Dirty Little Secrets from My Kitchen

This got so long, I had to split it into multiple posts again. This one covers my basic cooking method and meal template. The next post will have actual recipes.

I told you in the previous post there would be no criticizing my food. I am touchy about this, and I think we all should be a little touchy about it, actually, instead of just taking the food abuse and hanging our heads in collective food shame. This blog is a food shame-free zone.

Food snobbery has run amok recently, especially online – and this is coming from someone who likes fancy food and has decent cooking skills. But knocking myself out one night results in not cooking at all for the next twenty, so I tend not to. That’s just how I’m wired. Like many people, I run on spoons. Some days more, some days less.

This blog is definitely not the place for food snobbery of any kind. Your style of eating works for you, and I fully support your right to buy and cook and eat anything you want – whether that means raw, vegan, organic food, or processed food from a box. I think they are both fine choices, depending on the person and their life. The key here is that the way you cook and eat may work for you – not necessarily everyone.

If you enjoy fancy cooking and do it every night, good for you! Now be grateful and don’t rub other people’s noses in it.

If you’re a fancy cook who doesn’t judge other people’s less-than-fancy meals, then I love you. You are welcome here.

If you don’t know how to cook, or are just learning to cook, or don’t care about cooking at all, I also love you and you are also welcome here. I will not let anyone shame you.

TEMPLATE

My basic template for dinners is classic American: protein, starch, and vegetable. Sometimes something sweet for dessert. But if I have the basic three, I’m usually happy.

Protein
can be eggs, cheese, meat, poultry, fish, or legumes.

Starch can be potatoes, pasta, rice, or some other kind of grain. Sometimes just bread.

Vegetables are usually salad or steamed frozen veggies (broccoli is my favourite), but I also love steamed fresh spinach, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, sweet potato (kind of does double-duty as a starch, too), or even raw crudites with dip. Sometimes I will get fancy and cook a vegetable side dish that requires a recipe, with sauce and everything, or will use a bunch of different vegetables in a stir-fry, but usually not on a weeknight because that requires lots of chopping and I am lazy. Canned tomatoes of all varieties are my best friend.

I consider beans to be a protein and a starch, and also sort of a vegetable since they are fibre-y. I will eat them on their own if I need to, but of course everything is better with rice. I am in love with the sheer efficiency of beans.

METHODS

When I am cooking, this is the order I do things in:

-2) The night before, preferably while cleaning up from dinner, put meat to thaw in the refrigerator, or put beans in a bowl to soak on the counter. If I forget to do this, the microwave or canned beans will save me.

-1) After breakfast in the morning, wash up any dishes that I will need later, wipe the counters, and if feeling very organized, put out the pans, cans, spices and recipe card on the counter.

-0.5) Halfway between lunch and dinner, eat an afternoon snack so no one gets injured during the cooking process.

0) An hour or half-hour before dinner needs to be on the table, turn on music, get myself a beer or a glass of wine if I have some.

1) Put away any clean dishes that are in the dish rack or dishwasher, and set the table (though I often forget this until the last minute, and just yell desperately for someone to come do it while I drain the pasta.)

2) If there will be multiple pots or pans involved, fill one half of my sink (the side closest to the stove) with hot, soapy water. All dirty dishes produced by the cooking process will be tossed in here to soak while we eat.

3) Get everything that I will need on the counter – pots, pans, cans, spices, meat, vegetables, knife, cutting board, measuring spoons/cups, mixing bowls if needed, and recipe card. If I already put stuff out in the morning, then all I need is to get the refrigerated ingredients out.

3.5) If I failed to defrost my meat the night before, or if it is still partially frozen due to my damn fridge, defrost it in the microwave using the “Defrost by Weight” setting. Seems to work better laying flat on a plate than in a bowl.

4) Get water boiling in a big pot if I will be boiling anything, preheat the oven if there will be broiling or baking, making sure to put the oven rack in the right spot. If I am going to sauté something, I will start the oil heating in the pan on medium-low heat to avoid smoking (I can turn it up just before things actually go into the pan.)

5) If there are potatoes involved, start prepping them since they take the longest to cook. Wash, peel, cut into chunks, etc.

6) Start chopping onions or other vegetables, if needed, keeping a bowl for garbage scraps right on the counter. Or the plastic bag the vegetables came in, if there is one. (Turns out, this is actually handy, not just something they forced us to do in school.)

7) If potatoes need to go in the now-boiling water, I do that. If I need to start cooking plain rice, or a packaged side dish that can tolerate standing around for a few minutes after it’s done, I start that. If it’s pasta, I will usually wait until the sauce is started cooking, because I really like my pasta al dente.

8) While other things are cooking, if there will be frozen veggies, I put them in a microwave-safe bowl (my smallest glass mixing bowl), add a tablespoon or two of water, then put the lid on (I don’t have a lid, so I use an upside-down salad plate, which happens to fit perfectly on my smallest mixing bowl. I prefer not to use plastic wrap, but I will if necessary.) I stick the whole thing in the microwave, but I don’t cook it yet. Leave the door open if you’re liable to forget.

9) If I’m broiling or baking something, I get it set up on the pan and start it now. If I need to sauté something, I start that now. I definitely use a timer if it’s in the oven.

10) Pasta can go in the water now. I make sure to stir it well, and add oil if I need to leave it alone for a while and attend to other things.

11) In the last 5 minutes of cooking, I close the microwave door and cook my veggies for 5 minutes. It takes a bit longer than the package says because I use a plate as a lid, remember. They may need stirring halfway through, and I have to use oven mitts to hold the bowl and open the lid because steam is evil.

12) When the timer goes off, measure the temperature of the meat, if necessary, or bite a piece of the pasta to test doneness, and then turn off the oven and any burners. Drain the pasta and mix into the sauce.

13) Throw any stray bowls, pans, measuring cups or utensils into the sink or dishwasher, then plate the food (or yell for people to come and get it themselves) and eat.

When all is said and done, I am not the world’s fanciest cook, but if push comes to shove, I can pull off something more elaborate. I just know that elaborate is the enemy of the every day, and perfect is the enemy of the good-enough. If I want to get fed with decent food on more than a monthly basis, I need to not be a perfectionist.

I can push myself to reach up to the second or third shelf, but reaching for a 10 too often results in falling on my ass into a pile of takeout menus.

One last request – No advice-giving in comments, unless someone specifically requests it. If you would LIKE to receive some advice, please add a little “Help, please?” or something to the end of your comment, to make everything nice and clear.

I know most advice is well-meaning, but sometimes it can feel hurtful or dismissive when someone is just trying to express their feelings or their frustration.

I will also try my best not to give unsolicited advice, since I am often guilty of it myself.

Please give us your meal templates or concepts, and any tricks to make cooking less onerous, or clean-up less dreadful, in comments.

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133 Comments

  1. Vicki
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    My trick for actually getting things done (when I have a job or otherwise have been out most of the day): as soon as I get home, chop onions or any other vegetables that need to be chopped or sliced before I use them, such as green peppers, and leave them out on the counter.

    Then I can walk away, relax a bit, and cook when I’m ready to eat (my partner and I tend to have dinner late). If I don’t do that bit of vegetable prep ahead of time, I’m less likely to actually cook. The psychology seems to be partly “all I have to do now is…” and partly “but you already chopped the onions/sliced the peppers, it would be a shape to waste that.” The main thing seems to be that “finish cooking dinner” feels easier than “cook dinner,” even if “finish” is 90% of the work.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Oooh, I like this trick. I will have to try it.

      • Posted June 18, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        I do a version of this as well! Sometimes (if I am feeling particularly ambitious) I will chop the veggies (or at least some of them) as soon as I get them home from the store. Then I have little baggies of pre-chopped onions and peppers for inclusion in sauces, rice or omelets as soon as I think of them, you know?

        • Yan
          Posted June 18, 2012 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

          This is a lot like what I do, except it’s usually Sunday afternoon/evening, which is my “prepare for the week” time. I will set up my laptop on the kitchen table and chop anything that can be chopped ahead of time, often enough for a few recipes. This is how I get stirfry on weeknights — everything is pre-chopped, and all I have to do is make sauce.

        • Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

          Yup, I do this as well. It’s about the only way I can guarantee myself fresh vegetables — my preference — every day of the week.

        • littlem
          Posted July 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

          Suzanne – “little bags” sounds like a great idea – how long do you find they stay fresh? Can you chop a week’s worth on Sunday and still have fresh onions and peppers the following Saturday?

    • Betsy
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      That’s really clever! I tend to get home and fall into a chair, and then not want to get up to start. I’ll see if I can find the motivation to make myself chop before collapsing.

  2. Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I LOVE the tip about filling the sink with hot water in step 2! I am going to start that! Some how, I have made it through a lot of years of life without having seen that before.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      That is a FlyLady trick I shamelessly stole. It’s great.

    • Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      I love it too. My biggest obstacle to cooking is not having a clean kitchen, and I’m terrible at keeping my kitchen clean. I hate tidying and I hate doing dishes, and I hate cooking in an already-messy kitchen. I’ve been getting better lately at cleaning as I cook, and this suggestion is a really helpful one.

  3. Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Oh man, do I ever hear you on canned tomatoes of all varieties. I cook with tomatoes a ton and I mfing HATE chopping tomatoes. Plus! Fresh tomatoes outside of a very small range of time are just not as good as even the cheapest canned variety because they’re bred for durability, not flavor. Canned tomatoes for the win!

    Though when my father-in-law’s garden tomatoes are ripe, there is nothing on this earth to compare with his BLTs. Oh. my. gods. and. little. fishes.

    • KellyK
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Ah, yeah, fresh tomatoes rule. BLTs, bruschetta, tomatoes with mozzarella and balsamic.

      I’m very grateful to live near farmer’s markets, particularly this time of year. (If Suburbia and Smallville had a baby, it would be where I live.)

  4. Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    One thing I liked doing previously was batch cooking, where I’d make a big pot of chili, shredded buffalo chicken, 2 half pans of lasagna, etc and freeze most of it. Soup, chili, chicken or pork, etc was usually put in single-serve (or 2-3 serving size) containers in the freezer. Then I’d be set for a few weeks and we could pull stuff down to defrost the night before and pair it with frozen microwave veg or salad (or both!) and some bread. But now we have a small fridge and small freezer and so don’t have room in the freezer for much stuff. :/ I have a crock pot and that’s pretty awesome for a lot of stuff.

    In the past, I’ve also done actual straight up meal plans but don’t really have the time right now (working 30-40 hours a week during the evening/night so am not home for dinner ANYWAY) and they make my life a lot easier. Especially when I know how much fruit/veg/protein needs to be prepped. I’ll shop according to the meal plan, get the produce and protein, then cut/chop/trim/whatever and portion it out. Some will go into the freezer for later. I do this for lunch veggies/fruits, too. Get two red peppers, clean and slice them, then they’re super easy to pop into a lunch or serve to my kid.

