That old familiar saying about only 2 certainties in life being death and taxes, should be amended to include 3 certainties – death, taxes, and cooking, because we all must eat. And unless you plan to eat take-out for the remainder of your life, someone’s gotta do it, so why not try to at least enjoy the process? Granted, there are some who seem to be born with an innate joy for the love of cooking, but as Tamar Adler wrote in An Everlasting Meal, none are really born with an innate skill of cooking, but rather, it’s a path we take; “Instinct, whether on the ground or in the kitchen, is not a destination but a path.” But this post isn’t really about enjoying cooking, or even being good at it. It’s about finding the time to cook; but if you find the time to cook I can almost guarantee with utmost certainty that you will not only become a better cook, you will also grow to enjoy it more and more.
So how do I find time to cook, and more so, how do I find time to add variety and uniqueness to our weekly menus? Well, each week it’s hit and miss for us, and some weeks I find myself bounding out of bed to get some vegetables roasting in the oven before the house wakes up, and some weeks I find myself approaching my stove with great resentment. I would imagine these fluctuating feelings are very common for any home cook, so I ride the tide and know that sooner or later, my joy will return. But after getting asked time and time again, I finally decided to take some notes and figure out how I manage to find time to squeeze in cooking, add variance to our weekly meal plans, and keep my sanity at the same time. Here are a few of the things that instantly came to mind, when I consider my process and schedule. And let me say, I wish I had an easy-follow guide which would list step by step, hour by hour, when and where I fit in cooking time to my schedule, so forgive me if you were expecting something like that in this post. Rather today, I’d like to share more about general thoughts and tips on finding time to cook.
Also, please keep in mind that I now work part time from home, therefore I am allowed a ton more flexibility than many working women, and I fully understand that. Having been a full time working mom outside the home for a good part of my years of mothering, I know that I relied tremendously on a working partnership between our caregivers and my spouse. I’d often leave food prepped, along with a recipe, and would cajole my mother in law into getting dinner going for me, or I’d leave things cooking in the crock pot. Of course whomever got home first was always responsible for getting dinner going. But even back then, getting dinner on the table always revolved around teamwork, easy, often packaged type meals, and being prepared, and so we’ll start with that.
Meal planning – Failing to prepare is preparing to fail should be the home cook’s mantra. It’s a pain in the neck but it will be the only thing that saves you when you’re crunched for time and feeling less than enthusiastic about cooking. I usually take about 30-45 minutes on the weekend to go through my cookbooks and Pinterest boards, and find maybe 1-2 new recipes to try, usually based off cuts of meat I know I have on hand. I also consider our schedule for the week and plan meals around sporting events and celebrations, knowing that we’ll be more apt to eat out or at someone’s house. This saves me money at the grocery store, on fresh produce that will go bad if we’re not around enough. I put one day for leftovers, one day for eating out, and suddenly I’m only down to 4-5 dinners to cook, as opposed to 7. This numbers game helps tremendously with my mental attitude and makes it seem much more achievable. I don’t plan for breakfasts or even lunches, just stock up each week on our usual rotations of items we eat; bagels, salad for greens, sweet potatoes for roasting, yogurt, etc. Honestly, it’s not a perfect system and some weeks I don’t even meal plan until Wednesday, just to get us through the weekend, but it’s a necessity and I can’t seem to function without a plan now. Any specific questions about meal planning?
I read and collect cookbooks – So I usually only rotate through 3-5 cookbooks at any given time, but I own at least 10 cookbooks I know I can fall back on at any given time. Right now, I keep the following out on my counter because I use them so much: The Williams Sonoma The New Slow Cooker cookbook, IT’S ALL GOOD, Against All Grain: Meals Made Simple, America’s Test Kitchen’s Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2 and their new The Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution. I know that I can flip through any of these cookbooks and within minutes, find something I can add to the weekly meal plan that will be delicious and family-friendly. I also make it a habit of any time I get a new cookbook, I read through as much of it as possible, and make mental notes or place sticky tabs on pages of recipes I’d like to try. I may not always remember exactly, but I’ll often recall seeing a recipe during one of these browsing sessions, which sounded good and would fix a craving, or used an interesting cut of meat I have sitting in my freezer. I also use my cookbooks by the index a lot. If I have a certain grain on hand that I’d like to finally use, or some other ingredient, I’ll do index searches in any of these books, looking for a specific recipe to try that makes use of these ingredients. If this may sound like a lot of work or a pain in the butt, I promise you get used to it. It’s really just a different way of thinking, and really doesn’t take up any extra time in your day, if you just swap one activity, like browsing Facebook, for browsing your cookbooks. Not that there’s anything wrong with Facebook, as I find a lot of great recipes on there…but we all know when we’ve stayed too long, and when I find myself seeing the same thing in my news feed, I tell myself it’s time to move on and do something more productive 😉
Leftovers – Real people eat leftovers, plain and simple haha! I can’t believe how many people I still hear don’t like leftovers or refuse to eat leftovers. Get over it is what I tell them! Leftover nights in our house are a freaking life saver for me, and I am so eternally thankful for them. Plus side is, everyone gets to pick and choose what they want that night, and everyone can usually find something that makes them happy.
Don’t be afraid to eat out – We eat out at least one night a week, sometimes two, and I want to kiss my server or cashier each time we roll through Chipotle or some other restaurant, and I don’t have to do dishes. There’s no fault in eating out and allowing yourself a break, so if your budget allows for it, plan for it.
No recipe meals – these are the meals you can prepare off the cuff, without a recipe on hand. Ground turkey, marinara sauce and pasta, some healthy sausages, rice and broccoli. You get the idea. Each night of the week doesn’t have to look like a restaurant worthy meal or something you’d see on Ultimate Chef. Simple, no recipe meals save me at least 1-2 nights a week.
