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How to Cook When You Don't Have Time to Cook

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

Let's face it. The best meals you eat are the ones you cook yourself, or someone cooks for you, if you're lucky! Nothing beats home cooking. You know exactly what you're eating, how it's prepared and YOU can control portion size. Portions have gotten pretty ridiculous and most of us get through our plates because we paid for them. Then we feel terrible afterwards and we think that this is normal. It isn't. (Neither are "all you can eat" buffets!) Additionally, home cooking is usually made with LOVE, an ingredient that elevates most dishes and nourishes body and soul.

When I give workshops on Food and Health or am otherwise chatting about food and cooking, I oftentimes hear from people that they would cook and eat better if they only had the time to. They tell me how lucky I am that I'm a health-supportive chef, that I must have a Rolodex of 'healthy' recipes and menu ideas in my head so no wonder I can cook and eat well.

I am lucky. Culinary school was invaluable for me, not just in the professional kitchen, but in my own kitchen as well. It isn't however, what makes dinner possible for me on most nights. My mom is not a chef, neither was my grandmother, yet they cooked everyday. (And trust me, I draw blanks for dinner all the time, too.) What makes dinner possible is a bit of strategizing and planning. It's very much like teaching. All the work gets done before you even walk into the classroom. So much so that if you've lesson planned properly, the class can basically teach itself. It's the same with cooking.

Here's what you need to know and what you need to do:

1. Organize Your Fridge and Pantry

Of course this would come first and it's usually what trips everyone up. Few people like to organize; with the exception of chefs and teachers maybe! But, you have to. You must organize the fridge and the pantry. What do you have? What can you use? What needs to be re-stocked? What gets thrown in the trash or composted? Take inventory and start your list. You can think beyond the week for staples such as long grain brown rice, black beans, coconut milk, etc. (Those are some of my staples.)

(Note: Part of the organizing will entail you have containers to organize in. Glass jars, ziploc bags, tupperware, it all works to get you organized. A roll of masking tape and a sharpie really help, too!)

2. Organize Your Thoughts

OK, so you now know what's going on in your fridge and pantry and you've gotten it together. Your mind is either racing with ideas or completely blank. Don't worry. Both are normal and either will happen every week! To keep you focused, take a look at your inventory and decide what you want to use/eat/cook that week. Rice? Quinoa? Lentils? Chicken? Want to finish that cabbage that is still good but doesn't have much time left?

This is how you start to build an idea of the meals that will come together. What can you do with what you have and most importantly, what are you in the mood for?

3. Menu Plan

Now comes the fun part. Don't be intimidated by the looming blankness of your canvas, the menu plan. Planning is messy and it takes many revisions and what you end up cooking may be slightly different from what you planned anyway. Be flexible and take pleasure in knowing you're making careful decisions for your and your family's enjoyment and health.

When thinking about the menu plan, keep these things in mind:

+ Try to eat seasonally. Strawberries in January (on the East Coast) don't taste good anyway. Eating seasonally keeps you in tune with the rhythm of the Earth and that connection is another form of nourishment. Not to mention, seasonal (and local) food tastes infinitely better!

+ Organic, Grass-fed, Pastured, Non-GMO; these are all terms that ensure that you are buying and eating the highest quality food, the most nutrient dense and also the most delicious.

+ Balance! If you're having pasta on Monday, try not to do cous cous on Tuesday, sandwiches on Wednesday, pasta on Thursday again, etc. Mix it up. Also, you want to "eat the rainbow". Nothing is more boring than eating and looking at a plate that is one color, nor will it do you much good nutritionally either. Eating a variety of colors guarantees a good mix of macro and micro nutrients, anti-oxidants, phytonutrients, etc.

+ Keep it simple! You don't have to reinvent the wheel every night. Try to use similar ingredients throughout the week so your prep time is kept to a minimum and you're sure to eat what you bought instead of throwing anything away.

+ Plan a leftover day. For example: Soups and grain and bean salads make great leftovers, roast a chicken and use the legs for dinner tonight and the breasts for dinner on Friday. (Save the carcass for a stock;)

Example of a weekly menu plan:

Lunch Dinner

Monday Coconut lentil soup

Tuesday Lentil Soup Chicken, black bean, rice, apple salsa

Wednesday Leftovers Mushroom omelettes w/ salad

Thursday Veggie burgers w/ green salad

Friday Grain salad Lamb chops, swiss chard, grain salad

Saturday Chard and mushroom risotto, green salad

Sunday Roasted asparagus soup/grilled cheese

Notice the blank spaces for lunch. Nothing can be so perfectly planned and it's good to leave a few blanks for spontaneity and bursts of inspiration.

4. List and Shop

Throughout the above steps, you already started your list, at least mentally. Now finish it. Fill in the holes. The biggest holes will probably be fresh produce, eggs, bread and other perishables.

Shop! The next most fun part! Do you your best to stick to the list so you don't get sidetracked and start re-doing your entire menu-plan in the produce section! Remember to be flexible. If you're looking for chard but all they have is kale, kale will likely work, too.

5. Mise en Place

Mise en place literally means, "everything in its place". You'll do some version of this every time you cook (usually). It just means having everything ready; spices measured, veggies cut, protein marinated, etc. I take this a step further. For the week ahead, I'll wash, dry and store any greens, such as kale, chard, collard greens, some lettuces, etc. I'll dice onions, celery and carrots and keep them in tupperware. (These make up the mirepoix which is a basic flavor profile for many foods.) If I'm making rice or beans, I wash and soak them for the next day. If I'm making veggie burgers for dinner, I'll make extra, store, label and freeze them for another dinner.

In order to be successful in your menu plan, you have to keep thinking at least a day ahead. Cooking most things from scratch takes time (this isn't bad!), but if you do things in parts, it won't seem like so much time. I usually reserve a weekend to do all this pre-work while my husband is home and I can have a couple dedicated hours in the kitchen. Trust me, this saves a world of time and it makes dinner possible even when unexpected things pop up in your day.

6. Ready to Cook

With your fridge and pantry organized, your menu plan written out, your fridge stocked for the week and your mise en place ready to go, you're ready to cook! With all these steps, all the pre-work, you'll be able to tackle most dinners in about 30 minutes. And when you need to compromise, then do so. A can of beans (Eden Organic are BPA free) won't kill you if you forgot to soak beans the night before. Neither will take-out. Just don't let these become habit. You'll notice that once you start to cook and eat your own food from scratch (most of the time) most other prepared foods just don't taste as good. You'll also start to feel the difference after you eat. Pretty soon you'll be addicted to this cycle, you'll feel better in body and you'll be happier, too.

These steps will get much easier with practice. They seem involved and daunting now but before you know it, you'll be a skilled cook in your own kitchen doling out advice to friends and family!

So, what's for dinner?

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