How to Find Time for Home-Cooked Meals

Photo: craigy_p

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.

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Guest's picture

You can also consider what is coined "monthly cooking" where you take one weekend day and devote it to prepping yummy healthy meals which you then freeze and use throughout the month when you are low on time to cook from scratch.

Annie Mueller's picture

Great addition! It's always nice to have something home-cooked that you just have to heat and serve. You can save on groceries, too, if you can buy enough in bulk and know that you'll use it.

Guest's picture

My best secret is to prep my veggies once a week. Right when I get home from the store, I wash, chop, and bag. We grab from the veggie drawer every night as we prepare dinner and they are ready for us!
Its amazing how often we won't use vegetables, just because they aren't ready to use.

Annie Mueller's picture

Amy, great strategy. Convenience makes a huge difference in how we eat and snack - I always laugh when I see the pre-washed, prepped veggies/fruits in individual serving sizes in the produce section, but there's a reason they sell. I'd much rather save my money and make my own "convenience products."

Guest's picture

I have a few shortcuts that help me keep our family from going out to eat.
If I am making a casserole I always double it and put one in the freezer. If I am going through the effort once I might as well make another one.
I buy a large size pkg of chicken breasts with the bone and skin on and cook them in the crockpot with onion, carrots, celery, salt, and pepper. I end up with 2 things, homemade broth and diced cooked chicken that I put in individual freezer bags portioned out for recipes that call for cooked chicken.
I cook quite a few things all at once and then freeze. I normally use a day when I am home from work with a sick kid or a rainy Saturday. The blog OnceAMonthMom is super helpful for this task.
I buy a large qty of hamburger meat and brown it ahead of time and season one half for mexican dishes and the other half for Italian. I then portion the meat into freezer bags and use as needed without the hassle of browning meat when in a hurry.
I just recently started using menu planner. LOVE IT!!!! I was using my google calendar but I find most of my recipes on allrecipes anyway and it is so easy. I try and keep 3 weeks ahead but only print out a shopping list for one week at a time.

Guest's picture

Great tips! We often think of "momentary" satisfaction when it comes to preparing food, not the long-term cost and health benefits that come from taking a few extra minutes to prepare meals at home. One strategy I use is to make double. If I make lasagna, then I make 2 pans instead of one and freeze the second one for later use. This saves time on days that I am busy and lets me take advantage of awesome grocery store deals for a longer period of time. I try to plan my menus according to what is on sale for the week, that way I am saving twice while only having to buy and prepare once!

Guest's picture

It's so beneficial to learn how to cook. It will save you a great deal of money, make you a more marketable catch and I find it relaxing.

Guest's picture

While I don't have kids to cook for, I usually cook in large quantities because friends and I trade meals regularly. We never return a container to the owner empty!

Everyone's heard of slow-cooker meals and breadmakers, I use both. I have one other shortcut you don't hear about so much - a programmable oven. First thing in the morning, I either put together what I want to bake (Mexican veggie-rice casserole, tamale pie, a whole chicken to roast or whatever) or take out what I put together the night before, then put it in the over and program it for the appropriate amount of time. I can go to the gym, shower, get dressed and never worry about listening for the buzzer or thinking to check to make sure something isn't cooking for too long. Just make sure you factor in the extra time the dish will cook while sitting in the hot oven once it turns off. If you have something that you are comfortable leaving at room temperature that you want ready when you come home from work (nothing with dairy in it, please!), leave the prepared dish in the oven when you leave for work with the oven programmed to turn on at the appropriate temperature/time for the dish to be done when you arrive home. If you don't know if your oven will do this, check it - my mother has an oven from the 70's that will turn off automatically, but you can't program it to start at a set time, so even that one is halfway there.