If I had a dollar for every person who has told me they don’t have time to cook, I’d own an island. If you find yourself saying that you “don’t have time to cook,” the reality is you either a) need some practical encouragement (hint: that’s what this post is about); b) have convinced yourself it is simply too ____ (difficult, time-consuming, expensive, etc.); c) simply don’t want to but use the “don’t have time” thing as an excuse; or d) don’t know how to cook at all. I will argue that, when compared to dining out, cooking at home can be much simpler, cheaper, and healthier. Let’s find out how, shall we?
The key step that most people who “don’t have time to cook” fail at is the planning aspect. I, too, am sometimes guilty of failure to plan. However, this step is critical. Here is your recipe for successful planning:
- 15-30 minutes
- Your week’s personal/family schedule
- Recipes (cookbooks, Pinterest, etc.)
- Grocery ad (optional)
- Food budget (optional)
- Map out the week; pay attention to which nights you are getting home later than usual or which nights you have an event or task that will prevent you from any fighting chance of even heating leftovers in the microwave
- Determine how many nights you plan to eat at home versus nights it would make more sense to dine out.
- What is the activity preventing you from eating at home? If it’s something like a kid’s sporting practice or event, consider making sandwiches and packing a cooler with some raw vegetables and fruit!
- Go shopping in your own pantry, fridge, and freezer. Take note of foods that are nearing the end of their storage life, and consider looking for recipes that use those ingredients (e.g. you found a bag of brown rice and some almost-freezer-burnt-chicken thighs – how about chicken and rice casserole or soup?).
- If you have a strict budget, consider grabbing the grocery ad and searching for recipes that use sale items.
- Browse through your recipe files, noting the recipes that you’d be interested in preparing this week.
- Pick out one recipe for each night you will be at home to eat.
- Take a look at the ingredients of each recipe. Does it use realistic, attainable, practical ingredients? Do you have a lot of them already? If not, consider a different recipe.
- Map out your week using a blank notebook page, Excel spreadsheet, printable blank menu, chalkboard, marker board, or any writing surface that works for you. It’s up to you how detailed you want to be. In other words, if you have a good handle on breakfast, you can just write down lunches and dinners. But if you’re struggling to have a balanced breakfast, I’d encourage you to plan all meals and snacks on your planning map. Include meals for which you’ve already planned to dine out. A basic, rough outline of a meal plan could look a little something like this (here’s a snapshot of mine):
- Breakfast: Oatmeal w/sliced almonds
- Lunch: Boiled eggs, avocado, tomatoes, Triscuits
- Dinner: Baked chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes
- Breakfast: Protein-rich waffles (these are amazeballs)
- Lunch: Leftovers
- Dinner: Chili (slow-cooker), cornbread
- Breakfast: Almonds, banana
- Lunch: Leftovers
- Dinner: Going out to ______ restaurant
- Plan to purposely make extra in some cases. For example, if you’re taking the time to cook ground beef for tacos, cook 3 pounds instead of 1. Now you have taco meat for the meal you planned, and you have extra taco meat that you can freeze for another quick meal one day (and you’ll remember that next time because of step #2).
- Don’t plan to cook something every. single. night. It’s been my experience that just when I have the perfect amount of chicken or roast beef thawed and ready to go as scheduled, something unexpected happens. Perhaps a friend unexpectedly wants you to go out to dinner because s/he happens to be passing through. Maybe you don’t feel well when you get off work and can’t fathom rubbing down that chicken with seasoning. If you leave some wiggle-room in the mix, you can either have leftovers (from this week or those that you’ve previously frozen) or grilled cheese (on whole grain and with real cheese, of course) or whatever; but you can reduce wasting the perishable ingredients you had so carefully planned for that night.
- Go buy the food. I have had people tell me that, not only did they not have time to cook, they didn’t even have time to get the groceries! I thought this was ridiculous until earlier this year when I found myself alone (husband was away), single-momming two babies, and with a broken foot. What worked then (and still) for me to shave hours off my grocery grabbing each month is online ordering. You order online, then you simply go pick it up. Not every grocery store has it, but many do; check in your area. I am so in love, I can’t even put it to words. Try it; you’re welcome.
