, thenHave you ever noticed how time-consuming consuming food can be? First we have to decide what food to eat. Then we have to acquire the food. Next, we have to prepare the food. After that, we actually eat the food. And finally, we must clean up from preparing and eating the food. And this cycle never ends. Most of us perform each of these tasks several times, every single day. It stands to reason, then, that any effort to simplify our lives must include simplifying how we consume food.
Whether you are cooking for a large family or eating alone, a little planning can go a long way toward saving valuable time, effort, money and energy in the kitchen. Knowing in advance what's on the menu will allow you to take advantage of some shortcuts and ultimately leave you feeling less stressed and more satisfied by your meals. As you may have gathered, I'm a big advocate of meal planning and have created this free guide and menu planner to help teach you just how easy peasy it can be. But whether you plan a week's worth of dinners in advance or not, here are my top 20 tips for simplifying cooking and eating:
The most important rule of all to follow when it comes to cooking and eating your food is to simply enjoy the moment! Take a much-needed break from your daily stresses as you eat. If you're eating with others, enjoy the time together and some good conversation. If you're eating alone, enjoy the quiet solitude and time to reflect. Either way, put your phone down, turn off the TV, and give yourself some time to unwind. Eating should be about replenishing your mind and soul, as well as your body. Be present in the moment. You invested a lot of time and effort in creating it...make it worth it!
With a few tips and a healthy appetite, even keeping food simple can be easy peasy.
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The most stressful time of day in my home is late afternoon/early evening during the week. That's when I'm typically running from here to there, picking up one kid or the other from practice or rehearsal...sometimes both. There's homework to get started, after-school anxieties to unwind, and often other types of social drama to smooth out. And on top of everything else...dinner. I call it the witching hour. Thankfully, (to quote Elizabeth Warren) "I've got a plan for that". If you're struggling with dinnertime stress too, a weekly meal plan is a must!
Having a plan in place for anything will eliminate a great deal of stress from your life, and meal planning is no different. It allows you to do all the thinking required at a time of your choosing, rather than forcing you to figure out a solution when your brainpower is already stretched to the limit. Aside from reducing your stress, meal planning:
Contrary to what you may think, meal planning really doesn't take that much time or effort once you have a system that becomes a routine.
Step 1: Gather your meal ideas
Note that I say "ideas", because for those of you who don't enjoy cooking, the word "recipes" may be scary. Rest assured that meal planning does not require you to become the new Gordon Ramsey. You don't need complicated recipes or fancy knife skills...just a list of the things you like to eat for dinner. For those who do enjoy working with recipes, your idea list should include your recipe source, whether it be a URL, Pinterest post, cookbook, magazine or one of Grandma's handwritten recipe cards. The key is to be able to find it easily when you need it. (Be sure to include page numbers on your list too, where appropriate.)
If you have picky eaters in your home, selecting recipes that can be easily modified to suit everyone will save you time and effort. Remember, you are not a short-order cook! Ask your family for feedback and ditch the recipes no one likes. Note the recipes that are more time-consuming or complicated so that you avoid them on busy nights. Keep building and adjusting your list as you go.
Step 2: Plan around your calendar and refrigerator
Pick a day each week to do your meal planning. Look at your calendar for the week ahead to see which days will be your busiest and require a make-ahead or quick meal. Which nights are you having company or planning a special meal? Also check the refrigerator and freezer to see what ingredients need to be used up before they go bad and plan to incorporate these into your plan. Take advantage of shortcuts on busy nights, like buying precut veggies or partially-made components. You can still wow your guests with a "homemade" pie made from store-bought pie crust you bake yourself! Or use your own homemade, make-ahead mixes for some of your favorites. (Get recipes and instructions for some of my favorite homemade mixes!)
Step 3: Write it all down in one place
Write down your dinner menu for each night in one central place. Your plan should include:
Tip: Always plan an extra "back-up" meal for nights when nothing goes according to plan and you need a quick and easy save. This meal should rely on pantry or freezer staples you know you'll have on hand. (My favorite back-up meal is Broccoli Soup.) It should be quick to prepare and not require advance preparation.