    FRANKLY I’m not home for dinner any more and my 3 year old is in a “chicken nuggets and french fries” stage (although he will eat the HECK out of most fresh fruit and veg) so it’s super easy to let stuff slide. I should really clean out the freezer and do some food prep to make things easier for my husband.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      I have definitely gone through phases where my work schedule changed and I didn’t do much cooking at all. I also really like to make a big batch of something and freeze it in individual portions, when I’m feeling like cooking on the weekends.

    • G
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

      My template is similar too! If I eat protein/starch/veg I feel like I’ve gotten all the building blocks of a meal in place. If I skip one or more of the parts I won’t be satisfied and I’ll go wandering off in search of something else to eat.

      Luckily, pizza with tomato sauce, cheese and veggies is the whole template in one delicious package. :)

      Since I started my whole fitness shebang I am more conscious of the niche each building block fills: starch for energy, protein to rebuild muscles, and veggies for vitamins and fiber so I feel good. I usually tweak the formula depending on what activity I did that day and how I feel.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      One thing I’ve done with the “batch” thing — there are only 2 of us in my household, so a batch lasts us a long time, and we get bored — is to do batches that are sort of… customizable? Like, I’ll make a vegetarian chili for Day 1, and we’ll eat that. Then for Day 2, I’ll add in a little meat — to change the flavor enough to prevent our boredom. Or do a chicken stir fry on Day 1 that can become chicken and rice soup on Day 2. It is still some cooking every day, but less.

  5. hillary
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    My template is fairly similar to yours, with the additional layer of family preferences. For example, I grew up in a vegetarian household so my ability to cook meat is limited. My husband will not eat seafood or most green veggies. My daughter is 6 and the typical kind of picky for that age. So I try to make meals that have components that can be separated to accomodate everyone’s tastes. That means a lot of stuff like “build your own” burritos, baked potatoes, salads, etc. They are easy to throw together and a lot of the ingredients overlap. I don’t find chopping onerous if there is not a complicated cooking process to follow, so fresh veggie ingredients are pretty common in our dinners. When I grocery shop I think about starches first (vegetarian thinking?) and then plan the meal around them. i.e. I might buy tortillas, potatoes, pasta, an rice. Then I’d get proteins to complement each starch, and plan several veggie options that I can mix and match depending on how much time and energy I have when I make the meal. I try not to spend more than 30 minutes actively working in the kitchen. I subscribed to a meal planning service for a couple of years (The Scramble…no affiliation) that helped me learn the types of meals I could fit into that time frame, and took a lot of work out of menu planning (making the shopping list specifically). When I did not have children I subscribed to a CSA and planned meals around the assortment of sometimes-unusual veggies we received each week. That made every week fun and exciting! However, now I am old (ha ha) and don’t have energy for all that excitement. It took me a while to adjust to my new energy levels and time constraints and during that period I wasted a lot of food by being overambitious about cooking.

    My number one saving grace is that I keep a well stocked pantry. Even on days when the fridge looks bare, I can usually come up with something good out of the pantry and freezer. I also love having a tiny herb garden. A pantry dinner looks 10x better when there are some fresh herbs sprinkled on top.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:01 am | Permalink

      This is great, thank you! I like to keep basil plants around, but my last set of them died when I went away for vacation. I need to get some new ones.

    • Claire
      Posted July 9, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      Just wanted to comment that starting from the starch makes so much sense to me, but I’ve never thought of it that way before. Thanks for your help!

  6. Jen
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Since this is a shame free zone I have to shamelessly announce that my cooking method generally involves lots of frozen Healthy Choice meals, hot pockets, sandwiches from Wawa, cans of beans and if I’m feeling really gourmet – the crock pot.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

      My cooking method may involve all of these things on the nights when I’m not doing traditional cooking! I think this will come up in a later post about meal planning itself. Not every night is a 16-step cooking method night, for sure.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

      Shamelessly — It’s over 100 degrees where I live. It will be — during sunup hours anyway — until the end of September. My house does not have air conditioning. I am on a personal quest not to use my oven until then. :)

      • Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        Oooh, do you have a list of things that you prepare without (much) heat that you’d like to share? Cooking during heat waves is horrible and I’m always looking for ways to avoid heating up my kitchen.

        • Posted June 20, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

          Jake — in our house, we’ve been known to put the crockpot, rice maker, bread maker — any small appliance we can cook in — out in the garage during the summer.

        • Posted June 20, 2012 at 11:51 am | Permalink

          Just saw this Mark Bittman article called “Summer Express” with 101 simple summer “recipes”! So many options here.

          http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/18/dining/18mini.html?pagewanted=all

          I’ve already clipped it to my Evernote account for future reference. :)

          • littlem
            Posted July 5, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

            Outstanding tip for any East Coasters struggling with triple digits right now, Steph. Thank you very very much.

        • Posted June 22, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

          What I do when it’s hotter than I’d want to use the oven:

          1) Boil eggs at night or in the morning to keep in the fridge. Great with breakfast, in salads, or snacks.

          2) Keep grapes, melons, pears, and other good-served-cold fruit in the fridge. Also cheese. A platter of fruit, cheese, and crackers or rolls can make a good light dinner.

          3) Chinese bbq pork is yum.

          4) Salads. Black beans with green onions, corn; spinach, strawberries, red onions; rice, beans, green onions. Almost any combo of veggies works when chopped into bite-size pieces and mixed with dressing.

          5) Ice cream with fresh fruit.

      • mickey
        Posted June 19, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        I would also love to see your list. It’s not even that hot here in the summers, but I still don’t feel like cooking on the stove/in the oven for the warm months. Ideas other than veggie burgers or sammiches are welcome!

        • Posted June 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          Look into a solar cooker. You can make crockpot-like foods without heating up your house at all, saves electricity, and you can even bake in them.

          Good pre-fabbed solar cookers aren’t cheap, but you can find directions for making your own online and it’s pretty reasonable.

          Plus it’s always good to have a way to cook food in case there’s a power outage that lasts more than a couple of days or if there’s a natural disaster.

        • Posted June 21, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

          what about cooking in a toaster oven, crock pot, or indoor grill?

  7. Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Lunch is the heaviest and normally the most elaborate meal of the day, but I work a 6-hour morning shift so I eat lunch when I get home.

    I vary a lot what I cook, and I enjoy cooking from cookbooks. Even so, these are some of the things that help me:
    1. The best days in the week for grocery shopping at supermarkets are Tuesday to Thursday. Fresh food and empty shops. The best days for buying fresh stuff at markets or specialised shops are Friday and Sat.

    2. If I have the time and the mental energy, I plan the next week’s meals on Sunday. As I plan meals for 5-6 days, I make a note of a shopping list. Tuesday or Wednesday, I buy anything that I need from the supermarket. Some Saturdays I go to the local market and whatever catches my eye, we eat during the weekend. That means that weekends are for experiments, labour-intensive recipes, baking, and fish.

    3 Even though what we eat is varied, we eat more or less the same staple every day.
    Sunday: I make a soup of beans and vegetables to obtain plain beans (like canned beans but nicer) and a broth. Discard the veg.
    Monday: we eat Recipe 1 with half the beans.
    Tuesday: Pasta.
    Wednesday: Beans, part 2. If Monday was chickpeas with tomato sauce now it’s chickpea curry, etc.
    Thursday: Probably meat.
    Friday: Probably some sort of vegetarian protein like seitan or tofu.

    I do about a curry a week and pseudo-Chinese also about once a week. But I find chopping vegetables, and in general, repetitive kitchen tasks, immensely therapeutic.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      I agree with the meal-planning idea. It helps me to not feel as overwhelmed if I take the time on the weekend to make a menu for the week to come. I can shuffle around meals as I please but at least I know what to shop for!

  8. karelys
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    most of the time I love to cook. For the most part I feel overwhelmed because I am a bit of a cooking perfectionist or whatever. I feel the need that I gotta make it perfectly balanced, healthy and cheap and sometimes I just really tired!

    I try once a week to shop of fresh vegetables to have at hand. I eat a lot of the same thing not gonna lie! pico de gallo, eggs, beans, tortillas, chicken, all rearranged differently but it ends up being really similar. I have a really tight budget!

    Also, I try to have canned beans because when I run out of time to cook something healthy and solid these will do with some tortillas. Add avocados and it makes a pretty decent quick (and cold) lunch!

    When I feel focused and energetic enough I will go on a cooking spree and cook meats, and beans and all kinds of stuff (lentils last week) and pack it away in the fridge. It feels like a marathon and it’s really not that productive because I can’t seem to stick to that rhythm but it feels really good for me that we have delicious food ready to warm up in the micro/stove when we need it. It’s like eating out but without the big cost!

    I wish I could do this more often. I enjoy it in many levels but I can’t stick to it that much.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      I think it’s pretty normal to go through phases of more cooking and less cooking. The only thing that bothers me is when it gets very extreme and I end up not cooking anything at all for a long period of time. Canned beans and avocados are great.

  9. Lin
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    My current preferred cooking method involves spontaneously deciding on a main ingredient that I must absolutely eat today, finding one or two other things to go with it, throwing it all in a pot or pan together and hoping the result will be edible. If that’s too much effort, sometimes I also make “random food covered in cheese, baked until the cheese melts”. My main vegetables are pureed tomato, canned corn and the occasional fresh onion. It’s … acceptable to survive on, for the time being.

    • Posted June 22, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been known to do that.

      I have been good at inventing pasta sauces to use whatever’s in the fridge. Chop whatever it is if needed, heat in a pan, add seasonings and either milk/cream or chopped tomatoes. Garnish with Parmesan cheese.

  10. Patsy Nevins
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I just want to ask why so many people seem not to consider potatoes a vegetable. Potatoes are a vegetable & a very nutritious one as well. And what are beans, if not a leguminous vegetable? I love beans, & I love potatoes & I really do not like the way the culture in which we live is trying to convince us that we need to eat 97 servings of fruits & veggies every day, but that we should not count the beans & potatoes we eat as vegetables. I personally try hard not to count ANYTHING concerned with food, but I will continue to consider my potatoes & beans to be vegetables. The last time I looked, they were not bread & they didn’t have legs & they didn’t moo.

    And I eat a combination of freshly cooked & processed foods (another expression of which I am not fond…when I cook my potatoes or my meat or brew myself a cup of tea, I am ‘processing.’)

