Summer Meal Series: Six Lessons for Efficient Cooking at Home

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I’ll start off with what everyone will probably want to use this post for in the future – an index of all of the “Summer Meal Series” posts, as well as last summer’s “How Low Can You Go” meal series and a few other meal posts before that.

The Recipe Collection
Here are all of the “visual” recipes I’ve posted on The Simple Dollar over the years.

Summer Meal Series
1. Honey Mustard Chicken Strips
2. Grilled Vegetable Kabobs, Barbecued Beans, and Rice
3. Skillet Cilantro-Lime Chicken Fajitas and “Poor Man’s” Spanish Rice
4. Grilled Apple Pork Chops, Garlic Baby Potatoes, and Steamed Broccoli
5. Chicken-Broccoli Crepes
6. Simple Homemade Pasta and Pizza Sauce
7. Tuna, Vegetable, and Cheese Stuffed Manicotti
8. Chicken, Broccoli, and Mozzarella Calzones
9. Tuna Melts
10. Grilled Chicken-Salsa Burritos and Fresh Tomatoes
11. Turkey Quesadillas
12. Spinach, Pesto, and Cheese Lasagna
13. Ratatouille
14. Chicken Pie
15. Butternut Squash and Carrots with Coconut Milk and Curry

How Low Can You Go?
1. Vegetarian Burrito Bowls
2. Potato-Peanut Curry
3. Chicken-and-Corn Fried Rice with Lemon Spinach
4. Lemony Fettuccine with Asparagus
5. Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping
6. Dal, Chilean Style
7. Coriander Meatballs with Yogurt-Mint Sauce
8. Moorish-Style Chickpea And Spinach Stew

Other Meal Posts
1. Homemade Pizza
2. Homemade Bread

So what did I learn from all this (beyond the eight powerful lessons I learned from last summer’s “How Low Can You Go” series)? Here are six new lessons I picked up from this summer’s food experimentation.

Ratatouille ingredients
Ratatouille

Capitalize what’s in season
Whenever you’re preparing a meal at home, you can almost always save a lot of money by simply banking on whatever vegetables and fruits are in season at the moment.

Often, these items are on sale at the grocery store, but you can often find even better deals by hitting roadside stands and farmers’ markets during peak seasonal conditions. Getting pounds of vegetables for $1 a pound or less creates the foundation of many of our summer and fall meals.

Right now, for example, apples are starting to be heavily discounted – it’s late summer/early fall and picking has begun. Sarah and I bought 8 1/2 pounds of apples for $8 over this past weekend. Can we possibly use eight pounds of apples? We’ll certainly try – and this will be the foundation of a lot of meals (and other things) over the next few weeks.

Pie nearly finished
Chicken pie

Focus on nutrition – but not all at one meal
It’s really easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to have some of everything at every meal – some protein, some vegetables, some calcium, and so on.

The problem with that philosophy is that it really restricts what you can prepare for meals. If every meal has to have A, B, C, and D in it, you’ve suddenly locked yourself into a pretty tight set of meals.

Our philosophy is different. We usually look at a whole day – or sometimes two or three days – for our nutritional balance. If we have a protein heavy meal that’s light on vegetables, we’ll follow it with something like ratatouille. If we eat a lot of cheese at one meal, we cut down on the dairy for other meals in the day.

The end result is that our meals are much more flexible without denying ourselves our nutritional needs. If you look at the list above, some of the meals are vegan and others are loaded with protein. Some have tons of dairy and others have none.

Mix and match them and you’ll find a great balance.

Manage your appetite cycle, too
One thing that several people noticed is that my portion sizes are sometimes small and sometimes purely vegetable-and-fruit for our evening meals. As one person commented, “If that were my dinner, I would be hungry an hour later.”

I agree – if I ate that for lunch, I’d be really hungry by two or three in the afternoon. However, this is my evening meal. In three hours (ideally), I’ll be in bed.

My largest meal of the day is usually breakfast (which is usually made inexpensive by eating a healthy dose of whatever fruit is in season), followed by two or three small meals throughout the day before dinner. If I come to the dinner table really, really hungry and devour a lot, I usually feel miserable in the evening and don’t sleep well.

Plus, since I’m (in theory) active all day, I’m burning the food from breakfast for energy during the day instead of digesting and storing a bunch of energy when I sleep.

It also makes dinner costs much lower – and since dinner is usually the most “prepared” meal (meaning most expensive), doing this reduces the food cost of the day as a whole.

Give it a shot sometime. Instead of eating a huge dinner, eat a bigger breakfast and a small dinner instead. Don’t go to bed stuffed and wake up with a healthy appetite.

