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Quick and Easy Meals from Scratch: A Few Time Management Tips

3/23/2010 12:34:22 PM

Tags: Cooking, Baking, Meal Preparation, Time Management

A portrait of Susy, the author of Chiots Run.When it comes up in conversation that I make everything from scratch, including butter, bread, pasta, etc., I often hear, "Oh, well, if I had time for that I would, but I'm so busy." I must admit, it's not that I have more hours in the day than everyone else, I have two almost full-time jobs (that's two full-time jobs, not two jobs that equal one full-time job) and write for four blogs. We grow some food, can and freeze food in the summer, sugar our maple trees, and keep bees. We don't have kids running around which saves us time, but I still have to make the best use of my time in order to get things done. Mr. Chiots helps out a great deal as well, although since we own a business, he spends between 60 and 80 hours a week working as well. We both work from home, which saves us time commuting and allows us to monitor certain projects during the workday. 

Cooking up some rabbit meat.

I must admit, I love to cook, always have. I enjoy spending time in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, kneading bread, churning butter. Being in the kitchen is usually relaxing for me, and it's a great creative outlet. It's kind of like gardening; you can let your mind wander while your hands do the work. That being said, I don't have time to spend hours in the kitchen each night – I have to get my blog posts written! Over the years I've developed ways to make the most of my time in the kitchen, and today I'll share what works for me. After spending some time cooking, you'll start to develop your own techniques that work well for you. 

Taking tips from a cookbook and preparing to boil some taters.

Cooking from scratch doesn't mean being a "foodie" and having sun-dried tomatoes, capers, truffles, white wine sauce and pancetta in the pantry. It's no wonder people buy canned or pre-made items, if they feel "cooking from scratch" equals gourmet meals with all kinds of dishes. There are times when I make gourmet meals with exotic ingredients and many components. Most of the time, in day-to-day life, we focus on eating good quality simple meals consisting of a few ingredients, often all in one dish. 

The best way I've found to save time in the kitchen is to keep it simple. Forget what you've learned about meal components and what makes a "healthy" meal. Cooking from scratch can be overwhelming if you feel you need to have meat, a few veggies and a fruit for each meal. When you make meals from scratch, you can focus on making nutrient-dense foods so you don't have to be cooking/eating as many different dishes. For example, when I make tomato soup, I use my home canned soup (made with tomatoes, celery, onions, parsley) and I add equal parts chicken stock and some butter to the soup (bone stocks add loads of vitamins, minerals, trace elements and nutrients, and butter, especially pastured milk butter, adds lots of healthful fats to your meals). I also add spices and herbs, often Italian spices, fresh basil, dried oregano, parsley (herbs also add vitamins, minerals and trace elements). Often I'll top the soup with some grated raw milk cheese and a side of crusty sourdough bread topped with lots of butter. Because I'm getting so many vitamins and minerals from what's in the soup (spices, herbs, bone broth, butter, vegetables), I don't need to add anything to this meal; I'm getting tons of nutrition from one hearty bowlful. 

There's a soup for every occassion.

Learning to cook good, simple food is a beautiful thing. Realizing that you don't have to have a meat, two vegetables, a fruit and bread to have a "complete" meal is liberating. It opens the door to creative casseroles, stews loaded with all kinds of goodness, or meatless meals that are surprisingly filling and delicious. Learning to put your vegetables/fruits into the main dish saves tons of time. Instead of having chicken with side of rice, peas and carrots, how about making a pot of chicken and rice, with everything in one dish?!   

Delicious looking Braised White BeansYou save time by cooking everything together. You can add broth and extra spices that add extra nutrients to your food. Not only do you save time by not cooking four or five different things and having four pots on the stove, you also save money and so much time washing pots. Double or triple that recipe and you'll save even more time.  

Doubling the recipe is another technique I often employ to save time. It doesn't take much longer to double a batch of soup, to make an extra pan of lasagna, or to double a batch of bread. You can freeze the extras in meal-sized portions for your family and have quick meals ready to go on busy days. Spend a lazy Sunday afternoon making two or three pots of different kinds of soup, and you'll have a couple weeks worth of lunches or dinners out of the way. Not only will you save time by not having to cook every night, you'll have quick meals in the freezer ready to go. I often quadruple my bread recipes (generally making two double-batches) so I have a nice stockpile of bread in the freezer for the summer months when I don't feel like baking. 

