July 7, 2013

10 Shortcuts for Cooking Dinner in Record Time

10 Shortcuts for Cooking Dinner in Record Time
My daughter Annabelle hard at work in the kitchen.

Shortcuts for Cooking Dinner?

Life is busy, and families that are too busy often opt for convenience over health. 20% of all meals eaten in America are consumed in a car. That’s just not healthy. Not from a physical standpoint, nor from a spiritual standpoint. But most busy families believe that there are no other options. Between the second job, soccer practice and ballet lessons, fast food often seems like the only option. But it’s not.

It is certainly true that we are too busy for our own good. God did not make us to function properly under the kind of stress that modern life imposes on us. However, we cannot change society on our own. Yet we can make some changes in our own lives to try to align ourselves (and our families) with the way that God made humans to be. And these small changes can bring us a greater sense of peace.

I believe that preparing family meals daily is a good place to start.

Communion Happens Around the Table

God placed something deep inside of us that yearns for communion, for union in our relationships. We desire union with God, and we desire union with each other. Very often this union takes place around a table. We can see this clearly in sacred scripture. In the Old Testament every single covenant that God made with his people culminated in a shared sacred meal. The Passover is the most well-known of these covenantal meals. Then, of course, in the New Testament we see Jesus institute a new and eternal covenant within the context of a meal. And he tells his apostles, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Communion happens around the table.

Yet, if you’re like me, dinner time can become especially tense. “Frazzled” is a word I often use around 5 or 6 PM.

I have five mouths to feed, including my own, and gymnastics, karate, youth group, work, and the many unforeseen “hiccups” of life frequently challenge our commitment to prepare and eat dinner together as a family.

We believe that eating together daily is extremely important. We also believe that eating GOOD food (food that tastes good and that is good for you) is important too. In our house, we are trying to keep the lost art of cooking from truly becoming a lost art.

But How Do We Really Make That Happen?

The problem really does boil down to time. There are so many demands made upon our time that preparing good, delicious, healthy food on a daily basis – and enjoying that food together around the family table – has become the exception rather than the rule. We all know that eating together is good. We know that eating home-cooked meals is better than boxed foods and fast food. But where do we find the time to cook these meals?

I offer you 10 tips that just might help you to put delicious home-cookied meals on the table a little bit faster.

10 Shortcuts to Cook Dinner in Record Time (Without Resorting to Fast or Fake Food!):

1. Choose the Right Recipe

If you’re in a hurry to put dinner on the table, you don’t want to take on Beef Bourguignon. Nor do you want to take on Seafood Gumbo or even homemade pizza (save that for another day!). I’m always reminding myself to be realistic. I can’t do it all. At least not today… in one afternoon or evening.

Be picky when it comes to recipes and dinner ideas. Don’t be too extravagant. Simple is good. There are plenty of quick and healthy choices out there… dishes that don’t take forever to prepare. [Click here if you want some ideas for quick and healthy recipes.]

2. The Importance of Mise en Place

My wife reminds me of this all the time. Mise en Place is not my strong suit for sure. It’s a French term for the culinary concept for “everything in its place.” For years, I was content to start cooking and just run all over the kitchen and pantry… pulling things together at the last minute. My wife, on the other hand, is different. She always takes a few minutes to assemble everything she will need for a particular recipe. It’s all right there at her fingertips. And she cleans as she goes too! I’m still learning both of those skills, and I have a great teacher in her.

When everything is in place before you start a recipe it saves you TONS of time. No running to the pantry to see if you have any whole bay leaves. No rushing to the fridge to see if you have enough eggs or milk. Just a few minutes of prep time ensures that everything is in place and on-hand. This reduces the amount of time you spend “cooking” significantly… And it puts dinner on the table much faster!

3. Routine Is Good. Setup A Weekly Menu.

Some folks think that routine = boring. Not so when you are trying to feed a busy family day in and day out. My wife and I wrestled with this one for years. Finally we decided to come up with a weekly dinner menu. Breakfast and lunch can be fairly easy to prepare. Eggs, grits, and coffee for breakfast. Leftovers (we love leftovers!) or a quick sandwich or salad for lunch. Easy stuff. But dinner… That’s where the friction is.

A regular weekly dinner menu made a huge difference for us. And it doesn’t have to be the exact same recipe each week. For example, on gymnastics nights we usually do soup and salad. The type of soup depends on what we have on hand (or what I plan to have on hand!). Maybe I’ll do a Shrimp Étouffée instead of soup. Either way, it’s quick, easy, and ready on time. As soon as the girls walk in the door we are ready to sit down and eat.

4. Weekly Scheduled Grocery Run

It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a plan. Just a little thinking ahead can save you tons of time. If you plan out a weekly menu (see #3 above), then it’s easy to make a grocery list of everything you will need to make that menu a reality. Set aside a specific time each week to make that grocery run.

I admit, I have a hard time with this one. I take after my paternal grandfather. Even though he was born and raised in Louisiana, he had a certain European streak in him… at least when it came to grocery shopping. He went to the grocery every day and purchased what he needed just for that day. And I do the same thing! I think the world would stop spinning if I didn’t make it to the grocery at least once a day. 😉 But, to save time, I advocate a weekly scheduled grocery run. Yes, this is one of those “do as I say, not as I do” things.

