4 Rules for Home Cooking Done Quick

A lot has happened in the past couple of months.  We decided to move out of state to live near family and enjoy a lower cost of living and better weather.  Since we’ve moved down here I have taken it upon myself to be the best wife and parent that I can be while I look for a new job.  One of the most important things that I’m maintaining with this big life transition is how we prepare meals, eat dinner as a family and do so in a healthy and time efficient way.  I prepare all of our meals from scratch but I like to imagine sometimes that I run a prepared food test kitchen.  Here are a few of my rules for doing dinner in a  healthy and efficient way.

Rule #1:  Use your freezer as a money saving tool and not just a place to keep frozen novelties.  I hear it a lot “why would I buy in bulk if we can’t eat it all before it goes bad?”  Your freezer stops the clock on food spoilage and allows you to take advantage of lower prices.  My two favorite times to use my freeze is when I’m buying in bulk to get a lower price per pound and when meat is on ‘manager special’ and at 20% of the normal price.  I once found chicken quarters for $0.29 per lb!  That’s insane and you know I filled my cart.

When you buy a lot of food that can be frozen make a plan to freeze it.  Do not wait until the expiration date to save the old meat from the trashcan.  You need to portion and bag the food within a day of buying it.

If you freezer is already full go through and evaluate each item that is in there. How old is it?  Can you eat it within the next month?  Is it junk food that we shouldn’t be eating anyway?  Your freezer space is valuable real estate that is there to save you time and money, make sure you are using it that way!

Rule #2:  Dinner will only take 30 minutes from prep to table.  I did this while we were both working full time and wanted to eat dinner as a family before our baby needed to go to bed.

To accomplish this 30 minute rule you need to have a game plan for dinner before you open the fridge.  This is where meal planning comes in handy.

Some of my favorite meats to cook start to finish are:

  • Porkchops – use dry seasoning or a marinade on the meat when you pull it out of the freezer.  Let it thaw in your fridge for at least 24 hours.  I always let it thaw in the dish that I plan to back it in.  1/2 inch chops will bake for 20-25 min at 350ºF.
  • Tacos – use ground turkey or beef and you can brown the meat in about 10 minutes.  Add black beans to bulk up the meal and stretch your dollar even further.  Use it twice in the week for tacos the first night and nachos a few nights later.  Very popular in our house.
  • Salmon (or any fish) – Baking or grilling can be done in under 20 minutes.  We love this marinade for salmon on the grill:  1 part soy sauce, 2 parts oil, 3 minced garlic cloves all mixed together add 1 lb raw salmon and marinade for 20 minutes.  Grill over high heat for 8 minutes turning halfway through.
  • Steak on the grill – We eat steak usually once a week.  Use your favorite dry rub, and grill for 8-10 minutes over high heat flipping once halfway through.

My favorite prepare-ahead-of-time-and-freeze meals are:

  • Meatballs with pasta – the prep kills me but I love having meatballs and pasta.  If you are not a plan-ahead type of person you can always make meat sauce instead.  Meatballs freeze really well and I’ll usually cook a large batch and we will eat it once a week for about 3 months.
  • Chicken – I rarely cook chicken during the week since it is one of those meats that cannot be rushed (or served rare).  I will usually buy whole chicks and roast them in the oven for about 2 hours, sometimes 6 birds at once.  Once the meat is cooled my husband and I will spend a little time pulling the meat off of the bones, portioning meat into freezer bags and freezing.  If I’m low on chicken stock I will take the bones from one of the birds and throw it in the crock pot and make some overnight stock (which also gets frozen).
  • Chicken Taquitos – another labor intensive meal that is completely worth making a giant batch of.  I can take these puppies from frozen and bake them for about 20 minutes and we have a tasty dinner.  We have also used these as quick appetizers when entertaining or if we have unexpected dinner guests.  Serve with sourcream and hotsauce!
  • Pulled pork – Pork shoulder is a cheap cut of meat that becomes a tasty easy meal. Use either a dry rub or a bottle of your favorite bbq sauce and cook the pork shoulder in a crock pot for 8+ hours.  Once it is done, remove the meat and shred with a fork, using a strainer add the juices from the crockpot and mix together with the meat.  Refrigerate overnight and then portion into bags to freeze.

