There are so many ways to be a little bit more efficient in the planning, preparation, cooking and storing of food; ways we could make the most of our hard-earned cash and stretch our wallets so we can get the best all round. Below is a short collection of tips I actively use, even at the risk of being called a ‘cheapie’!
1. Plan ahead
Everyone enjoys spontaneity and it’s great to come home and have a sandwich for dinner but everyday? No way. If you’re like me, the last thing you want to do when you get home after work is spend a half hour thinking and strategizing over what to rustle up for dinner. I much prefer to think a little bit ahead, knowing what we have at home, what we need to get and how to combine that into nutritious, delicious meals. To do this, I make a meal schedule and try to stick to it. My considerations include the time I have after work or plans that evening. This is important for me because I don’t come home at the same time every working day.
I try to keep to my meal plans. This doesn’t mean it has to be boring, so for instance if I plan to make a Rice dinner on Monday evenings, I may make Coconut rice with mixed veg. one week, a Rice pie the next, Fried rice the following week…..and so on. If its potatoes, I could bake, sauté, fry, roast, chip, herb. Get the drift?
Planning ahead may involve cooking a meal or heating something prepared earlier. Is it in the Freezer? Bring it out the day before and let it slowly thaw in the fridge. You save energy you would have spent defrosting it in the Microwave or heating it up some other way.
2.Buy in bulk (and on sale!)
As soon as I’ve planned my meals I go shopping. I try my best (not thoroughly I admit) to make a list of what I need at home. I ensure I’m well stocked on my staples which include dry and tinned foods – Rice, Pasta, Flour, Oil, coconut milk, plum tomatoes, tomato puree, chilies, salt; fresh and frozen foods – Butter, Bacon , Sausages, Ham, Chicken breasts, Mince meat, Frozen vegetables, Potato Chips, Pizza, Pastry, etc. I buy these things and then reserve my weekly shopping for things like Milk, Eggs and other fresh products.
This does a few things for me – it saves time getting to the shop and doing the actual shopping, and keeps me organized. It also saves me preparation time, especially if my cooking skills in those areas are non-existent. Like store-bought pastry. I buy….. I buy puff pastry and filo (phyllo) and recently have found baklava pastry, which I haven’t bought yet. Why make when you can buy (and avoid disaster!)
I love JUNK MAIL. If you live in the Netherlands, you’ll understand what I mean. If you don’t, here’s a short explanation. Every week, most shops print out little brochures with the offers they have on. I love those magazines. Once they come in the postbox, I eagerly scour them for deals and knock-offs, and ensure that I miss absolutely niks (nothing)! Some homes put stickers on the postbox saying they don’t want to receive mails not directly addressed to them. Not us.
This is one way I get to find out which shop has what deal and when…. which helps my planning. If I find something on offer I have need or want for like Chicken breasts or Minced meat, I’ll buy a couple of packs. I make sure I always have zippy bags and labels. When I get home, I prep them. With my chicken breasts, I keep some whole for Roulades, I cut some in strips to skewer later and I cut some in little chunks for stir-fries. I pack and label them in cooking portions, destination – deep freezer. When I want to cook it is a matter of popping them into the fridge to thaw and then use as I will.
3. Cook in bulk
My kids love pancakes. We often have pancake buffets for breakfast, as lunchbox specials, and as dinner. So, I cook a batch. And when I say a batch, I mean, I get out 3 pans and cook up a whole stack at the same time. This reduces my standing time by two-thirds and then I leave the stack to cool. When its come to the right temperature, I cover it and put in the fridge. When the kids are hungry, I pop a couple in the microwave and heat up and food is ready.
With minced meat, I like to brown it off – It means I reduce my cooking time later on, but that I also get to rid the mince of the fat and grease it gives up. So I’ll brown it in a pan for 15 – 20 minutes. Then I’ll drain off the fat and leave it to cool. When its cooled sufficiently, I’ll pack it up into hand portions in zippy bags and then freeze. Its a matter of bringing it out of the deep freezer when it is needed later on.
