Sunday, February 21, 2010

Finding the time to cook

When my friends (most of whom are grad students or recent grads with stressful/busy jobs) find out that I cook all the time, they ask me one of two questions: 1) How do you have time? 2) How do you afford it?  I struggle with both of these issues on a regular basis, but I'll share the strategies that I do use.  I would love input from all of you so that we can give each other ideas.  I'll tackle the time issue first, and I'll get to the money part in a separate post.  I have to thank my friend Megan for prompting this series of posts, and she inquired not only about time for cooking, but also planning and shopping.

I'll start off by saying that time is relative, and if you're doing something you like, it will be easier to "find the time" to do it.  While not necessarily the easiest thing to do, if you find a way to enjoy planning, shopping, and cooking, you will look forward to it at the end of the day.  I enjoy the science behind cooking (Yes, I'm a nerd. I embrace it.), and I also love trying new combinations of ingredients and experimenting with new foods.  That's one of the main reasons I love shopping and cooking, and why I spend a whole lot of time thinking about food, reading about food, making new dishes, and eating.  It's fun for me.  So that was a long winded way of saying that it helps to find a way that YOU enjoy it.  It may be fun for you to cook with other people and view it as a team "sport," or maybe you would enjoy picking a new dish or cuisine to master, or perhaps you would like to challenge yourself to cook your way through a cookbook.  Figure out what works for you and go with it.

Now a few practical tips that help me:

1) I use my crock pot A LOT (particularly when I'm excessively busy).  I like having medium (3.5 quart) and large (5.5 quart) crock pots so that I can cook smaller batches of food when it's just me or large amounts of food when I'm having people over or when I want to freeze some of the leftovers (more on that in a minute).  Often you'll have to chop things or even brown meat before throwing everything in the crock pot, but you can do this at night, assemble everything in the crock, and stick it in the fridge (not the base).  Then all you have to do in the morning is put the crock in the base and turn it on.  And just about everything tastes better when it's been cooked all day.

2) My freezer is always stocked.  I always have meat (usually raw chicken and ground beef/turkey/bison, as well as cooked, shredded chicken or turkey), cooked beans (I cook large batches of dried beans and freeze them in can-sized portions), cooked grains (typically brown rice, quinoa, and millet), fruit, veggies, corn tortillas, and nuts in the freezer.  If you have these things on hand, it's really easy to throw together a healthy meal with veggies, grains, beans or meat, etc.  In fact, Michelle at Find Your Balance had a great recent post about throwing together healthy meals from these very ingredients.

3) In a pinch, I often make a meal involving eggs.  Just about anything works with a fried egg on top, or you can make a quick omelet or frittata with any veggies and meats that you have on hand.  And it takes all of 5-10 minutes to put it together.  It's even more delicious if you use local eggs from happy chickens (sorry, I couldn't help myself) :)

4) I love leftovers.  I typically make 4-6 servings of most recipes, and I'm usually cooking for one.  Then I have lunch for a few days, or dinner on days that I don't have time to cook.  If you don't like eating the same meal twice in the same week, freeze it in serving-sized portions.  Most things freeze fairly well, especially chili, pasta (I love frozen lasagna), soups, and casseroles.  The only things that aren't freezer-friendly are milk and cream-based dishes.

5) Sometimes I cook a few basic ingredients that can be used in many ways throughout the week.  For example, I'll have grilled chicken one night, then shred it and throw it into tortillas the next night, and make a stir fry later in the week.  This works with many different foods, and feel free to get creative.

6) I cook a lot of food on the weekends.  If I know I'll have a busy week, I'll cook 3 or 4 things on Sunday so that they're sitting there waiting for me on nights when I don't have time to cook.  It gives me the satisfaction of making lots of new dishes, but conforms to my schedule.  Or sometimes I'll do prep work on the weekends if I'm making dishes that require lots of chopping so that I can still cook but it doesn't take much time.

7) On busy nights, I often throw together casseroles or soups that don't need my attention.  I love putting ingredients into a pan or a pot, sticking them in the oven or simmering them while I get work done, and coming back an hour later to a fabulous meal. 

8) I figure out how much time I'll have to cook that week, and then make sure that I plan meals that will take less time.  Inevitably you won't have as much time as you think you will (I think there's a mathematical proof out there somewhere).

