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Six Basic Steps Toward Easy Meal Prep at Home
One of the most powerful pieces of advice that I have for people in terms of saving money is to get into the habit of preparing your own meals at home – and not those prepackaged meals, either. Restaurants are expensive. Takeout is expensive. Delivered food? Expensive. Prepackaged meals? Expensive. All of that stuff drains your wallet far faster than you might realize.
So, what’s the argument against cooking at home? Many meals require some degree of skill to make and although that skill level is often pretty low, it’s still present. There’s also the time issue and the energy issue and the equipment issue – each solvable, of course, but they again provide resistance against preparing food at home. Add up all of that resistance and many Americans find themselves calling Pizza Hut.
I’ve written about this challenge in the past. In particular, I offered up six simple steps for cooking at home if you’ve never really done it before:
Step #1 – Make Something Super Simple
Step #2 – Keep Dishes at a Minimum
Step #3 – Focus on Mastering Basic Food Preparation Skills
Step #4 – Acquire a Tiny Number of Tools You Trust
Step #5 – Start Branching Out With Variations of Trusted Meals
Step #6 – Treat Cookbooks and Food Magazines as Idea Machines, Not As Gospel
I’d also suggest checking out my minimalist kitchen gear, which covers the basics of what items you need to cook at home.
As good as those ideas are, they miss out on two counts.
First, none of those things really address the time and energy issue of the whole process of cooking. Figuring out what to eat and then cleaning up afterwards is often more effort than the actual cooking itself.
Second, none of these strategies really point you at specific things to do. While I provide some pointers in the details of those posts, the big bold points don’t tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. They’re just general things that are helpful in a broad sense bud don’t directly move you toward a short term goal that involves cooking or preparing an actual meal.
So, here are six basic things you can do to work towards effortless meal preparation at home.
Experiment When You’re Not Under a Time Crunch
The time to learn how to cook is not when you come home from a long day at work and feel absolutely exhausted, or when you are under an incredible time crunch and can’t afford anything going wrong. Often, people find themselves in these positions without any sort of cooking skills and thus cooking feels overwhelming or impossible. (Trust me, it’s easier to make something in those situations if you’re intimately familiar with your kitchen, but it’s much more difficult if you haven’t ever made much in the kitchen.)
My suggestion is to try things when you’re not under a time or energy crunch. Make things for the first time or two on the weekends, when you have time to do them at your own pace and there’s no major crisis if things don’t work out. Don’t put yourself under additional time pressure and don’t start from an already-tired state or else it will feel like misery.
Once you start feeling familiar with making things in the kitchen, it won’t feel nearly as overwhelming or impossible to make a meal after work, even under a time crunch.
Plan a Little
While it’s fun to imagine a home chef just throwing things together based on whatever’s in the cupboard, the truth is that it only really works if you have a lot of staples on hand, and if you’re reading this article, you probably don’t have a lot of staples on hand and also probably don’t have any ideas of how to use them.
That’s why, at first, it’s a really good idea to follow recipes carefully. They’re meant as instructions to follow at first; later on, your relationship with them might change into a source of inspiration, but not yet. Think of recipes as sheet music for a musician – someone just learning might need the sheet music for a very simple piece. Later on, an accomplished musician might be able to freestyle quite a bit and know a bunch of pieces by heart and only need sheet music for a really complex piece. Recipes are for home cooks like sheet music is for musicians.
A good recipe tells you what you need to have on hand right at the start, so plan ahead a little and make sure you have all of those things on hand. This will probably involve a trip to the grocery store, but it’s far better to do that before doing anything else.
Again, as you get more familiar with this, it’s a good idea to transition into weekly meal planning because it’s a huge money saver, but don’t sweat that yet when you’re just getting more comfortable with cooking at home.
Make a ‘Dump Meal’
This is about the easiest thing you can make at home. It basically just requires a slow cooker – it’s really the only kitchen implement you need for this. All you have to do is just put a small set of ingredients in there in the morning, turn it on low, and come home to a finished meal. Some of the ingredients might require a cutting board and a knife to chop up a vegetable or slice up a piece of meat, and you might need a can opener. It can’t get any easier than this – in fact, I find such meals to be less hassle than actually ordering food or going to a restaurant, and they’re cheaper, too.
