Shortcuts for Cooking Dinner?

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Editor’s note: Today, I’m thrilled to welcome a guest post from my dear friend Jeff Young, also known as The Catholic Foodie. When you’re done enjoying this great article, please visit Jeff at his fantastic site and check out the amazing FREE ecookbook he’s currently offering! LMH 

Shortcuts for cooking dinner?

Life is busy. That’s a fact. If you’re breathing, you’re busy.

I wish it wasn’t so, but it is. And 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. Gymnastics, karate, youth group and other church activities, work and the 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. [Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t always support us in that belief.] We also believe that eating GOOD food (food that tastes good and that is good for you) is important too. We are trying to keep the lost art of cooking from becoming truly a lost art.

But how do we really make it happen?

I think the problem really boils 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 know that eating together is good. We know that eating home-cooked meals is better than boxed foods. But where to do find the time to cook these meals?

Here are 10 shortcuts you can use 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 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 French 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… A Weekly Scheduled 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 9-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!

Jeff Young is the founder and producer of The Catholic Foodie, providing fun and entertaining media to inspire and foster growth in faith and family. When he’s not in the kitchen, you can find Jeff writing or building attractive websites that work

***Egg timer image courtesy of csiknor on Flickr.com***
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18 Comments

  1. Jeff, thanks so much for this amazing column. You know how cooking impaired I am, so this is a huge blessing! I just signed up and downloaded my free cookbook and the recipes are amazing, and look like something I can actually cook! Thanks for sharing your tips and gifts with us!

    • Lisa, my pleasure! It is a joy to join you today at CatholicMom.com, and I am very excited to make the salad e-cookbook available to y’all. I have had so many people ask me (and my wife Char) for our salad recipes that I finally decided to put our 4 favorite summer salads together in one ebook for easy downloading. Summer is the perfect time for these delicious salads. Enjoy!

  2. Use the pressure cooker when it’s possible… I know it’s not always possible, but many people are scared to death of it, and really, there’s no need. It cuts out on lots of time.

  3. I love cooking so I’ll be hurrying over to visit your site right now. My college-age son is learning to cook this summer so he can feed himself in his apartment kitchen. He loves Cajun food–I’m sure we’ll be trying some of your recipes together for his lessons.

      • If I ask my son what Cajun recipes he wants, he’ll probably say “ALL OF THEM.” He has already mastered the jambalaya from Marcelle Bienvenu’s book. I told him to bookmark your blog as a cooking resource for the fall.

        • I love all Cajun recipes too, Barb! I can’t help it… it’s in my blood! And Marcelle is one of my favorite chefs / cookbook writers. I had the pleasure of meeting her and interviewing her a couple of years ago. That was way back on episode 30. You can find it on CatholicFoodie.com. Bon appetit!

  4. Great tips. I needed these to help me organize my stuff, now that I’m no longer looking out for just myself and am on more of a schedule 🙂

  5. Great tips, Jeff. I think what I really need, though, is for you and Char to come live in my neighborhood and then invite me over for dinner every single night.

    No? Not possible?

    Well then, guess I’d better start taking your advice… 🙂

    • What would be better is for y’all to move down to New Orleans. You can bring the horses too. There’s plenty of room for horses. And New Orleans is very Catholic. We have churches on just about every corner. And there’s so much to do down here… But mostly we just eat. Cook and eat. So, if y’all move down here, I’ll be happy to cook for you whenever you want. 😉

      • Well, I don’t think there’s much chance of THAT. Not in the SUMMER, anyway!!! (We’ll ignore the small issue of my husband’s job and the paying of bills.)

        Incidentally, we don’t actually have horses of our own (yet).

        I’ll take that as a standing invite to just descend and swarm you anytime I have airfare. Mwahaha.

        • The door is always open to you and your wonderful family, Sarah! Just give me a little notice and I’ll make sure the gumbo pot is nice and warm for your arrival.

  6. Great article with great advice, Jeff! Now that I have special cut-proof gloves, I need to teach my 8-year-old daughter how to chop those veggies :-). BTW, I bought the gloves on amazon.com for my sister Caroline and myself after she stabbed her hand with a knife separating frozen biscuits. She even needed surgery! So, no more flesh wounds for us.

    There are two other things I recommend: 1) Delegating a certain protein for each day of the week when planning the menu (too many options for me here in south Louisiana otherwise, but Fridays are always seafood!); and 2) Putting all of those torn-out recipes from newspapers and magazines (and printed from the internet) in a binder with plastic sleeves and dividers. I just did this a few months ago and it has saved me so much time looking for favorite recipes shoved in the back of my cookbooks. Bon appetit!

    • Kitty, wow, cut-proof gloves… I need some of those! I admit that I do get nervous when the kids are chopping or slicing. I’ve cut myself too many times over the years. It’s just too easy for the knife to slip the wrong way. I will definitely take a gander at those gloves on Amazon.com.

      Your recommendations are brilliant! Assigning a protein to each day of the week certainly cuts down on decision overwhelm. And, boy, do I need to make an effort to accomplish your second recommendation! We have recipes all over the place. I did attempt to gather them all – digitally – a couple of years ago. But the project was too big at the time. I might need to try it again. Now that we have an iPad, it would be great to have all the recipes available at my fingertips. They would be searchable, and the iPad is perfectly accessible in the kitchen (but might need to get a splash guard for it!).

      Hmmmm… The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. Thank you, Kitty, for inspiring me to action!

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