Cooking can be an enjoyable, meditative, even therapeutic endeavor, but there are plenty of times when you just need to get dinner on the table. I hear from a lot of readers new to the Primal Blueprint who are dealing with the kitchen learning curve: how to condense shopping trips, how to assemble good Primal meals throughout the busy week, how to free up time for other activities outside the kitchen. A group of readers recently took up the discussion in our forum. I thought I’d throw out some of my own best suggestions for maximizing Primal cooking efforts but minimizing actual kitchen time – especially on busy work nights. I hope you’ll join the discussion and dole out your own favorite tips.
1. Forage and freeze.
A common beef, as reader maba and others have mentioned, is the shopping time – specifically, the need to split shopping between at least two stores to gather all the week’s supplies. However, some creative planning and a little storage prep can cut out some of those second (and third) weekend trips. Buying your meat in bulk from a cowpooling source or other direct supplier, as reader nina_70 suggests, leaves you with a constant supply of cuts. Gathering up a large stock of veggies – with some freezer bags and prep – can knock out a large portion of your veggie needs for the week. As for fresh produce, I find that most items – if stored in cooler temps or the crisper – keep for more than a week.
2. Cook for a small army.
The aforementioned forum folks were pretty unanimous on this one. We Primal types love us some leftovers. If you’re doing all the work of cooking a good Primal dish, why limit the benefit to a single meal? You have all the ingredients lined up. You have the knives, cutting boards, graters, etc. out. You know you’ll have all the dishes to do. Why not go for broke, and cook enough for tonight and then some? A few folks like to enjoy a big fresh batch throughout the week. Others prefer to freeze the majority of their expanded recipes, keeping maybe a little extra in the fridge for the next day’s breakfast or lunch. Either way saves big time. Some of us tire of the same taste more quickly than others. Personally, I’m one who can dig into a favorite again and again without hesitation, but my kids unfortunately didn’t inherit that preference. Maybe it’s an acquired taste you gain when you’re responsible for making each and every meal for yourself….
3. Cube it.
One bit of equipment worth having around: extra ice cube trays. Use them to store small portions of fresh herbs (frozen with a bit of water or stock), tomato paste, wine, coffee, stock, fruit or vegetable purees, sauces and pestos. Pop out as many or few as you need for the night’s recipe.
4. Lay out a menu.
Nothing slows down an evening more (and creates more frustration) than rummaging through the cabinets trying to pull together a meal only to realize you’re missing key ingredients to, well, every idea you come up with. Create a full menu for each week and post it on the fridge. Your shopping will be smoother as will your weekly cooking/lunch packing endeavors. You might be tired when you get home after a long day, but it can be a relief to know you don’t have to actually think about dinner. It’s all there in black and white. It frees up your mind to talk with your partner, listen to the radio, joke with the kids while you simply go through the preset motions.
5. Have a routine.
An even easier addition to the menu approach: recreate most of the same selection each week. Not every week needs to be a string of creative recipe trials (although those are fun if you have the time and inclination). To keep it fresh, you can certainly throw in a couple novel ideas each week, but relying on several tried and true favorites will save you time and brain power. Plug the standard shopping list into your smart phone, and you’re set to go for the grocery store/market trips.
6. Take an hour out of your weekend.
On Sundays my wife and I have taken to preparing a large bowl of chopped veggies to use for the entire week ahead. For the two of us we use: 1/2 head red cabbage, 1 red onion, 3-4 carrots, 1 bell pepper and whatever else we bought at the market that week. We dice it all up, and store most of it mixed as an all purpose veggie collection. We dip into it throughout the week for our daily salads, soups, omelets and stir frys. Of course you could use broccoli, cauliflower or anything else you have or like. A food processor can make the process that much quicker.
7. Invest in some equipment.
I’m not one who believes every gadget is worth buying or that the vast majority of these items even save an appreciable amount of time. Nonetheless, over the years I’ve found a few favorites that complement my particular cooking habits. As one forum poster Caroline noted, a good salad spinner takes the work and time out of washing fresh greens and herbs. A number of readers, like LovesToClimb, said they love their crock pots. A few other ideas? Try a small and/or large food processor, a traditional blender for Primal shakes, a stick blender for pureeing soup and soft vegetables and fruits, a small set of high quality knives, a garlic press, a rolling herb grater or herb snips, good kitchen shears, cheese grater, citrus reamer, microplane grater/zester, digital thermometer, fine mesh strainers and lots of small prep bowls. Other must-haves, anyone?
8. Develop a house line.
Have your own signature combo of seasonings you use for a lot of meats or veggies? Why not mix up a large batch in its own jar? The same goes for your favorite marinades, dressings and other condiments. Some can even be frozen in large batches using cubes or freezer bags.
There are days…and weeks…alas, sometimes months when we know we can’t do everything ourselves. It’s good to know when to bring in some reinforcements. While it adds some cost to be sure, bagged lettuce, cut produce (thanks DebFM!), cubed stew meat, and other primed, Primal foods can save you enough time and work that you don’t have to compromise your diet for the sake of your schedule. Sometimes you do what you gotta do. Then there are always those kids…. Line ‘em up and put ‘em to work.
10. Canned and frozen.
Canned tomatoes, canned/boxed stock, and other canned and frozen ingredients can be a lifesaver. There’s nothing that says every vegetable has to be fresh. My favorite: a frozen Thai stir fry blend. Find your own favorite brands, or prepare them yourself to have on hand.
11. Clean up as you go.
This one’s admittedly more of a mental tactic, but sometimes life calls for that. Thinking you’ll be faced with a mountain of dishes at the end of the night isn’t very inspiring. Starting with a straightened kitchen and cleaning as you go clears the mind and keeps your head in the game. Put any dishes directly into the dishwasher. Put away ingredients when you’re done with them. Employ the Rachel Ray “garbage bowl” concept to keep all refuse in one place. Though the efforts might delay your meal by a few minutes, you’ll feel freer to sit and enjoy the fruits of your labor, having finished the bulk of the work.
Have your own favorite short-cuts and efficiency tips? Do share! Thanks for reading.