Step 4: Shop for your plan
As you compose your meal plan, create your shopping list at the same time. Include all ingredients you will need to make the meals you've selected for the week and add breakfast, lunch and snack items. Shop once to save time. Take your plan with you to the store in case they are out of an essential ingredient and you need to make a substitution. (Don't forget to note changes on your written plan.)
A tool like the downloadable EasyPeasy Meal Planner PDF can help you get started. It may feel a little ovewhelming at first, but once you are in the habit of meal planning each week, it will become second-nature and will require only a small investment of your time. You'll wonder how you ever managed without a plan!
With a little forethought and planning, even feeding your hungriest crowd will be easy peasy.
I no longer wish for a bigger house with a bigger kitchen. It's true that, for years, I longed for oodles of counter space to spread out during my marathon baking sessions, a walk-in pantry, and plenty of space to store all manner of appliances and cooking/baking tools. In fact, when we were house-hunting for our "starter" home back in 2002, I told the realtor that a big kitchen was a must. She almost didn't show us this townhouse because of the small kitchen, but the minute we walked through the front door, we knew this was the one. Our next house will have a bigger kitchen, I thought. I can make do with this one until then.
But somewhere along the line, I came to appreciate the smallness of my space. The fact of the matter is, there's far less cleaning and upkeep here than with a bigger home, which is a HUGE benefit worth the trade-off, in my humble opinion. We seem to have adequate space for our needs 90% of the time. (Entertaining is still a challenge.) And we'll be empty-nesters in just a few years, so there's no point in upgrading to a bigger home now. But the biggest factor in me being able to let go of my dreams for a bigger kitchen is just the fact that I've learned to live quite comfortably within my available space, and I like this simpler lifestyle. With the help of these five simple strategies for organizing your kitchen, you just might learn to love your space too:
1) Maximize your vertical space
When a client tells me they need more space, the first thing I do is look behind all the doors. I'm always surprised to find many of them bare. Finding available vertical space is like finding money you didn't know you had! Here are just a few ways to make the most of this pot o' gold:
2) Corral the little or irregularly-shaped stuff
Nothing's worse than "losing" a small container of yogurt in the back of the fridge until it starts to smell bad. When you use a small bin for storing packets of spices, half-opened bags of rice or beans, etc., you can squeeze a lot in without worrying about encountering an avalanche in your pantry. It's also easier to find what you need when you can take the entire bin out into the light instead of feeling your way around the back of a dark cabinet. Use bins in the pantry, fridge, freezer or a high shelf for all those random small items, packets and bags.
3) Buy stackable containers for your pantry
I hate having to move stuff to see what's behind it in my pantry! All those Pinterest photos showing off Martha Stewart-esque pantries full of beautiful matching glass jars make me shake my head. First of all, you shouldn't have to break the bank to achieve a beautifully-organized and functional pantry, especially if it will all be behind closed doors. But also, tall containers force you to store things in front of each other. And have you tried measuring out a cup of flour stored from a canister with a narrow opening? Large, shallow, rectangular containers that can be stacked, taking up all the shelf space from front to back rather than from top to bottom, will enable you to see what you have without having to move anything to see what's in the back row. Labeling makes it a slam-dunk on grocery list-making day. As a bonus, you can easily get your hand in there to measure out the flour, sugar or rice, mess- and hassle-free.
4) Decorate with everyday items
Have you ever noticed that a well-styled kitchen always boasts an inviting bowl of fresh fruits or vegetables on the counter...attractive glass jars of staples...a pedestal of yummy baked goods? Showing off the offerings from your kitchen not only increases its appeal, it also saves valuable fridge, pantry and cabinet space. Take advantage of this little secret! Just be careful not to make your surfaces look too cluttered. Here are a few suggestions for dressed-up items you can store out in the open:
5) Store kitchen items in another room
I know, I know...this is not so covenient. That's why you'll want to limit this strategy to items you rarely use. And while we're on that topic, think long and hard about whether such items should be stored in your house, or perhaps in someone else's, if you get my meaning. I'm pretty ruthless about getting rid of stuff I don't use, but even I have a few appliances or baking tools I couldn't live without yet only use once or twice a year. It's worth the effort of having to retrieve them from another part of the house on the rare occasions I really need them in order to have more space in my kitchen every other day of the year. Here are some candidates to consider removing from your kitchen:
Most of us prepare food several times a day. If you're gonna spend that much time in one room, why not make it a pleasant and stress-free place to be. With a little organization and some space-saving tricks like these up your sleeve, even cooking in a tiny kitchen can be easy peasy.