    As for avocados, I am not too sure how I feel about them, but I do love tomatoes in all forms…fresh, canned, sauces, etc. I cook eat some form of tomatoes, usually with onions, garlic, peppers, ground beef or sausage, & some kind of beans or pasta, in some combination, several times per week & be happy. I am nearly 63 years old, have raised two sons, am helping to raise a granddaughter, have been cooking for well over 50 years, starting with things like yeast breads & homemade baked beans (I live in Maine, baked beans are a staple food here & one of my favorites). Sometimes I want to cook, sometimes I want food in the fastest, easiest way possible & if I never had to wash another dish or clean another kitchen, I would be happy camper. Convenience foods are sometimes very good friends, &, so, when I can afford it, is the convenience store across the street which runs its own deli & makes wonderful sub sandwiches & pizza.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      A-freaking-men Patsy! Botanically/biologically speaking, all the food items your describe are fruit-bearing flowering plants. I learned this in BIO 101 and it’s about time the word spread.

      The real difference between “real” food and “junk” food? Snob appeal. Full stop. Anything that the poor can afford to eat must, by nature, be junk food.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      Personally, f I don’t count potatoes as a vegetable it’s because they are quite filling and they don’t taste “fresh” for me. The way they complement other food makes them belong in the “starchy” category.

      I count beans as protein because my partner only likes them in vegetarian dishes, so I never mix beans and meat, so nutritionally and when thinking of recipes it makes more sense to consider them a protein. It is mostly a question of convenient meal planning.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      You’re right, they are a vegetable. I just usually feel like I want something green or orange to go along with a potato. I think of them as a starch, but they are a starchy vegetable.

      I am really also not pleased with how the word “processed” is used. There was a great post on Big Fat Blog a while ago that talked about this.

      But I also want to say, I find “counting” some food groups to be helpful, in a very rough and non-pressured way. It’s a way that I can pay SOME attention to nutrition without it taking over my life. I don’t believe most people need to eat more than 5 fruits/veggies day if they don’t want to, and that is roughly how many I eat. I’ve noticed that I feel best when I do, but because I’m not a vegetarian, they are sometimes an afterthought so it’s easy to forget. That’s why I count. I’m not saying that anyone else has to; it’s just something that helps me.

      • Posted June 25, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

        I struggle with the potato/corn starch vs. vegetable debate, too. I was raised with a very “weight loss diet” mindset as a chubby kid, and my parents always insisted that potatoes and corn were carbs not veggies (usually in the context of, “Can I have bread and butter?” “No, we’re having corn.” “But corn is a vegetable.” “No, it’s not.”).

        As I discovered HAES, I had occasion to question many of the food mantras I was raised on… but this one still rings true for me. In terms of my own body’s experience of foods, potatoes and corn act more like bread or rice than they do like broccoli or salad. Plus, my fiance is pretty severely diabetic and so for us, too, it’s important to consider the carb content.

        Michelle, if you have time, I’d be super interested to know how potatoes and corn ‘match up’ nutritionally – are they more like bread/rice, or more like broccoli/salad in their nutritional breakdowns?

        • Posted June 25, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

          If you want to run a comparison, you can use this: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/list

          Just be sure you enter either the same weight in grams for all the items you’re comparing, or else do the same volume if you think that’s a more realistic measure.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      If you have a diabetic in the family, potatoes are easier count as a starch. 1/2 cup of potato = 1 Canadian diabetic serving of starch. If we want to count them as a veg, the serving size drops to 1/4 cup which is really only one spoonful of mashed potatoes. I think moving them into the starch category (and arguably corn as well) has to do with how much carbohydrate they have. 1/2 cup of potatoes has about as much starch as 1/2 cup brown rice or 1/2 cup oatmeal or 1/2 cup of corn.

      I know they are veg, but for me, I have to think about them as a starch in order to balance my daughter’s carb intake.

    • Yan
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

      Patsy, if you’re ever in the mood to share, I’m a transplant to New England and I LOVE baked beans. I’d love to learn to make them, as right now I just add a lot of stuff to the canned ones.

      Also, I love baked beans because they can be the whole meal.

  11. Julie
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Lately we’ve been buying a ton of fresh veggies and spending an hour or two on Sunday afternoon peeling and chopping anything that can stand it, just to make weekday evenings a little easier. Thank god for the food processor and lots of storage containers!

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      This is a great idea. I used to have a really big food processor, but sadly I got rid of it when I moved to a place with a really tiny kitchen. I miss it, because it would be perfect for this kind of thing!

  12. Jen P
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    For a while, I was cooking out of a vegan cookbook that had weekly meal plans for one person, with shopping lists, that were designed so that I never had half a package of something at the end of the week. Most of the meals were level three. It worked quite well for me, but then two things happened:

    1) I started eating meat again.

    2) I misplaced the cookbook, and am unwilling to buy another copy until I’ve looked every place it could possibly be.

    Does anyone know of a similar cookbook for omnivores? I looked at most of the cooking-for-one cookbooks that had Kindle samples, but none of them had meal plans with shopping lists.

    Help, please?

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t have a cook book suggestion, but I would LOVE to know which vegan one you were using!

      • Jen P
        Posted June 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        Vegan Cooking for One, by Leah Leneman.

        There were a few things that were less than awesome about it, but I didn’t find them hard to work around. The big one is that some of the shopping lists are missing a few things, so I had to check the list the first time I used each meal plan. But I just wrote the missing thing in, and then I didn’t need to check again the next time I used that list.

        Other than that, the food is a bit bland, but it’s easy to increase the spices; the servings are pretty large, which was fine for me, but some reviewers on Amazon say they usually have enough leftovers for lunch; Leneman is from the UK, so I had to look up a few words; and some of the desserts were a bit odd.

        But overall, I found it worked well for me.

  13. Christina
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    I LOVE my crockpot. It often means the difference between eating my own foot and actually having food on the table. I just toss the stuff in the pot then night before and stick it in the fridge. In the morning all I have to do is sit the pot in the crock pot holder thingie on the counter and set it to low and go to work. The crockpot elves are busy at work while I work and when I get home, a lovely prepared dish for me. All I do when I get home is perhaps nuke some veggies or broil some garlic bread.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      I have never had a crockpot, but I keep hearing how awesome they are. I really need to get one.

      • E
        Posted June 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

        I love my crockpot too! If you do get one, just know that it takes a while to get the hang of the right amount of liquids and spices to use for the results you want. I’m a big experimenter in the kitchen (generally using recipes for inspiration instead of following them precisely), but I would recommend following recipes for the crock pot at first so as not to end up with overly soupy or bland results.

        (I hope this wasn’t too advice-y…I just really like my crockpot and wanted to share what I’ve learned : ))

        • Marie
          Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

          During the winter, pretty much all the cooking I do is with the crockpot. I make a general attempt to eat in-season vegetables, just because everything else in the grocery store is so limp and terrible, and all the best winter veggies are long-cooking roots anyway. So it’s nothing but curries and stews all winter long. It also warms the house up a bit, and there’s so little sunlight, I just can’t stand to spend any small amount of sun time in the kitchen cooking. And because everything is going in the crockpot, I can get away with super lazy chopping. I usually set up something to cook overnight, then in the morning, put most of it in the fridge and some of it in my lunch.

          This is the best crockpot recipe site I’ve ever found:

          http://crockpot365.blogspot.com/

          In the winter, whenever I need to make a grocery list, I just scroll through her website until I find something I like. Her chicken pot pie in the crockpot? The! Best!

          • unscrambled
            Posted June 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

            I agree, but do not underestimate the benefits of the crockpot in the summer. When it is 90 bazillion, you do not want to heat up the whole kitchen! I use it when I want to cook something to go with something raw. For example, chuck some beans in there. Serve with salad! Chuck some chicken in there, cool it off, put on a salad, or in a taco, or….etc.

          • Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

            Oh, my gosh, there are so many awesome ideas for breakfasts here that I can actually eat! Thank you for the link!

  14. Aine
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I think my savior in the kitchen has to be frozen vegetables. Everything I’ve read about them indicates they are as nutritious (or more so) than fresh versions (as long as they don’t come covered in sauce), but the thing that I love most about them is that they are chopped and clean and usually fairly cheap.
    I buy the frozen chopped peppers, chopped onions, washed/chopped spinach, and have many steamer bags of pretty much all other vegetables. The spinach can be thrown into eggs, soups, sauces (to add some veggie component to spaghetti sauce, for example), or lasagna. The chopped onions and peppers go into a little bit of everything, even scrambled eggs in the morning.
    I also love the cooked chickens you get in the rotisserie at the super market. They can be a little salty/greasy so sometimes I take all the meat off the bones and actually rinse it before throwing it into soups, casseroles, chicken salad, sandwiches, etc.
    I’ve also had love affairs with my crock pot.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      I love frozen veggies as well – and they are actually still nutritious even if covered in sauce :)

      I wish we had frozen chopped peppers and onions at my store. I should probably just chop some up on a weekend and freeze them. It would make my life a lot easier.

      • STAshworth
        Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

        Frozen onions are great for small households that don’t use a lot of onion at one time, like us. Ever since I found out about their existence, I have usually had to go to my non-preferred store to get them. It’s worth the trip.

      • Posted June 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        M & M Meats if you have one in your area Michelle carries frozen diced onions which are the bomb. I often think we should ONLY stock frozen veggies..at least they don’t go bad before we can finish them..like fresh..then If I have a lot of fresh veggies / fruit there’s this PRESSURE –what do I make to eat them quickly etc. etc. before they spoil (esp. veggies like spinach, lettuce, and fruit like strawberries.)

        • Posted June 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          I basically have rules for myself with fresh veggies – I only buy sturdy ones (like spinach, arugula and romaine lettuce for salad, potatoes, onions, and carrots for other stuff, and maybe a fresh tomato since it will be eaten instantly), and the rest I buy frozen. IF I want to have something especially fresh, I will only buy it the day I know I’m going to cook it. If I buy it all at the start of the week, I know a lot of it will go bad, and I hate the feeling of pressure.

          • flightless
            Posted June 18, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

            I NEED those rules [guidelines anyway] about sturdy veggies – I hate wasting them! This blog series and its comments are seriously my new favorite thing.

          • Celeste
            Posted June 22, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

            I’m just reading a great book on this topic, Tamar Adler’s “The Everlasting Meal”. Her premise is that you shouldn’t plan meals, but should instead learn a slightly different way of thinking about cooking them with items you have on hand. I am doing baby steps of learning her process of buying fresh veggies on the weekend, and cooking them up to store in jars to be used during the week. She has a video on Vimeo about it called The Glide, about being economical in your use of time for this. Even if her whole philosophy won’t work, I highly recommend the book for some great ideas about suppers for busy days, and just her writing style about how food is meant to be ENJOYED. It fits so well with the work you are doing, in my opinion.

