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!