You don't have to waste a lot of time and money simply to eat a decent meal. With a little planning, you can seriously cut down on the time and money it takes to prepare and cook enjoyable food.
I love a good home-cooked meal, but I don't love spending hours in the supermarket surrounded by people, which results in a late start on cooking when I get home. That really takes the fun out of it. That's why I started looking for ways to streamline the process so I spend less time on the things I dislike about meal planning and more time doing the things I enjoy. Even if there's little joy in cooking for you, these tips can help you save time and get right to the eating.
Plan Before You Shop
It may sound counterintuitive, but spending a little time on meal planning unitially will save you even more later on. When I first started planning meals, I was worried it would take some of the fun out of throwing something together in the kitchen whenever the mood -- or my appetite -- struck, but it doesn't have to. You're free to build a specific menu for every meal every day, or create a more general menu of main dishes, and swappable side items you can throw together for any meal, any day you want. Here's how:
- Discover and save cool recipes for future meals and menu ideas. I like to clip recipes from sites like Chow, Serious Eats, Food Porn Daily (which, by the way, is totally SFW), and elsewhere around the web to a "recipe box" I keep at Springpad. My girlfriend prefers to use Pinterest, and finds a number of great recipes to try there. You could just as easily use Evernote, or just make a bookmarks folder to keep them all in.
- Import those recipes into your meal planning app. If you don't have an app or tool to help you plan your meals, it's worth trying and makes the process much easier. You can do it by hand, or you can use technology to help you speed up the process. We've covered a number of apps that can take recipes and turn them into grocery lists, most notably Food on the Table for iOS and Android, Menu Planner for iOS, and Food Planner for Android.
- Have your meal planning app generate your shopping list and menu. Once you've put together a nice recipe collection, it's time to build your shopping list. Select the recipes you want to make that week, and add their ingredients to your list. If you want to do it by hand, that's fine, but you'll have to manually write down the ingredients yourself. Pick the recipes you want to make that week along with your other staples, snacks, and other incidental grocery items, and it will create a list for you.
That's all there is to it. You can completely eliminate almost all of the things people hate about shopping and cooking with a little planning. Imagine it: You'll never have to throw out spoiled food again, spend more than you need to at the supermarket, or face a fridge full of food without the foggiest idea of what to make.
Make Your Food Come To You
Before you head out with your shopping list in-hand, ready for a long trip to the supermarket, why not make half of that list come to you? You can save time and money shopping from the comfort of your home for everything from vegetables to paper towels. Here are some suggestions:
- Join a delivery service. Fresh food delivery services such as Aussie Farmers Direct are a great way of ensuring you have fresh food. They're especially useful if you're time poor.
- Head to your local farmer's market first. If you have afarmer's market nearby, you can score great deals on fresh fruits and veggies, locally sourced meats, preserves and other food.
- Buy your groceries online. Shopping online saves time, and also reduces the odds you'll indulge in an impulse buy. Both Woolworths and Coles offer online delivery options (sorry, ALDI fans, you're out of luck here).
- Buy in-season food, and use specials to your advantage. We're lucky enough to live in a world where we can get fresh strawberries in the middle of winter, flown in from where they're still in season, but you'll often pay more for the privilege. Try to buy in-season produce, and adjust your menu to take advantage of what's on sale at your supermarket. When you do go, you can save a lot of cash without turning your menu upside down.
The best times I've had food shopping is when I already know what I want to make, know I have half of the ingredients coming to me in another form or fashion, and only pick up the things I really need on my list at the supermarket.
Cook Smarter With Hands-Off Methods
Once you have your menu and your ingredients, the only thing left to do is put it all together. Still, not everyone loves to cook, and even those of us who do enjoy it don't always have hours every day to spend over a hot stove. Thankfully, with a few smart cooking methods and the right gear, you don't have to.
- Pressure cookers are perfect for people who don't want to spend a lot of time cooking, but love the flavours that only really develop with intense heat or long cooking methods. We've explained why you should have one before, but the gist is this: You get get high heat, well-developed flavours, and fast cooking times with a pressure cooker, and they're much safer than they used to be. Plus, they're hands-off until the food is done.
- Slow cookers and crock pots take the opposite approach. They develop those great flavours over long periods of time; dishes made in a slow cooker can take hours to cook. It's not uncommon for me to put a roast in the slow cooker in the morning, let it cook all day while I'm working, and come home to a moist, delicious roast that's sitting at the perfect temperature. You can even make frozen meal "packs" in advance to toss into your slow cooker.
- Rice cookers can be used for more than just rice, and they too are low-effort, hands-off cooking devices. If you love rice, a good rice cooker will take your rice and some water and turn out fluffiness in 15-20 minutes. If Most rice cookers can be used to make oatmeal, porridge, congee, and a number of other dishes. It's a worthwhile investment if you like delicious food without a lot of effort.
For more ways to save time and energy cooking without sacrificing the creativity and fun that come with a well planned and executed meal, check out our guide to low-effort/high-quality cooking.
Make Multiple Meals At Once
Once you've mastered the art of low-effort/high-quality cooking, take the next step and save yourself time and energy by making multiple meals at the same time. Whether you just make larger meals than you need and portion out leftovers for lunches and future dinners or you make a feast on the weekend just to serve half and freeze the rest, never make one meal at a time. If you're going to go through the trouble of firing up the oven or the crock pot, make it worth your while and cover your lunch for the next day, or dinner for the following evening.
Keep some easily swappable healthy sides and dishes around as well, like frozen steamed vegetables or frozen fruit for smoothies -- they make great extras you can add to any meal when you're short on sides or your menu didn't pan out. Similarly, keep some healthy staples on-hand at all times. They'll give you something good for you to eat without forcing you to cook or dip into your leftovers, or force you to stray from your menu planning.
With these tips, you can go from an empty pantry to a well-stocked kitchen full of the gear you need to make delicious, healthy and low-effort meals. You'll save time and money, and spend less time stressing out in supermarkets or stirring pots over a hot stove. Even better, if you love to cook and love to eat, you'll still find there's plenty of room here to experiment and have fun.