Squeezed for Time in the Kitchen? Simple Strategies for Stress-Free Dinners

With school in full swing after the holidays, my family is busier than ever. Dinner often ends up sandwiched (quite literally) between basketball practice and a PTA meeting. I truly admire the breezy Mom-Chef who whips together a delicious family meal in 30 minutes. But for those of us less adept in the culinary arts, meal preparation is inconvenient at best. On my worst days? It’s send-me-to-the-loony-bin stressful.
To maintain my sanity, I’ve developed some strategies to ease those schedule-squeezed evenings. Whether you’re a Reluctant Cook like me, or simply a Cook-With-No-Time, these tips will help you spend as little time in the kitchen as possible.

Make more, cook less. Recipes for stews, soups, and casseroles can usually be doubled or tripled easily without much extra work on your part. Leftovers taste as good as the original meal. Freeze what remains for quick microwavable meals in the future. (Or if your family is as tolerant as mine, eat the same thing for three days straight.)

Choose recipes with flex. We admire the Jill-of-all-trades babysitter who can take a message from the plumber while quieting a tantrumming toddler and helping the fourth grader with her paper mache project. Look for the same I-can-handle-anything attitude in your recipes. Flexible dishes that say, “No problem!” to a variety of meat, vegetable, and seasoning options are sure to be crowd-pleasers.

Cookbooks for the Culinarily Challenged
“The I Hate to Cook Book,” by Peg Bracken (1960). For those of us who would rather read than cook, this slim volume is laugh-out-loud hilarious. Yes, the recipes are dated—many call for canned, frozen, and otherwise pre-packaged items. Simply substitute fresh ingredients if you prefer.

“More-With-Less Cookbook,” by Doris Janzen Longacre (updated edition, 2011). Recipes call for pantry staples and other easy-to-find ingredients; most do not rely on processed and pre-packaged foods. Often a basic cooking method is presented, followed by flavor options. (Basic Cooked Lentils morph into Curried Lentils or Easy Lentil Stew in a jiffy.)

“Guerilla Cooking: The Survival Manual for People Who Don’t Like to Cook or Don’t Have Time to Cook,” by Mel Walsh (1996). Call this the modern equivalent of Peg Bracken’s cookbook. Simple recipes dished up with a welcome dose of humor.

Play it again, Mom. Knowing a recipe inside and out cuts cooking time. When you find a recipe you like, make it several times in quick succession. Freeze or give away the surplus as necessary. Often, you’ll quickly figure out how to add, subtract, and substitute ingredients, so the same recipe can take on many different auras.

Chop it forward. Many veggies can be prepared in advance and used as you need them throughout the week. Think carrots, celery, onions, green pepper, even cheese can be grated ahead of time. Burger can be browned and frozen for later use, too. Spend 30 to 40 minutes slicing, dicing, and grating quantities at the beginning of the week, and save prep time later.

Know your grocer’s freezer. My closest grocery carries a fantastic store brand frozen lasagna. The party size serves 10. It’s better tasting than the lasagna I used to make, and when it goes on sale it’s about half what I’d pay for the ingredients for homemade. Stock up on values like these, and you’ll have at least one no-fuss meal every week.

Meat and Bulgur Casserole
1-1½ pounds meat (cubed or ground)
1 medium onion, chopped
2 medium zucchinis, quartered and sliced
2 16-oz. cans diced tomatoes, undrained
1 cup dry wheat bulgur
1-1½ cups shredded cheese
Simple herbs and spices (salt, pepper, basil, oregano, etc.) to taste

In a skillet, cook the meat with the onion. Drain. Combine all ingredients in a medium casserole dish. Bake covered at 375 degrees for about an hour. Serves 6-8.
Talk about a recipe with flex! Grab whatever meat you’ve got (even tofu works). Carrots or broccoli can easily stand in for zucchini. Try orzo or a quick-cooking grain as a substitute for the bulgur. Good add-ins include kale, spinach, kidney beans, or white beans. Add a tablespoon of chili powder for a little zing.
Beer Bread
Combine 3 cups self-rising flour, 2 tbsps. sugar, and one 12-oz. can of cheap beer. Mix well. Spread into a greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. Bread should be crusty outside, soft inside. (Makes a tasty addition to the casserole.)

All it’s crocked up to be. Remember the crock pot you got as a wedding gift? Start using it. Most crock pots come with a mini cookbook illustrating the basics of slow cooking. Yes, you really can spend 10 minutes throwing things into the pot in the morning and come home to a hot dinner eight to 10 hours later.

Breakfast and lunch after dark. Eggs and toast, grilled cheese and soup—just some of the quick and yummy dinner options in our household. And younger kids love the idea of Opposite Day (as in, “Really? We get to eat pancakes with whipped cream and syrup for dinner?!”).

Add some zip and zing. Pipe in some peppy music to accompany the chopping and mixing chores—a little zydeco or swing, perhaps. Adopting a more carefree spirit will make the task seem less like drudgery. And a glass of wine doesn’t hurt either.
Ashley Talmadge is a Portland-based freelance writer.

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