These little-known tips help save time and money.
Our fast-paced modern lives seem to leave less and less time for planning and cooking meals at home. This explains the proliferation of fast food outlets across the country and the consequent epidemic of obesity. A steady diet of fast foods is not particularly healthy and even cheap food becomes an expensive habit if eaten on a regular basis.
Busy parents, students and young people starting careers and families can certainly benefit by learning ways to simplify meal preparation. These skills will last a lifetime and result in healthier meals at lower cost.
Benefits of simplifying meal preparation
We often feel short on time at the end of a long day of work or school and want to get a meal on the table quickly, hopefully avoiding hunger meltdowns. Although fast foods and convenience foods may be tempting, they rarely equal homemade food for nutritional value. And there’s that worry about the mystery ingredients.This article will convince you that homemade meals can be much better than the commercial short-cuts.
The benefits of learning how to simplify meal preparation include:
You are cooking with fresh ingredients that you source yourself. By eating whole natural foods, like fruits and vegetables, brown rice, legumes, whole wheat products, olive oil and seeds and nuts which are minimally processed, you will be getting their full health benefit.
Remember, these unrefined foods sustain most of the world’s population. At first they may taste bland in comparison to junk food, which is loaded with extra fat, sugar, and salt, all of which condition the human taste buds to crave more. Weaning yourself off these additives will cause a greater appreciation of the subtle flavors of natural food. So skip the drive-through with its lab-created menus and eat the kind of food our bodies evolved with.
Pre-made convenience foods are often overpriced, due in part to the advertising, packaging and shipping. For the nutrition value, fast food is no bargain. There is a direct link between obesity with its problems and families eating meals regularly in fast food outlets.
Everyone is coping with rising food prices, but it is especially important for lower income families to obtain the best food nutrition possible for their dollar. Buying basic staples on sale and adding fresh components as needed is very economical.
More free time
You won’t be driving to restaurants and waiting in line. During the workweek, you can fix simple meals, and on the weekend, make more creative recipes when you have more time and energy. Being organized about the week’s menus will result in fewer dishes to prepare and less cleanup afterward.
Good planning will avoid having to race to the store for those elusive last ingredients. Also, others in your home can better help with the meal preparation if you aren’t a slave to a complicated menu. Mealtime can be quality family time together, with the added bonus that kids feel invested in the meal and will be more interested in what they helped prepare.
Simpler meals and simplified cooking techniques will make it that much easier to pass on your cooking knowledge to the younger members of the family. Cooking is a very useful life skill, and young people are empowered as they learn how to confidently prepare healthful meals on their own. As children grow and move to their own homes or apartments, they will enjoy the same benefits of simplified meal preparation.
Methods for simplifying meal preparation
The following strategies help you prepare quick and delicious meals:
Much of the complexity in cooking today is due to the vast array of cookware, utensils and accessories in modern home kitchens. Specialty cookware and utensils broaden the chef’s scope in preparing meals and are valued by cooking enthusiasts, but if you want to prepare meals in a hurry without much fuss, one-pot cooking is hard to beat for simplicity and easy cleanup.
While one-pot cooking methods are simple, the variety and quality of the meals are limited only by the cook’s imagination. One-pot meals can be steamed, sauteed, stewed or baked, and the “one pot” can be a saucepan, skillet, crock pot, pressure cooker or baking dish.
One-pot meals can be planned in advance, but this cooking method also lends itself to spontaneous recipes based on available ingredients. A “monk’s soup”, for example, challenges you to use what’s available in your pantry and fridge. This can be made using the saved bits of leftover veggies, meat, rice or pasta that have accumulated in the fridge or freezer. Preparing a “monk’s soup” will become a habit if you do it the same night each week.
One-pot cooking uses less power than a many-pot meal, and only one pot to clean. Besides being easy, your meal preparation and cleanup also saves electricity and conserves water. To learn several methods of one-pot cooking, and some favorite recipes, visit our page One-Pot Cooking.
Crock pot cooking
Crock pots, also called ‘slow cookers’, are countertop appliances designed to operate at low temperatures for long periods of time. Crock pots have their own heating element and are plugged into an electric outlet. With a crock pot you can prepare a meal in the morning and leave it to cook safely while you are away from home during the day.
Crock pots are available with manual settings or automatic presets which can be programmed to switch to ‘warm’ after a meal is cooked. Because food stays warm for a long time after switching off, slow cookers can be used to cook food to be eaten elsewhere without reheating.
These wonderful inventions yield large amounts of food with minimal effort. It is best, however, when the entire recipe can be prepared at once, since frequent opening of the lid can dry out the contents of the cooker.
Coarsely chop vegetables, add protein, seasonings, and liquid, cover, put on low and return home to a finished meal. There are many good crock pot recipes online and cookbooks to reference. Some models allow you to easily remove and transport the inner container to potlucks and gatherings.
