One of the greatest hurdles for busy parents is preparing family meals. After an exhausting day at the office, fast-food and pizza delivery is more than tempting. However, these meals-on-the go are taxing on your wallet and your waistline. Some celebrity chefs have capitalized on creating the perfect meal in about a half hour. Sure, if you had a virtual army of assistants doing all the cleaning, chopping and measuring beforehand, you could do it too!
Before you throw in the kitchen towel and resign to another frozen TV dinner or fat-laden burgers and fries, help is on the way! Over the years, I have discovered ways to save time in the kitchen without sacrificing food quality or flavor. Here are a few of my favorite hacks for creating scrumptious meals for your family in about 45 minutes.
Keep the refrigerator & pantry stocked
What is more frustrating that starting meal preparation and realizing that you are missing an ingredient? You will either toss the half-fixed recipe in the back of the fridge or make a mad dash to the grocery store. By the time you return, your family probably will have called for pizza on speed dial.
A well-stocked refrigerator and pantry is your key to fixing meals quickly and with less stress. I usually plan my weekly menus over the weekend. Then, I can see what ingredients I need for each dish and compare it to what I have on hand. With this detailed inventory, it is a cinch for me to create a grocery list. I don’t worry about forgotten ingredients, duplicate purchases or impulse buys.
Along with specific ingredients you need, be sure to keep a ready supply of staples like flour, sugar, eggs, milk, etc. Just about every recipe will call for one of these. Also, be diligent about keeping your spice cabinet loaded with fresh herbs & spices. They are indispensable for creating a variety of flavorful dishes.
Know your recipes
Avoid jumping into a recipe blindly. Before you gather a single ingredient, read the recipe carefully and familiarize yourself with the ingredients, cooking techniques and time allotment. This is another way to avoid the pitfalls of forgotten ingredients or a missed step. In the beginning, stick to quick & easy recipes that you are comfortable making. As your cooking repertoire expands, you can tackle more advanced recipes. Save these for when you have more time on the weekends.
A place for everything
French cooks describe the art of organized cooking as “mise en place”—roughly translated as “everything in its place.” Like most tasks, cooking a meal requires organization. After you read and understand your recipe, set yourself up for success. Collect all the ingredients you need and prepare them according to instructions. Peel, slice, dice, mince or chop anything that requires it and set it aside. Measure dry and liquid ingredients and have them at your workstation. I like to use bowls of various sizes for all my pre-measured ingredients.
Gather all necessary cookware, baking pans, utensils & small appliances and organize them in order of use. Keep a small trash/recycling container at your side to pitch scraps and containers as you use them. Preheat the oven and place water on to boil as needed. When everything is set up, you can go through each step of the recipe with minimal distraction.
Preparing in advance
Some dishes can be made ahead of time to be stored and served later in the week. I reserve some of my leisure time on the weekend to peel and chop any produce for my daily menus. Afterwards, I place them in airtight containers and stick them in the fridge. If any of your meals feature ground beef or chicken, consider frying a large batch of ground beef and roasting a whole chicken during your meal prep time. Measure them into individual portions and pop them in the freezer.
You can also make soups, casseroles and many desserts in advance and they will freeze well. When you need a portion of meat or want a hot bowl of soup during the week, all you need to do is thaw and heat them up.
Remember that your slow cooker and electric pressure cooker are your best friends in the kitchen. Add ingredients to your slow cooker in the morning and you will have a tasty meal waiting when you get home. Electric pressure cookers cook meat and vegetables in nearly half the time to tender perfection.
Before you start any meal, run a sink of hot, soapy water. As you are cooking, wash used pans and utensils and get them out of your way (or load them in the dishwasher). Use parchment paper, silpats, aluminum foil and slow cooker liners for no-mess cleanups. The more you do while you are cooking, the less mess you will have after dinner.
With these simple steps, most of your weekday meals can take about 45 minutes and cleanup will be a snap. You can make delicious meals in less time and have more opportunity to spend with your loved ones around the table. That’s what organized cooking is all about!