- Once you have all the food, again take a look at the 3-5 recipes you’ve picked for the week, and take another look at your week’s schedule. Is there a block of time you have? Perhaps you have a few hours on a day off?
- If you have a block of a few hours one day, you can consider “batch cooking.” This entails you doing some marathon cooking and whipping out all of the recipes you’ve chosen all at once. In other words, you’re about to make all 5 meals on Sunday, for example. Sounds weird, but once they’re all cooked and cooled, they are just placed in the fridge ready to be simply reheated when you get home after a long, hard day. The best part? Everyone can pick their leftovers of choice if they all want something a little different!
- If you absolutely don’t have a “block of time,” which is less likely but possible I suppose (do you actually not have time, or are you not willing to make time would be my question…) you can do some segmented cooking prep. One thing I’ve found helpful is making tomorrow’s dinner (or parts of it) the night before. I’ve baked a whole chicken at 8:00 pm, cooled it, and placed it in the fridge. Guess what’s for dinner tomorrow night? Chicken. If I purchased some pre-cut vegetables, dinner might be that chicken I cooked last night, raw vegetables, and Triscuits. Seriously. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’ve also cooked the meat (or noodles, or whatever) for the next night’s recipe the night before. If you cook the most time-consuming part of the meal the night before, then prep is a breeze.
- Again, purposely make more than you need and freeze it. I often get the “it’s so hard to cook for one or two” comment. My reply? NOPE. Cooking for only one or two people can actually work out much better because you get MORE leftovers when you make a standard recipe meant for a family. Get some containers (I just got a fresh supply from Costco this week!), put a meal-sized portion of that chili or that roast beef dinner in one of them, and freeze it.
- Important: put a piece of masking tape on top, and write what is in there and the date. You’ll think “I don’t need to do that; I’ll remember.” But you won’t, and you won’t want to eat the “mystery meal” you find 4 months from now. Trust me.
- Now you have some homemade TV dinners at your service any night of the week, and they are likely MUCH healthier than the store-bought version.
- If you’re rolling with a slow-cooker meal the next day, take the time to get the slow-cooker out of the cupboard and ready on the counter. Grab the non-perishable ingredients (canned foods, etc.) and put them on the counter too. Get out the can opener. Cook any meat that needs pre-cooking (ground beef, for example). This way, when you’re running late (because you always are), you are ready and able to still dump everything in the slow-cooker and out the door you go.
- If you still have leftovers at the end of the week, you can and should freeze them for lunches or back-up meals. (See step #11).
- Find gadgets and gizmos that simplify your cooking. My two favorite kitchen appliances in the universe are my pressure cooker and slow cooker. Maybe this is the year you ask Santa Clause for one or both of these…My pressure cooker can make me a meatloaf complete with potatoes and carrots on the side in 12 minutes. Yes, seriously. And my slow cooker can make me soup while I’m at work. I’m so in love with them it’s nearly sickening.
Listen, if there is a will, there is a way. How does eating on a tight budget fit in? Well, it goes hand in hand with this whole meal-planning gig. The more you eat at home, the more $ you will save. The more planning you do, the less impulse/random buying you’ll do, therefore the less food you will waste. If you truly don’t feel like cooking, that’s fine by me; just don’t complain about it! Enjoy your restaurant meals. Eating healthy on a budget and healthy dining out principles will be future posts, as they are deserving of their own spotlights.
If you go “OMG she really considers 14 steps to be ‘simple’? Is she nuts?” then I encourage you to really grasp what these steps are telling you. Once you’ve gone through the motions once or twice, you’ll truly see how simple and easy it can be. If after trying it out it’s still difficult for you, then perhaps you need simpler recipes or maybe it would be worthwhile sitting down with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help coach you through to success.
Do you have your own tips to share? Leave us a comment!