I like to cook, and I really like to eat food that tastes good, but I don’t always want to spend hours in the kitchen making it. I don’t have that kind of time and truthfully, I don’t have the inclination either. I read in Cooking Light recently that one should spend about 30 minutes in the kitchen preparing dinner, just to increase metabolism and burn some pre-dinner calories. That timeframe is ideal for me. But I’m a slow cook, and the time it takes to make one meal is usually double the estimate on the recipe (Rachael Ray’s meals take me about an hour). So I’ve found some shortcuts over the years, things I do to make the process faster and easier for myself, and things I feel absolutely no guilt about. If you’re more of a purist, these tips may not be appealing for you. But if you’re a busy mom who wants to get a good meal on the table, I give you permission to practice these tips in your kitchen, and to feel no guilt whatsoever about simplifying an already hectic time of day.
1. Use pre-minced garlic
I love the taste of fresh garlic, but I really, really hate the process of prepping it to use. Smash it, peel it, slice it, dice it, ugh, it’s just too much for me. So I buy garlic in a squeeze bottle. It also comes in a jar, but I find the plop the garlic makes when I drop it into a waiting skillet to be pretty satisfying. And the stress I used to feel about mincing up an already tiny vegetable has completely disappeared.
2. Use pre-minced ginger
I also love the taste of fresh ginger, but the squeeze-bottle ginger comes pretty close. Same process as the garlic, just plop it in your sauce. Plus, the bottles keep the ginger fresher longer. Once I bought an inch of ginger root and it became moldy before I was able to use it. Plus, the process of peeling and grating ginger and trying not to grate your fingers to a bloody mess is so not worth it.
3. Skip (most) fresh herbs
Again, fresh herbs taste great, but unless you grow them in your garden, they’re expensive to buy. And since my kids don’t like unidentified “leaves” that smell weird, Chris and I are the only ones that eat them. If a recipe calls for a lot of an herb, like a bunch of basil to make pesto, then yes, I’ll totally go for it. But if it wants a garnish of mint and I don’t have any other meals planned for the mint, I usually skip it. Not worth the money or the chopping time. (Two herbs I do buy are parsley and cilantro; both are fairly cheap and versatile).
4. Buy complicated side dishes pre-made
After cooking the main meal, I want to spend as little time as possible on the side dishes. Throwing them in the microwave is the perfect solution. Two things I buy ready-made almost every week are brown rice and mashed potatoes. I love the frozen organic brown rice from Trader Joe’s, so every time I’m near one I stock up. A good alternative is Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice; it comes in a microwavable pouch. I enjoy making rice on the stove, and I like that I can flavor it a bit more if I do it myself, but you know what? Plain rice is just fine. As for mashed potatoes, Bob Evans never disappoints.
5. Don’t worry too much about breakfast and lunch
Along the lines of not worrying about side dishes, I also don’t spend too much time thinking about what I’m going to serve for breakfast or lunch. My kids aren’t big breakfast eaters, so we usually do cereal or a granola bar with yogurt. I’ve been eating my Kodiak Cakes waffles, but the hardest thing about those is getting the waffle maker out of the cabinet. For lunch I usually make sandwiches or cheese quesadillas, things I know the kids will eat, because let’s be honest, the buffalo chicken wraps (and many of my other dinners) don’t go over too well with them. But they have to take a few bites anyway, because mama ain’t no line cook.
6. Batch cook some ingredients ahead of time
I only recently tried this, and while it was kind of overwhelming to poach and prep 5 lbs of chicken, having everything ready to go when I’m making a casserole or salad for dinner has saved my sanity more than once over the past few weeks. I bought a food scale recently, so after I cooked and cut the chicken, I portioned it out and froze it for planned future meals. All it takes is an afternoon.
7. Don’t cook with what you don’t know
Or with what your family doesn’t like. My husband doesn’t like fish, so I don’t cook it at home. Trying to get him AND the kids to eat an exotic dinner just isn’t worth the trouble. And if there’s an ingredient in a recipe that I’ve never heard of, or I know I won’t be able to find, I skip it. I say I live in the country and while I don’t live on a homestead miles away from civilization, our grocery stores don’t stock crème fraîche or pre-riced cauliflower. I don’t buy fish sauce or spelt flour. Ricotta cheese is low on the list. What I’m saying is, don’t stress yourself out with hard-to-find ingredients. Cooking stress should be saved for actually cooking the meal, not wandering miles through the grocery store trying to find those ever-elusive chia seeds.
8. Cook seasonally
Salads in summer, soups and chili in winter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thanked my little planner brain that I chose to make a quick salad on a work night instead of a more complicated dish. Sometimes yes, a salad involves some chopping, but if no pots or pans are getting dirty I’m a happy camper.
9. Plan to eat leftovers at least one day each week
We eat leftovers every Thursday. If there aren’t enough leftovers, we eat sandwiches or something from the freezer. I do the grocery shopping on Thursdays, usually in the evening, and it’s too stressful for me to both cook a meal and go out and spend a couple of hours saying no to Oreos and ice cream while simultaneously combing the aisles for my favorite low-carb tortillas.
10. Employ a sous chef
When things get a little too stressful in the kitchen, I ask for help. Sam is great at stirring, CJ can chop (not uniformly, but we’re working on it), and Chris is a great grater (see what I did there?). Chris grates cheese and cauliflower like a pro. He rinses dishes and put ingredients away when I’m done with them. I usually try to have dinner ready by the time he gets home, but when he walks in and sees me still cooking he knows it’s a more complicated dish and he usually jumps right in to help. I couldn’t do any of this without his support, and I am so, so thankful I have it.
What do you think? Anything you would add? Let me know in the comments below!