Finished plate
Butternut squash and carrots with coconut milk and curry

Make meal creation social
One big element of making this series has been the teamwork between Sarah and myself.

On many of these meals, one of us is taking care of chopping while the other one is sauteeing (or taking pictures – or chasing children). It gives us an opportunity to talk about our day and just reaffirm our bond with each other, plus it gets dinner on the table much quicker.

Yes, this isn’t always possible. There are many days when I’m writing until right before dinner time. There are other days when Sarah is working and I prepare meals by myself.

Still, we both get much more value out of meals we prepare together than out of meals we prepare apart.

Use a tasting spoon
What kind of advice is that?

Over the last year, I’ve started the habit of tasting the food I’m making over and over again as I’m cooking and trying to figure out if it tastes good or if it needs something else. A bit of salt. A bit of pepper. A bit of oregano.

Consider that the recipe you read in a book doesn’t necessarily match your palate, one that has been developed over the experiences you’ve had in your own life. You’re going to be intrigued by different flavors than the chef, or you may need stronger (or softer) flavors.

Learning how to adjust a meal a bit with additional seasonings constantly helps me turn a bland meal into something tasty and a tasty meal into something sublime. It lifts the enjoyment of preparing food at home greatly.

However, there are sanitary reasons to be careful with it. Use a new spoon with each tasting (unless you’re preparing for yourself). We’ll sometimes go through five or six spoons for a meal.

Stuffed manicotti in 9" by 13" pan
Tuna, vegetable, and cheese stuffed manicotti

Hit yard sales
Most of the really interesting and useful food ideas I’ve found in the last few years have come from old cookbooks.

Most of the interesting old cookbooks I’ve found in the last few years have been found at yard sales with a sticker on the cover – $0.25 or so.

Food is simply prepared differently today than it was fifty years ago. The ideas contained in older cookbooks come from a different time with different levels of home convenience. Add into that the changing palate of America and an older cookbook is a peek into another world.

A tasty world.

Explore that world. Pick up a few old cookbooks and dig through them. You don’t even have to duplicate a thing – just try some of the ideas out.

Good luck in the kitchen!

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34 thoughts on “Summer Meal Series: Six Lessons for Efficient Cooking at Home

  1. About the tasting spoon… rather than using up several spoons I reserve one for dipping in the pot and pour that into a different spoon that goes in my mouth. Just be sure to keep them separate and remember which is which.

  2. I completely agree with you about the size of meals – I like a robust breakfast that doesn’t fill me in regards to making me FEEL full, but I get a huge amount of nutrition for what it is. Namely, I drink smoothies with spinach, berries, flax, etc, which all give me great energy in the morning and keeps me satiated to lunch. Then I eat a sometimes rather big lunch to get me through until dinner, and then try to keep it lighter then since I don’t need the energy for the rest of the night, as you stated. Other cultures do similar things, I think our culture has simply gotten too used to eating a LOT of food at EVERY meal so the next thing you know, we’ve eaten enough for 2 people!

  3. Trent, my dear wonderful usually spot-on finance writer,

    “If you look at the list above, some of the meals are vegan and others are loaded with protein.”

    VEGANS (and vegetarians) NEED PROTEIN, too, and we eat as much of it as our bodies need if (and only if) we eat a wide variety of protein-rich plant food.

    In addition: folks new to trying to cut down on animal protein (for environmental, $, or moral reasons) often do not feel very well as they do it because they are eating meals like the ones you describe as delicious and meat-free.

    I am quite sure these meals are delicious (…I am excited as your kids about the curried veggies…), but eating protein-rich foods, complex carbs, AND some fat all at one sitting is the easiest way for folks to feel full AND good.

    From someone who loves reading about food to someone who clearly loves writing about food, you’d seem a lot more sophisticated if you’d stop equating meat with protein.

    Sincerely,
    KJ :)

  4. Trent,

    Excellent points here. Any “hacks” towards making cooking meals at home easier and cheaper are worth their weight in gold.

    80% of a person’s overall health and fitness is the direct result of the food they eat. And in our world of fast and processed foods, learning how to cook fresh food is the highest leverage action you can take to improving your health.

    I think most people believe that cooking at home is a really labor-intensive process that they don’t have time for. But by mastering a few skills, techniques, and “shortcuts” like you mentioned here, it becomes just as easy as making mac and cheese from the box.

  5. Hi Trent!
    Reading from Germany and having learned cooking from my mother who is still from the generation of people who acutally were in the WWII but quite young I might be able to give you a tip with the spoons:

    My mother uses one spoon to test how the sauce or whatever tastes and another to put the sauce onto that spoon. The hygenic “good” spoon is then laid on a plate and reused for the next tasting.