          • Posted June 22, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

            This sounds like a great book – I will put it on the list!

            I agree that the (plan meals) + (write out grocery list) + (cook food) method can be clunky. I’d love to get better at just stocking stuff and cooking from what’s on hand without letting too much of it go bad.

            Oh no I just realized I have this book on my wishlist already! Time to bump it to the top!

        • zingor
          Posted June 21, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

          One way I relieve the pressure of fresh veg is to do food patrol a couple times a weeks as I clean up the kitchen. If there is something that just isn’t going to get used like I planned, starting to wilt, a brown banana, etc, it gets cleaned, chopped, and tossed in the freezer. These odds and ends make the basis for soups or casseroles later on, and I don’t feel like I’ve tossed anything in the garbage.

          But I also really recommend frozen anyway when I’m working with clients, especially people with only one or two in the household, or just no time or cooking skills.

          With this current obession with fresh, local, organic, etc. people sometimes forget that some is better than none. Some days dumping a can of green beans in a bowl with some viniagrette is the only way I’m going to get a veg that day, and that’s just fine.

          • Posted June 21, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            Absolutely – and this is a great idea I am totally going to steal.

  15. Posted June 18, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I love this series. I generally really enjoy cooking and always have, but I do not enjoy the grind of coming up with what’s for dinner. I do cook dinner most nights, though, because I’ve developed a routine that makes it pretty easy for me (at least with the time and energy levels I have right now).

    Menu planning helps me a lot and I always eat better & cheaper when I do it. I used to do a totally unique menu plan each week but that was too much work, so what I do now is, I have “theme nights” that I set up on weekly repeats on my calendar. I change them around depending on the season (summer weather here right now = many more salads than during winter months).

    Currently, Monday is salad night, Tuesday is wraps or lettuce wraps, Wednesday is a chopped salad to use up the leftover greens from Monday and Tuesday, Thursday is fish & vegetables, friday is breakfast for dinner (usually a potato or sweet potato hash, bacon/sausage/chorizo/etc., and eggs). I don’t plan weekend meals for a few reasons – we go out to eat more on weekends, if we don’t go out I have more time to run to the store and pick up something to fix, and also, if we end up doing takeout or something mid-week, I just slide the meal I planned for that day over to Saturday or Sunday and make it then (so I don’t waste the food).

    Lots of our meals are based on using the fewest number of dishes possible. ;) And I definitely don’t like to spend more than 30 minutes of hands-on time/1 hour total meal-making time in the kitchen, at least not on weeknights.

    On Sundays, before I grocery shop, I go down the week and make my vague themes more specific so I know what KIND of wraps we’re having, etc., and make a grocery list. This takes me about 15 or 20 minutes – it is MUCH easier and faster for me to plan out specific meals with the themed weekly meals than before when I was starting from scratch each Sunday. I also try to do some prep for lunches ahead of time on Sunday, but I don’t always do that.

    The process of making a meal on a weeknight usually goes like this:

    1. When I stop working for the evening, I see if anything needs marinating, and if so I get that going before I walk the dog.
    2. Walk the dog. ;)
    3. Come back, feed the dog, wash hands, pull out all the ingredients for dinner, and make myself a drink. (Could be water or a beer or a fancy mixed drink, I just know this is part of my routine.)
    4. I figure out what needs the most cooking time and start that. Usually that is sweet potatoes, potatoes, or whatever protein I’m cooking (except eggs). If I’m making pasta, I get the water going now too.
    5. I prep vegetables and get them cooking if they are going to be cooked. If it’s a salad night I make the dressing first and then start chopping the veggies and throwing them in a bowl. If it’s a pasta night, I probably started the sauce in step 4 as I started heating the water boiling, so now is when I boil the pasta.
    6. As dinner is wrapping up, I get the hot soapy water in the sink to put dishes in as they are finished.
    7. If I feel like being fancy sometimes I end up deglazing a pan I cooked meat in to make a little sauce. This has the added bonus of getting the crusty bits off the bottom of the pan and making them easier to clean. I almost never plan to do this but sometimes I have some cheese I want to use up or whatever, so yay! Cheese sauce!
    8. When dinner is done, I plate it all up and we eat. I share clean-up duty with my fella.

    Things we eat SO MUCH of, year-round: baby spinach (seriously so much), eggs, canned beans, chicken, greek yogurt, avocado, salsa, tortillas. Usually the greek yogurt, salsa, and avocado are garnishes but they make almost everything seem a little fancier and tastier. :)

  16. Cathryn
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post (and the prequel!). The “all or nothing” pitfall is something I struggle with in many aspects of my life, including cooking/eating. Even when I attempt to cook at a level 2 or 3, if everything doesn’t turn out perfectly, it just destroys me and I end up eating frozen meals endlessly until I get up the courage to try cooking again. It’s ridiculous.

    It helps to know I’m not the only one who struggles. Maybe due to the prevalent food/cooking snobbery on the interwebs, it seems like most people have it all together and enjoy perfect meals made from fresh foods every night.

    “Perfection is the enemy of good-enough” <— I really need to tattoo this to my arm as a constant reminder! :)

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s a really good idea to have an on-purpose back-up plan on hand when attempting to cook a new recipe, not just because it can save the day, but because it takes a load of pressure off your mind when you are trying something new. You can remind yourself, while cooking, “This is just an experiment. If it doesn’t work out, we’re having ____.”

      Mistakes are going to happen, it’s a certainty, so I find it’s better to plan for them instead of trying to ensure I never make any.

  17. Heather
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Thumbs up to #0 (music + wine)!
    I wish I had a double sink so I could try #2 (pre-soak the pots), that is brilliant.

    My partner is the chef in our house, so I like to play sous-chef and do the defrosting and the vegetable prep before she gets home. She has more fun cooking dinner if she has bowls of cleaned, trimmed, and chopped veggies ready to play with, and the parings already cleared out of the way.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      I know some people do the sink of soapy water even if they have only one sink, but I can see how that might not work out if you need to drain something or fill up a jug of water midway through cooking. I reeeeeally like the idea of having only sous-chef duties to attend to!

    • Elly
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      I don’t have a double sink either, but I’m thinking I might try to find a plastic dishpan that will fit in roughly half my sink, and leave the other half free for regular use. I really like the idea of starting things soaking while I’m still cooking, mainly because the post-cooking cleanup step is always so daunting for me — perhaps if I felt like it were already underway, “finishing up” wouldn’t seem so bad…

      • Posted June 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

        This is our solution, Elly – I don’t have a double-sink either but we do have a plastic basin that takes up roughly 2/3 of the space, so I can still drain pasta/rinse on the other side.

  18. Lauren
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    When I cook with items that I use frequently I like to prep a bunch of them at once. If I chop onions I do 2-3 times as many as I need and throw the rest in the fridge. It’s so nice to have ingredients that are clean and prepped when I cook a day or two later! If it seems like I’m not going to use them before they spoil I move them to the freezer and save them for soup.

    I’m also a big fan of my crockpot. If my afternoon is busy it’s wonderful to have dinner mostly taken care of.

    Oh! And last year I did a meal swap with another mom and it was great. I cooked a double batch of something (chili, I think) and shared with her one evening and then she cooked for my family another time. It was really fun.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      This is a fantastic idea, pre-chopping up veggies. I always mean to get around to doing something like this, but then I never think of it. I constantly use chopped onions for everything, so I really should put up a note to remind myself to try it.

      I also like the meal swap idea.

  19. Posted June 18, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    My usual clean up routine is to wait until almost every available surface is covered with dirty dishes and pots etc. and then clean up. Not the best I know but after making a meal I’m usually too tired to clean up right away. I’m trying to do better at this.

    If I’ve made a recipe for a main dish, I try to do something easy for the vegetable and starch (i.e. rice cooked in the rice cooker, something quick that can be steamed like peppers, or frozen veg cooked in the microwave.) It’s a lot of spoons for me to do a main dish recipe and a side dish recipe for the same meal although I’ve done so in the past.

    I like salads w. meals but hate the prep. Salad bags are good but can be expensive.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      Haha, this is often my clean-up strategy too. But I find if I can keep things tidy as I go, it feels so much less exhausting later on. Even if I just leave everything soaking in the sink overnight, it’s cleaner than it otherwise would’ve been! I am also a fan of going simple on the side dishes if the main course requires a recipe.

      • flightless
        Posted June 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        We have a family tradition of letting things soak overnight; we even call it the [My grandpa’s last name] Soak.

        And in my house there’s this fabulous other entity called Morning [Flightless] who does most of the dishes. Somehow I don’t mind doing them when I’m waiting for the coffee to brew!

      • verenka
        Posted June 21, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        When I didn’t have a dishwasher I usually had the same cleaning up strategy. I once considered eating ice cream out of the tub with a fork, because there was no clean spoon left over.

        What helped me then was starting the clean up, while I was still cooking, like washing up the cutting board and knives while the sauce finished cooking or doing yesterdays dishes until the pasta is ready.

        I found that much easier than cleaning up after my meal.

    • zingor
      Posted June 21, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

      “I like salads w. meals but hate the prep. Salad bags are good but can be expensive.”

      I’ve been doing this salad in a jar thing recently (http://kblog.lunchboxbunch.com/2012/06/vegan-salad-in-jar-make-ahead-bliss.html) … prep a week of salad and keep them in fridge. Grab, shake, dump in bowl (or eat out of jar). One day of prep for 5 days of salads seems to be working well. Plus it means I eat out less at lunch.

      • Posted June 21, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        Interesting concept they have there. May have to try sometime.

  20. Auds
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I know the most common advice I see about learning to cook more is to do really rigorous meal planning, and if that works for you, awesome! But just for another pov, since I live and work near lots of food shops, for me I am most motivated to cook and eat my own cooking when I can decide every day on a whim what I want and make it that evening.

    Maybe it’s the years of diet meal plans, but something about knowing I had planned to cook x thing and already bought the groceries for but didn’t feel like x makes my brain throw a little temper tantrum that ends with me hating cooking and hating food. Anyway, I know I’m very lucky to have so much food to buy at my disposal and it’s not really practical for many, but in case it makes sense to someone else, too.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      I can totally understand this. I don’t like being told what to do, even if it’s myself doing the telling (if that makes sense.) If you have the time and inclination to do it on a whim, then I think that’s great.

  21. Betsy
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    My usual strategy in the kitchen is to plan on really MAKING one thing, and doing convenience items for everything else. Fully 3/4 of the time, my vegetable is either a “steam right in the bag” frozen vegetable or a handful of out-of-the-bag salad mix with sprinkled feta on it, both of which are under 30 seconds of prep work.

