Even if you like to cook, nobody wants to spend all day every day in the kitchen. With a family to feed, it can start to feel like a downright chore that never ends.
Ever been scrambling for a last minute meal as the whining level increases with the kids’ hunger, as tempers flare and dinner is late which means that kid bedtime is late which means that mama is grumpy which means she stays up later to get some quiet time which means that she regrets staying up the next morning? Maybe I’m the only one…
I’ve compiled a list of ways that help me save time cooking real food. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that even though I know what I ought to do, I don’t always do it. But I’ve realized these help, and try to implement them as much as I can.
#1. Ferment veggies
Whether cooked or raw, getting vegetables on the table takes a fair amount of time – washing, peeling, chopping. Preparing vegetables in advance doesn’t work that well either, as the vegetables lose their freshness faster when cut, even in the fridge.
I know, fermenting food seems like one more task – how would it save time? Fermenting vegetables, however, is like batch cooking beforehand. All the prep work is done at one time and the benefit of eating vegetables actually increases. Sauerkraut and kimchi, for example, have more vitamin C and vitamin A than fresh cabbage. Not only that, but the vegetables are now full of probiotics, which have impacts on health that we are only starting to discover.
You can choose one big day to make a large amount of fermented vegetables or you can make a small mason jar while you are in the kitchen anyway. When you need to get a meal on in a hurry, all the vegetable prep is done, just grab some fermented goodness to add to a dish (in a stir fry, soup or salad, for example) or put on the table as a condiment.
#2. Soak grains
Soaking grains is often advocated for health reasons, as it reduces the amount of phytic acid and therefore releases the minerals to be absorbed. But soaked grains also have the benefit of cooking much faster. Cooking dry grains seems to take forever, but many grains cook up in no time once they’ve been soaked. Soaked buckwheat, for example, cooks up in about as much time as it takes for the water to boil.
And here’s one more tip – when cooking soaked beans, boil the water first before putting the beans in to cook. A tip given by my great aunt-in-law, it really does help beans cook faster.
#3. Keep it simple
My mom is an amazing cook, and when I think of the meals we grew up on I marvel that she managed to cook such elaborate meals for so many years.
When I moved to Slovakia, I was surprised how simple especially suppers were – sometimes porridge or a piece of bread with cured meat. A dish that you might think of as a side can sometimes be enough to be dinner.
It’s true that lunch is the main meal, usually with soup as a starter (even in the cafeteria at school), but simple suppers reminded me that we don’t have to have mounds of food or different dishes for every meal.
In fact, peasants – who were too busy working in the fields for fancy cooking – survived on simple hearty and often fermented fare: sourdough bread, cheese, fermented pickles or sauerkraut. With good quality, a meal of very few ingredients can be both tasty and nourishing.
I’m a big fan of one pot meals, especially in cooler weather when everything can be dumped into a casserole dish or soup pot. And roasting meat, especially if potatoes or other vegetables can be fit in the oven, is one of the simplest and least time consuming meals to prepare, although it can also be pricier.
#4. Simple breakfasts
Breakfast is often a harried meal as people rush out the door to get to school or work. As much as we like sourdough pancakes, I only make them on the weekend because of the time involved. To save time, breakfasts can be simple and/or made ahead.
In our house, breakfasts on weekdays rotate between:
- eggs simply cooked (boiled, fried, or scrambled)
- soaked porridge (we particularly like buckwheat, amaranth, or steel cut oats)
- robust smoothies
- make ahead options, like (sourdough) muffins (this is also the best option if you want to sleep in. Leave muffins on the table so little ones can eat by themselves)
- leftover grains (see tips #2 and #5) like buckwheat or rice, eaten in cold cereal style with milk and optional nuts, seeds, or fruit.
Recipes to try:
Pumpkin Gingerbread Smoothie
#5. Cook Once, Eat Twice
Now that breakfast is covered, what about lunch and dinner? There are a number of different batch cooking methods, all of which will save you time. You can have a cooking day once a month and freeze all your meals, or do all the prep for the week on one day.
My favourite option is to cook one meal and eat it twice. You can cook lunch in the morning and eat leftovers for dinner, or cook dinner and eat leftovers for lunch, depending on your schedule. I learned this from my mother-in-law, who had to juggle work and taking care of a family with seven kids (six of them boys with hearty appetites).
Thermos soup containers and boxes with clip-on lids make it easier to take foods to school or work if you take your own lunch.
The easiest meals to eat double are soups and stews, as well as casseroles. You can also make a large meal salad and only dress half of it, so it’s not all wilted and soggy.
#6. Evaluate kitchen appliances
It would be convenient to have all the kitchen gadgets that do all the time saving things, but reality dictates that most of us are limited by budgets and space. Every appliance claims to save us all sorts of time, and their claims might be true, but will it save you time in the life you have?
For example, both slow cookers and pressure cookers save time in different ways. If you work from home and have time to put together a dish in the morning, a slow cooker is great. But if you mornings are a wild chaotic dash of barely getting everyone out the door, putting together a meal in the morning is just one more thing that causes stress, and a pressure cooker might be a better fit. Of course, the popular Instant Pot covers both slow cooker and pressure cooker.
#7. Frozen veggies
Frozen vegetables are something I’m starting to use only now. I don’t use them all the time, but I always have a couple bags of a vegetable mix in the freezer for those meals I need ASAP. As the vegetables are harvested in season, they are just as healthy as frozen vegetables you put away in the freezer yourself.
#8. Meal plan
Meal planning is on every list of how to save time cooking, and for good reason. You aren’t scrambling at last minute to make a five-minute meal out of the last dredges of the fridge contents.
Knowing what you will cook ahead of time helps save time shopping too – instead of wandering the aisles looking for something that catches your eye, you have an exact list of what food you need for the next week.
There are a number of different ways to meal plan, and I’ll go more in depth in another blog post (subscribe on the side if you haven’t already so you’ll know when it comes out).
#9. CAYG: Clean As You Go
This is, frankly, the hardest one for me. My husband trained as a cook in vocational school, and they were taught to clean up as they cooked. And he does; when he cooks, the kitchen stays clean. For me, it’s not a habit I formed when I started cooking, so it’s harder to start. But it’s worth it to start.
I try to remember to rinse out simple things, for example, After grating vegetables on the grater, it just needs a quick rinse. If those pieces of carrots dry on the inside of the grater, you need 10x the energy required to clean. After making a smoothie, immediately pour a little water in the blender and give it a whir. The chopping board just needs a quick wipe (unless meat was cut).
If nothing else, tidy up the kitchen before you go to bed. I’m ashamed to admit that this wasn’t always the case for me. But then the morning is spent scrubbing dry pots and it takes so much longer for the day to get productive. Getting up to a clean kitchen just provides a much more peaceful and less stressful start to the day.
Extra tip: A crock full of stock
Especially in the winter, keeping a slow cooker full with ongoing bone broth means that a delicious and nourishing soup or stew can be made in minutes. I use the bones three or four times for economy and to fully utilize all the nutrients in the bones.
Add some frozen veggies to bone broth with bits of meat picked off the bones, and you have an instant meal.
I hope some of these ideas are helpful!
What are your tips for saving time in the kitchen?