I am the cook in our family, and I absolutely love it. There is almost nothing as therapeutic for me as the ritualistic chopping of vegetables. I also work from home, so I’m blessed with a bit more time in the evening than a lot of working parents, so I actually have time to cook most nights.
But if I have any errands to run in the afternoon or have a late meeting (especially when the time changes and it’s dark at 4:30 p.m.), I definitely feel what many working parents feel: rushed and overwhelmed by the idea of getting a healthy dinner on the table. And in our family, we’re on a tight budget that doesn’t allow us to eat out all that often, so we have to get creative. More than once on such nights, we’ve had what we’ve called “snack dinners,” for which we put out a spread of lunchmeat, cheese, crackers, carrot and celery sticks, homemade ranch dressing, and sliced apples and called it done (in truth, snack dinner is my daughter’s favorite dinner).
But I’m always looking for shortcuts, and although I’ve got a few in my arsenal—making chicken stock from a whole chicken and using the poached chicken and broth for recipes over the coming weeks, for example—I know I can do a lot better about trimming my time in the kitchen in order to spend more time relaxing at the table with my family instead of scrambling to pull things together for an hour in the kitchen by myself.
I’ve taken a few cooking classes at Nothing To It! in south Reno. I completed the eight-week Techniques series a few years ago, and this past summer my family took the Kids in the Kitchen artisan pizza-making class, where we all got to make pizza crust and sauce from scratch and cooked our own personal pizzas on the grill (a life-changer, by the way… Mind. Blown.). My experiences in these classes are always enjoyable, and Chef Lara Ritchie is such fun to listen to, so passionate about what she does, and so knowledgeable that I always come away learning things, regardless of the fact that I cook nearly every night.
Last week’s class was no different. I was fortunate to attend, along with several other wonderful Reno Moms Blog contributors, Chef Lara’s 15-Minute Meals for Fall demonstration class. Unlike the other classes I’ve taken, which were all hands on and got me into the kitchen to make the recipes myself, this class was a demonstration, so all we had to do was sit back, relax, take a few notes (if we wanted), and (of course) taste lots of delicious food as Chef Lara prepared four super quick and delicious meals. There was a hummus-baked chicken, Southwestern grits with vegetables, Korean-style turkey, and cilantro-lime steamed cod and coconut rice (let me know if you would like me to share a recipe with you!). All took 15 minutes or less, and all were healthy and scrumptious.
But beyond the recipes—all of which I plan to make at home soon—what I really gained from the class was a set of secrets from Chef Lara for making meal preparation affordable, easy, quick, and healthy. I’m passing them along to you in hopes that you’ll be able to spend less time in the kitchen and more time at the table enjoying your family this season:
1. Always have the essentials stocked in your pantry. We know that in our closets we need a few basics—a white button-down shirt, a flattering pair of black pants, basic black pumps, etc. There are a few kitchen staples you should always have, too, and if you do, you can pull together a meal anytime, with basically anything. They are: chicken broth (low-sodium!!), parmesan cheese (NEVER EVER from a can—please use the real stuff), good pasta, canned tomatoes (Muir Glen is Chef Lara’s favorite), and the Holy Trinity, carrots, celery, and onions. These last three are the foundation of nearly every meal—if you have no other vegetables in your refrigerator, have these. From these essentials, you can make soup, a quick pasta dish, or even a sauce to cook chicken in.
2. Look for prepping shortcuts. I am not someone who likes leftovers. I didn’t grow up eating them, and for some reason they are never appetizing to me, no matter how good they were the first night we ate them. So the concept of preparing entire meals (lasagna, for instance) that we eat from for several nights seems disgusting to me. But I like the way Chef Lara thinks: Instead of preparing whole meals in advance, think about ways to prepare building blocks instead. For example, if a recipe calls for half an onion, I’ll chop half, put the other half in a Ziploc bag, and then hope I find a way to use it in a couple of days. But Lara Ritchie suggested chopping the whole thing, putting the chopped onion in Ziploc, then freezing it for whenever you need it. And why stop with onion? Why not chop carrots and celery this way, too? Here’s another suggestion I love: Say you’ve thawed four chicken breasts but you only need two. Why not put two of them in a Pyrex dish, pour some chicken broth into the dish, cover it with foil, and put it in the oven? Then you have poached chicken that you can add to soups, salads, sandwiches, or stir frys for the week? This leads me to the next tip…
3. Cook ALL the meat. The recipe calls for 1 ½ pounds of ground beef, but you’ve bought 2 pounds. Cook it all, take out the extraneous half pound, and put it in the fridge or freezer to throw on top of pasta the next day. You can do this with pork or chicken, too. Just cook it all, even if you only need some of it. Once meat is cooked, you can always save the extras for future dishes. I love this tip, and actually might consider purchasing extra meat in the future just in order to do this.