    For starch, I do lots of quinoa, rice mixes, couscous — all things that require only water and waiting. Then for meat I decide on my effort level: do I want a sauce? A rub? Plain meat? If I’m just throwing meat in a pan, I may do a more prepared veggie, instead of the zero-prep-time options.

    If I go more complex than this, my food ends up finishing at weird disconnected times, so we all eat our mashed potatoes while they’re hot, and the meat is still in the oven. This is part of why I rely on casseroles so much: one-pot meals means everything finishes at once.

    • MamaCheshire
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

      I like this concept a lot. :)

  22. Chris Gregory
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    All this advice is fine if you’re a chick, but what about dudes? Luckily I can help out.

    First of all, you have to decide what type of man you are – a skillet man or a grill man. I’m a skillet man, mostly, so I’ll stick to the skillet method, but the grill method is pretty similar.

    Now, first thing is you heat up your skillet and cook your vittles. Then you stand over the skillet while it’s still on the stove and eat your vittles. Then you put the skillet on the floor for the dog to lick clean (I guess I’m a skillet man because I never felt comfortable putting the dog on the grill).

    Finally, you replace the skillet on the stovetop, all ready for the next meal. What could be easier than that?

    Seriously.

    • Posted June 18, 2012 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      The Dude’s Guide to Cooking

    • flightless
      Posted June 18, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

      hee hee! I am a dude. Except without the actual Y chromosome.

      Well, my boyfriend does the grilling (because the grill is conveniently on the smoking porch) but I am all about the skillet. When it’s just me, it is veggies/beans/salsa in the skillet and then break an egg in and scramble it up with the veggies so it will all go nicely in a (microwaved) tortilla.

      I’m going to go do that right now, in fact.

      (No dog; kitty gets to lick the bowl from the raw eggs if I bother to scramble them before they hit the pan.)

    • Alex
      Posted June 19, 2012 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Awesome. Dogs can be a key part of any meal planning.

      • Posted June 19, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

        Personally, I find pets are the most important part of my meal planning success. If I am eating something that my cat immediately wants to steal, then I know I’ve done well.

  23. Posted June 18, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    My first step in cooking dinner is pre-deciding what I’m going to eat as soon as I walk in the door from work. If I don’t decide that in advance, and give myself permission to eat it, I’ll end up eating a bag of chips or four slices of toast and not cook dinner at all. For a while I tried to distract myself, or eat more at 3pm or something and not eat at all between getting home and eating dinner. Yeah, that worked for about 20 minutes. Now I just accept that I need a snack at 5pm-ish, and plan it accordingly.

    My cooking method is kind of similar, although between every step there you’d need to add “chase two cats out of the kitchen / yell at cats for jumping on dining table / refuse to give cats a portion of the meat I’m cutting / chase cats out of kitchen again”. Rinse, repeat. The cats have always been locked out of the room when I eat dinner but lately I’ve taken to locking them out when I prepare it too. I know the thing with the cats coming in sounds cute and funny (and I do adore them) but I realised it was making dinner preparation a very stressful and anxious time. Now I entice them into another room with a liver treat, and shut the door. :) It’s amazing what a difference it’s made to my stress levels around food (which are usually pretty high anyway).

    Re: chopping onions – a friend of mine buys onions by the box twice a year, goes outside with her food processor and a pair of swimming goggles to protect her eyes (no joke), chops the whole lot and freezes them in zip lock bags. Genius!

    • the_apricot
      Posted June 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      I also wear swimming goggles when I cut onions. It works!

      • mara
        Posted June 24, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

        This is a trick I picked up from The Help (the novel, not the movie): When chopping onions, hold a fork or spoon between your teeth.

        Seriously. This works and I have no idea why. Must be some science thing.

        And my eyes are verrrry sensitive to onions, particularly when I’m not wearing my contacts (ie., if I’m chopping onions in the morning to go in the crock pot). It’s like the contacts are a protective layer and my eyes are extra naked without them. Ouch. But the fork/spoon thing works… NO idea why… I suspect it’s something to do with molecules…

        Though it looks silly if anyone’s watching.

        And, if you have an open bottle of champagne and you put a fork/spoon in the neck of the bottle so that the handle of the fork/spoon is hanging down into the bottle – it matters not a bit whether it’s actually touching liquid or not – the bubbles will stay, almost indefinitely. It stayed bubbly for me for more than a week, once.

        ha ha I guess those are not exactly cooking tips.. just a little spoon/fork magic!

        • Posted June 25, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

          I think these are great – my mom lights a candle near the cutting board, and it does seem to help with onion fumes. (You have to be really careful not to catch yourself on fire, though.)

  24. Posted June 18, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    After living in the dorms and in suite-style living (a.k.a. glorified dorms), I find that making my meals on the weekends – mostly Sunday – and using the freezer are the two best things I do as far as cooking prep goes.

    I have two or three go-to meals and I can prepare them in large quantities and eat them throughout the week. I also prep a huge batch of beans because you can combine them with typical “tuna salad” ingredients and make sandwiches out of them, toss them in soups or salads, and a whole slew of other things.

    Veggie burgers, fresh bread, homemade tortillas, and soups are all extremely easy to whip up in massive quantities on one day and freeze for later use.

    Oh, and I basically live on hummus, so there’s always some kind of hummus I’ve made in my fridge. If I’m too tired to make something when I get home from classes I’ll often just pull out some vegetables and dunk them in hummus.

  25. Yan
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    I’ve commented above, but thought I’d share some of my own process.

    I generally do some deciding on Sunday about what I’m going to eat for the week, because that’s when I shop. I like to do some preparation that evening so I have quick dinners ready to go for the week and so that I have lunch. I have a boatload of food sensitivities that make grabbing lunch difficult and expensive (though I’ve pegged my go-to places in town that’s not off-limits either), and I look forward to lunch all morning every day, so I like to be prepared. But I’m not a good planner.

    Things I always keep in the house — tortilla chips (for nachos, which always work), some sort of frozen meal thing (currently gluten-free chicken nuggets), frozen onions, frozen chopped bell pepper, frozen corn and carrots, garlic and ginger in jars in the fridge, tomato paste in a tube, not a can, at least one box of soup stock, lots of cans of beans and tomatoes, salsa, some form of sausage, pasta (currently gluten-free corn pasta) and rice. Oh, and a billion spices.

    Almost anything can be thrown together in one skillet and served over rice or pasta. And if it’s not great, spices or condiments can fix most things.

    I also like to make a point of cooking extra servings of anything I know is good — a full pot of soup or stew or chili, a full recipe of stirfry or pasta sauce, an extra serving of any sort of meat. I will either take the leftovers for lunch or freeze them (or both), and then I have some “frozen meals” for later. Three or four times a year I can go a full week on just what’s in the freezer, though I often cannot identify it. That “backup food” always makes me feel secure.

    With that

  26. Val
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    I came up with the trick of the mixed veggie bowl last summer. Whenever I have excess veggies that are good (especially things like zucchini when they’re in season and plentiful), I chop them up and just mix them together in a bowl in the fridge. If I won’t use them fast enough, I throw them all into a bag in the freezer, with different types of veggies mixed together. If I’m really organized, I stock up the bowl on Sundays to use during the week.

    The trick to this is to chop the veggies so they’ll cook in about the same time. Using them isn’t as good as adding each veggie in order (browning onions, etc), but works well and is much faster.

    • Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Oooh, this is a great idea. I will have to try this.

  27. E
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    My fickle tastebuds demand endless food creativity on my part (ugh, they are so annoying). They are rarely ok with something I’ve made before (and will basically decide I should eat take-out instead if I don’t cater to them), so each week I basically have to come up some new meals and run it by them. If they’re cool with the new meals, then they’ll usually stay interested enough so that we don’t have any last-minute takeout.

    But then there are the weeks where all they get is frozen trader joe’s, and we’re all (my tastebuds and me) ok with that.

  28. Cairsten
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    I am in love with my slow cooker and bags of frozen mixed veggies. Currently, we don’t have a way to freeze batch meals — I wish we did — AND our budget for food is pretty limited: $50/week for two adults, in Australia where food prices are higher than the US. So, I’m menu planning pretty strictly.

    Sunday – sandwiches, or a roast chicken with potatoes and sweet potato.
    Monday – if we had roast chicken, chicken soup. If not, split pea soup or spaghetti, night one.
    Tuesday – Monday’s dinner, night 2.
    Wednesday – chicken soup or spaghetti or split pea soup, whichever we didn’t have before.
    Thursday – Wednesday’s dinner, night 2.
    Friday – whichever of the 3 options we haven’t already had.
    Saturday – Friday’s dinner, night 2.

    It’s a little repetitive, but there is enough food, we ARE eating vegetables, and every now and again we do shake things up a little — I’ve gotten pretty good at sticky date pudding, sometimes I opt for rice and curry instead of soup or spaghetti again, and sandwich night can just as often be sausage and eggs as peanut butter. Mostly, I miss *fruit*, but that’s almost always been an issue in my life; I don’t think I’ve ever had access to as much fruit as I wanted since I was little girl with mango trees in the back yard, guava trees in front, and bananas and citrus going begging.

  29. Janene
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    My dinner preparations revolve around the meat component. Each night before I go to bed I open the freezer and say “We had white meat tonight so it’s red meat tomorrow” (or the other way around) and then decide if it is going to be something stir fried (red or white), something grilled (mostly red) or oven baked(mostly white) based on what we had tonight. I find having the meat thawed prompts me to cook at home if only because meat is expensive and I don’t want to have to throw it out if I thaw it and then don’t cook it before it goes funky.

    If it is a stir-fry night, we will have either rice or cous-cous (from a packet pre-mixed with spices, just add boiling water). If it is grilled or oven baked, there probably won’t be starch with it and my night just got simpler. Potatoes are an almost-never unless they are frozen fries because I just can’t face the peeling and my husband won’t eat them in their skins.

    Stir-fries are flavoured from a packet or bottle or jar. It is very rare that I would season them from the individual spices and such. I couldn’t face that level of complexity. Oven baked are likely to end up cooked in an oven bag with packet flavourings too and, if you open the bag carefully at the end, that minimises the mess and the clean-up.

    Vegetables are generally either fresh carrots and broccoli or frozen carrot/broccoli/cauliflower mix depending on what I have available and what I can face doing. Occasionally I will add something different, but mostly I stick with what I know will be eaten. I love fresh green beans, but the work involved in chopping them means that they don’t appear on the menu very often.

    I try to get the oven-baked meat into the oven or the rice into the (microwave) rice cooker as soon as I get home because that gets diner started and I’ve got some little period of time then to get changed and make a cuppa before I have to prepare the vegetables. Once one component is on, I’m kind of committed.

