Secrets of a busy cook
Get the most out of your kitchen
We all know the drill: making more of your meals at home puts you in charge of the ingredients that go in and helps you save money by eating out less. But how do you make time for the kitchen when your days are already full? These strategies can shave time off your food prep – no Margaret Fulton skills required.
FIND A FEW GO-TO RECIPES
Home cooking needn’t be elaborate. Focus on a handful of recipes you can rotate for most of your meals. “Start out small,” says Martha McKittrick, a New York-based dietitian and author of The Type 2 Diabetic Cookbook & Action Plan. “Find one or two recipes you really like – don’t worry about doing something different every night.” She suggests a stir-fry that allows you to swap the ingredients depending on what’s in your fridge. The more you prepare the same meal, the more confident and efficient you’ll get – and soon enough the cooking habit will come naturally to you.
Cooking from scratch can get healthy meals on the table, but so can taking shortcuts. Supplement home-cooked foods with healthy storebought staples to save on time, without compromising nutrition. Think pasta with a jarred sauce, or soup with canned beans and pre-chopped pumpkin. Ready-to-use veg might be worth the extra cost, says McKittrick, “if the thought of all that washing and chopping deters you from eating them”.
Rotating a few easy recipes will help keep shopping simple, too
CLEANSE, THEN STOCK
McKittrick recommends doing a pantry and fridge clean-out to “get the tempting, junky convenience foods out of the house”. Then, stock up on healthy, hardworking staples that make “from scratch-ish” meals easy, such as canned and dried beans (save money with store brands), wholegrains (buy in bulk to save), lean proteins such as chicken, fish and tofu, canned tomatoes, low-salt chicken stock, and plenty of fresh and frozen produce, to build meals around.
MAKE A LIST
A well-thought-out shopping list helps you avoid falling prey to impulse buys. Start with a master list of foods you cook with regularly and just check off what you want. Need help? You can generate your shopping list on the Coles or Woolworths website to print out and take along with you or, alternatively, download their interactive apps to build your list. There are many other apps you can download to your phone to help you generate an on-the-go shopping list, such as AnyList, GroceryPal and Out Of Milk.
REIMAGINE YOUR MEALS
Think beyond a “three squares” pattern to define your meals – a bowl of hummus with cut-up vegetables and crispbread can make a great dinner in a pinch. Keep ingredients for a couple of emergency meals on hand for super-busy days – say, pasta tossed with sauce, canned tuna and frozen mixed vegetables, or canned beans and chopped celery (or salad greens) tossed with vinaigrette and spooned into a wholemeal pita.
Dietitian Sara Jank recommends thinking
“halfway healthy” – filling at least half of every plate with non-starchy vegetables. “You’ve automatically reduced the portion size of what’s on the other side of your plate, without having to think about it,” Jank says. (A similar trick is to serve everything on a bed of prewashed salad greens.)
PREP NOW, ASSEMBLE LATER
Get into the habit of regular prepping, using both big and small windows of time.
Set aside an hour or two for batch-cooking meals you can freeze and then eat later, such as a pot of soup or stew. Makeahead the parts of meals that take the longest: beans or pasta sauce. Make a pot of brown rice or quinoa, or roast vegetables to serve as a side dish, fill an omelette or top a pizza.
During the week, grab smaller, 15-minute chunks of time to do quicker meal prep, such as chopping vegetables, making a vinaigrette or hard-boiling eggs. All that prep sets the stage for a week of meals that can be made almost on autopilot – more assembly than cooking.
Make sure you’re choosing foods you enjoy, says Jank. “Recipes can be super-flexible – you can use ingredients you have on hand and really like,” she says. Even more satisfying is knowing you’re building your cooking muscles, saving money and dishing up better health.