Crockpot Meals – Fortunately for my family, I’m an early riser and naturally wake up at least an hour before the whole house wakes up. If I don’t go to the gym, I’ll often start a crockpot meal, or at least prep it so I can easily toss it together later in the day. And now that Goop has written about crockpots, I guess they’re on trend ha?! Dig out your crockpot or buy a new one; they’ll last forever and save you much heartache. Mine was still going quite strong 15 years later, but I’ve been wanting a digital one where I can set the timer, and received this Crock-Pot SCCPVL610-S model for Christmas. I love it and use it on a weekly basis, plus I still held on to my old one in case of parties or to loan to a friend.
I enjoy it, therefore I make time for it – A lot of articles I’ve read wag their finger at the non-cook and declare that they must make cooking a priority or else they’ll never do it. I get what they’re saying, but I won’t deny that you’ve got to actually enjoy something to make it a priority. Clean clothes and washed dishes are a necessity in this house and one I should make a priority, but I hate doing both and resent the chores, so I often procrastinate on both. My point being, if you can work towards slow goals of making simple meals, and more of them, make it a point to meal plan, keep a well-stocked kitchen, and so on, you’re more likely to enjoy cooking. And if you enjoy it, making it a priority will come a little easier. Make sense?
Practice leads to efficiency, and eventually, enjoyment – I keep going back to enjoying cooking because I truly believe one of the biggest roadblocks to finding time to cook, is finding reasons not to do it because you don’t enjoy it. Take baby steps, don’t make it complicated and don’t freak out about every ingredient. Just practice, practice, practice, and the better you get, the more you enjoy the food you’re cooking at home, the more excited you’ll become about the process.
I keep a well-stocked kitchen – What came first, the well-stocked kitchen or the ingenious home chef? That’s a question that’s just as quizzical as the chicken or the egg debate, but I do know that having plenty of staples on hand most of the time, helps me make easy, good tasting meals virtually out of thin air. The more you cook, the more you’ll know what items you must *always* have on hand. The more great items you keep stocked in your kitchen, the more great meals you’ll be able to make out of nothing, and the cycle goes on and on. Here are several great articles that list out some different and some overlapping items that every kitchen pantry should have on hand: from the kitchn, this one from all recipes is pretty spot on and very similarly represents mine, and if you can get through the annoying slideshow, this Health article lists some good ones too.
I *try* to always get enough sleep – What does sleep have to do with cooking? Well, because sleep has a lot to do with everything! You’ll be an overall better, more productive human being with enough sleep, so if you’re going to make anything a priority in your life, make proper rest and sleep it! No one has cooking gumption when they’re dead dog tired; you won’t be creative or crafty in the kitchen, you’ll make mistakes and ruin meals, you’ll be inefficient, you may cut yourself when slicing an onion, you’ll yell at the kids for getting in your way, you’ll leave the dishes because you’re so exhausted, only to wake up to a stinky mess the next day. You get the picture. Making sleep my number one priority this past year has been a saving grace and it’s the piece of unsolicited advice I’m not afraid to be bossy and pushy about.
How I deal with the kids – And speaking of the kids, how do I cook when they’re around? Well keep in mind that I have 2 older kids who are pretty much self-sufficient at 7 and 9, and I have the easiest toddler around. Even still, life’s not always a cake walk in the kitchen when they’re around. And of course there’s homework to deal with (4th grade common core math, I hate you!), and fighting and bickering. We all have our tips and tricks to get things done with kids around, so I won’t get in to this extensively, but I will share a bit about what works best for me. A few minutes before I pick up the kids from school, I make sure I do a quick sweep of the house and primarily the kitchen. I clean my work space so it’s one less thing to do. I take out meat if it needs to come to room temperature, little things like that. When the kids get home, we do a snack and I usually assist with homework for about an hour, at which point I try and begin dinner around 4-4:30. At that time, Taylor is probably wrapping up homework and Syd is already done, since 2nd grade is a breeze, and I put Syd in charge of Hayden. He knows his role is to play with Hayden and keep him out of my way so I can cook. Because I’ve already cleared my work space and loosely prepped by gathering my ingredients, I can get to work right away. When Taylor’s done with her homework, I then put her to work with either watching Hayden, or one of the big kids will help with food prep. So bottom line, I pull my resources and put the kids to work. This works well now because of the ages and stages they’re in. When they were younger, both in diapers, it was definitely harder and back then I cooked a lot differently than I do now, relying on packaged meals and take-out.
I tell you this because I hear a lot of guilt associated with today’s new health and real food movement. I think I do a pretty good job of cooking from scratch, yet I am still given suggestions on an almost daily basis to make more and more foods from scratch, to the point that I even get overwhelmed sometimes. Mothers are tired and stressed, trying to manage it all. Know that you should just focus on doing the best you can, for the season of life you’re in. Maybe this year isn’t the year you tackle homemade yogurt and exclusively use bone broth you cook each week. Maybe you still rely on take-out more nights than you’d like to, but think big picture and if it’s important to you, then know you’ll eventually find a way to make this all work.
At the heart of this very long post, I hope I’ve conveyed how important I believe it is to actually enjoy cooking, because I do think it is possible with virtually everyone. There’s a few other hobbies I enjoy quite a bit that I’ve had to put on the backburner since becoming so involved with home cooking. My sewing machine hasn’t been touched in well over a year, nor have my jewelry making supplies. I still haven’t done Hayden’s baby book, but I take consolation in the fact that he’s well represented on Instagram and on my DSLR. I’ll get to all that other stuff eventually, but for now the only main hobby I seem to have time for is keeping my family fed.
Let me know if you have any questions, and good luck in the kitchen!