Way back in this post, I asked you all if you’d be interested in tips on speeding up the process of cooking whole foods from scratch. Today, I’ll begin to answer that question. I realized there is so much to say on this topic that I’d need to split it up into two smaller posts. So today’s post covers the first four tips; check here for the rest of them!
If you cook 98% of your food from scratch as I do, it’s really just a basic survival strategy to find ways to speed up the process and make it easier. Below are some of the things that I’ve found helpful over the years. I’ve come to most of these ideas on my own over time, but have also found some useful information on blogs and sites I’ve read along the way. So thank you to all the lovely bloggers and writers whose words contributed to this post!
Note: A truly “from-scratch” meal would be made entirely on my own, without ANY help from food manufacturers. If most of the ingredients were fresh and/or cooked entirely by me, I consider that from-scratch. If I use a canned or packaged product that is basically a single ingredient and one I could also make at home (most common in this category would be canned diced tomatoes or natural nut butters, for instance, but I also do use packaged alternative milks), then I also consider that “from scratch.” Of course, you have to draw your own line where it feels comfortable to you.
Tip # 1: Use a Meal Plan (or, as my dad used to say, “Do what I say, not what I do”).
Let me start right off the bat by confessing that I have a hard time sticking to a meal plan.
These days, I seem to channel my mother when it’s time for dinner. You see, when she was around 20, she shared a room at her older sister’s house with my cousin, CBC. Apparently, Mom was so disorganized that when it came time to get ready for work in the morning, she’d stand before the chaotic pile of blouses, stockings, scarves, skirts, shoes and whatever else she’d dropped on the dresser (instead of folding or hanging in the closet), thrusting first one, then the other hand into the pile to fetch an item. She’d glance at it, then throw it behind her if it didn’t suit the purpose, over and over, until she finally found something to wear for the day. My cousin observed from her side of the room, amazed at the seemingly endless parade of flowing silk and nylon and cotton as it was thrown up in the air behind my mother, first one side, then the other, each item floating to the ground to form a new heap for the following morning’s rush.
Well, that’s kind of how I feel when I stand before the refrigerator at dinnertime each evening. While I don’t fling the food away behind me, I do reach in, push aside, pick up and examine countless containers, bags of vegetables, jars of fermented food or nut butter, bottles of juice or Bragg’s or sriracha–then do it again, until I finally decide which items I will combine to form a meal.
Not the most efficient way to cook, obviously.
I did use meal planning for a few months last year thanks to this series on Amy’s blog, and it truly was a wonderful, useful way to save time (and money) on meals. I fell out of the habit when I was focused so intensely on testing for and photographing my cookbook, and somehow never got back into it with any regularity. I intend to meal plan again, because I know how much time it saved me, both shopping and cooking. (It’s also a great way to ensure that no fresh produce is wasted, since you have plans for that chard and fennel long before they go bad).
So, I will keep aiming for that perfect meal plan-into-action in my life and kitchen. For now, though, I will recommend it to those of you who can follow through!
[Sweet Potato Rounds with Sweet Almond Sauce]
Tip #2: Keep a Well-Stocked Fridge and Pantry.
Having basic ingredients on hand at all times works well to prevent last-minute trips to the grocery store when you’re halfway through a recipe (or worse, having to throw away a half-mixed recipe). If you have staples on hand, you can also usually find new and creative ways to throw them together, too, if you’re stumped for dinner ideas. Here are some suggestions:
- Fill the pantry with most-used non-perishables (and a few less-used ones, too). I have cans of beans (for when I don’t have time/desire to soak and cook my own); extra jars of unsweetened applesauce for those last-minute baking ventures; boxes of nondairy milks (again, if I don’t have time/desire to make my own); a few jars of natural almond butter or tahini; jars or cans of artichoke hearts and capers, and some canned goods that I know and can depend on (see below) are all stacked neatly in our pantry waiting to be used when needed.
- I think of nut butters, tahini, coconut butter and other sauces (such as pesto) as “good mixers.” Any of these can easily be combined with one or two other ingredients to create a quick and easy dish. For instance, Baked Sweet Potato Rounds with Sweet Almond Sauce or Almond-Curry Sauce is a favorite breakfast; noodles tossed with pesto of Savory Sweet Potato Spread, cilantro and hemp seeds is a quick pasta; chickpeas and some tahini-lemon-garlic sauce makes the bulk of this warm salad.
- I do store some prepared canned goods for true emergency dinners (not at all “from scratch,” but one way to get quick meal on the table). Amy’s products are some of the best out there, containing ingredients I’d use if I had time. We particularly love their spicy chili, which I usually rev up with chopped fresh chard or kale. Add a slice of hearty bread and you’ve got a filling meal in less than 10 minutes. (Or, if you have more time, add the chili to this Chili Mac casserole).
Tip #3: Prepare in Advance, and Always Prepare More than You Need.
When you arrive home from grocery shopping, prep your veggies right away instead of unpacking and then placing them all in the refrigerator, only to use more time removing and prepping them when it’s time to cook. If you prep only once, you’ll save time later on (and if you use a meal plan, you’ll know right away which veggies will need to be chopped for use within the next few days).
I’ve been preparing greens and lettuce this way for years. When I first prep my lettuce or leafy greens (this works best with hearty greens like romaine, kale, collard), I wash and spin them all, then store in a bag with clean paper towel (or clean white tea towels). They will stay fresh for up to 5 days that way. Then, when I’m ready to mix up a salad a few days later, that part of the prep is already done.
Tip #4: Always Cook More Than You Need (also called “Batch Cooking”)
These days, I never cook up a stew, soup, or any other main course without making enough for a minimum of two meals. Once you’ve got the veggies and other ingredients out, it’s really no extra work to fill two pots or two pans and let them cook. (It saves on the cost of electricity or gas, too, since you’re firing up the oven only once). Then, I freeze leftovers in single servings for another day.
Some of the things you can cook in advance and freeze:
- batches of rice, grains or beans or legumes (I package beans in one-cup amounts and freeze so they can be thrown later into chilis, bean butter, etc.).
- Breakfast foods like pancakes, waffles, muffins, breads
- vegetable trimmings (I let them accumulate, then make a soup or stock–thanks to my friend Johanna for this great tip)
- spreads or dips such as nut butter, hummus, bean dips, or even bean fudge and raw treats freeze well and can be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator).
- Pesto, pasta sauces, soups, stews, casseroles, burgers, patties
With so many frozen ingredients or dishes on hand, we’re never without a meal or snack, even when I don’t have time to make it that day. Of course, this tip presupposes a large freezer somewhere in your house!
There you have it–four tips to get you started with some whole-food ingredients so you’ll be ready to whip up healthy meals in a flash. Next time, I’ll focus on the process of actually cooking and what you can do to quicken the pace. See Part II here.
Do you have other questions about how I cook whole foods, anti-candida meals at home without spending the whole day in the kitchen? Is there something specific you’d like me to cover in Part 2? Ask away in the comments!
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© Ricki Heller, Diet, Dessert and Dogs
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