If you asked a group of moms their #1 obstacle to getting dinner on the table, I’m guessing most of them would say “time.” If you’ve got little kids, you may literally have a toddler hanging off your leg – or a baby dangling from your bosom – as you try to cook. If your kids are older, after-school activities and homework can get in the way.
Last November I shared five of my favorite time-saving kitchen tips, which included shortcuts and “cheats” like never peeling a potato, poaching chicken breasts and steaming veggies. A year later, I’ve added more time-saving tips to my repertoire – some borrowed from the oh-so-helpful comments to my original piece! – and I thought I’d come back to share five more tips:
- Roast those veggies. After Amy and Olivia both sang the praises of roasted veggies in their comments, I gave it a shot…and I’m not sure I’ll ever eat a carrot cooked another way again. It really is the easiest thing in the world: toss on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sea salt, and stick in the oven until browned and caramelized. 350F is a good temp to work with as it seems to cook evenly and still get the veggies nice and caramelized, but the nice thing about roasting is that you can adjust the temp depending on how much time you’ve got. I’ve roasted at temps as high as 450F when in a real hurry (but you’ll have to watch closely at that heat!) Other than checking periodically, you won’t have to do much babysitting…and, they won’t take up any precious space on the range. Another reason I will forever sing the praises of the roasted veggie? Because my kids now love Brussels Sprouts…and actually fight over who gets the last carrot.
- Organize your kitchen logically. This is one of the things I obsessed over most in the midst of our kitchen reno, and I’m still moving items around the kitchen to get them in just the right spot…so I don’t have a perfect plan yet. But as a general rule, I’m trying to keep things near where I’ll use them, and readily at hand. For example, I keep all my most often-used utensils…particularly the ones I’ll often need to grab with one hand while holding a hot pot with another, like tongs, stirring spoons, and spatulas – in a pitcher to the right of my stove (not the left, because I always grab and stir with my right hand!) Spices are now in a drawer to the right of my stove, too, and pot holders are directly to the left. They’re little things, but can make a big difference when you’re trying to deal with a lot of moving parts.
- Set aside more time. What? This is supposed to about saving time, now I’m telling you to devote more time to cooking? Well, yes. One of the biggest revelations I’ve had over the past year is the realization that a family dinner – including all the prep and clean-up – will always feel like a rushed, slapped-together affair if I try to squeeze it in around everything else. Of course there are going to be days where there is simply too much going on to spend two hours in the kitchen, but I try to keep our schedules completely clear between 5:00 and 7:00 at least three weeknights per week. On those nights, the less I try to rush the whole dinner process feeling like there is something “more important” to do, the more relaxed I feel and the more we all enjoy it. Also, I’ve found that if I set aside a few nights a week where we are wholly devoted to a sit-down family dinner featuring a real meal, it feels like less of a failure on the nights when I’m too frazzled to do much more than punch numbers into the microwave. See also: The Kitchen Hour.
- Embrace repetition. If you watch too much Food Network, you can start to get the idea that a meal only counts as “homemade” if it’s been simmering for hours in a complicated sauce, or that you owe your kids the horizon-expanding experience of trying new vegetables, spices, and flavor combinations every day. But let’s face it: kids like familiar foods, and the more you make something, the better you get at it and the easier it becomes. There’s really nothing wrong with repeating the same 5-10 or so meals over and over again (sure beats hitting the drive-thru in frustration), and the more comfortable you get with preparing certain dishes, the more you can start to experiment and add to them without throwing the whole night into a tailspin. See also: The Six-Meal Shuffle.
- Master a few basic dishes. The less you have to think, plan, fret, consult recipes, or scour cookbooks at dinnertime, the faster and more easily you can get dinner on the table. My staples include black beans, whole roasted chicken (which up until a couple years ago I had NEVER made, and I have kicked myself ever since because it’s so easy and such a crowd-pleaser), chicken noodle soup (made with the carcass of the roasted chicken) and smashed red potatoes (with garlic and sour cream!). They’re things I am so familiar with I could make them in my sleep, and they didn’t take much cooking technique or talent (neither of which I am blessed with to an excessive degree) to learn. If you master a few staple dishes and then make sure to keep the necessary ingredients on hand, you’ll never find yourself staring in the fridge at 6 PM wondering what to make, because you’ll always have a backup plan.
What are your favorite time-saving kitchen tips?