9) Cooking through a cookbook (or blog) every month saves me a lot of time planning meals.  At the beginning of the month, I make a list of all of the recipes that stand out and jot down their page numbers.  Then each week I simply choose a few things off of the list, write down the ingredients, and I'm off to the store.  I almost always make other recipes or create my own, too, but it's a great way to get to know a book and save time looking for meal ideas.

10) I do my best to avoid the masses at the store.  Not only does it take me twice as long to shop, but I also have an anxiety attack when I go to Meijer (the Midwest equivalent of Super Walmart) on the weekend.  If shopping is a horrible experience, you're going to resent the time you spend doing it (I'm counting the days until I'm near a Publix, where shopping truly is a pleasure).  Whenever possible, I shop at farmers' markets, coops, or natural foods stores because people are generally more friendly, I don't have to fight my way down aisles, and it takes much less time (the downside is the cost, but we'll get to that next time).  And if I need to go to Meijer, I go at weird times, like 2 am on a Tuesday (ok, usually not that weird, but it has happened once or twice).

I'm planning to put together a list of quick meals (thanks for the idea Brian and Megan!), but for now I'll leave you with my crock pot recipes.

How do you find time to plan/shop/cook??  We would all love to hear your ideas because my approach might not work for everyone.  Share away!


Joanne said...

You have basically described my life in this post. I adore leftovers, worship my crockpot, and cook most of my meals on the weekends. Cooking is just such a huge stress relief for me and so it doesn't feel like it's taking up time! In my opinion, waiting for takeout is way more of a time suck than stir frying up a quick meal or throwing a casserole in the oven. Plus takeout is far less satisfying. I really loved this post!

Megan said...

Thanks for the tips Katie! I felt like I pretty much gave up on cooking during grad school, and now that I am married, have a house, and different schedule I have been wanting to cook more. We have been trying to get better at cooking, not just for health reasons but for budget reasons, eating out is so expensive!

I grew up vegetarian, so had no idea how to cook meet until recently. On that same line I have no idea how to freeze meat. Are there general freezing rules or guidelines I should be aware of? I understand freezing meals and heating them up later, but if I am freezing chicken to cook later, what prep do I need to do before I cook it? Like if I am making a baked chicken dish, how long does the chicken need to dethaw before I can use it. Or if I am using a crock pot, can I put the chicken in frozen or does it need to be dethawed before I do that?

I feel so clueless!!!

I liked your idea about cooking on the weekend, I think that may be something we have to try. We do much better when we are able to plan our meals on the weekend, and then shop for them, but I have not cooked them on the weekend yet.

Ok, one last question - where are the places you shop around here, or where can I find out more about them?

Thanks for the awesome post and ideas!

Leah said...

Thanks for this list! I'm a fully-confessed food nerd, so finding time isn't the problem for me (though finding time for other things might be...).

I am just starting to get into using a crock pot (though we only have a very small one right now), so I'll be continuing to troll your archives for recipes.

One of my strategies for saving time is just like you mentioned: on weekends, I make up the basics. I make stocks/broths, cooked beans, soaked grains, and maybe a sweet treat for the week. This way, I can throw together a soup in just a few minutes, some beans for my salad (lunch), or breakfast hot cereals during the week.

Also, frankly, I've noticed that my friends who are amazed that I have time to cook seem to have plenty of time to watch TV in the evenings. I watch TV sometimes, but usually on those nights when I've had a lucky leftover day, or an easy egg frittata.

For food nerds, food comes first! Yum.

Leah said...

Oh, and I remember Meijer all too well. My strategy was like yours: Sunday morning at 6 am was a really good time.

Also, I wish I had a Publix's a really great store! You should try Wegman's sometime if you're ever in the northeast. It's even better than Publix.

Tasty Eats At Home said...

I do a lot of the same things. I also plan meals throughout the week for the following week's shopping trip. I plan using the following strategy: First, what do I have in the pantry/freezer that needs to be used? Second, what's on sale? Third, what are the plans for the following week - when will I be busy? And I'll plan recipes accordingly. I freeze a LOT (especially soups, stock, and leftover bones for more stock) and eat frozen or leftovers for lunches.

Katie said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! Keep 'em coming!