    So that´s two spoons and a plate instead of six spoons. Other people prefer to take a paper instead of the plate but we used that plate in our daily meals. We kids almost used to fight over that plate when the meal was a preferred one.

    We didn´t use that for feasts obviously, but the sauce will end up on the plate anyways, so why not use it?

  6. I’m going to disagree with the statement about not including the basics at every meal. MOST meals should include a vegetable or fruit, a protein, and some kind of starch or grain. I’m insure how that limits one. I have a repetoire of about thirty meals and they all include a vegetable a grain and protein and usually two veggies and a fruit. I dont see that as lmiting at all. After all, people should be eating three servings of veggies and two of fruits, every single day. If you dont have fruit or veggie eat every meal, how do you meet that standard? Of course, I am one of those people who eat every fruit and veg there is, but still.

  7. This is a great time of year to make homemade applesauce. We turned 32 pounds of organic apples into sauce this weekend and will be making more. It is so much cheaper than buying storebought organic applesauce, and tastes better, too.

  8. I don’t eat fruits/veggies/grains at every meal, but I try to eat necessary amounts every day. It’s difficult. I am more of a snacker than a meal lover. It works for me. I get what I need, but if you took a picture of my “dinner,” it probably wouldn’t fit others’ nutritional needs. Doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just different, Trent’s idea of a healthy meal may be different from others.

    Besides, in a world where many families (and schools and other programs) feed their kids chicken nuggets for every meal, I think it’s great when parents spend time together as a family preparing and eating meals. And there should be SOME room for enjoying food without worrying about exact amounts of one thing or another. I’m sure Trent’s children have perfectly healthy attitudes toward food and nutrition:)

  9. @KJ: It’s also worth mentioning that there are a lot more protein-rich plant foods than many people think. There are beans, soy foods, and meat substitutes, of course. There are also nuts and seeds, including peanut butter and other nut butters. Grains, best known for their carbohydrate content, also contain a significant amount of protein. Even vegetables (and to a lesser extent fruits) contain some. Everything that was once alive contains some protein.

    I strongly suspect that when people go vegetarian and vegan and then feel unwell, what they’re attributing to protein deficiency (or iron deficiency) is more likely to be calorie deficiency.

  10. May I add a simple salad that uses the cumcumber and tomato bounty I have this year? Slice the cukes and tomatoes into very thin rounds, adding onions cut the same way if you like them. Add oil and vinegar plus pepper and your favorite fresh herbs (we use basil and store-bought garlic). Marinate overnight in the fridge. The best thing is that this keeps for a week or so due to the vinegar. I have cheated in the past and used bottle vinigrette for a flavor change.

  11. Trent,

    Not only you good at personal finance stuff, I can see passion when you write recipe posts too. I have read all of them but hardly commented before. Now it is corrected.

    Great recipes and I love it. I only modify a bit as I am vegetarian. Keep up the great work.

  12. Trent,
    With my wife cooking every meal at home now it causes our use of dishes, pots, pans, utensils, plates, cups, etc. to be substantial. This means that I am doing a night load of dishes (on the weekend it is about two!)…The load completely fills the machine and the bigger pots I end up washing by hand to save room in the washer. How do you deal with the “collateral damage” that comes from daily home cooked meals?

  13. sipote: We cook every meal at home, and we don’t have a dishwasher. There are indeed a lot of dishes as a result. My tips:
    1) Don’t get behind on the dishes, or the pile gets overwhelming very fast.
    2) Not everything has to go in the formal “dishes” pile. If I just used a measuring spoon for a dry powder, I immediately rinse it and put it in the dish rack, where it’s dry and can be put away by the time we do the real dishes. I notice that this technique really cuts down on the size of the dish pile (but you should have decent idea of food safety principles so you know what is likely to need soap and what just be safely rinsed).
    3) Choose meals that generate fewer dishes. I’m a fan of one-pot dinners and desserts (yay, homemade puddings and applesauce!)
    4) If you can cook, do so once in a while and let your wife trade off on dishes. Luckily my husband and I alternate on this chore; occasionally when he’s been busy there have been weeks where I did all the dishes myself and it started to wear on me (I know there are people who do all the housework for the family, and I admire them, but I don’t have the fortitude).

  14. It’s not really that hard to make balanced meals.

    Meat doesn’t need to your protein source/ the star of the plate, but veggies and bread alone (for example) is not a balanced meal.

