Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Meals in 30 minutes or less?

Is it really possible to walk into the kitchen and make a home cooked meal, using fresh ingredients, not convenience foods, in 30 minutes or less? Most people would say no. Even celebs like Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee depend on prepackaged, preservative laden foods to cook their quick meals. While there's certainly nothing wrong with that, some prefer not to use prepackaged foods, whether it be because of a heart healthy diet, being more aware of what they eat, or perhaps they just like the freshness that real ingredients lend. 

Again, every once in a while using a prepackaged product is ok, but it's certainly healthier to use fresh or even frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grain rice and pastas, and real herbs and spices instead of frozen dinners, minute rice, and seasoning envelopes. 

So how can you do all of that if you work full time, go to school, usher kids to and from sporting events, clean the house, do the laundry, take the dog to the vet, pay your bills, visit grandma in the nursing home, attend doctor's appointments where you sit in the waiting room far longer than you should, help kids with homework.... (catches breath.). Well, with some extra effort, and yes it does take some extra effort on your part, you can begin to convert yourself over to using more fresh ingredients and less of the prepackaged stuff.

One of the most time consuming things when preparing a recipe from scratch are all the little things that have to be done before you actually cook. These include measuring, chopping, mincing, and slicing. There are quite a few things that can be done ahead of time to help you make fairly quick meals on busy weeknights. Here are just a few:

Chop and Store
Chop, mince, or dice your veggies ahead of time and store in zipper sandwich or gallon storage bags, depending on how much you make. If you use chopped onion in a lot of your recipes, chop it up, toss it into a zipper gallon bag and squeeze out the air. Store it in the freezer, then just grab what you need when you need it. Same goes for other veggies such as bell peppers, garlic, and mushrooms. All of these can be frozen and then just tossed into soups or the skillet for sauteing. Of course, you wouldn't want to freeze these if they are to be used in salads, so store some in the refrigerator if you need them fresh. Also, when you are chopping onion for one recipe, go ahead and chop extra to toss into a bag.

Measuring dry herbs and spices
I personally prefer to make my own homemade taco seasoning. It tastes so much fresher and everyone loves it. It's a pain to measure though, so I make several at once, using 4 or 5 different bowls. Once they are all measured out, I store each one in a zipper sandwich bag, then I roll up the sandwich bags and lay them together, then I wrap them all in foil together and store in the cabinet. I do this with my chili seasoning too, and you can do it with just about any dish that calls for several herbs and spices to be added at the same time. 

Make Two Meals
When I make a meatloaf, I make two or three of them. Once the meat and seasonings are all combined, I put the extra into freezer bags, flatten out the meat in the sealed bags, mark them with a Sharpie, then lay them flat to freeze. Once frozen they are easily stacked on top of one another or standing up in the freezer. I posted something similar with making meatballs, I can make several batches and not have to roll all the little buggers in one sitting. If you enjoy Chicken Piccata, Schnitzel (or pork tenderloin sandwiches), or Chicken Fried Steak, always make extra. Layer between sheets of wax paper and place in freezer bags for future meals. If you enjoy marinated steak, pork chops or chicken, place extra fresh meat in a freezer bag, add marinade and place flat in the freezer. When you are ready to grill, remove from freezer and thaw and your meat will be perfectly marinated.

Always, Always, Always Read the Recipe
I can't say this enough. When you want to make something, be sure to read the entire recipe through. It's an awful feeling to get halfway through making something only to find out that something has to simmer for 2 hours or chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Menu Plan
Sitting down on your day off and taking half an hour to go through your recipes, build your grocery list and write down what meals you are making for the week is a huge time saver. Also, knowing what you will be making each night removes the stress of "what the heck am I going to make tonight"? You'll know that morning before you head out the door what needs to be defrosted. Also, be sure to make use of the meals you made extra of! So if you have a meatloaf in the freezer or a package of Chicken Fried Steak breaded and ready to go, add it to your menu plan. 

Freezing Vegetables and Fruits
Frozen fruit is great for smoothies or making jams. There are many recipes that call for frozen fruit, so instead of tossing out and wasting fruit that is getting too ripe, toss it into a freezer bag and use it for a refreshing summer drink. For vegetables, you can prepare your own for freezing through a method called blanching. I don't do this too often, only because it's fairly cheap to buy frozen veggies and I just check the package to make sure there aren't any preservatives or additives. Last week I posted about making your summer corn on the cob last throughout the winter, which includes the process of blanching. There's a handy chart on oChef with blanching times for different vegetables.

Crockpots and Pressure Cookers
Using a slow cooker is great for those days you'll be gone all day, especially for those that work outside the home. Toss in the meat, a little liquid, seasonings and some veggies. Cook on low all day and you'll come home to a wonderful smell and a cooked meal. Pressure cookers, on the other hand, are another very handy tool. Pressure cookers have come a long way from years ago when you heard horror stories of the appliance exploding in kitchens everywhere. I use my pressure cooker fairly regularly and it has definitely saved me from those nights when I forgot to put the roast in early enough, or I want shredded chicken but don't have hours to wait. For example, I place a 3.5 pound chuck roast in my pressure cooker, cover it with water or broth, position the lid and rocker and 30-35 minutes later I have a roast with meat that just shreds. Slow cookers as well as pressure cookers are fairly inexpensive these days, if you don't have one, you may want to check them out. Here's an article on pressure cooker recipes, some basics of using a pressure cooker, and one on slow cookers (crock pots).

Fastest Meal Ever
Do you have a favorite FAST hot cooked meal aside from grilled cheese? Mine is meatless spaghetti. I make my own sauce, but it's not rocket science. One 6 oz can of tomato paste, an 8 oz can of tomato sauce, 18 oz of water (3 tomato paste cans), a couple shakes of Parmesan cheese, several shakes of dried basil, a couple shakes of garlic salt, and some ground pepper. Put the water on to boil for the noodles. Put the sauce ingredients into a saucepan and stir to combine, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. When water boils add your spaghetti noodles. By the time the noodles are done your sauce is ready and you can eat. Butter a couple pieces of bread and you're good to go :) I have 6 people to feed, so I double this recipe.

Hope some of these ideas helped. Do you have any tips along these lines?


  1. Great tips Amanda.

    I will go out on a limb and say there are plenty of things wrong with covenience foods, from preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and other unwanted ingredients, to excess packaging and the strain that producing and shipping them causes on the environment.

    Using the tips you've outlined, you don't need them. I would add, use your food processor to prep. It takes seconds to chop things like garlic, onions, peppers etc. and it only takes a quick rinse between items.

    My favorite quick meal is Fish Tacos -- quickly saute some tilapia, add to corn tortillas with shredded cabbage and salsa (that I made in the food processor when chopping ingredients). If I have the time ad the avocado, I add guacamole.

  2. AnonymousJune 16, 2009

    The chop 'n store, whether its meat, veg or what have you, is something I've been doing for years. Saves loads of time. Anyone who says you can't cook from fresh or fresh-frozen in a timely manner hasn't tried properly.

    I love my slow cooker (crockpot), especially during the cold weather months when so much of our meals come out of it. I didn't know though that a pressure cooker could do a whole roast that quick!

    Great article!



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