My mother planned our dinners and posted them every week on an 80s version of a whiteboard in our kitchen. And she managed to do this with FOUR kids born within 5-1/2 years of each other. Yikes. That’s a lot to live up to. But everybody is different — if you’re not a planner (let’s call ourselves “spontaneous,” shall we?), then don’t force it to that level. But there are things you can do to get yourself organized and get dinner on the table without losing your mind or ordering pizza on a daily basis. Here’s a short list:
Go to the farmers market.
This way you learn what’s in season and what will taste the best with the least “intervention.” Summer is great for this as a lot of things can be eaten uncooked (yes, even corn if it’s fresh); fall is good too because you can roast everything (potatoes, veggies, meat or not) in a pan with olive oil, garlic and herbs. CSAs are great, but I like the freedom of the farmers market; I don’t like feeling like I have to cook something just because it’s in my CSA basket. Too much pressure. Although there are ones that you can pick what you get and have them delivered, so that’s a great option if you’re under time pressure (and what mother isn’t?). Also, I’m one of those weirdos that needs to touch my veggies first.
Build up a repertoire.
If there a 3-4 dishes your girlies (and you) love, learn to make those really well and have those up your sleeve to the point where they become automatic. Quesadillas count. So do omelettes. And if you rotate them regularly over the course of a week, that will take care of nearly half your meals. Here are a few I fall back on regularly.
And then, there’s Sandwich Night.
Please tell me that you remember that great scene from “About Last Night…” when Debbie, Demi Moore’s character tells her disapproving friend, Joan:
One night, I cook. One night, he cooks. One night, we go out. And then, there’s sandwich night.
Okay, she left out a few nights but still, ain’t nothing wrong with sandwich night. And OMG, after watching the trailer, I MUST watch this movie again. Immediately.
Stock your pantry.
Make large quantities.
If you’re making lasagna, make two and freeze one. Make two zucchini pies. Make a double or triple batch of soup, etc. Some things freeze better than others. Pesto is another thing that freezes well. I usually freeze it before adding the cheese. And you don’t have to use basil exclusively; make a cilantro or parsley pesto out of those random leftover herbs we all seem to collect. And of course, making large quantities means leftovers, which is one less meal you have to cook!
Keep your shopping list on your fridge.
That way, you can add something to the list when you run out (not go looking for it after you start cooking and realize you don’t have it). My friend Dan has a shopping list (for each of the three stores he shops at) on his computer that he just pulls up when he’s going to the store. He can do a quick inventory check of the fridge and cupboards and then check off what he needs, print it out and take it to the store. Of course, there is also an app for that. Go here for iPhone or here for Android.
I’ve started doing this and it makes such a difference. When you get your groceries and bring them home, prep what you can. Meaning wash and cut the veggies/herbs, press the tofu, etc. This is the way chefs do it, and that’s because it’s the most efficient. If you know you don’t need to chop your onions or press and cube tofu, it’s much less daunting (and time-consuming) to make a home-cooked meal (or a stir-fry, which is basically all about the prep).
Some things are worth buying already made.
Pizza dough, rotisserie chicken (if you eat it) and tomato sauce are sometimes easier (and cheaper) to buy already made. Add a salad or some steamed veggies and that’s another meal you can check off your list.
Arrange a block of time to do a bunch of cooking for the week.
I like to do a lot of cooking on Sunday, when everyone’s lazing around. I can knock out a lasagna, a big pot of chili and pizza dough (with my bread machine) in a couple hours.
Include your kids in the process.
You can’t always do this, I realize. Sometimes you need to get the food on the table NOW, but maybe on that Sunday, take some extra time to get them to help you out. My kid loves to help me make bread and oatmeal. We measure together, and he gets to pour the ingredients in and mix everything up. It’s fun for him (and bonus: he’s learning math), but I also want him to appreciate where food comes from and learn to enjoy the process as much as I do. Plus food tastes better when it’s made with love.
Invest in some good equipment and get rid of stuff you don’t use.
Most NYC kitchens are pretty small, so although I’ve been coveting one forever, I still don’t have a KitchenAid mixer. It’s just not practical. But I will make room for my bread machine and ice cream maker because I use them all the time. To a fault. And I can’t live without my santoku chef’s knife. Lots of people swear by their slow cookers. As we’re a vegetarian household, I haven’t invested in one as my rice cooker can do a lot of that, plus I feel like slow cookers are good for slow-roasting meats (which we don’t make). On the flip side, if you have a lot of stuff in your kitchen, it makes it that much harder to be organized, which you need to be when you’re trying to get dinner on the table. If you have five jars of cumin, that’s not helping matters. Clear away stuff you don’t use and put things you do use in an accessible place.
Build your own speed rack.
I have a small tray right next to the stove that has the following things: olive oil in a pour bottle, canola oil in a pump sprayer, salt (regular salt for cooking and Maldon sea salt for finishing), pepper mill (and if I’m doing a lot of cooking, I’ll have a bowl of ground pepper too), toothpicks (for testing doneness in baked goods).
Try new things.
Read blogs, magazines, cookbooks. Ask your mom or a friend who’s a good cook to come over and teach you a few basics or some of your favorites (that’s my amazing mom making pasties up above). As you start learning and getting more comfortable in the kitchen, you’ll quickly realize you can do a lot of substitutions in recipes and just wing it with what you’ve got lying around. Don’t be afraid to experiment. The worst that can happen is you order in that night.
Go out Friday nights.
Or order in. We usually order pizza on Fridays. And we’ve been known to order in on Saturdays too on particularly nutty weeks. Isn’t that why we all live in New York City, after all?
This is by no means a complete list. Any other ideas out there? What’s your best time-saving kitchen tip?
First photo: therealslimjackson.com