Usually, I’m talking about real food on a tight budget, but today we’re talking about being tight on a different sort of commodity: namely, time. We are all short on time, yes?
I’ve been transitioning from a work AT home mom to a working AWAY from home mom for the past few months, and it’s not been without its challenges on many levels. Sticking to a real foods diet has been a little more stressful in terms of preparation, and I’m finding that too much of my at-home time has been spent slaving away in the kitchen when I could be spending time with my family.
I’ve slowly been figuring all this out, though, and I’ve come up with a few strategies that have cut down my kitchen time without sacrificing the quality of the food I serve.
1. Keep it Simple, Sister
This has always been my mantra, and even more so now. I’ve had to pull myself out of the mental box that says, “all meals must include a main dish and several prepared sides”. That’s simply not true! Here are some ways to simplify your menu (particularly your dinner menu):
- Try one-dish meals or casseroles (I’m partial to stir-fry’s myself!). If they are well balanced with the appropriate amounts of proteins, carbs, and fruits or veggies, then you don’t need to have any additional accompaniments to the meal. Just make sure you have enough of it to satisfy everybody’s hungry tummy!
- Forget prepped and cooked side dishes. There’s nothing wrong with a simple sliced apple or a pile of freshly chopped veggies (although I do like to experiment with different kinds of yummy apple side dishes!). Clearly, I still prepare more involved side dishes, but I’m learning that the fact my family eats fruits and vegetables is more important than the way they are served.
- Think outside the box when planning meals: try an assortment of finger foods or a cold plate instead of an actual “dinner”.
2. Process Your Groceries
When you get home from grocery shopping (or from the farmers’ market), immediately prep all the food that you can. Obviously, some things cannot be sliced or chopped or otherwise prepped ahead of time, but do process whatever you possibly can. This will save enormous amounts of time when you’re getting ready to put dinner on the table.
Here are some foods I try to prep ahead of time whenever I can:
- pineapples (won’t keep for long, but they don’t last for long around here anyway, so that’s not a problem)
- kefir or yogurt (when you bring milk home, set a batch going right away)
- rice, pasta, or other grains (cook them up and store in the freezer)
- beans (soak and then cook in the crock pot)
- winter squash (cook it in the crock pot, puree, and refrigerate or freeze)
- onions (chop and freeze – thawed onions aren’t great in raw dishes but work perfectly for anything cooked)
- meat (separate it into portions that will work for your recipes/meal plan; you can also brown ground meat for use in recipes like spaghetti and the like, or fry up bacon)
3. Take Ten
Build ten minutes into your night or morning routine to take care of various kitchen chores like:
- culturing kefir, yogurt, sour cream, and anything you like to ferment
- feeding your sourdough starter
- defrosting meat (or whatever you need for the next day that is in the freezer)
- soaking beans
- cooking broth (or anything, really) in the crock pot
4. Utilize Your Tools
Make friends with your crock pot, your food processor, and your Vitamix (if you have one) because those babies will make your life a lot easier and will save you so much time! I actually don’t have a food processor, although I want to get one eventually, but I use my crock pot and my Vitamix all the stinkin’ time. I don’t know what I would do without either one!
- The crock pot might take longer to cook something, but it’s completely hands off for the most part so it saves time in that regard. If you cook soup on the stove top, it might take less time, but you have to be present and constantly checking on it to make sure the pot doesn’t boil over or the liquid evaporate too much. A slow cooker cooks slowly (funny, huh?) and safely so that you can let it do its thing while you do yours. You can let it go overnight, or you can let it go all day, whichever is more convenient for you.
- Crock pots are not just for roasts! As I mentioned before, I cook my pumpkins and other winter squash in it all the time. I also use it to make broth on a regular basis. I have used it to make granola, and steel cut oats, too. I’ve even baked bread in it!
- And a Vitamix is not just for smoothies. Sure, it makes a mean smoothie, but it does a lot of other stuff, too. It will puree anything you need pureed, which seems to happen an awful lot in real-food-cooking for some reason. It’s also great at making your own sauces – savory sauces, sweet sauces, fruit sauces, any kind of sauce! It will even cook the sauce for you! I also occasionally use my Vitamix like a food processor, especially for grating carrots or potatoes. It works so fast and is so effective!
5. Have a Meal Plan
This is the oldest trick in the books, and for good reason: it works! I have to admit I struggle with consistency with this one, but there is no denying that food prep goes a lot more smoothly – and quickly – when I’m working from a menu. My favorite menu planning tool is Plan to Eat, an online program I highly recommend, and consider to be totally worth it in terms of how much time and money you save when using it. (By the way, that’s my referral link, and you can try it for free for 30 days.)
Above all, keep in mind that some things in life are more important than real food. I’ve learned to make concessions along the way; for example, I keep a bag of flour in the cupboard for those occasions (that occur on a regular basis) when I simply don’t have time to grind my grain. I also am not ashamed to buy store-bought healthy (ish) treats for my kids when I don’t have time to make cookies from scratch. We eat out at least once a week, and although we try to eat at healthier restaurants and make healthier choices when dining out… it’s still eating out and it’s still not very healthy! But it’s a necessary break for all of us, and one we look forward to, and so we consider it worth it. Your concessions might look different, but don’t be ashamed of them or embarrassed by them.
How do you serve your family real food when time is short?