Electric Multi-Cookers are now available which combine the benefits of crock pots (slow cookers) with pressure cookers.
Dutch oven cooking
Dutch oven cooking has much in common with crock pot cooking, but a Dutch oven uses the stove for the heat source, and meals are cooked faster. An important advantage of these sturdy covered pots is that you can brown meat and vegetables in oil on top of the stove, then toss in more ingredients, cover and simmer, or then set the pot in the oven to cook.
The size and weight of a Dutch oven are designed to retain and conduct heat effectively for cooking large cuts of meat such as roasts, as well as stews and soups. The tall sides also prevent oil from deep-fried foods or seared meat juices from splattering outside the pot.
When cool after your meal, store the leftovers in the pot in the fridge (if you have room!) until another day. Rather than reheating the whole amount, just spoon out what you need for that meal and reheat in a small saucepan or in the toaster oven or microwave. Or pour into a thermos for your lunch away from home..
Dutch ovens are expensive because they are made of enameled cast iron. However, a good Dutch oven will last a lifetime.
Pressure cooker meals
All kinds of recipes and foods can be cooked in the new smaller pressure cookers, which save on energy and your time. Most foods cook in a fraction of the time it normally would take, in most cases cooking up to one third faster than conventional methods. A pressure cooker is also a healthy way to cook as water-soluble vitamins and minerals are retained better than in regular pots. And less oil is used which maintains a lower fat content in food.
Pressure cookers have been used for generations to cook and preserve foods for long-term storage. In the old days, pressure cookers had a reputation for ‘blowing their lids’, but modern pressure cookers (including multi-cookers mentioned above) have safety features which prevent these mishaps.
When it comes to cooking a meal simply and quickly, think of a pressure cooker as a crock pot on steroids. For example, one cup of dry beans, pre-soaked, will cook in about 25 minutes using a pressure cooker. Stew beef browned first in the cooker, then covered with liquid and pressure cooked will be fork tender in 15 minutes. Some pressure cooker models double as cooking pots with a separate lid, and are dishwasher safe. The pressure lids must be washed by hand. Some are large enough to pressure can four pint or quart jars of food. As the pot should generally only be filled ½ to ⅔ full, be sure to get one large enough for your needs.
Eartheasy carries a full line of both light duty and heavy duty pressure cookers.
A well stocked and managed freezer will help you plan delicious, balanced meals efficiently. When you cook a large amount of food, save some for a future meal. If you have more than you need of something, put it in an airtight container or freezer bag, and label clearly the contents and the date with an indelible marker. When in this habit you’ll find that you rarely forget things in the freezer, resulting in less waste, thereby saving you money as well as simplifying meal preparation.
If you have a chest freezer, tape a piece of paper to the outside of the lid and write, or cross off, the food packets as they are added or taken from the freezer. This way, you don’t have to dig through the freezer to see what’s available, and you’re saving energy by not opening the lid longer than necessary.
By taking advantage of special prices on food throughout the year, you will stretch your budget. For example, buy local meat and produce when supply is good and prices are lower. Your own tomatoes, corn, and cooked winter squash will find their way into stews, casseroles and baked goods. Storing foods in a freezer also reduces your trips to the store, saving your time and money.
In the past, the term “master mixes” meant making your own baking mixes of dry ingredients. Here we are referring to assembling or cooking in advance basic parts of many recipes. These can be stored in the fridge or freezer to give you a head start on meals.
For instance, ground beef or chicken cooked with seasonings and vegetables can be prepared in larger amounts and put into smaller ‘meal size’ baggies and frozen, to be used in future meals with pasta, burritos, rice or in soups. Fresh vegetables can be chopped in advance and put in freezer bags. A good combination is onions, garlic, tomatoes, corn sliced off the cob, and green peppers.
We prepare master mixes in the fall when there is usually a surplus of some garden crops. Damaged or imperfect tomatoes, for example, are trimmed, cut into sections and frozen in baggies with other available vegetables. Local farmer’s markets are a great source for fresh vegetables, and if you wait until late in the day the prices may be reduced and more damaged crops may be available at further price reductions or even free.
How to make a plan for quick, healthy and tasty meals
Prepare several meals in advance
A starting strategy will be to prepare several meals in advance, either partially or completely. Families would find the weekend easiest. As you will be cooking in quantity you will need large steel pans or pots with lids, which are easy to find second hand if you don’t have them. A large crockpot is helpful, and is a time saver as ingredients needn’t be finely cut. Also pressure cookers and food processors speed meals along. Food processors are great for chopping.
Keep a supply of food storage containers
Make space in your fridge and freezer and check out your supply of freezer bags and containers. It is handy to use pint (2 c.) and quart (4 c.) containers so you know how much they hold.
On the weekend, plan most of your meals for the upcoming week, taking into account what is in your cupboards and vegetable garden. Then study your grocery store flyers to see what the loss-leader sales are as you may want to base your menus on them. Make a list of meals your family likes with those sale items and what days you would eat them. The more organized you get (with practice) the more time you will save.
