat one egg-based dinner a week. ‘Mini quiches’ are made in large silicone muffin pans and everyone puts their own ‘goodies’ in. I put the potatoes in the oven first, so they had already partially cooked while we assembled our quiches. I added the quiches to the oven when they were ready. This meant both dishes were done at the same time. I was really only in the kitchen for 7-8 minutes, because Sam, Grace, and Liam came in to help. The old adage may be “Many hands make light work”, but they also make quick work!
3 Days Ago: We had a family day.
Dinner: Red Beans and Cornbread
Time: 25 minutes prep (divided); 4-6 hours cook
We didn’t want to spend a lot of time cooking. The beans were started early (15 minutes). They cooked for four or five hours. Every thirty minutes or so, one of us would stir and add water if needed (<1 minute every half hour). Just before supper, Sam mixed a batch of cornbread (about 5 minutes) and put it in to bake (30 minutes).
On slow days, it’s really as simple as, “How much time do I want to spend cooking?” Today was a slow day for us. So, I decided to make Hasenpfeffer. It’s one of our favorites! It’s inexpensive to make, but takes longer than many of our meals. That means, it needs to be started earlier. It takes about thirty minutes to get the dish in the oven, then it bakes for two hours. There are several fresh ingredients that must be peeled, chopped, and sauteed. Because it’s more complex, it requires more clean-up time.
If I hadn’t felt like spending time at the stove (and eating the results), I could have made pork chops, garlic dill potatoes, and green beans. This meal requires ten to fifteen minutes to set up and thirty to cook. It dirties a few more pans, but there’s no chopping, peeling, or sauteing involved. Some people equate cooking with being chained to a stove. It doesn’t have to feel that way! (I do understand the mental image, though, because I feel the same way about hand-washing dishes!)
For hurried days, it is possible to make a meal without camping in the kitchen. The biggest key is planning ahead. I’m not necessarily talking about an official meal plan, I’m talking about baby-steps. All that’s needed is mental (or paper, or digital) lists of quickie meals, 30-45 minute meals, and meals to make when you have time and feel adventurous. Then, have the ingredients for each type on hand. When I was driving home (very late) yesterday, I was mentally flipping recipe cards. Actually, I was trying to mentally flip cards, but my kids were flipping cards aloud.
Sam: We could make taco soup, Mama.
Me: We had it last week.
Sam: We could make quesadillas.
Me: Um, not my first choice.
Grace: How about Welsh Rarebit? (That was an addict looking for a fix.)
Me: Y’all used the last of the bread for your sandwiches.
Jonah: How about ‘breakfast-for-dinner’?
Me: I’m not sure there’s time. Now, for crying out loud, hush! and let me think! (I did manage to filter out that last comment.)
Me: Ding, ding, ding, ding! We have a winner! Chicken curry?
All Kids in Unison: Oh, thank you, Mother! Chicken curry is truly a feast fit for royalty!
Just kidding, but they were happy with the meal. My point is, my kids are able to look at the time available and what’s in the pantry to find a meal that fits both. It just requires a little forethought to have both meal plans and ingredients available.
Remember the old saw, “Practice makes Perfect”? Well, I’m not sure about that, but it does make things easier and more comfortable. I know the more often I make a dish, the more quickly I can prepare it. Investing time in new cooking skills can provide a payoff daily. If you’re inexperienced, choose basic recipes, then add a new dish or technique as you gain confidence. If you’re an experienced cook, the same advice holds true. Gradually introduce new skills. Before you know it they’ll seem old hat.
Making the most of your time in the kitchen just makes sense. It doesn’t matter if you’re a budding chef or trying to feed your family with a minimum of that “cooking thing”. Plan ahead, choose meals that fit the plan, and rope all those stray humans into helping!
DIY food: It’s the latest health and money saving craze!
Next in the series, we’ll talk about what a little effort can do for your budget. If you have the time, please leave a comment below. It really makes my day to hear from y’all! What’s your favorite slow cooking supper? What’s your favorite git ‘er done dinner?
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