    The thing that stops me getting take-out most weeknights is that (as long as I’ve thawed the meat the night before) I can have the food cooked and on the table long before take-out would arrive on the doorstep. As I get home fairly late, that’s usually enough to get me into the kitchen – however reluctantly.

  30. Ursula
    Posted June 18, 2012 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I usually listen to the radio when I’m cooking. It tides me through the boring parts, and sometimes I’ll wash a few extra dishes just because I like the radio program.

    • Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      If I am listening to music (and usually singing poorly) then I am happy in the kitchen.

  31. Posted June 19, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    I am in love with my electric wok (Breville). It’s not cheap, it cost about $100. And when my partner suggested getting one, I was like, “Really? What can it do that my ancient stove-top wok can’t?” Turns out the answer is: Damn near everything, especially since we have an electric range, which really limits what a stove-top wok can do. I make almost everything in it now. I even deep-fry in it, and I used to be phobic about deep-frying at home. It can handle a stir-fry in mere minutes. And eggplant, OMG can it ever cook eggplant. That and a Sanyo fuzzy logic rice cooker (again, not a cheap item, but in terms of price per use, definitely worth it for me) have saved my meal-preparing butt over and over again. The rice cooker also makes fine quinoa and tamales. (Supposedly you can bake a cake in it too, but I’ve never tried that.)

    Here’s something else we do sometimes: Roll our own sushi. We don’t necessarily have to use raw fish, although we do sometimes get sushi-grade tuna from the fish market (you only need a teeny amount of fish to make a roll, maybe 1/8 to 1/10 of a pound); we also have made it with veggies (avocado, lightly steamed or pickled asparagus, raw white mushrooms, cucumbers), lox (especially good in combination with avocado, and even cheap trims like they have at Fred Meyer work just fine), and seared fish like albacore or ahi tuna that they sell frozen at Trader Joe’s. That rice cooker has about paid for itself already!

    Yeah, I can cook a lot of fancy shit, but I don’t always do it. Sometimes neither I nor my partner really wants the labor and cleanup. That’s when taco night really comes in handy; brown a bunch of seasoned ground turkey (or buffalo, if I’m feeling especially flush), shred up some goat cheddar and cabbage or lettuce and some canned tomato (yeah, I use them too, a LOT), grab either hard shells or tostadas or soft corn or flour tortillas (heated up in the pan for a minute to soften them up) and pile ’em up. Or pasta, with a quick red sauce and frozen New Zealand mussels (mussels just need three minutes in the microwave, cinchy), or maybe a clam sauce made with canned clams. Or pizza, with Trader Joe’s or New Seasons’ premade dough and mushrooms and goat mozzarella.

    I can’t eat a lot of the frozen dinners out there because most of them have cow’s milk in them, which is still (mostly) a bozo no-no for my belleh. Besides, I have a puny freezer. So I do usually try to make a little more than we can finish in a meal, to have something for later, but I generally don’t make-ahead and freeze. I have been known to chop stuff the night before, though, especially if I’m making something with a lot of chopping involved.

  32. Elise
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    The best trick I’ve learned recently is to do all my chopping ahead of time and fill my fridge with zip-lock bags of chopped veges.

  33. Kim
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I have a similar problem as many when it comes to meal prep. First, I have caviar tastes on a tuna fish budget (as my mom says). I don’t like the taste of many boxed foods or other affordable foods considered easy to prepare. Two, my husband and I have limited access to good protein sources (meat) due to availability (beef), we don’t eat it (pork) or cost (seafood). I don’t like beans, and don’t really consider them a protein source, I consider them a starch (except green beans, wax beans, etc which I consider veggies). Third, my time is very limited as I am getting a PhD and am, unfortunately, in the lab from 8-7 pretty much every day of the week and for 4-10 hours on the weekends (I hate this, but that is another subject). Fourth, we have no money to compensate for my lack of time. What I have done to try and compensate is to make all my meat on the weekends (a day I am only putting in 4 hours or so). This usually is either cooking a large roast or a couple of chickens (or a turkey). We then have the beef or fowl with mashed potatoes and gravy and maybe green bean casserole or other veggie for a meal or two and I pull all the meat off the birds for use during the week (or to freeze back some of it for later) and pull any remaining fat off the roast and do the same with that meat. Then I have some “go to” recipes with my meat already prepared. This way I don’t have to remember to thaw meat, and I feel preparing the meat portion is the most burdonsome part of cooking (which I actually happen to enjoy fairly well). The problem is we don’t have access to really good quality beef where we currently live and cannot find edible hamburger. I tried substituting the Morningstar crumbles, and that was good for a time, but the texture is weird and it is not good reheated. My other problem is that I really tend to pack on weight if I eat out (plus we don’t have any money to eat out) or if I eat a lot of boxed type foods. The exception has been lean cuisine and healthy choice frozen entrees. I find they are a really nice way to get a lot of variety with good protein/veggie/starch ratios. My problem there again is I won’t eat any frozen preprepared meat except shrimp and fish. I find they use too low quality of parts of the animal and do a poor job trimming or used processed patty type “meat” which makes me gag. Another problem with those frozen meals is they are only about 200 calories, which is not a meal so you have to eat 2 of them or eat something with them (I eat a Greek yogurt a lot with them or cottage cheese). They are kind of expensive too for only half of a meal, but still cheaper than eating out.

    I hate that I have all these mental barriers to eating food because it makes it so hard. I wish I could just throw some chicken patties in the oven and be happy, but I would rather not eat at all. This hasn’t changed either, as a child I would always gag and refuse to eat these things my parents tried to feed me and ended up just sitting at the table most nights and not eating anything except maybe drinking my milk. I have seriously resorted to buying protein powder (Gold Standard Whey, chocolate or chocolate mint) and just drinking my protein and having it with toast or a bowl of cereal as my meal for weeks at a time. It is just all I can muster up a lot of times.

    For veggies (we love veggies at my house) I usually just cut up cucumber, tomato, onion, black olive, and add feta cheese and Greek vinagerette. When we get sick of that I will make a rotini salad with rainbow rotini, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, olive, onion, and add Italian dressing. I generally just have a bowl in the fridge at all times of these so we can get our veggies without any additional planning. I just cut everything up and make the salad as soon as I get back from the grocery store on the weekends because I find if I put the stuff away to make later the veggies just go rotten because I never feel like digging everything out and doing it.

    • KellyK
      Posted June 19, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      I hear you on the frozen “healthy” meals. A lot of them are pretty tasty, and they’re so very convenient and full of nice things like veggies and whole grains, but they don’t really constitute a full meal.

      I would absolutely love it if there were “healthy” frozen meals that were based on values of healthy other than “low-cal/low-fat.” (I have found that the organic/vegetarian/vegan section of my grocery store has some more filling frozen entrees (Amy’s and Evol Burritos).)

  34. Lisa
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    When I worked full time outside the home I meal planned to the extreme. On the weekends (to unwind) I would look at cookbooks and plan to make 4 or 5 dinners for the week – 1 with beans, 1 with tofu, 1 with meat analogue, 1 with “whatever protein”. Then I’d write up my grocery list (and the meal list).

    Breakfast was (and still is) almost always toast with pb, lunch was dinner leftovers. The other 3 days would be eating out (When we could afford it), or leftovers, or the scrounge meal (putting together leftover veg and whatever into something edible).

    This worked for us for a couple of reasons – 1 that we didn’t have too much extra food in the house, so not so much spoiled. 1 that my partner, while a great man who is quite willing to help or cook, doesn’t find it intuitive, and works best from a recipe. So if he knew I’d be home late, he’d be able to look at the meal list and start cooking any of the meals and feel comfortable.

    Now that I am at home during the day, I am the primary cook. It helps that I love to cook, but (and this is no surprise given my personality), soon after this became de rigeur I started to resent it. I resented that it was my job, resented the effort, everything about it. I just recently came out the other side of that, and the biggest thing that helped me come out the other side was giving myself the permission to not make every meal.

    So I try to have veggie hot dogs in the freezer all the time, and the makings of salad. And I try to have cans of soup in the pantry all the time. Yes I can make soup and it will be tastier and cheaper… but that’s for the high spoon days. I’d rather eat canned soup than go out and spend money we don’t have on a restaurant meal.

    Otherwise I order a fresh fruit and veggie box (in the winter/spring) and go to the farmer’s market (in summer/fall), and then daily I decide what I want to make depending on what fruit/veg I want to use up soonest, what my taste buds feel like, what we ate yesterday, and how much time I’ll have (I also work freelance and parent our 4 year old during the day)

    So last night I made a green salad (with cranberries and toasted pecans), and a kohlrabi-carrot salad, and I paired that with sloppy lentils (that I cooked in the crock pot) on toast. Because I had the time for it. But if Tomas hadn’t been at a friend’s in the afternoon, we wouldn’t have had 2 salads (Even though 2 veg is my preference at dinner), just the green salad, which was 2 min to put together, since the greens got washed the day before, the pecans toasted for a salad on another day, so it really was “get out bowl, insert salad into bowl”.

    But I made so much sloppy lentils that I’ll put a bunch of them in the freezer. Now on one of the days I don’t have so much time, I’ll be able to just grab that out of the freezer and do the salad thing for quick.

    One thing I’m really struggling with is stopping having so much extra pantry stuff. I’ll buy really good nuts and put them in the freezer – and then make nothing with nuts for months. Or I’ll have quinoa and split peas in the pantry… but I’ll buy lentils because it’s lentils I want, or chickpeas I want, not the things I already have. Then I end up with this overwhelming guilt about money spent that I theoretically shouldn’t have, because I should have used what we had first. Does that make sense? I live in a big city and I don’t need to have a pantry the size that I do.

    Oh, some of it makes sense – it feels really good to have extra canned tomatoes on hand, because I use them in many different meals and it’s easier that way. And the pickles I canned myself, and extra macaroni or other pasta, stuff like that. I like having lots of flour because I can bake bread or other stuff whenever I want.

    But the other things… I end up feeling this GUILT. And then I’ll do something silly like go weeks without buying lentils or potatoes because I should “just use up the other stuff already” and so of course what I end up doing is just really wanting some lentils or potatoes!

