How to Find Time for Home-Cooked Meals
One of the biggest money drains, especially if you have a large family, is the food required to keep everybody happy and healthy. I hear a lot of talk about how people want to make more home-cooked food, eat healthier, and quit spending so much on take-out or restaurant meals. But I also hear busy moms talking about how they simply don't have the time to make a home-cooked meal. (See also: Teach Yourself to Cook)
I hear you, busy moms (and dads). I'm busy myself, with three kids under four, a thriving freelance writing business, and baby number four due in just two months. We also entertain friends (as in, feed them) regularly. I certainly don't have the time or the energy to just hang out in the kitchen baking up gourmet breakfast goodies or complicated, multi-course dinners. That's just not going to happen in my life.
For several reasons (such as an unavoidable tendency to thriftiness), however, I do cook most of what we eat: things like chicken pot pie from scratch, homemade soups, crescent rolls, curries, pasta, traditional Southern dishes (I'm from Mississippi), salads, fish, and, yes, the ubiquitous casserole. Breakfast foods and the occasional meal out are the exceptions. I don't, however, spend hours in the kitchen. Here's how I roll with home cooking.
1. Find Convenience in the Process, Not the Products
Convenience foods are going to cost you more; you're paying for that labor supplied by someone else. The other day I saw a pre-washed, foil-wrapped raw potato "ready for baking." It was $1. For a single potato. Six inches away, you could pick up a 5 lb. bag of potatoes for about $4. Convenience is costly when you depend on someone else to provide it, but you can build convenience into your cooking process and save yourself time and money.
For example, think through how you cook. Are all your supplies in a logical, easy-to-reach place? Do you waste time searching for the stuff you use most? Do you have to wash a pile of dirty dishes before you actually start cooking? Do you make fifteen trips to the refrigerator when you could have gotten all your ingredients out, set them on the counter, and gotten to it?
Most of us don't really think in terms of efficiency in the kitchen, but how we move, prep, and clean up can greatly increase or decrease the amount of time it takes to prepare a meal.
2. Get Really Good at a Few "Base" Dishes
I can whip up a white sauce in about 10 minutes without measuring anything; however, if I'm going to make a dessert of any kind, I need a recipe. That's because I don't make many desserts, but I use white sauce as a base for chicken pot pie, alfredo sauce, casseroles, and soups like crab and corn chowder. It behooves me to be able to quickly and easily get a white sauce made so I can then morph it for my desired meal.
I am, by no means, a gourmet cook. I'm good at what I know, and I know the things I love to cook and eat. If you analyze your own eating patterns, you'll notice that you gravitate toward the same types of foods whether you're eating out or at home. Have a thing for chicken fingers? Learn how to make them like a pro at home and have them anytime for a fraction of the cost. Figure out what you like, break those meals down into a few base recipes or processes, and practice till you're (almost) perfect.
3. Double Up on the Time-Consuming Tasks
It takes a lot more time to boil and debone a whole chicken than it does to simply bake a few boneless, skinless chicken breasts. But you'll pay three times as much (or more) for the prepped chicken breasts than you will for the whole chicken, plus you'll miss out on the ability to make your own chicken broth. It doesn't add much time to boil two whole chickens, debone them, and then freeze half the meat for later use. Look at that: You just created your own convenience food.
There are many time-consuming tasks that we shirk in the kitchen because we don't think in terms of doubling up. But when you're peeling and washing vegetables for a pot of soup, you can do a little extra and have enough ready for tomorrow night's stir fry. Yes, you still have to put in the time to do the tasks, but you don't have to put in that amount of time for every home-cooked meal.
4. Plan Your Menu, but Keep It Flexible
It helps to have a menu plan, not only so you'll have adequate food in the house to feed you for the week, but also so you can think ahead and double up on preparation. I usually plan a menu of seven "main" meals for a week, and I pick one for the night as I have the time or inclination. Wednesday nights are busy for us, so I always plan on something leftover, simple (like sandwiches), or entirely made-ahead (like a slow-cooker meal). For days and nights when you know you have a time crunch, putting a little extra thought into your meals can make home cooking entirely possible.
You don't have to be a slave to your menu, however; if you're just not feeling that pasta dish you planned for Friday, switch it up to what you do feel like eating. A big part of making home cooking more fun is working it so it appeals to your own appetite. Hey, if you're cooking, I say you get to make the calls on what you're eating.
5. Spread Out the Tasks
Take the boiling a whole chicken example. If you're going to stand around in the kitchen waiting for a chicken to boil, then wait for it to cool, then debone it and use the meat, you're going to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It's easier to just do one step at a time, as it suits you. I can put the chicken on to boil or make bread dough and then walk out of the kitchen and on to something else, coming back when I need to turn off the burner or punch down the bread dough. Of course, this works best if you're at home (as I am). But even if you're heading out the door in the morning, you can do things like throw your meat and vegetables in the slow cooker, or use a little time the night before to get your next dinner mostly prepped.
6. Buy Time When It's Worth It
Pie crust is relatively easy to make, but it's also relatively cheap to buy. There's nothing wrong with cutting corners when it works for both your time and budget. Use your kitchen skills to their best advantage, and spend a little bit more on the things that take you too long to do. I could work on making a superb pie crust, I guess, but I don't need to make it that often, so I'm not going to spend my time there. Instead, for the few times I do need it, I don't mind spending a little more for that time-saver. The key is knowing when it's worth your time to spend the money, and not just going blindly with the convenience foods because you're more used to them.
7. Don't Stress About Filling the Plate
If your idea of a home-cooked meal is a main dish, two sides, a salad, and a starch, no wonder you don't want to spend that much time in the kitchen. Let it go. We are no longer living in 1955. Throw out the Jell-o mold and quit worrying about how many colors show up on a dinner plate. Focus on one-dish meals that incorporate a lot of vegetables, or serve a salad with some protein in it (boiled eggs, beans, cheese) as your main dish. Simplicity can open up a whole new world of home-made, delicious, healthy, and better-for-your-budget meals.
Home-cooking pros out there, what tips can you share? And for those who aren't sure, what's stopping you? Share your ideas and questions in the comments, and we can all benefit.