  15. Sipote, you are correct that scratch cooking generates more work– that’s why they call the alternative “convenience food.”

    I do all cooking from scratch and do not have a dishwasher. I’m also a mom, and so it is that much harder to get the dishes washed. There are strategies I use to minimize the work of cooking and the resulting dishes.

    Skillet dinners, and one-pot meals minimize the number of various cooking utensils. There are some recipes where you dump everything uncooked into the casserole dish (or pan), add lots of liquid, and just let it cook… so protein, starch and veggie in one dish. Slow cookers are real handy for this type of meal. One-pot dinners include pilafs, stews and pot roasts. Wok cooking is the same, in fact you don’t wash the wok, you wipe it out.

    Another alternative is bulk cooking. When preparing foods that might freeze well, make several meal’s worth. Freeze the extra in portions you would need for a meal. By freezing a variety of meals, you can have several meals a week without doing any cooking.

    Cook with leftovers. Many recipes we now make entirely with “virgin” ingredients, were originally created to use up leftovers. They became cultural favorites, and so now people prepare these same meals by cooking up all the components and assembling them, which generates way more dishes. This category includes casseroles, soups and stews, pot pies and pasta salads. I am reminded of this when I make pot pie when a family member specially requests it, and I have to cook and prepare all components from scratch– it does make a huge amount of dishes to wash. It takes maybe 25% of the work if I make a pot pie from leftovers.

    Often I do a combination of these these strategies. For example, I rarely make one pie crust at a time because most of the work is in the clean-up. I use one crust and put the extras in the freezer (unbaked). These freeze nicely, and then on a busy night I can do a veggie quiche very quickly, especially if I use ingredients that need no additional cooking, such as leftover vegetables. So bulk cooking, plus leftovers, plus a one-dish meal.

    Most nights, I keep it simple. A lot of the extra work is the things we do to dress up perfectly fine foods– broccoli doesn’t need a cheese sauce. On a very busy night I might throw together a quick meal of pasta, a frozen vegetable and some meat I can prepare simply on the stove top. It’s not elegant but it’s fast and generates little mess. I do “fancy” cooking when I have more time, or for special occasions.

    I often do a little one-time math to figure out if a convenience food is cheaper than cooking from scratch. There are a few things cases where convenience foods are actually cheaper, but not many. More often it is that the savings versus the time required is too marginal. Box pasta is cheap enough that I have never been tempted to make pasta from scratch. I usually buy thrift shop sliced bread instead of baking it.

    Have you tried swapping off with your wife? You cook and let her wash dishes. Just trading off chores make it seem like less work. Plus she will appreciate it if you do a meal that generates fewer dishes. Often in marital relationships, it is more constructive to lead by example, rather than saying anything.

    Lastly, when I do a lot of cooking, I fill the dish pan and wash as I go. When I am done with a pot or bowl, it goes right in the hot water, so food particles don’t harden. The items are very easy to wash when I get a little downtime, usually while the meal is cooking. Washing as you go is especially helpful for smaller kitchens. The general chaos of dirty things everywhere slows me down. But it is also nicer after the meal to have only a small number of items to wash.

  16. “veggies and bread alone (for example) is not a balanced meal.”

    What’s unbalanced about it? Veggies and bread (or veggies and pasta, or veggies and rice) sounds like a perfectly fine meal to me. Personally, I wouldn’t want that to be all I ever ate, but you’d probably be fine even if it were.

  17. I live alone. I like to make lots of stuff that I can use in different ways, and make it in large quantities.

    For example, roast chicken is easy and delicious. There’s no way I can eat a whole chicken by myself, though, so I get a pile of chicken meat scraps that I can use in varous dishes over the next couple of days. Pie, soup, casserole, chicken salad, etc. The stripped carcass goes into a big ziploc in the freezer; when I have three or four I make a big pot of stock, and freeze it.

    When the ingrediants are cheap and plentiful, I make a PILE of ratatouille and freeze it in one quart portions. I can thaw it, warm it up a little, and have a delicious side dish, use it as a sauce for pasta, add meat for a tasty main dish, whatever. I’ve even mixed it with shredded roast chicken and put it in an omlette for breakfast.

    Soups, stews, and chili are another great thing that I like to make in quantity. I have dinner for a couple nights the week I make it and a couple of lunches at work, and freeze the rest. A couple weeks later I pull it out and get another few meals out of it. Same with spaghetti sauce. If I make spaghetti sauce, I never make just enough for one meal; I make five or six quarts.

    And people, what’s wrong with protien-free meals? If your overall diet includes plenty of protein, having a few meals without it every week isn’t going to hurt anything. Most people have at least 21 meals every week; I don’t see why every single one needs to be a balanced meal. Especially if you’re eating four or five meals/day rather than the “normal” three.