These are just a few ideas but what is most important is to cook what you like and make sure it freezes well.  So if you find a recipe you like and want to try to make a big batch next time – take a little bit from dinner and freeze it.  After a week let it thaw out and check the quality.  Make sure you do this before you cook 10 lbs of meatballs because you wont know how it freezes until you try it.

Rule #3: Use your day off to make a big batch of side dishes, prep fresh veggies and make lunches for the week.

This can be done whether you work or stay at home.  Make something that you love eating so that you are more likely to stick with the plan instead of ditching it for fast food.  If you are not big on leftovers – do not pack them for your lunch at work.  Every Sunday I will make 4 sandwiches for my husbands lunch.  He will take a sandwich and a yogurt to work 4 of 5 days.  He will eat out with co-workers at a restaurant once a week.  Taking your lunch to work compared to eating out every day saves one person about $2000.

Lunch meals that can be prepped at the beginning of the week:

Sandwiches – Deli meat and cheese will hold up nicely for about 5 or 6 days.  Make sure to skip the tomato, pickles and other veggies as it tends to not keep as well.  If you love lettuce on your sandwich, throw it on the morning that you plan to eat the sandwich.

Leftovers – I’m a leftover lover.  If dinner was great (and it usually is!) I have no problem packing a container with the extras and eating it for lunch.

Salads – Every once in a while, usually a couple months before our summer vacation, my husband and I will start eating a little bit less bread and a little bit more veggies.  We will make salads for each of us for the whole week with fresh veggies, hard boiled eggs, and cooked chicken (from the freezer).  Make sure to either add salad dressing the morning that you are going to eat it or put it in a separate container.

For more ideas check out reddit’s meal prep sunday section.

Rule #4:  Make this plan your own.  Everyone has a plan that works but usually it works because they created that plan for their own situation.  My recipes and meal plan will not work for everyone because of taste preferences or food allergies.  What is important is you take things once step, one recipe, one batch of food at a time.  See what works and doesn’t work for your family.  No one goes from spending an hour in the kitchen every day to half of that without some planning, experimenting, and practice.

  • First find one meal that makes it to your table on a weekly basis.
  • Next think of ways to simplify the preparation of that meal.  What can be prepped and then frozen, what can be cooked ahead of time, etc.
  • Then make a batch and see how much time you save with the ahead of time prep.

Start by having 2 meals a week that are quick to prepare, then make it 3 and then 4.  At the moment we plan for 6 nights of at home meals and allow one to be either a night out or a cooking experiment (sometimes I need to switch things up with something fancy).  Figure out with works for you and keep at it!  Soon you will be saving money and finding more time on your hands.

Getting Closer to Grocery Shopping Once a Month

Grocery Shop Once a Month

 

 

If you had to explain grocery shopping to someone who never has done it, how would you describe it?  Would you talk about how you work hard all week only to spend a fortune on prepared food that is only slightly less expensive than the take out place down the road?  Would you say that it is a big time commitment that leaves you with sacks full of food and no real plan to use it?  If I were to describe grocery shopping I would say that its an opportunity to be creative, save money, and a challenge to see how well you can organize your food storage space.

I’ll admit that I used to stress about getting to the grocery store every week.  It would take me about an hour to get everything that I need and I would still occasionally forget something and need to make a last minute trip on my way home from work which would inevitably leave me with 10 extra things that I didn’t need.  I would cut weekend trips short if I knew our fridge was bare.  And grocery shopping on a Monday night was just such a pain and it that meant that we didn’t make lunch for Monday and both my husband and I would end up eating out that day.  When I buy my lunch at work I want it to be my choice and not a default answer to poor planning.  It took me a while to realize that instead of trying to shop for the week I could buy enough for the month.