Joanne - I completely agree with you on your takeout comment. Sometimes the simple meals thrown together at the last minute are the most satisfying, and that can't be duplicated by takeout. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

Megan - You can freeze meat in the package that it comes in, but I usually separate large packages of meat into "meal-sized" portions in freezer bags or press-n-seal. Then I stick it in the fridge a day or 2 before I want to cook it, and it's ready to go (large roasts can take a few days to thaw, but chicken breasts are ready in under 24 hours). Always thaw meat in the fridge (never on the counter), and make sure it's in a bag or on a plate so that it doesn't leak everywhere (I learned that lesson the hard way). Sometimes I forget to defrost my meat until I want it, and then I either put it in a bowl of lukewarm water (still in the package) and keep changing out the water until the meat isn't frozen anymore. Or I'll stick it in the microwave on the defrost setting. You can put frozen chicken in the crock pot - you just have to give it extra time to cook. I rarely do this, so I don't have any great tips, but as long as it's not pink you should be fine (I think 8-10 hours on low would probably do it).

Here are the places I usually shop (other than dreadful trips to Meijer or Kroger ;)):

Foods for Living - A fairly large natural foods store in EL that has produce, frozen foods, packaged foods, bulk foods, and all kinds of stuff. It's somewhat expensive, but they have some great foods. I love buying Calder Dairy milk from here - BEST milk I've ever had).

EL Food Coop - A smaller store than Foods for Living, but they have a lot of the same stuff, and some of it is local (they also have Calder Dairy milk)

Lansing City Market - It's right across from the Lugnuts stadium (excuse me, Cooley Stadium) and runs year around. I make monthly trips to stock up on local meat (especially chicken), butter, eggs, and grains. They have produce year round, too, but it can be slim pickins in the winter.

Meridian Farmers' Market - I LOVE this place. It runs May - Oct. and you can always find me here on Saturdays. Amazing local produce (that's usually very affordable), as well as local meat, cheese, butter, bread, honey, olive oil, and all kinds of fun stuff.

Let me know if you have any other questions, Megan. It took me a while to discover all of this stuff, so I always like to make it easier for anyone that's interested!

Leah - I agree about the tv thing. I've been obsessed with the Olympics for the last week and have been cooking more fast meals, but typically cooking comes first. Have fun getting to know your crock pot!! I've heard great things about Wegman's, and I really want to visit one. I once had an argument with a friend about whether Publix or Wegman's is better (he had never been to Publix and I had never been to Wegman's ;).

Alta - I really like your strategy for thinking through what's in the pantry, what's on sale, and what you'll have time to cook in the near future. I think I follow something similar, but I never think about it in such a straightforward manner!!

Michelle @ Find Your Balance said...

Thanks for the shout out! I jut got a slow cooker so I'm looking forward to getting more recipes for it. I use my rice cooker a lot though - very helpful little tool to have!

Katie said...

Michelle - I don't have a rice cooker and I'm trying not to buy anything before I move across the country this summer, but I have a feeling I'll be getting one as soon as I get settled. I hear nothing but great things about them! Hope you enjoy the new slow cooker!

Marisa said...

Some great tips! I personally don't get people who say it takes too much time to cook. In my opinion it takes much longer to go out, get fast food, go back home again than to whip up something quick like a stirfry. Or a wrap. Or a omelet. Or even a salad. And how about some homemade burgers using chicken fillets? Easy peasy and comes together in less than 20 minutes.

PLUS it's soooo much healthier and soooo much cheaper.

What works for me is planning my meals a week in advance (not necessarily specific days, but just 6 meals or so). Then I do the shopping all in one go and I'm set for the week. I tape my menu list on the fridge and so it's easy to see what's available when I get home from work.

I like your idea of working through a cookbook or blog when planning your menus. I use delicious extensively to bookmark tasty things I see online. And I tag them all - vegetarian, beef, chicken etc. And then it's easy to draw up a menu if you search on those tags to see what's available. I normally make the same ratio of meals each week - like say 2 veg ones, 1 fish and 3 beef/chicken/pork.

And like you I also take into account how much time I'll have available, so if I know I only have 10 minutes on a certain day I make sure I have a 10 minute plan ready.

Marisa said...

OH! And I forgot - crockpot is definitely a HUGE help, specially in winter. You get a big pot of steaming goodness at the end of a long day - what could be better?

I also tend to make enough for 4 each night (we're only 2), so we always have something for our lunchboxes the next day too. :-)

Katie said...

Marisa - I love the idea of planning a ratio of meals each week. I guess my meals tend to be about the same ratio from week to week, but I never consciously think about it. Thanks for mentioning delicious, too - that's a great way to organize recipes. I use a combo of delicious and Google Reader, but I'm horrible at tagging things, so it's not as helpful as it could be. That's something I need to work on...