  18. Good article and summary of all the tidbits we have read over time! We have six kids and cook from scratch with very few exceptions (one being cake mixes where the cost on sale 89 cents is less than the sum of homemade ingredients and effort. We have a huge garden and can and freeze our surplus. As a pharmacist I have had LOTS of classes on CHO, Fat, and Proteins and the balance of nature. What you say is the bottom line: “We usually look at a whole day – or sometimes two or three days – for our nutritional balance.” It is over time, not each meal. For example, look at the WIC program…they do a 24 hour recall…We eat lots of grains, veggies, meats, etc, all homemade and not processed. You have several good points…eat a variety, cook at home, from scratch, use the seasonal foods…you will eat economical and healthy. BTW, our average food budget for the month with 8 eating in our house (3 are teenagers) is around 250.00. That is 3 meals a day as our kids and ourselves take lunches each day and we don’t qualify for reduced or free lunch at school.

  19. Comment left by Becca: I totally agree with everything you said. Keep a bucket in the freezer for leftover, untouched veggies and they go into soup or quiche later. My kids have a chore list and kitchen clean up for AM and PM is a rotated chore. We run the dishwasher daily if not twice daily and hand wash all large cooking utensils. They help or my hubbie and I trade off. If someone gets to eat the food you prepare, they should help in the clean up or clearing process.

  20. I second the others who have said to stay on top of the dishes. When we lived in an apartment, we had a dishwasher, and waited until we could run a full load, which meant that we did a load about every other day (less than that, if my husband, the tetris master, was loading the dishwasher). But we now have a house with no dishwasher. So, I make it a point to do the dishes after almost every meal (usually ending with about twice a day). I also do a lot of baking from scratch, so while things are baking (for example, I’m baking banana bread right now), the mixing bowl, etc., is soaking in hot water. And I agree with the previous poster about simply rinsing and drying for items which were used for flour or other “dry” goods. This cuts down on time and clutter immensely.

  21. Thanks for all the dishes suggestions! I especially like the idea of keeping the sink full and ready to go – I guess anything that needs to can be drained into a different receptacle (large bowl maybe?), then that emptied and washed after everything else.

    At the moment dishes are my #1 irritation. We have a dishwasher in our extremely small kitchen, but for the last year or so, during every load it dumps about as much water onto the floor as I use to wash the whole load by hand. It’s not worth the hassle of trying to rouse the landlord to action.

    My suggestion for handling dishes is to use the time for brain-heavy activities: I try to practice and review my Czech grammar while I wash :) Although with the current pile waiting for me, I should have all 3 genders in 7 cases sorted by the time I’m finshed…

  22. Thanks for this post. I would like for you to post some dishes you had made ahead for your company over the holiday. As a matter of fact, I would like ideas on how to handle several people as day and night visitors for three days. Thank you.

  23. @27 Joan:

    PREP PREP PREP! If there’s anything you can do ahead of time, do it. Make sure you have everything you’ll need on hand and accessible. Make sure your knives are sharp. Chop up your veggies in advance. Choose dishes with a minimum of a-la-minute work, or that will hold/reheat well. Have backup plans in place in case something goes wrong.

    Look for stopping points in recipes. For example, if you’re serving a braised meat (browned in fat, then simmered half-covered in liquid until tender), you can take it off the heat when it’s only half-done a day or two ahead of time. When guests arrive, all you need to do is simmer it for twenty minutes, dump it on a platter, and sprinkle it with freshly-chopped parsley. Cook pasta sauces ahead of time, so all you have to do is heat them through while you’re boiling the pasta. Veggies can be blanched and shocked during the day, so that at dinner time you just need to toss them in a hot pan with some garlic and olive oil. Assemble casseroles in the morning and put them in the fridge so you can just slide them into the oven an hour before dinner time.

  24. I like what you had to say about finding old cookbooks at yard sales and exploring them. My mom gave me a set of cookbooks from the 1970s entitled “The Vegetarian Epicure,” and I’ve had a lot of fun trying recipes from them. One of my favorites is a corn & cheese chowder that uses whole cumin seeds as an ingredient. It’s such a perfect little touch that I never would have thought of doing myself.

  25. Re: tasting spoon

    My mother, who grew up in Sri Lanka, takes the spoon she is stirring with and drips a little bit of food onto the back of her hand or wrist (without touching the spoon to her skin), then licks it off.

    Voila: 6 dirty spoons becomes zero dirty spoons.

    :-)

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