Every day I’m amazed at both how much money we are saving on groceries and how much time I’m saving by not going grocery shopping as often.  The start of a new month gets me excited.  I’ve started doing one big shopping trip during the first week of the month.  I pick up all of my staples and replenish my pantry and fridge.  I buy all of the potatoes, onions, beans, olives, eggs, cheese and tubs of sour cream for the month.  One of my favorite parts about shopping this way is that I don’t need to remember what is getting low in the fridge or pantry since I’m not making a big grocery list every week.  If we run out of sour cream before the end of the month, we will do without.  Same thing goes for potatoes, onions and eggs.  The world isn’t going to end if you have to eat rice with your steak instead of the usual mashed potatoes.

There are a lot of ways that you can achieve a shrinking grocery bill.  You can copy someone else’s grocery list item by item and cook exactly what they cook.  But what if your family doesn’t like some of the meals on that list?  What do you do then?  That is why I think a better long term solution is to create your own list.  Of course could just copy my grocery list but unless you cook exactly what I cook – it just won’t work.  

Here are the steps that I take to maximize my grocery shopping efficiency.

  1.       Make a list of all of the groceries that you buy during the month
  2.       List how much of each item you will need to last you the entire month
  3.       Remove the items that expire quickly that cannot be frozen – like milk, salad fixings, fresh berries.  You can still buy these but only buy enough that can be used prior to expiration.
  4.       Save this list in a place that can be easily accessed.  I keep my grocery list in good docs and print it out when I do my big monthly shopping trip.
  5.       Print out this list (or keep it digital and edit the document) and take a quick inventory of your pantry, fridge and freezer
  6.       Grocery shop with the intention of only buying those items on your list during your once a month trip.
  7.       Keep track of when in the month that you run out of the items on your list.  For example:  I thought that we could get through the month with 6 cans of olives since we use them in our   salads for lunch, I forgot that we also use olives on tacos and nachos (and those are on the meal plan almost weekly).  After one month of running out 3 weeks into the month I upped our monthly amount to 8 jars.
  8.       Repeat next month.

 

Of course this method isn’t a one size fits all, but it is designed to be tailored to your own eating habits.  When you consolidate your shopping into one trip instead of spending extra time at the grocery store, you can spend your time doing the things that you want to do.  Always think of your list as a work in progress.  You should be forever tweaking the amount of what you buy or even the types of food that you eat but always make a decision for that month and stick with it.  Also, make it your mission to eat through all of your pantry and freezer fossils so that nothing goes to waste and it makes room for all of the tasty new foods that you want to try.  If you truly don’t like a food that you tried, there is no sense in allowing it to take up space – just get rid of it.  Either give it to someone who will use it or just throw it away.  Of course you should keep a good variety of fresh vegetables in your diet and use frozen when fresh is not available or too expensive.

August Meal Plan

Aug Meal Plan

My method of meal planning is a simple one.  We stock up on meat when it’s on sale and freeze the bulk of it.  Once a month I pull everything out of the freezer and take inventory and create a meal plan for the month based on what we have on hand.  I prefer this method to creating a plan and then buying the ingredients since it allows me to take advantage of deep discounts and save even more money than shopping around a recipe.  We know what kind of meats that we like and what tends to be inexpensive, so our meals are a rotation of favorite recipes with a couple experiments sprinkled in a few times a month.  I use a small magnetic white board to keep track of what is in the freezer and pantry.   I haven’t had chicken stock for the past month and it has really limited my sauce recipes.  I made some chicken stock this morning and froze 2 more bags of chicken bones for later use.  It stinks running out of ingredients but it also teaches us to plan a little bit better.Freezer and pantry inventory
Our freezer is getting a little bit low, so I filled some of the gaps with sausage that I bought yesterday.  I’ll be working a lot harder to stock up this month so we can utilize our freezer space.  Empty space in the freezer is an opportunity to cook something delicious so that we can have more time during the week to do the things that we want to do instead of spending time cooking dinner.  I was planning to buy a pork shoulder to make pulled pork but the selection at the supermarket wasn’t too appealing.  I’ll check next week or when I go to BJs, the price the beat for pork shoulder is $1.29 per lb which is what the discount grocery store near my house sells it for.

