I hear it a lot: I can’t cook dinner for myself because I just don’t have time. It’s so much easier to order in or pick up than take the time out to shop for, prep and cook a meal. I find that the best way to have time to cook is to make time to cook. Unfortunately, learning to cook more efficiently also means taking more time to plan your cooking.
I know that isn’t possible for everyone. I’m lucky enough to be able to make my own schedule. You might ask yourself, why shouldn’t I just order dinner? What’s the difference? Other than the pure joy of cooking for yourself (I may be bias), it’s better for your health. You don’t really know what you’re eating and how things are prepared when you order in. One reason that I started to cook more is because of dietary restrictions – both mine and my parents’. The best way to stay on-diet was to cook our own meals. Another reason is because I find that cooking will save you money. I spend almost 50% less on cooking for myself day-to-day than I do if I just order out. Many delivery places also have a minimum amount, which can really drive the price up.
For those of you still worried, trust me. These tips are designed for those short on time or those who might be too tired at the end of the night to spend hours prepping and cooking a meal. Because of these tips, most nights it only takes me about 1-2 hours to shop for, prep, cook, eat, and clean up dinner. After a few nights, maybe you’ll be cooking more efficiently too.
1. Work with your schedule.
You know exactly how much time you have each day. If you’re as freakishly organized as I am, you know what each day will entail and probably how tired you’re going to be after all of it. As I said before, being an efficient cook begins with planning. If you know that you have three meetings in one day and will most likely get home a little late, then don’t plan to cook something that is going to take 4 hours to cook in the oven, like a braised meal, or something that needs to marinade for a while. If you know you only have an hour to cook, then look for a recipe that fits within that time frame. Lastly, if you know you have some time in the morning, try to finish prep then so that when you get home, you can just go ahead and cook.
2. Shop strategically.
A huge thing that helps me plan meals for the week is that we buy a lot of things in bulk way ahead of time. Every two weeks my parents and I hit up Costco and buy meats in bulk and then portion them according to serving size and store them in the freezer. We also keep onions, garlic, lemons, soy sauce, and vinegar constantly in stock since we almost always use them. That way I only need to make quick runs to the grocery store, if that. If I go I only get what I need per recipe, which cuts down on my shopping and travel time. I save longer shopping trips for the weekend. In addition, planning meals will be that much easier because you plan meals around the ingredients you already have. Maybe you don’t even need to go to the grocery store!
3. Buy pre-cut ingredients.
Pre-cut vegetables and meat seriously cut down on prep time. I love sinigang, my favorite Filipino dish, but it involves cutting a lot vegetables. When I’m pressed for time, I’ll stop by Trader Joe’s and get some of their pre-cut asparagus with mushrooms and then throw them in a frying pan with some olive oil. Be careful, though! Vegetables that are pre-cut usually spoil quicker, so really examine the package you pick. In addition, buying pre-cut meat means you can jump right to seasoning and marinading. If you don’t have time to cook a side dish, then buy one that’s already prepared, like a pre-made salad or green beans that just need to be quickly microwaved. Is it cheating? Maybe, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
4. Minimize Idle time.
Try not to stay idle. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t just sit and wait around when I cook. Once I relax, I don’t want to get up again, especially after a really busy day. So, minimize your idle time by maximizing your activity. Usually I prep all of my ingredients before I cook. But if I need to boil some meat to tenderize it, or boil noodles for pasta, I’ll usually put that water on before I prep. Between adding more ingredients, or when something is simmering, I’ll start washing some of the dishes that I used. Basically, get it all done at one time instead of first prepping, then cooking, and then cleaning.
5. Keep it simple.
K.I.S.S – keep it simple, stupid. Don’t waste time on techniques you don’t know how to do. Don’t try a recipe that has too many complicated steps. Let me be clear: I am NOT saying that you shouldn’t try new things. But if your main objective is to save time during a busy day, don’t get all caught up in experimenting. Stick to what you know and find recipes that you’re comfortable with, then when you have more time, go wild!
6. Work with your strengths.
Every writing teacher will tell you to write what you know. Along that same vein, cook what you know. This point is very similar to #5. When you know how to do something really well, it’s so much easier and therefore, faster. It’s also great if you’re tired. When you’ve driven somewhere a thousand times it feels like the car is on autopilot – you could drive there in your sleep. It’s the same with cooking. Sooner or later, smashing and mincing garlic feels like second nature. On the other hand, if it takes you an hour to peel a potato then maybe a recipe without potatoes would be better. Either way, go with what you know how to do best.
Again, these tips work best for those busy bees trying to fit cooking onto a never-ending to-do list. Efficiency matters when your schedule doesn’t let up. It helps things run more smoothly. It helps you feel like your time isn’t being wasted. It also makes cooking feel less like a chore and more like a nice way to unwind from an otherwise chaotic day.
What are some things you do to help you cook more efficiently? As always, I’d love to hear from you!