It’s 6:30pm. You’ve just gotten home from a long day at the office and the last thing you want to think about is what to eat for dinner.
If your spouse asks you “What’s for dinner?” again, you probably want to punch them in the face (and/or hand them the pizza delivery menu).
But you know you can’t live off delivery and take out every night.
It seems like anytime you make the commitment to eat healthier, time disappears into thin air and sooner or later, you’re right back to your old ways.
Believe me, making the transition to eating more real food can be a challenge. Cooking from scratch takes time. Learning how to cook new vegetables is scary. Buying fresh can be more work than stopping for take out.
But, once you figure out a system, cooking for yourself can actually be a time saver!
Here are 8 ways to make cooking easier and faster than takeout:
1. Make a Menu
Writing down what you want to eat for the week ensures that you have the ingredients on hand when it comes to meal time. It also relieves that stress of wondering what in the world you’re gonna eat for dinner. Some of us are great at just throwing together ingredients and making a tasty meal, but others do better with the reassurance and guidance of a recipe. With time, you’ll get better at cooking without a recipe, but until then, use recipes and menus to take the burden off of deciding what to cook last minute.
2. Schedule Grocery Shopping Trips
Those post-work trips to the grocery store are inconvenient, especially when you’re battling rush hour traffic to go out of your way for yet another stop. Inevitably, shopping right after work means you’re hungry and hungry shoppers are more likely to splurge on convenience foods and snacks. Ease that temptation and shop only once or twice per week so you can get home sooner and spend less time running around town. If you frequent a farmers’ market or receive a farm box, you can plan your menu around what’s in season.
3. Stock Your Pantry and Freezer
Any chef has a well-stocked pantry, so they can whip together a quick meal with only a few perishable ingredients. Consider having onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, and winter squash on hand (those don’t need to go in the refrigerator). A can of tomatoes is a few steps away from being a delicious marinara sauce or a bowl of tomato soup (jarred marinara sauce is also a great time saver). Coconut milk can make a quick curry (or filling smoothie if it’s that kind of a night). Olive tapenade, sun-dried tomatoes, and pesto make a flavorful topping for cooked meat, spaghetti squash, zucchini noodles, or even salads. Have chopped spinach ready in the freezer when you’ve forgotten to pick up fresh greens that week. Keep ice cubes of homemade stock handy for making quick sauces or soups.
It might take a little getting used to, but having a few of these on hand means you can have a nutritious meal on the table even when it seems like “there’s no food in the house”. You may even find some healthier pre-prepared meals in the freezer section of your health food store (like Trader Joe’s) for nights when you’re too tired to cook!
4. Work on Your Knife Skills
Any real food meal is incomplete without vegetables. Even if they aren’t the star ingredients, they are inevitably needed to add flavor to the dish (like onions, garlic, celery, carrots, tomatoes, etc). If you’re uncomfortable with your knife (or God forbid you have a dull knife), your meal prep will take forever! Do yourself a favor and check out knife tutorials on YouTube, watch some more cooking shows, and simply practice cutting up vegetables. It gets easier and faster the more you do it. I don’t have formal culinary training, but years of practice have cut my meal prep down to mere minutes. That means I can multitask (like getting an onion sauteeing while I prep the other ingredients) without worrying about burning the house down!
5. Batch Cook
One of my favorite ways to save time in the kitchen is to cook in bulk. It virtually halves the time you spend standing over the stove. Imagine having a pre-made dinner ready to go right when you get home. Sounds pretty tempting, so let’s pretend you’re cooking for a dinner party, even if it’s just you (or your family).
Making one pan of Low Carb Lasagne with zucchini noodles? Why not make two and stash one in the freezer for next week?
Making a small pot of Carrot Ginger Squash Soup? Why not double the recipe and freeze it for later or save some for lunch tomorrow?
Roasting vegetables? Why not make extra and have those leftover vegetables for the rest of the week? (Many roasted vegetables are delicious eaten cold atop a green salad)
6. Use Your Oven
Hands-off meals are the best! It seems everyone thinks a quick meal is stir-fry and, yes, while stir fry is “easy”, it means you have to stand over the stove making sure nothing burns. (Plus, you have to carefully plan which vegetables are added at what time so they all cook evenly. Hardly a beginners dish!)
Cooking food in the oven is a “set it and forget it” operation. Simply prep your ingredients, season, place in a baking pan and go lounge on the couch with a glass of wine for the next 30-60 minutes. If you have a copy of my ebook “Veggies: Eat Them Because You Want To, Not Because You Have To“, you know that I rely heavily on roasted vegetables (and you know why when you taste them!). But meat and poultry are also fantastic cooked in the oven. Bonus points because you can cook multiple dishes at once (batch-cooking anyone?)!
7. Make Friends With The Slow Cooker
Similar to the oven, a slow cooker is a fantastic option when you’re too busy to cook. Obviously it’s not something you can start at dinner time and expect to eat that night (unless of course, you want to eat dinner at 1am…), but with a little planning, you can have dinner ready right when you open the front door! Soups, casseroles, chili, pulled pork, beef roast, even a whole chicken can be cooked in a slow cooker! When searching for recipes, choose ones with simple ingredients and real spices (no cans of condensed soup or flavor packets). I promise you, with the low and slow cooking, the simplest of ingredients turn into some amazing flavors! Often slow cooker recipes are large enough to provide leftovers, too.
Which leads me to my next point…
8. Embrace Leftovers
I’m always shocked when people tell me they “don’t like leftovers”. Leftovers are a busy person’s best friend! Cook once and eat three or four times? Sign me up! Of course, not everything is delicious leftover. Cooked fish is better off made into fish cakes or added to a salad than reheated. Leftover cooked greens can be mushy. Salads that are pre-tossed with dressing get wilted and slimy.
But many things are delicious leftover. Soup, chili, roasted curried cauliflower, Asian beet slaw, cooked chicken, beef or pork, curry, and casseroles are all fantastic the next day. Some dishes even taste better when the flavors have had a chance to meld.
Hopefully these 8 ways to make cooking easier and faster than takeout sparked some ideas. If so, tell me which tip you’re going to implement this week in the comments below.
For those of you who’ve devised their own system around cooking from scratch, spill the beans in the comments section. I know my readers always have great suggestions and we can all learn from each other!
Until next week,