Aug Meal Plan

We mostly stick to our meal plan but there are times when I cook something in a big batch to freeze and its easier to also eat that for dinner.  I made a giant batch of meatballs last month and we ended it up eating them that night.  We also will flip around nights that we grill if the weather is looking bad on our normal Saturday steak night.  You don’t have to stick to a meal plan perfectly for it to save you time and money.  Being a little bit flexible helps us to stick to our meal planning long term.  All I ask is when changing the plan to allow at least one day so that the meat can thaw in the fridge instead of trying to microwave a brick of solid, raw meat into a workable product…the microwave is for heating food and not so much for defrosting raw meat.  I’m not a fan of the edges being cooked and the center being frozen.

I don’t plan out what we are having for our side dishes ahead of time.  Sides normally consist of a vegetable and a starch.

Vegetables:  Fresh veggies from that week at the grocery store or farmers market, frozen veggies if we need something quick

Starch: Rice, barley, potatoes or pasta

Here is what our meal plan looked like at the end of July.  We had about a week of vacation that helped us keep the food bill lower than normal.  We got take out once and ate dinner out one night during the month.  By sticking with the routine we are able to save a ton of money without compromising what we eat.  Not only does it save us money by meal planning but it saves us a ton of time during the week.  We both work full time, so we try to make as much time for family after we get home and before bed time.  Making it easy for yourself will help you stick with meal planning long term.

July Meal Plan 2

You Need a Meal Plan – Getting Started

img_059111

If there was one habit that I picked up that has saved me the most it is using a Meal Plan. Every week I write out what we are going to cook at home and post it.  Use a piece of paper, a calendar or a white board to post your plan.  I use this magnetic whiteboard from amazon that I got for around $10.

Here is a picture of my current meal plan.  All of the meat for the next 2 weeks is in the freezer so that only leaves sides and snacks for my grocery list.  You can be as brief or as detailed as you want with your meal plan.  I list the proteins of the dish and then come home and throw together some sides which usually consist of a vegetable and a starch.  If you benefit from more organization, write out all components of your meal plan.  Do what works for you.

img_05911The area of our budget (which I keep on the other door of my fridge) that saw the most savings since we started meal planning has been in our restaurant/take out food.  We cut our spending in this area by 80%!

Freezer Inventory – I use my freezer a lot, so the first thing I do at the beginning of the month is I take inventory and write down everything that I have in the freezer.  I make special note of anything that is on the older side and make an effort to use it up.  Every day I look at my meal plan and pull anything out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw.  This was probably the biggest change to my cooking routine.  Prior to meal planning, I would get home, look in the freezer for meat to cook and then microwave it on defrost and inevitably end up partially cooking the meat and messing up my recipe.

Creating your plan – Everyone has their favorite recipes to cook.  Start with planning to make meals that you know.  Save the new adventures of a intricate recipe for a day that you don’t have a lot planned.  I try to make at least 3-4 of my meals during the week low maintenance.  This week it was; Nachos – used up the taco meat and beans from the previous week, Chili – which I prepared the night before to pop in the slow cooker, Pork – frozen pulled pork from last week, Pasta and Meatballs – frozen cooked meatballs from a couple weeks ago.

Prep what you can the night before – Every day take a look at you meal plan and think about what can do to save some time.  Move any meat from the freezer to fridge to thaw.  Are there any veggies that you can wash/peel/chop so that they are good to go for tomorrow?  Any crock pot meals that can be completely put together the night before and stuck in the fridge?

Finding Accountability – I post my meal plan on a forum that I’m active on in order to hold myself accountable.  You are more likely to stick with something when you already told others what you plan to do.

Cut yourself some slack – It takes time to form a new habit.  You may on occasion ditch the meal plan and order a pizza.  That’s OK!  Don’t be discouraged.  If you find yourself wanting a low fuss day try to make that a day where you eat leftovers or use your slow cooker.  It’s less tempting to cheat when dinner is ready to go.

Share with me your meal plan, tips, tricks or success stories in the comments!