5. The Crock Pot / One-Pot Cooking

Me and crock pots have a love-hate relationship, but I love one-pot cooking. I think it’s in my blood as a Louisiana boy. Many Cajun and Creole dishes are one-pot meals. Gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, red beans and rice… These are all one pot meals. As a matter of fact, there’s an interesting story about the tradition of red beans and rice in New Orleans.

In south Louisiana Mondays are red beans and rice days. Restaurants all across South Louisiana will have red beans and rice on their menus on Mondays. Why? Because Mondays used to be wash day. The women were busy doing laundry all day, and knew they wouldn’t have time to cook. So they put on a pot of beans, turned the stove on low, and let them cook all day. When the wash was done, they might throw in some sausage to spice the beans up a bit, but essentially they had a full meal ready to be eaten. They just needed to make rice and they would be done.

There’s nothing quite like those creamy red beans after they’ve been cooking for hours on low heat! Red beans and rice are a big deal down here. Famous jazz musician Louis Armstrong used to sign all his letters “Red Beans & Ricely Yours.” Don’t you just love that?

6. Big Batch Cooking

Along the same lines as one-pot cooking is big-batch cooking. Big batch = cooking more than one meal at a time. And, trust me, it’s OK to freeze the extra. If you are doing all the cutting and the chopping for one meal, you might as well do it for 4 or 5 meals. Cook it all and save the rest for one of those gymnastics nights.

We stumbled onto this idea quite innocently. We are blessed with a very active and vibrant parish. When my wife Char delivered our last two children, parishioners came out of the woodwork to cook and prepare meals for us. We were so impressed by this that Char ended up starting a formal “meals ministry” in our parish. There were many families who signed up to help prepare meals. Every time a parishioner was close to giving birth, the parish office would contact Char to let her know. She would get on the phone with volunteers to fill up the schedule. One suggestion she always gave the volunteers, and one we followed ourselves, was to just make double of whatever they had planned to cook for dinner to share.

Big-batch cooking takes that idea and multiplies it. Why not cook three, four, or five times what you would normally prepare for dinner, then freeze the extra for another day… or days, really.

Just make sure you have the freezer space!

7. Use the Right Tools

I’m constantly amazed at the difference $1 can make. Or even $0.60. I am almost ashamed to admit the number of awkward and time-consuming workarounds I have used, when $0.60 would have made all the difference. Here are a few examples, though:

  • Basting brush – Now, I am ashamed to admit that I still don’t have one of these. And I am too ashamed to tell you all the MacGyver tricks I’ve used over the years for basting. It’s ridiculous, really. I mean, these things only cost a few bucks!
  • Pizza cutter – I used to use my long 10-inch CUTCO French Chef’s knife to cut pizza. Pathetic, I know. But, then I invested a whopping $5 and now I’m slicing pizza like a pro!
  • Microplane zester – We used to have one of these and life was good. Then it fell apart and life was not so good. Then we – FINALLY – splurged and bought a new one for under $10. Now… life is good again.
  • Reamer – We cook with lemons all the time. Limes too. It’s amazing how much time a reamer can save you. We had one that we used for years, and we were happy with it. Or so we thought. Then some friends came over to cook and eat with us, and they brought their reamer. Wow. We came to the hard and surprising realization that we had worn our reamer out! Ours was SO dull. The next time we were near a Williams-Sonoma we shelled out the $9 to get a new one… and get our non-dull lives back!

8. With A Little Help From Your Friends Kids

I love to cook, and my kids see that. So, it’s not surprising that my kids often want to join me in the kitchen. But you might not like to cook. And your kids might not like to join you in the kitchen. The truth is, though, that cooking together not only saves time, it also helps to bring families together.

Our kids are getting to the age now where we can leave them in the kitchen to do a good amount of cooking on their own. I was so impressed a couple of months ago when Char and I “went” on a date in our own home. The kids didn’t cook the whole meal, but they did make the salad… and a salad dressing from scratch. And it was good too! Our kids also served as the wait staff that night. It was a delightful dining experience!

I can’t begin to tell you how edified our kids were to be able to get in the kitchen and cook for us. Since then, we have depended upon them to help out more and more in the kitchen too. It’s true: kids in the kitchen can work wonders!

9. Pre-Wash and Pre-Cut Vegetables

I had a hard time with this one at first. It’s the whole “planning ahead” thing. I’m not always good at that. But, I have learned that pre-washing and pre-cutting veggies will save you tons of time! You might need to invest in some sealable baggies or plastic containers, but it will be well worth it in time saved. After you get back from that weekly grocery run, why not have the kids join you in the kitchen to help wash and chop veggies? If you do this on Saturday or Sunday, you’ll be very happy that you did come Monday and Tuesday.

10. Prayer

The more involved I get as The Catholic Foodie, the more I realize that cooking can and should be considered a spiritual gift. Yes, feeding the hungry is a corporal work of mercy. But, perhaps it should be looked at as something along the lines of the gift of hospitality. God does indeed work through the gift of cooking.

Now, I’m not talking about “gift” in the sense of talent. No, I’m talking about “gift” as in the gift of yourself through service… the service of cooking. Preparing meals for your family is a gift of service. And like all “gifts,” God’s graces are operative. So why not start cooking with a prayer? Why not listen to spiritual music (or Catholic podcasts!) while cooking? Why not ask the Lord to bless each member of your family as you set the table?

You might find that doing so not only helps the time in the kitchen pass a bit more quickly and efficiently, but that it makes mealtime a bit more holy too.

Do you have a shortcut that I did not mention here? Tell me about it in the comments below!

Bon appetit!

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