An average American family of four spends between $146 and $289 per week on groceries, according to the USDA. That's an annual investment of at least $7500, and possibly as much as $15,000+!
Where you fall within that range depends, of course, on where you shop and what you buy, but it also has a lot to do with how much food you waste. With a little planning and effort, you can save significant money on your grocery bill each year without ever clipping a coupon or hoarding cans from a warehouse store. I call it my 4S approach: Strategize, Shop, Safeguard, and Substitute.
Strategize - Planning out your meals each week will not only save you time but also money. You'll be less likely to resort to expensive takeout or prepared foods if you've got a strategy in place for what to make for dinner. With minimal effort, you can plan your menu around ingredients you already have on hand and not only reduce waste but shorten your shopping list. Pull double-duty on the items you buy to get even more bang for your buck. For example, if you're buying a head of cabbage to make coleslaw, why not plan to make stir-fry that same week and use up the rest of it before it goes bad?
Shop - Creating a shopping list will save you trips to the store for forgotten items, as well as time in the store once you're there. You'll also avoid over-spending on impulse purchases. Build your list as you plan your weekly menu to be sure you have everything you need on hand, and add only what you need for other meals. Take stock of what's already in your fridge and pantry so that you don't duplicate or overbuy. Nothing breeds waste like buying more produce than you'll be able to use before it goes bad. Don't fall victim to deals that aren't really deals. Regardless of the price, if you weren't already planning to buy it, it's not really a deal!
Safeguard - Preserving your perishables until you are able to use them is one of the best ways to lower your bottom line at the grocery store. Instead of allowing excess meat or produce to spoil, prolong its life so you can use it another day by cooking, freezing, or canning it before it goes bad. Peel and freeze overripe bananas for later use in bread or muffins. Microwave and mash extra sweet potatoes for baking. Cut bread ends into cubes and freeze for later use as croutons or breadcrumbs. Protect your produce from premature spoilage with proper cleaning and storage.
Substitute - Switching up ingredients in your favorite recipes to use up what you already have on hand can also save you bucks at the store. Use up that extra yogurt no one wants in place of milk for your muffin recipe or toss that leftover half bag of frozen green beans into your casserole instead of making a separate green vegetable. Get in the habit of freezing your "throwaways" to use as substitutions later. For example, freeze the juice you drained from your can of tomatoes and use that instead of buying tomato juice for a recipe. Use some crushed up cornflakes to coat your fried chicken instead of buying breading.
Look for more outside-the-box ideas for using up what you already have to save you money.
Whether you spend your savings on a special dinner out or some nice wine to go with your home-cooked gourmet meal, the 4S approach will have you laughing all the way to the bank!
Protect Your Edible Investment
Have I mentioned how much I hate grocery shopping? The crowds. The lines. The screaming kids (usually my own). The screaming moms (usually me). The reckless cart drivers. The prices. The physical labor. The MATH! …
Fortunately for my hungry family, I love to eat more than I hate to grocery shop, so I do it anyway. However, I’m not willing to suffer this torture more than once/week if I can help it and, by golly, it’s gotta be worth the effort. This means wasting as little as possible of what I buy. I’m not lugging all that stuff home just to feed the fruit flies or to let it rot in the fridge!
Besides, have you seen the price of fresh produce recently? Eating healthy requires a significant investment of both time and money (neither of which I have in abundance), and protecting that investment is key to successful consumption (something I enjoy). Otherwise, you may as well just throw those apples in the trash as soon as you get home. Let’s face it, work is work…whether you pick those apples from the orchard yourself or pick through them in the produce aisle. And I, for one, want to do as little of that as I can get away with.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a lot of extra time or effort to lengthen the life of your produce. You’ll not only make up that time (with interest) later, but you’ll be more likely to actually eat all the yummy, healthy goodies you lugged home. As soon as you get home, wash and dry your lettuce, fresh herbs, “bowl fruit” (apples, oranges, etc.), grapes and berries before putting them away. They’ll be ready to eat/prepare when you want them, last longer and look more inviting.
