Saturday, November 10, 2012

Save Time In the Kitchen, The Easy Way

It seems like everywhere I look lately, I see directions for make-ahead crockpot cooking and meals for the freezer. These directions come with the promise that they only take "one afternoon" or "a couple of hours" to prep. But seriously, what homeschooling mother has an entire afternoon to set aside for meal preparation? How often can we even find a couple of extra hours in our schedule?

Actually, if I could prep several weeks worth of meals in one afternoon, I might be tempted to try it. But with a family the size of my family, those massive amounts of food you see artistically displayed in stacks of filled freezer bags don't last nearly long enough to make it worth it.

So, I don't follow any handy-dandy freezer cooking plans. And yet, I still manage to prepare from scratch meals, seven nights a week, without stressing. I even have a couple of meals ready in the freezer at any given time. How do I do it?!

No, I'm not superwoman. (Really, ask my kids.) But over the years I've discovered that taking a few extra minutes here and there eventually adds up to hours saved. None of these tips are very revolutionary. Most will probably seem elementary to experienced homemakers. But since they came to me in "duh!" moments after years of cooking for my family, I hope I can shorten the learning curve for someone by posting them here.

3 Tips For Saving Time In the Kitchen

1. Prep Once, Clean Once
It takes less time to make twice as much of anything as it does to prepare, cook, and clean up on two separate occasions. While you may not have the time or resources to double a complete recipe, you can still save time by doubling parts of the recipe each time you cook.
When you are browning ground meat, it only takes a little extra effort to throw an extra pound or two into the pan. Drain, cool, place in freezer bags- you've just saved yourself both cooking and cleaning time. If you are making a meatloaf, mix up enough for two and stick the second batch (uncooked) in a freezer bag. Add some vegetables on the side and you now have a freezer meal to use on a busy day. The same is true when making meatballs, though they will involve more time to prep and should be cooked before freezing. If you are cooking chicken, cook twice as much. Next time you need to add precooked meat to a recipe, you will be prepared.
When chopping vegetables, chop a little bit extra (or a lot depending on how much time you have) and toss in a freezer bag. There is nothing to say that you must fill the bag all at one time. Celery, carrots, green peppers, and onions are especially good candidates for this technique. It is soooo convienient to have some of these kitchen staples already chopped when you are in a rush and need to throw a meal together quickly. Just take out the amount you need and throw it into the recipe.
And on those days when you do have enough time, go ahead and double a whole meal. Place it in the freezer (cooked or uncooked depending on the recipe) and you not only have your first "freezer meal", but you also have a convience food you know your family will love.

2. Let Your "Servants" Cook For You
 I once sat under the teaching of a wise woman who explained that, though modern women may not have "maidservants" like the Proverbs 31 woman, we do have appliances that we ought to be using to their full advantage.
Crockpots are great for creating meals out of a few ingredients hastily added to them in the morning, but they are also a useful tool for precooking ingredients for multiple future meals. Dried legumes take hours to cook from scratch. It is much easier to open a can of beans than it is to stand over the stove stirring a pot while they cook. However, I don't do either of those things because my servant cooks them for me. I just pour a bag of dried beans, lentils, or chickpeas into my crockpot, fill it with water, and leave it cooking on high until the beans are soft. Then I rinse them with cold water and bag them in quart size freezer bags. It only takes me about 10 minutes of my time to prepare 4 to 6 quarts of cooked legumes.
An outdoor grill can be a wonderful help "in" the kitchen by reducing the number of greasy dishes that need to be washed. In addition to meats, you can grill foil wrapped veggies for a complete "mess-less" meal. Grilled chicken breasts freeze well and are a handy convienience food to have on hand. (If you'd prefer to grill "as needed", at least mix up an extra batch of marinade and  pour it into a zipper bag along with some meat for next time. Store in the freezer and thaw the night before you wish to use it.) 
The oven is often under-used when it comes to cooking helpers. Many foods that are prepared on the stove top can also be baked in the oven, saving energy and reducing messes. For instance, bacon can be spread on cookie sheets and baked at 350 degrees. (Egg casseroles like Chili Cheese Egg Puff are some of my favorite Sunday morning meals because, unlike fried or scrambled eggs,  I can take care of other things while they are cooking.)
My rice cooker is another "servant" whose help I rely heavily on. Just pour in the rice, add twice as much water, place the lid on it, push the button, and you're done! Other kitchen helpers include blenders, hand mixers, and food choppers.
3. Clean Up As You Go
I know this doesn't seem like much of a time saver, but anyone who has ever tried to scrub pans which have been left to sit overnight will know the truth of this saying. Food which splatters out of the pan will burn onto your stovetop if it is not wiped up immediately. And it takes more time to work around a stack of dirty dishes than to work in a clean, organized kitchen.
If you are doing a lot of cooking at one time, keep a dishpan filled with warm soapy water so you can do a quick wash up of utensils and mixing bowls as you finish using them. It seems so much easier when you only have a few dishes to wash at a time, rather than having to face a mountain of them all at once. And by the time you finish cooking, you might be too tired to take care of them anyway.
By following these three time saving tips, you will accumulate hours of "free" kitchen time. Without taking an entire day to prep freezer meals, you will have on hand some quick-fix meals and home made convienience foods for days when you have no time to spend cooking. And you'll still have your sanity.

What are your tips for saving time in the kitchen?

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