Fresh Sourdough BreadLearning to creatively turn leftovers into new dishes is another great way to save time in the kitchen. If you don't mind leftovers, you could just make up big batches of things and eat on them all week, which we often do for lunches. Dinners often call for something different though, so I try to find ways to be creative with our leftovers. For example, if I decided this week I want roasted chicken and potatoes on Sunday evening, I'll roast an extra chicken and extra potatoes that evening. I can make a big batch caramelized onions to use with the leftover chicken all week while it's roasting. I now have a whole chicken, extra potatoes and a big container of caramelized onions to use for future meals during the week. Monday we can have chicken quesadillas, filled with roasted chicken, onions, greens and salsa. Tuesday we can have chicken pizza – pizza topped with chicken, sun dried tomatoes, olives, peppers and onions. Wednesday we can have BBQ chicken sandwiches, topped with onions and cheese with a side of baked potato fries (made from those roasted potatoes). Thursday evening we can enjoy omelets with chopped potatoes, onions and cheese. Friday a hearty chicken vegetable soup made from the bones and extra leftover chicken (you can make this any night of the week after you pick the chicken off the bones and freeze it). 

Be creative with all your leftovers.

Make sure you have fun with your food. Let your kids pick out a new fruit or veggie at the grocery store. Have one night a week called "smorgasbord," make it a meal of all the leftovers in the fridge that need eaten up. We have at times had meals like this made up of: baked beans, fried plantains, pizza, salad, green beans, etc. Make "leftover" pizza, topping your pizza with whatever leftovers you find in the fridge (we've had some surprisingly good pizzas topped with odd items). Make it a game, and your family will love it. 

Learn to make some quick or on-the-go meals. When we're out late and are hungry, having a quick meal you can make within 15 minutes of getting home will save you from eating out (plus carrying a few snack whenever you leave home helps as well). Eggs make the perfect quick meal, they're healthy, and they cook up in a flash. Fried or scrambled eggs with some homemade ketchup and toast topped with preserves. How about English muffin egg sandwiches when you need a portable meal to take with you as you run out the door? And don't forget about the humble peanut butter and jelly; very delicious, nutritious and portable. We often have tomato soup as a quick meal, or something from the freezer. 

Do you have any great time-saving tips to share? How about some creative ways to use up leftovers?

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3/24/2010 12:14:45 PM
Susy, Can I come to your house for dinner? Your photos are wonderful and the food looks so good! Back in my young adult days, I worked for a time in food service, so learned lots of techniques for slicing, dicing, and chopping. I also got so sick of prepping food that I still dislike that part. So to make it easier on myself, whenever I buy a bunch of veggies or cheese or meat or whatever in larger quantities, I try to spend an hour or so rinsing, cutting, repackaging to freeze, and in general prepping it all at once to be used quickly later. Saves time and dirty dishes. Susan Close to the Earth in Alaska

Cindy Murphy
3/24/2010 11:59:18 AM
Hi, Susy. A belated 'welcome to Grit' from me; I've enjoyed reading all your blogs here so far, but haven't had a chance to comment 'til now. You've given some great suggestions to save time and still cook healthy meals - many of which we do in our family also. One thing I do differently concerns your tip about cooking everything together in one pot. Oh, how I'd love to do this! The problem comes if you've got a picky eater (or two) - if it was up to one daughter, vegetables would only consist of broccoli and carrots; the other won't touch tomatoes unless it's in catsup form. Asparagus and brussel sprouts (two of Hubs' and my favorite vegetables) might as well be considered poison to them both. It might take longer, but I usually prepare the vegetables separate from the main dish, and add them in at serving time. That way the girls can enjoy chicken rice and broccoli, while Keith and I can have asparagus. It may take an extra step, but results in less wasted food, because they aren't picking out the "icky" vegetables to feed to the dog because she isn't particular at all. Planning ahead - just a basic menu for the week - is another way we save time. It helps to at least have a general idea of what you're going to prepare on a given night, so you're not scrambling around after work to scrounge up something to fix.

Nebraska Dave
3/23/2010 2:21:20 PM
Susy, My favorite dishes are chef salads, casseroles, soups, and bean or potato dishes. My friend is the lowly crock pot. I too make large quantities of food when cooking. Freezing the extra portions come in handy when nice days require my attention to be outside all day. Since I cook for one, a crock pot full of soup or stew can last many meals and has all the food groups needed for a balanced meal. Interspersed between other such meals a stock pile of meals for many days can quickly be acquired in the freezer which leaves free time for my favorite pass time of home projects. I really love a good project inside or outside. I have many such projects waiting on the todo list for this year. When the weather warms up, I’ll be spending much time outside working on the 50’ X 100’ urban ranch. It's not very big but it keeps me busy and out of trouble. I can’t say that I love to cook, but I do like the relaxing time spent in the preparation, eating, and cleanup. It just seems like a right thing for a balanced life. I believe that food preparation and eating should be a part of the life style not just something that has to be hurriedly done to get on to the next thing. It should be enjoyed. It hasn't always been that way in my life but I getting closer than I was several years ago. It does, as you state, come down to time management. Time should go to what’s important and not to what is demanded. Thank you for your wonderful tips on cooking.

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