  35. Posted June 19, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    My usual dinner (or breakfast) is beans and cheese and veggies and avocado on a ww tortilla, with a tablespoon of brown rice, or today it’s purple barley. Not a fan, but I hear it’s good for me. I generally keep it simple, maybe some fish marinated a few hours then broiled, with a sweet potato or some corn and salad. My fave meal these days is to buy $5 of sashimi grade fish and make a raw fish and mango salad with mint and mirin and soy sauce and Thai chilis and pine nuts, super-yummy. At work, we have a cafeteria but the food sucks (they try to make it healthy, but it generally comes out tasteless and overdone), but most people eat there. I prepare most of my own meals, partly cheap, and partly because I like my stuff better, and you wouldn’t believe how people like to critique my food. “why did you mix those?” “That looks weird”, or my favorite, “aren’t you on a diet? That’s not diet food”. “Are you on a diet? That’s diet food!” “How can you eat all that cheese/meat/bread/veggies”. I have to ask what they brought: nothing – they’re eating whatever the cafeteria is serving. Everyone’s a critic. I like how you said no advice-giving, I’m always amazed that people who never cook or who eat completely different always want to tell me what I should be eating. Especially my parents, I might as well be eating their cat by how they scowl at me. My boss seems to think that since I go to the gym, I should be on a diet, and always questions me when I’m eating a cookie or something. Often I wish everyone would back off. It’s always the people who never cook who have the most opinions. Try it your damn self, then let me know how easy it is, okay?

  36. Marie
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I usually really enjoy cooking all kinds of from-scratch meals, but there are those days where it is just not going to happen and then I will lie there starving and whining all night. So I’ve got four go-to lazy recipes that use ingredients I will usually use for something else, so it justifies having them around all the time.

    1. Lazy quiche: Frozen pie crust, eggs and milk, bag of frozen veggies, bag of shredded cheese. Some handful of dry spices if I feel like it.

    2. Lazy pizza: Pre-made pizza crust, spaghetti sauce, bag of frozen veggies, bag of shredded cheese.

    3. Even lazier pizza: Pitas, bag of frozen veggies, feta. Olive oil to keep it all from burning too much. Pre-chopped garlic in a jar.

    4. Lazy hash: Ground beef, bag of frozen veggies, potatoes, can of cream of mushroom soup.

    I also get those little squeeze tubes of herb paste. It’s expensive, but if I *need* good food and cannot make myself cook, a dash of that on a sandwich really fools me into thinking I did something spectacular here. And that pre-chopped garlic in a jar, oh my god, I would put my face in that, it is a life-saver.

  37. s.h.
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Music while cooking is essential! Dance-cooking all the way! (Also dance-cleaning. Music makes things soooooo much better.)

    It used to be that my process was going grocery shopping on the weekend for the rest of the week, prepping/cooking (depending on what it was) what I was going to bring in to work for breakfast and lunch (not sure how it evolved, but everyone at my office ate breakfast at the office, which I think is totally the way to go), and then cooking dinner stuff Tuesday night (my friends and I go out on Mondays because you need something to look forward to on Monday nights), sometimes with enough for leftovers later in the week (giving me a cooking break the rest of the nights). But a few weeks ago I went freelance, so now I’m working from home … which has messed up my routine! Not in a terrible way, I’m still eating and cooking, but enough that I know I need to either be better about sticking to my old routine or I need to get a new routine. So far while freelancing I’ve mostly been playing it by ear each day, sometimes cooking mid-day, but that’s not really sustainable. Working from home still means I need to get work done! I can’t just spend all my time in the kitchen! (Any tips from people who work from home would be appreciated! Any tips! Not just food ones, though I’m cool with those too. *g*)

    The basics of how I think about planning and cooking haven’t changed though. I’m weird in that I can’t plan dinner separate from the rest of my meals/snacks. It started, I think, as a money thing more than anything else — I couldn’t afford to buy lunch every day so bringing food in to work was a necessity or I wasn’t going to eat. And planning for dinners just kind of happened at the same time planning for lunches did. (And then breakfast got thrown in too, because, well, if I didn’t plan for it, I wasn’t going to have anything to eat.) So now I’m in the grove of planning everything together at the same time. I’m actually a bit less worried about planning for dinners because I know that I’ll be home therefore will be in a space where I can cook and eat and where I have a variety of staples if needed. Whereas when I would go in to work I would be super vigilant about being prepared for whatever I was eating for lunch and breakfast because then I knew that I wouldn’t be in a place where I could cook or a place that had easy access to any ingredients I might have forgotten at home. Which isn’t to say that I never would splurge and order in for lunch, but by bringing in my own lunch ordering food was always a choice that I could make instead of something that I felt trapped into. (I the money I spent on it was something that was a treat instead of something that I resented.)

    My usual method is to plan around what veggies I’m going to be eating that week. I tend to cook vegetarian and I find that planning around what veggies I’ll be eating is more exciting than planning around whatever non-meat protein I’ll be eating. Veggies are colorful and pretty! And I am easily distracted by shiny things. My typical goal is to eat five different types of veggies a day. That’s enough structure that I won’t be totally floundering for ideas but not so much structure that I feel trapped. And it’s a rule of thumb not a hard and fast rule, so I can and do change it up if it’s not working for me that week for whatever reason.

    Usually I eat the same or very similar things for lunch all week, and then the same or similar things for dinner all week. Lunch and dinner are different from each other, but since I only am cooking for one, well. Leftovers or similar dishes with similar ingredients are the way of it. And I typically will only make one thing for each meal — I find cooking one thing, even if it’s complex or has multiple parts, easier for me than cooking several different dishes. So most of the food I eat has veggies, starch, and protein all in one dish. Pizza, pasta, soup, stir fry, sushi, various fry ups, salads, sandwiches … etc. Most of the food I make also can be scaled back and forth between a Level 2 and a Level 5+ (to use the terminology from your last post). Meaning that when I don’t have the time/energy to make bread, cook up beans, make salsa/gaucamole/hummus, or when certain veggies are out of season or too expensive I can use store bought/pre-prepared/canned/frozen versions or have other things that I can substitute in instead.

    When I actually go to cook though I’m fairly freeform. I usually try to have all the dishes clean and put away before I start on something else, but that doesn’t always happen (danger of having a small sink and even less space to dry dishes). I don’t have much counter space so I always have to have that clear for a cutting board (… I honestly can’t think of a dish I make that I don’t use a cutting board at some point …), a tupperware container for scraps (that then goes in my freezer for making stock, later), and ingredients. Then I just kind of … cook. I’m not really a recipe girl, I use them to get ideas and general amounts of things and then … I just kind of vibe it. (When I bake I’m slightly more recipe centric, but not by much. Also when baking it’s just a large bowl and ingredients on the counter.)

    Usually I try to clean up a bit in between steps or after I’m finished and before I’ve eaten. Because I cook for one that’s a lot easier than it would be otherwise. Besides dishes and wiping down the counter/stove top though, any other kitchen cleaning gets done on the weekend (ug, like the kitchen floor which is forever dirty even after I’ve just mopped it. HOW I HATE MY KITCHEN FLOOR.) And since my roommate and I don’t really have a kitchen/dining room table I usually serve up a serving of whatever I’m eating in the kitchen and then bring it out to eat on the sofa in the living room or in my bedroom. Ideally once I’m done eating I clean up the rest, but often times I’ll leave it for the next day, particularly on days when I’ve made enough for leftovers — then I know that the next day I won’t be cooking and therefore will have time/energy to clean everything up well instead of haphazardly.

    The other thing, I guess, is that for breakfast I often will do things other than the typical breakfast foods. In the winter one of my favorite breakfasts is squash with brown sugar and recently I had several breakfasts of mashed potatoes with some potatoes I boiled up because they were getting old, some greek yogurt I was trying to use up, garlic salt, and red pepper flakes. I tend to use breakfast as a way to get rid of little things I have, a few slices of bread here or there, some random kale I have lying around, some veggies I don’t know what to do with, some random beans I cooked up and forgot about. But sometimes I do more traditional breakfasts — I got into steel cut oatmeal for a while (a great way to use up random frozen fruit! Also it’s oatmeal you can make in a crockpot. That’s a win) and I sometimes make granola or scones or muffins or quick breads. And in a pinch I’ll just boil up a bunch of eggs and buy some yogurt cups.

  38. Posted June 20, 2012 at 4:28 am | Permalink

    Thanks to disability stuff, you can pretty much add on about a Cooking Level to most recipes for me. So my cooking tips and tricks are aimed at very easy, basic foods which are actually feasible for me to make on a regular basis – level 1.5 or thereabouts, maybe?

    That said! I do have a few of those.

    Microwave: something I didn’t realise for the longest time is that you can actually do more than just warm up leftovers in a microwave – you can also use it as a cooking aid. I find this especially handy because doing things on the stove is really energy-intensive for me and occasionally this works as a substitute. For instance: you can cook potatoes in the microwave very easily. Wash them, poke some holes in the skins, stick them in for a while (how long depends on the amount), maaaybe turn them halfway through but even that isn’t absolutely necessary. And cooked potatoes with a bit of your favourite topping make a nice easy meal.

    You can cook rice as well, as well as stranger things such as my favourite white pasta sauce (mix together chopped red peppers and ham with milk and a dash of cream, season to taste, heat to boiling in the microwave, then stir in a cornflour+water mixture bit by bit until it’s thickened the right amount. You can also do a cheese sauce this way!)

    And if you’ve never seen microwave mug cakes, you’re missing out. ;)

    Tortilla pizza: this is an old fall-back of mine that’s nicely customisable. Take tortilla, spread tomato sauce over top, sprinkle grated cheese over the top, add any toppings you happen to have lying around, stick in oven for a while. Or you can build a tower by stacking them. One of the advantages of the recipe is that the basic ingredients have a pretty long shelf life, so you can make it pretty spontaneously. And you can also get creative with the toppings – I am pondering doing one with some leftover sour cream and spinach sometime soon.

    Cheating: There are some pretty neat shortcuts for certain recipes available in grocery stores. For ages I snobbishly refused to even consider these because *I* was a *good* cook who cooked from *scratch* thank you very much… but when it comes to things like brownie mix this meant that instead of making brownies from a mix I never made them at all. :/ One thing I’ve fallen in love with in particular is crumble mix, because I really like apple crumble and it’s now something I can make relatively regularly: chop apples, put apples in dish, sprinkle crumble mix over the top, stick in oven, have delicious delicious crumble!

    Clever leftovers planning: This is something I’m working on because one of my issues is that I generally can only really make one thing at a time when I’m cooking. This means, for instance, that if I cook pasta that is about it for my cooking energy that day – also making a sauce is out of my reach. So instead, when I cook staple foodstuffs like pasta/potatoes/rice I try to make a lot at once: one day I might make enough pasta for several days, and then have just pasta with pesto and maybe some chopped tomatoes that day. Then the next day, I don’t need to worry about making the pasta and can instead make a pasta sauce or some chicken or a bake or something and use the leftovers. The main issue here is that my energy tends to be pretty unpredictable so it’s very hard for me to tell the day before whether I’ll be able to cook.