4. Make chicken breasts thinner. If I’m hungry or got a late start on cooking, I usually forego putting chicken in the oven, since I know it’ll usually take a good 30-40 minutes for a breast to be cooked through. But as Chef Lara pointed out, slicing the chicken breast in half horizontally makes for a nice thin cutlet that you can cook in the oven, with some veggies and spices, in about 15 minutes.
5. Your freezer is your friend. The miracle of modern food science is that ripe and ready fruits and veggies can now be blanched and flash frozen, at the peak of freshness, then stocked in your grocer’s freezer. This means that it’s sliced and ready for your use, and you don’t have to worry about using it before it spoils in your refrigerator. Take advantage of frozen fruits and veggies whenever possible, so that you don’t have to slice and dice. You can buy frozen chopped onions, the beginning of every dish, and even precooked frozen rice. Cook meats and then freeze it, so you can add it to soups or sauces in the coming weeks. Make chicken stock and keep it frozen so you can have homemade chicken soup on cold winter nights. Use your freezer whenever you can; it’s your best friend.
6. If you can’t afford to always buy organic, prioritize. I love that Chef Lara talked about this—in an ideal world we’d all be buying organic foods, but let’s face it, that can get expensive. How do you know which things to buy organic and which not to worry about? According to Lara Ritchie, if you can only buy one organic food, make it your meat. This is where you can have the maximum impact on your health and on taste. As she put it, “If I have a choice between a happy, humanely raised chicken that lived in the sunshine and one that grew up in a tiny cage, I’ll take the happy one every time. And I can totally taste the difference.” After eating an organic, farm-raised and hand-butchered turkey from a nearby farm for Thanksgiving last year, I can tell you she is 100% correct. If you’re ready to go beyond meat, look up “The Dirty Dozen” online to find out which foods contain the most pesticides and chemicals, and work to purchase only the organic versions of those.
7. Keep parchment paper on hand. I’ve had the same roll of parchment paper in my kitchen for YEARS, and after this class at Nothing To It!, I’m wondering why I haven’t been going through it like crazy. Not only should it be used instead of foil to tent foods like lasagna and lay on cookie sheets for baking (hello, leaching from aluminum foil, anyone?), but it becomes a self-contained unit for steaming if wrapped tightly enough as a little envelope or pouch. Put fish or chicken in there with any sauce, veggies, or rice and you have a self-contained meal that can be customized for each member of your family, no matter how picky they are. Plus, steaming is fast cooking method that maintains flavor. I plan to start using parchment paper a lot more often.
8. Don’t be afraid to make a recipe your own. I think a lot of people feel that they should be slavish to recipes (my husband is one of these people, not feeling confident enough to veer away from it), but I think this makes cooking too strict and not much fun, and it doesn’t allow for substitutions when there’s something you don’t like. I hate mushrooms, for example, so when recipes call for sliced mushrooms, I’m happy to skip them altogether. But that’s just one way to make a recipe your own. For example, why not substitute meats—turkey instead of ground beef, for example? Switch out the artichoke hearts or cauliflower you hate for the green beans or corn you love. Use beans or lentils instead of meat. Make healthy substitutions to a meal, such as using Greek yogurt instead of mayonnaise in homemade ranch dressing. Make a recipe your own and it becomes a fun family favorite that you’ll return to and feel good about.
9. Get kids in the kitchen. This is something I’ve been striving to do more of, but I needed a reminder: Instead of hiding away in the kitchen while I make dinner, I should be bringing my daughter into the kitchen to work with me. It’s more fun for her, and encourages her to eat more of it. Plus, it’s extra time we get to spend together. I have a safe plastic cheese knife (purchased from Nothing To It!) that enables her to help me chop garlic or cucumbers. She uses the salad spinner and pours on the dressing. Any child can rip lettuce, sprinkle shredded cheese, wash veggies, throw on a pinch of salt or twist the pepper grinder. Then she sets the table and even assigns seating. Meal preparation becomes a fun game. Plus, once they’re adept at working in the kitchen, it can cut down on meal prep time.
Beyond these 9 hacks, however, is the biggest lesson we came away from Chef Lara’s class with: Eating dinner with family is one of THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS you can do with your kids. Its well-researched benefits are numerous. Kids who regularly eat dinner at home with their families (sans TV or other devices) eat more vegetables and healthier foods, have lower rates of obesity, have lower rates in involvement in risky behaviors, are more inclined to try new foods, have higher grades, and see their families saving money.
So try these tips for spending less time cooking and more time enjoying the fruits of your labors with your family. I’d also love to know what kitchen hacks you use to cut down on your cooking time.
And one final word: I recommend taking a class with Chef Lara Ritchie—I promise you’ll learn something and eat very well in the meantime.