How to get cooking... and make your kitchen a stress-free zone!
Never before in history has food preparation seemed ‘easier’. We have a huge range of food at our fingertips in supermarkets and delicatessens; ‘convenience’ foods galore; appliances that make every task simpler and quicker; and a plethora of cookbooks and food magazines containing enough recipes to last a lifetime. But nevertheless, many of us find getting dinner on the table night after night a stressful chore.
Why? Our modern world overwhelms us with choice. It’s difficult to make decisions –the more choice we have, the more confusing it can become to cook a meal. In some ways, it even creates more pressure to create something amazing. When, in fact, some of our favourite meals may be very simple – think back to the throw-together dinners you’ve had on holidays or when camping.
So how do we banish kitchen stress? The trick is to develop routines to improve efficiency and work within our comfort zones. These steps will help get you started on the path to stress-free meals every night of the week.
Step 1: Organise!
Having a tidy and organised kitchen may sound like an impossible dream, but spending some time sorting and chucking things out will save you time once it’s done.
Patrol your pantry and fridge. Get rid of old food. Take note of ingredients you forgot you had, and work them into upcoming meals.
Sort out drawers and cupboards. This doesn’t have to be done all at once; it could be factored into the weekly clean, one cupboard or drawer at a time.
Keep only utensils you use regularly. Set up a ‘garage sale’ container in your garage to store equipment and implements you haven’t used in the last year. If you can’t bear to part with things, find a storage place out of the kitchen.
Update your equipment. A food processor, stick blender or good set of knives can make a huge difference to the enjoyment of cooking.
Clean and clear. Clear and clean benchtops provide a more inspiring work environment. Move decorative items to other rooms and train the family not to dump keys, wallets and bags on the kitchen bench.
Step 2: Plot and plan
While planning may seem hard, taking the time will actually save you time and angst. It can also save you money.
Make a weekly meal plan. This can take as little as 10 minutes a week. Factor in ingredients which need to be used up.
Plan at least one meal which can form the basis of another meal the following night. Leftovers from roast chicken, for example, can turn into chicken risotto or chicken burritos.
Factor in appliances you own, such as crockpots and bread makers. These can simplify dishes and save time and money.
Make a list of favourite meals and keep this handy. Favourite recipes can often get forgotten among the piles of recipe books and magazines. When you make a successful meal, tear it out of the magazine or photocopy it and stick it into a folder with other favourites. Keep it in the kitchen so you are never short on ideas.
Repeat meals you are familiar with. There is nothing more comforting than an old favourite!
Make a master shopping list. Include staple items such as flour, cereals, bread, tea, coffee, milk, herbs and spices and other commonly used pantry ingredients such as canned tomatoes, sauces, canned fruit and jams. List favourite fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy items and commonly-used meat, fish or poultry cuts. And leave a few lines for other items. Print or photocopy multiple copies to keep one on the fridge or somewhere handy each week. Each time you run out of an item, or you’re just about run out, mark your list accordingly. Create your list in the same order as your supermarket. If you first have to pass through the fruit and veg section, set up your template so that fruit and vegetables are at the top.
Step 3: Shop smart
Aim for one weekly shop. Each shopping trip costs you time and money. Getting the grocery shopping out of the way in one trip means more time to cook or do other things. Also, try to avoid shopping during peak times to avoid queues.
Stick to your list. Try to avoid those impulsebuys that add dollars to your bill. Challenge yourself to see how quickly you can get in and out of the supermarket.
Do not shop when hungry. This may colour your choices and land foods you don’t need – especially those tempting, saturated-fat-laden items – in your shopping trolley.
Consider bulk buying. If items from your master list are on special, buying them in bulk to stock the pantry could be a money-saver.
Step 4: Cook smart
Make one night a week a ‘competition’ night. (Using healthy recipes, of course!) Give yourself a night off by holding a cooking competition. Engage children who are old enough, flatmates, partners or other household members to take turns wowing the household with new recipes. Add winning recipes to your favourite meal list.
Keep it comfortable. Maintain confidence by sticking to familiar foods and preparation techniques. If Nana’s and Mum’s recipes are your favourites, hold your head high while you continue the tradition.
Use our ‘meal in minutes’ chart. Keep ingredients for some of these meals on hand for those nights when time is limited, you’re tired or need a break.
Manage your time. Defrost in advance any frozen items you might need; learn how to use the slow cooker and put aside five minutes in the morning to fill it; and take advantage of the pre-set timer function on your oven.
Choose one night a week, or take time on the weekend, to cook in bulk. It takes a little extra time to double-up on a recipe, yet it could mean a relaxing night off later in the week. Cook up several boneless chicken breasts at once and use them for meals over the next two days – chop and add to cooked pasta, slice over a salad, top a pizza or add it to chicken stock, with a can of corn and some frozen veg, to make a yummy chicken soup.
Cook basic recipes in bulk and freeze. Recipes, such as basic mince, can be quickly turned into a range of delicious dishes.
Make friends with your crockpot. Wipe off the gathering dust and put it to good use. Soups, casseroles, corned beef – the meals you can make in a crockpot are almost limitless. A few minutes of work is all it takes to make a meal that usually provides enough leftovers for another meal.
Don’t be afraid to deviate slightly from a recipe. If a recipe specifies canola oil but you only have sunflower oil, give it a try. There are lots of similar substitutions that won’t drastically alter the taste of the meal: raisins for sultanas, figs for prunes, plain Greek yoghurt for sour cream, oregano for mixed herbs. A can of tomatoes puréed with a little added tomato sauce works well if you don’t have pasta sauce. Most confident and creative cooks make substitutions, so you’re unlikely to wreck a recipe by doing this.
Be careful with baking. A word of caution: cakes, muffins and other baked goods have precise rations of flour, liquid, eggs, sugar and fat. Unless you’re experienced, it is unwise to alter proportions. You can, however, substitute brown sugar for white, reduced-fat spread for butter and replace full cream milk with skim or reduced-fat milk.