    One thing that’s pretty frustrating, though, is that freezing vegetables doesn’t seem to work for me. I really, really wish it *did*, because I waste a lot of fresh vegetables, but I have texture issues when it comes to food and frozen vegetables always seem to end up too mushy for me. Tinned are similarly problematic. *sigh* If anyone has tips on what vegetables do/don’t keep their texture upon freezing or tinning, I am all ears.

    • KellyK
      Posted June 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

      My favorite frozen veggies are broccoli and green beans. They seem to hold up pretty well texture wise. I usually give them a quick zap in the microwave, maybe with a little butter or soy sauce or garlic. I usually do a minute at a time so that I don’t overcook them or splatter boiling soy sauce all over my microwave.

      I’m generally not a fan of canned veggies at all, with the exception of mushrooms. I think they’re cooked too much for my taste.

  39. mickey
    Posted June 20, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to this post and all the lovely comments, I was actually inspired to plan a dinner for tonite: Veggie butter “chicken”, where the “chicken” is TVP (or Texturized Vegetable Protein). I am not at all ashamed to admit the butter chicken sauce is a powder in my pantry, convenient, and super tasty.

    A pretty trying 6 weeks of travel, exams, and visitors, just ended, so I feel that simply *planning* to make a week night meal is one part of getting back into a “normal” routine. And, well, it’s butter “chicken”!

    Thank you, everyone, for the inspiration.

  40. Posted June 20, 2012 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    i don’t have the spoons to read through nearly 100 comments. but i want to say that reading your steps for making a meal gave me SUCH an anxiety attack that i can’t even understand. and i can cook. i don’t like to because standing for long amounts of time (including prep work, actual cooking, and cleaning up afterwards) makes me hurt like all get out.

    yet days when i have the energy, i can and will cook. i recently made chicken pad thai. by myself. with very little assistance. it wasn’t very pretty, but i did it, and it was delicious. and it turns out i looooooooove fish sauce.

    anyways. yes, cooking and even thinking about the cooking and planning and what i need to have/do/clean makes me remarkably overwhelmed.

    • Posted June 21, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      I am so sorry! I realized after I typed them out that it looks REALLY excessive. I think I got too detailed in the interests of trying to include steps for all possible recipes I might be cooking.

      Thankfully, most of the steps take less than a minute – but this actually is a description of how I cook (and I should clarify, this is when I cook something that is relatively elaborate for a weeknight – this is not “throw frozen lasagna in oven” or even “reheat leftovers”), and definitely not a prescription for how other people should do things.

      If there are any tricks in there people would find helpful, that’s great. But other people have other methods, and mine is definitely not the right way or the only way. And most regular nights, I won’t even take so many steps.

      I get overwhelmed, too, looking at lists. So I usually don’t – I just find one place to start, and everything else snowballs from there. I have never in my life used a list like the one in this post to cook, just to break down and describe what ends up happening in the kitchen.

      I should probably stick a note on there that this is a really detailed, all-contingencies-covered kind of list. But individual recipes will have (usually) shorter lists that work best for them, depending on what kind of food it is and whether it’s a meal-in-one, or requires side dishes.

    • Posted June 21, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I love Pad Thai. I made some for a dinner party this winter. I was going to buy all the sauce ingredients but determined that it was cheaper just to buy Pad Thai sauce then all the ingredients separately. I love fish sauce too (except the smell)

  41. Posted June 22, 2012 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    So many good ideas here!

    I have to say, good kitchen equipment can really make a world of difference. My sister bought me this amazing, amazing blender that I’d been wanting for many years when I was broke and depressed, and it has really changed the way I eat for the better.

    My meal template is basically produce and calories. Sometimes they overlap–like if the main part of the meal is hummus. Other times, they’re radically disconnected–one of my favorite meals is a huge green smoothie (4 cups fresh spinach, a cup and a half of water, a cup of frozen cherries or other strongly flavored frozen fruit that goes, and a big spoonful of frozen concentrated orange juice) and a corn dog or two. The whole thing takes me less than three minutes to prepare, including cleanup, and the only thing that has to be bought fresh regularly is the spinach. Also pretty cheap.

    The needed starch/protein/fat content of the calories will vary based on how I’m feeling; I can get away with occasionally using lo-mein mix (basically ramen) with veggies sliced in, but if I do it much I start feeling protein deficient.

    • Posted June 23, 2012 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      I love the “produce and calories” combo. I totally agree that mixing the two types of food (the macronutrient dense AND the water-fibre-micronutrient dense) provides the most satisfying experience, and probably the best overall nutrition.

      I love eating salad with mac and cheese or a hamburger. Or even an apple with cookies. An apple and peanut m&ms is one of my favourite combos.

  42. nsv
    Posted June 23, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    After many years of cooking for my family, and trying to produce inexpensive, nutritious, filling food that everyone would eat, I’m tired. I’m frankly trying to offload cooking onto my 12-year-old, who likes to do it sometimes. Of course, that means he gets to make the decision about what we eat, which in turn means that we often have waffle dinners, for example, with a veg if we’re lucky. Everyone likes this, but mostly because who wouldn’t like maple-syrup-covered food for dinner? I’m trying to let go of some of the “musts” I grew up with and some self-imposed in adulthood, because it’s just too damn hard. I’m tired of the fighting about who will eat what, and I just plain don’t want to cook anymore. I also have some newly-discovered food allergies that mean I can’t eat a lot of things I used to love, so we’re adjusting to that. It’s helpful to read some of the solutions folks have proposed here, and I’m going to email the page to my son. ;-)

    As far as time-saving devices go, I think the one I love most is my electric kettle. It’s not just for making tea or coffee, but for when we need to boil a big pot of water for pasta or something. If you put a pot on the stove with a little water and boil the kettle full of water, they boil much faster, and then you can have one big pot of water, ready to use. Also useful for when you need something with a spout to pour boiling water out of from on high to get out blueberry stains.

  43. naath
    Posted June 25, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink

    I subscribe to a recipe magazine, and every week I sit down with it (and the collection of cookbooks, and the internet, and anywhere else I might find Things To Eat if these sources fail to inspire) and pick out the things I want to eat and make a shopping list. I shop to the recipe, and I don’t cook without a recipe to tell me what to do.

    I mostly cook on Saturdays; I refrigerate cooked meals, boxed up in portions, for use later in the week because most days I come in from the gym at 7pm ravenously hungry and totally unprepared to wait more than 10mins for my food. So on a Saturday I take make a neat list of everything that needs doing, and what I need to have to do it, and sort it all out like a neatly sorted person (lists make me happy), and then I do my very best impersonation of the prep-team for a TV-chef and measure all my ingredients out into little bowls (sorted things make me happy too). The other thing I find important is to do the washing up in the gaps (while waiting for things to happen) so I don’t have to wash up ALL THE PANS all at once (and when you’re cooking a week’s worth of food… yeah, it’s all the pans).

    Weekdays I come in, grab a box of food from the fridge and shove it in the microwave. Sometimes I also have to cook some rice or noodles, which takes about 10mins and one pan.

    • Posted June 25, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      This is a great way of doing it. I am sadly very disorganized and also very lazy on weekends, but when I lived alone I did used to make a big pot of rice and beans on the weekend and basically eat it all week. I would be so exhausted when I got home from school and work during the week (I was walking a lot to commute in those days) that I had to have something that took very minimal time to heat up and eat or it wasn’t going to happen at all.

      I love measuring ingredients into little bowls. I don’t do it unless I’m cooking something really complicated, but it always makes me happy when I do.

  44. JessDR
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    A few things that help me are:

    – Always have at least two days’ worth of veggies in the fridge
    That way, if I don’t feel like making (or eating) what I had planned for today, I have at least one other choice.

    – Limit one complicated item per meal
    If I’m making anything complicated or time-sensitive, everything else in the meal must be simple, straight-forward, and not going to be ruined by sitting for a few minutes. (It helps to have a repertoire of simple, reliable recipes that you like.)

    – I took cooking classes
    A few years ago, I took classes in knife skills, cooking fish, cooking meats, and making sauces. These were *extremely* helpful, since I learned techniques, not just recipes. So I can pick up any piece of fish or meat, slap some seasonings on it, and reliably end up with something tasty. That takes a lot of the stress and pressure out of cooking.

    (For Boston-area folks, I highly recommend my teacher Helen Rennie: http://www.beyondsalmon.com/)

  45. Posted February 11, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I have a question & this seems as good an blog post as any to post my question under….hubby and I are struggling with what makes up the components of balanced meal, specifically breakfast. I think we do okay on lunch & supper. There’s not much time in the morning, hubby starts work super-early, so we don’t want something that takes a lot of work but he’s finding just eating a bowl of cereal isn’t enough for breakfast.

    Thoughts?

    Thanks.

    • Posted February 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      Hi Kathy – I do find that in the morning, sometimes a bowl of cereal doesn’t do it for me. Especially if I am going to have a busy day, I need to add some kind of fat and/or protein to my breakfast. Some mornings I will have oatmeal with butter and pecans, and that usually does the job. I think it’s somewhat individual, though. You kind of have to experiment and see what works for you.

      A basic guideline you can start with is to try to combine carb, protein, and fat at your main meals of the day, and see what happens from there.

      • Posted February 11, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        That oatmeal recipe sounds good – for me – I’ll have to try it sometime. Thank you for the info! Hubby has a job that requires a lot of brain power (systems analyst). I like the combo idea of the fat, protein and carb. Will experiment.

      • Jenny
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:23 am | Permalink

        I haven’t tried this, but I found it on Pinterest and seems a great quick breakfast that would hold you for a while: http://www.kalynskitchen.com/2007/12/cottage-cheese-and-egg-breakfast.html

        I think it looks yummy. When I try it, I’ll probably throw in some spinach or steamed broccoli too.

    • Linda Strout
      Posted February 11, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      I have found for myself that I need to eat protein in the morning. Usually I will have toast with peanut butter and jelly in addition to cereal. Depending on what you like to eat, you could pre-cook some bacon to grab in the morning, or boil some eggs. Maybe a bite of cheese.

      I also hate to cook in the morning, so make it easy on yourself, whatever you do. I do think protein is helpful at each meal to make me happy throughout the day.

      • Posted February 11, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

        Thanks Linda. Will try and prep ahead of time (night before) something like eggs. Cutting a slice of cheese to go w/ the cereal is a good idea also.

    • Nike
      Posted February 11, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      I’ve found protein’s a must for me for breakfast when I have a long day at work. Things that help me out are peanut butter (either on toast or just a spoonful if I’m running late), cheese, or replacing milk with greek yogurt on the cereal. Pre-boiled eggs or pre-cooked bacon work too.

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