We like tomato ‘stews’ in this house. We also prefer the taste of a reduced tomato sauce which generally take some time to reach perfection. So I always aim to have some packs in the deep freezer to ease my ‘work’. I blend and boil up a large batch and when it is ready, I’ll let it cool down and then pack it up into small containers which I ensure are properly labeled, then I pop them in the freezer till some nice chicken wings are ready to be embroiled in delicious tomato juice.
Also, when I cook chicken/beef for my meat-loving family, I’ll rustle up a whole pot, drain the stock and then roast off the meat, let it cool and then bring out as needed. That way, I can always ensure that I have nutritious meals at hand, quick fixes for last minute changes of mind and much more. If I make rice, I don’t mind having leftovers because I could use them in a rice salad, or a rice pie.
4. Eat together
Save energy. Definitely. My husband and I were run ragged with eating different meals and feeding 3 kids at different times ‘cause we weren’t ready to eat at the same time or didn’t feel like eating what everyone else was and it was a nightmare. We were constantly streaming in and out of the kitchen – making food, cleaning up and being completely exhausted at the end of it all. When we decided to start having family meals, we realized we freed up so much more time, confined the washing and clearing up to one period and got to spend so much more time with one other. It was a breakthrough. And while its not possible to sit together for every single meal, we do it as often as we can. (Another great benefit of this is that now my kids eat so much more variety than they ever did, and if you know where we started from….pancakes and rice , that’s nothing short of a miracle)
5. Clean up quick
With baking and cooking and frying, I sometimes end up with gritty, burnt pans (especially if I’m multi-tasking). So, to clean my pans, tins etc, as soon as I’m done cooking and while the utensil in question is still hot, I put some cold tap water in. The combination of the heat and water causes loads of bubbling which loosens the grits and dregs. Voila, easy clean. Sometimes I wash the pan immediately but usually the food is calling and so I generally leave it to cool down for clean up later. This way, I’m not struggling and working too hard.
6. Waste not, Want
If you know anything about me, you’ll know I hate to throw things away. So if I buy parsley, I’ll use the stalks in a soup and my daughter, J will eat the leaves with ketchup. When I make my award-winning blackcurrant sauce/coulis, which involves sieving out the blackcurrant seeds, I’ll keep the seeds and add them to my plain white vinegar and end up with blackcurrant vinegar, which I refrigerate. Of course, my vanilla pods end up in the sugar jar, the bottle of olive oil, in the blackcurrant vinegar and soon, I’ll try the salt.
I also make sure if I buy a carton of yoghurt I cut it open when its almost finished and scrape out what happens to be a healthy amount adhering to the walls of the pack sometimes.
7. Grow green fingers
Start a little garden. If I can – you can. Last year, I bought a herb pot of Mint from the supermarket. It was a particularly flavor-some pot and so when the leaves were all used up, I planted the stalks. Thankfully, they took root and flourished. Then a friend gave me some fantastic Lemon Melissa (great on strawberries with some sugar). I planted it. It started growing well and then in the autumn it was gone. All shriveled and dried up. I despaired, as we loved it so. Then 6 weeks ago, I noticed a few plants shooting up with great rapidity. My daughter with joy proclaimed great things done by the birds and the butterflies. Follow on with some rain and as we speak, my little patch is full of flowering Lemon Melissa plants and Mint bushes. For the rest of the summer and beyond these are herbs I won’t be buying. I’ll have fresh Mint tea, Strawberries with Mint and Melissa. Melissa tea. Mint chutney and Mint pesto. So much to do with these two. Watch this space.
When I’m done with my teabags, they end up in my herb pots on the window sill – easy ‘compost’. Something my mother taught me. Though I’ve also been know to use the teabags to ‘antique’ paintings. Coming soon.
When you go shopping, don’t buy more than you need – still learning on this one though. Take shopping bags with you – leave some rolled up in your hobo/handbag and in the car. Buy jars you’ll be glad to reuse. I love honey and recently saw some potted in French kilner jars, not to be confused with your regular kilners. Anyway, I bought them… they’ll come in handy when I want to make some jam – though when that will be, I don’t know. The morale of the story being, buy stuff that’s pretty… and reuseable.
Saying that, even ordinary glass jars are good for storage – things like vanilla, nutmeg and other spices could be put in these otherwise throwaway jars for cheap storage soolutions. And finally, when it’s impossible to reuse then recycle.