Quick Tips for Quick Cooking
by Lucas Barraza, Grocery Merchandiser
Why is it that either you have plenty of time to cook or none at all? A lot of people, during the workweek especially, do not have time to cook good, healthy, substantial meals. This is a challenge when you are trying to keep up on good eating habits. When you’re in a crunch for time, it always seems that you never have time to cook a good pasta dinner with a tasty Alfredo sauce. But you might, if preparation, cooking, and clean up are done efficiently. Here are some good habits that you should get yourself into when you are dealing with limited time and that ache in the pit of your stomach is saying “FEED ME!”
Time saving tips
One of the first steps to a quick dinner is to know in advance what you are going to prepare. This decision can be made the night before, or even at breakfast. Many people like to plan a week’s worth of dinners at one time—this allows you to decide on recipes, take stock of your pantry and refrigerator, make a shopping list and get to the store.
Another time-saver is doing some of the work ahead of time. On the weekend or your day off, make your advance menu and then “pre-prep” once or twice a week when you have a couple of hours free. Cook the dried beans or whole grains that you will need, cool and refrigerate them for a few days or freeze. Make a big pot of a favorite soup or stew and you will have the base for a couple of “instant” meals. While you are at it, you might want to roast a chicken or marinate and bake some tofu. If you are steaming or grilling vegetables, always make extra—they are great additions to pasta, pizza, omelets or salads.
Consider preparing greens and other salad ingredients in advance too. Be sure greens are very dry and then store in a well-sealed container. Store greens and other veggies separately—they will keep for two to three days. This process may cost you a little bit in nutrients, but sometimes it means the difference between whether or not you have any fresh vegetables. If you have cut up carrots, celery, onions, broccoli and such for salads, they will also be handy for last minute additions to other recipes or as a quick snack.
Other quick tips for speedy dinners
• Have the essential equipment clean and handy. At a minimum this means a good, sharp knife and chopping board, some mixing spoons and a bowl, an evenly heating skillet, and a saucepot with lid.
• Keep your pantry stocked with canned beans (Eden brand is salt-free), pasta and sauce, canned tomatoes, low-sodium soups and chili, sugar-free canned fruit and quick cooking whole grains like quinoa, millet, bulgur and kasha, as well as an assortment of the herbs, spices, oils and condiments you enjoy most.
• Basics for the refrigerator could include carrots, celery, onions, dairy or soy milk, yogurt, tofu, salad dressing (homemade or commercial), mayonnaise and a few cheeses. In the freezer you’ll want pita bread, tortillas, pizza crusts, buns and some basic veggies of your choice.
• Getting all your ingredients assembled before you start cooking saves time spent running around the kitchen.
• Read the recipe to determine the ingredients you’ll need to prepare and the general order of operations. If you are making stir-fry for example, all the vegetables should be chopped in advance, then stir together the sauce, or open a bottle of ready-made, and start the rice or noodles. The stir-fry itself will take only a few minutes.
• Need boiling water for pasta or grain? Get it started right away so it is ready when you are.
• Clean up as you go—it makes cooking safer and more relaxed and the designated dish washer will love you!
• Consider purchasing a dry erase or bulletin board for your kitchen. Use it to keep track of your menus, leftovers that need to be used, prepped ingredients in the fridge or freezer, and your shopping list. When you run low on a pantry staple, write it down.
• Freeze leftovers in meal-size portions. Be sure to label containers with the contents and date.
Meals in under half an hour
So what exactly can be on the dinner table in a half-hour? Everyone loves Italian night! How about pasta with your favorite ready-made sauce—add a few grilled vegetables or frozen meatless balls and a grating of fresh Parmesan cheese. Don’t forget some hot garlic bread and the salad you’ve already started. Or put some of that sauce on a pizza crust with vegetables and cheese, bring out the salad and you are set.
Tacos or quesadillas are easy—use canned, refried beans or cook up some ground beef if you prefer. Maybe you have some roast chicken you can shred and season? Sauté some precooked rice with onion, garlic and ground chili powder, pull out your salad fixings and salsa to top the tacos and dinner is served. Fresh or canned fruit will fit in nicely here.
A main dish salad is always good. To your pre-prepped base of salad greens, add some of those extra grilled or steamed veggies, garbanzo beans, tuna or leftover meat, maybe some diced cheese, olives, and cooked bulgur or kasha if you’ve got it. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and toss it all together. Toasted pita bread would be nice on the side.
Breakfast for dinner is often a popular choice. If you keep a whole-grain pancake mix in the cupboard and some eggs in the fridge this is a fast and comforting standby. Add some fruit as a pancake topper.
Do you have some leftover soup? While it is reheating, put together a grilled cheese sandwich or cook up a frozen veggie burger for a classic combination. Don’t forget the salad waiting in the refrigerator.
There you have a workweek’s worth of quick and pretty healthy dinners. The dishes still need to be washed, but put on your favorite music and even that job will go faster and be more fun too!