If you have the time, go ahead and bag up individual portions of fruits and veggies before putting them away so that you or your family members can grab a healthy snack any time. I find that non-organic cut bell peppers, celery, carrots, and cucumbers will stay fresh for up to a week if stored properly in the fridge. This saves me oodles of time on lunch preparation throughout the week, because I can bag it up as soon as I get home from the store and then just toss it into the lunch boxes each morning. (If you shop organic, the shelf life may be shorter, so you’ll have to figure out what works best.) One cutting board + one knife + one time washing them and putting them away = three reasons for this busy/lazy mom to smile.
Just to be clear, I don’t wash everything before I put it away…just the things I’ve found make a difference. Here are a few tips that have worked well for me:
I hate grocery shopping! Once upon a time it was fun, back when I was young and single and only cooked because I wanted to. Back then, I could meander through the aisles for hours, dreaming about the days when I had a family to cook for and imagining all the tasty, fun foods I'd make. In my little dream world, my well-rounded and appreciative children would be eager to try new foods, and there would always be oodles of time for teaching them to cook in my spacious, always-clean-and-tidy kitchen. It was a Betty Crocker Utopia. Ha!
In reality, grocery shopping with two impatient and whiny kids is like playing Supermarket Sweep, American Ninja Warrior, The Price is Right, and Survivor all at once...where the only prizes you win are gray hair, frazzled nerves and a big fat bill at the end. Oh, and then you get to cart all your stuff home and put it away. And we haven't even come to the Hell's Kitchen part of the show!
The only way I can win this game is to limit the number of times I play to once a week. That means making sure I don't forget anything, which means creating a list. I've tried those pre-printed lists you check off, using electronic lists (many versions) and even creating my own list each week, but nothing seemed quite strong enough to numb the pain to a bearable level. The lists were never comprehensive enough or not arranged the way I liked, and crossing off (or deleting) items as I put them in the cart was too cumbersome a task to perform while simultaneously trying to prevent my kids from hiding in the freezer case or climbing the piles of giant rice bags. And in my frenzied rush to get out of the store before being kicked out by the manager, I was always forgetting some key ingredient I needed.
I finally came up with a solution that's been working really well and has even gotten some positive comments from fellow shoppers, so I thought it was worth sharing with you guys. After consulting my pantry, fridge, freezer and cabinets, I created a comprehensive list of everything I typically buy. (I've been using this list for a few months now and haven't discovered any major omissions yet.) It's organized alphabetically by category. While store layouts vary, the categories are fairly standard. You may skip around from category to category on the list, but you will usually find the majority of items within a category together in the store.
The best part about this list is that it's reusable and easy to check off. You see, it fits on the front and back of a single sheet and thus can be laminated or placed into a plastic page protector and used with a dry erase marker.* Hang it on the fridge and add to it all week long as you think of things you need to buy. Check off any additional items you know you will need before heading to the store. Scanning the list itself will even trigger your memory of things you need to purchase. Then as you shop, simply rub off the check marks with your finger as you put items in your cart. No pen required! (This leaves the other hand free to yank your kids back BEFORE they pull the bottom orange out of the neatly-stacked pyramid.) Hang it back up on the fridge when you get home, ready for next week's round.
Feel free to download this printable PDF and give it a try.
And for my fellow suffering moms out there: I've discovered that assigning each kid an item and having them race to see who can retrieve theirs first not only keeps them occupied and teaches them where to find things in the store, it saves my energy for more important things...like chasing the shopping cart they are coasting downhill to the car.
*Laminating the list stiffens it, making it easier to write on or rub off and preventing it from creasing in your shopping bag. If using a page protector, place the two sheets back to back with a piece of cardboard in between to achieve the same effect.
How Balanced Is Your Budget?
I'm bracing myself for a barrage of hate mail for posting this, but my recent discovery has brought me such freedom that I simply must shout it from the rooftops!
I'd like to think I've proven myself as a reasonably frugal consumer. When I say "frugal", I mean that I am budget-conscious and put some effort into finding decent bargains while also recognizing that my time is at least as limited as my finances.