At the store try to stick to your grocery list, remembering to cruise the periphery of the store where the fresh ingredients usually are, avoiding the interior aisles with the processed foods. Try to shop early or late in the day when the store will be less crowded. A goal would be to only shop once a week, thereby saving both time and money.
Double your recipe, make full use of oven space
If you shop on Saturday or Sunday, that afternoon or evening you would prepare your dinner, doubling the recipe so you have another meal in a couple of days or to freeze. Especially if you will be making more than one recipe, be organized: read the recipe through first, set out the utensils and pans, and lay your ingredients where you will process them. Another way is to bake a large chicken, roast, or meatloaf with vegetables like onions and carrots in the same pan.
To maximize oven output, be sure to bake lots of russet potatoes in their jackets on the rack for meals and to fry with eggs for breakfasts. That chicken will be ready for a stir fry, sandwiches, chicken soup with extra broth to freeze. Meatloaf, with its large amount of diced vegetables, is nutritious and economical, and is good in burritos, lasagna, and sandwiches. Big casseroles are filling and a good way to ease lots of vegetables into your diet. Work your way up to making a few nights’ meals at one time, starting early enough to minimize stress.
Keep a pot of 'foundation' food in the fridge
Another way to simplify meal preparation is to always have in the fridge a pot of cooked brown rice, potatoes, beans or pasta to be the foundation for quick meals. If cooked food is not contaminated with traces of other food like meat or fish, is kept cold and tightly covered, it can keep up to four days, or even longer, in the fridge. Anyone in the house will know that with a little effort a meal can be produced. That is very reassuring to teenagers, but be sure to put a note on food planned for dinner, or it will disappear also.
Break from the standard breakfast routine
Encourage your family to eat non-standard breakfast food like soup, stew, fried rice and potatoes, grilled sandwiches and casseroles. Usually leftovers are more nutritious and filling than waffles and cold cereal, with their carbs and sugar. There’s no reason why breakfast can’t have as much variety as other meals. Think of a well-balanced diet over a week of meals, rather than a rigid goal for every meal.
Basic rules for food safety
When discussing food preparation and storage, it is important to focus on safe food handling.To avoid food-borne illness, certain procedures in the kitchen are required. With training, the whole family can learn these common sense rules to guarantee the safety of food.
Here are some tips to guarantee food safety in your kitchen:
Wash hands and keep food preparation areas clean
Regularly clean counters, cutting boards, stove and sink with hot soapy water, then rinse with clear water. If food prep surfaces are not clean they become likely spots for bacteria to grow. And it goes without saying to wash your hands before handling food.
Use heat as a safeguard against bacteria
Reheat leftovers to at least 165 degrees F (73.89 C.) to kill any bacteria. If food is not to be refrigerated, it should be held at 145 degrees F. (62.78 C.) until it is eaten. A drawback to microwaves is that the food heats unevenly making it difficult to assess if it is hot enough for safe consumption.
Prevent cross-contamination by using separate utensils and cutting boards
Cross-contamination is a leading cause of foodborne illness. Avoid cross-contaminating food with other foods or utensils and surfaces which may harbor bacteria. Cutting boards should be washed with hot soapy water. It is advisable to use separate cutting boards for raw meat and fresh produce. Always use separate spoons for tasting and serving, and knives for each condiment used. Return heated leftovers to storage containers, not back to the contents of the original cooking pot.
Check temperature levels on refrigerator, freezer
Refrigerator and freezer temperature settings can be accidentally changed when taking out bulky food items. This is especially the case if you keep your refrigerator or freezer packed full. The refrigerator should be at 40 degrees F. (4.44 C.) and below, and the freezer at 0 degrees F.(17.78 C.) and below.
Store leftovers and perishables in a timely way
Perishable food should not be left out more than 2 hours at room temperature (1 hour when the temperature is above 90 °F). Warm leftovers should be left uncovered to speed cooling, then covered when cold. Put leftovers in shallow storage containers and promptly refrigerate.
Seal raw meat and fish to prevent dripping
Raw foods such as meat or fish should be stored in ziploc bags or containers fitted with lids to prevent the juices from dripping onto other foods or the refrigerator surfaces. It is a safe practice to thaw food in the refrigerator rather than on the counter, but set it on a small plate to catch any leaks. Store raw meats and fish on the lower refrigerator shelf for easy cleanup if leakage occurs.
Do not reuse BBQ marinades
The marinade that remains after meat or fish has been marinated should not be saved or reused, since it has been in contact with the meat in its raw state. Any saved marinade would have to be boiled well before reuse, say as a sauce for that meal.
These methods can be incorporated into your cooking routine bit by bit over time. Learning how to simplify meal preparation results in more meals cooked at home using fresh ingredients, and your home-cooked meals become a valued part of the family culture.