First an admission: I do not coupon (gasp). I found it to be too time consuming and confusing. On top of that, in order for couponing to work, you have to actually remember to give the cashier your coupons...oops! I used to be a regular shopper at warehouse stores like Sam's and Costco because of the low per-unit price you could get by buying in bulk. But then I realized that while spending $400 in one week for 3 different items may save me money in the long run, my short-term cash flow was precisely that...short. So I began shopping at a discount grocery store that stocks mostly off-brand products but where the prices (and the quality) are at least as good as the coupon and warehouse deals without the hassle or the huge outlay.
Finally, I had managed to secure a low unit cost without having to purchase a high quantity. I began to see the benefits of fitting normal-sized products into my tiny pantry (pictured left...I just love my pantry). Gone (eventually) were the 2-liter bottles of soy sauce and vats of olive oil. Crackers, pretzels and cereal were no longer going stale before they could be consumed. I was able to reclaim part of my garage for storing other items besides overflow food. And it no longer took the National Guard to help me unload all the groceries each week.
Unfortunately, I kept buying more cans and boxes than I actually consumed each week out of pure habit..."just to have some on hand". I still had one large shelf reserved in the garage for storing all my extras. In the garage, mind you...where I hate to go. I would send the kids down to get stuff for me, so I lacked a keen sense of what was actually there. I was always buying things we didn't need and not buying something we did need simply because I assumed we already had more of it down in the garage.
And then something happened to knock some sense into me. I fell down the stairs and dislocated my shoulder...badly. I could no longer carry as many groceries and was forced to shorten my weekly shopping list to only what I knew we would use in the next week or two.
Eureka! Now I can fit everything into my pantry where I can easily see at a glance just what we need. Everything is fresh and actually consumed rather than wasted. Putting the groceries away is quicker and easier, and I now have even more room in my garage. I feel so FREE!
All of this has made me realize that being a "frugal" consumer means respecting not just your financial and time limitations, but your space limitations too. My father used to always say, "Space is at a premium." It surely is a precious commodity to be used wisely. Don't squander your spatial budget just to stretch your financial or time budgets. Find a balance of all three.
How do you balance your financial, time and spatial budgets?
Note: Your Sam's or Costco membership may still be worthwhile for purchasing household items, office supplies, electronics, etc. at a great price or for when you are feeding a large crowd. I am not suggesting you ditch it! Just don't let bulk purchases of regular groceries eat up all your space.
Waste Not, Want Not
By now you should know that I'm a big fan of keeping things simple and affordable. One of my favorite places to practice this is in the kitchen. Some of the best culinary inventions were born of a need for frugality, convenience, or both (Think pizza, soup, and croutons). For someone like me who is one part lazy, two parts budget-conscious and three parts control-freak, finding ways to reduce waste in the kitchen satisfies my need for easy, cheap yet homemade cooking in one fell swoop. What could be better than saving myself time, money and guilt all at the same time? (Well, besides eating all the yummy results of my efforts?) All it takes is a freezer, a little planning and a few new habits in order to get started.
Whether your freezer is stocked full of ice cream and frozen pizza or you use it primarily for taking advantage bulk deals on meat and other expensive ingredients, here are a few items you can store in this under-utilized appliance to you save time and money and reduce waste:
The sky is the limit on other things you can freeze, from lemon zest to extra frosting or cookie dough. Be realistic when you are shopping and only buy what you need, but when you find yourself with obviously more than your family can easily consume, freeze it before it goes bad. Not only will you reduce waste, but these little gems just may come to your rescue the next time you find yourself in a pinch.
Share the wealth! Comment below and let us know what you save and how you use it.
Update 2/28/2015: I have discovered an even more convenient way to make the vegetable broth. Just dump everything into the slow cooker and cover with water. Cook on low for several hours and before removing the vegetable scraps and straining the broth. This broth is amazing in this slow-cooker potato soup recipe from Budget Bytes (replaces the chicken broth).
I've Got Something in the Oven
No, no, no...it's not that kind of "something"...those days are over (thank goodness)! But it's not too early to get your holiday bake on. Whether you are baking pies for Thanksgiving, Christmas cookies for Santa, yummy bread to give as gifts, or quiche for a New Year's brunch, planning and doing a bit ahead of time will reduce some of that holiday stress...save that for dealing with the in-laws and your sugared-up kids!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.