My absolute favorite slow cooker “dump meal” is minestrone soup. The only thing I have to cut up is two carrots, which I slice into discs. Into my slow cooker, I put that sliced carrot, 1 cup of diced frozen onions, 3 cloves of minced garlic (I often buy minced garlic in large containers and keep it in the fridge, using just what I need for recipes), a large (28 ounce) can of diced tomatoes, two smaller (15 ounce) cans of cannellini beans, 3 cups of vegetable stock or broth, and 3 cups of water. All of that, right in the slow cooker in the morning. I turn it on low and forget about it.
About fifteen minutes before eating, I’ll add 8 ounces of uncooked pasta (I like to use elbow macaroni, but anything will do), a handful of asparagus spears if they’re in season, a cup of frozen peas, and some fresh spinach (a 6 ounce bag, if you’re buying it at the store). Stir it and put the lid back on. Add some salt and pepper to taste when it’s finished and have some grated cheese nearby to top it.
That’s literally all it takes. We’ll usually serve it with a simple salad made during that 15 minute gap – basically some type of lettuce or spinach tossed with a bit of salad dressing and whatever vegetables are in season, like onions or grape tomatoes. We might also bake some pre-made breadsticks from the bakery section of our local store.
This makes enough for our entire family at a cost of about $12, and usually leaves enough for a bowl of leftovers for Sarah to take to work for lunch the next day. That means we each eat for about $2.
Sometimes, I’ll double the whole recipe (shooting the cost up into the $20 range) and then save individual containers of the soup for a meal in a few days or else put those individual containers in the freezer.
What if you don’t like minestrone soup? Here are 40 more slow cooker dump recipes (all including meat) and 21 vegetarian slow cooker dump recipes. There’s almost nothing that’s easier to make at home than a slow cooker dump recipe, so I suggest starting with minestrone soup or one of these ideas.
Make Macaroni and Cheese
Almost everyone likes macaroni and cheese. It’s such a simple, pleasant food that can be made incredibly straightforward to please children or fancied up to please almost any palate. It’s also one of the easiest things on Earth to make, so I usually encourage people to make this as one of the first things they prepare in the kitchen. Each of my children – all of them pre-teen – have pulled this off with success.
I basically follow the three ingredient mac and cheese recipe from Serious Eats.
All you do is put six ounces of macaroni in a medium saucepan and add just enough cold water to cover the macaroni. Add a pinch of salt and bring it to a boil over high heat while stirring constantly. When it’s boiling, keep stirring for six minutes. The macaroni will absorb almost all of the water, and that’s okay.
Next, add one six ounce can of evaporated milk and then let it come to a boil while continuing to stir constantly. Then, add a cup of shredded cheese that melts well – cheddar, fontina, gruyere, or jack. I prefer gruyere, but it’s expensive; Monterey jack is probably my second favorite. Immediately drop the heat down to low and keep stirring constantly until it’s all melted and creamy – two minutes or so. It’s done. Put a bit of salt and pepper on top and eat. It’ll taste incredible – like restaurant-grade mac and cheese. You can jazz it up with things like breadcrumbs if you like.
The thing I like about this recipe is that it makes something that most people at least like, makes a pretty stellar version of it, and it’s comically easy. My youngest child was seven when he prepared this on his own with zero help. We use this exact recipe as a side dish for many meals, and it can be a task that you have a child take on while you’re cooking something else.
Make Scrambled Eggs
If you like to eat scrambled eggs at all, I strongly encourage you to learn how to make scrambled eggs. It’s an incredibly simple and flexible thing you can make for yourself or your family, it works with every meal, you can mix in almost anything savory, and it reheats well if you have extras.
Just crack a number of scrambled eggs in a bowl – however many you like – and beat them with a fork until they’re consistently yellow, a minute or two. Add a bit of salt and beat that in for a few seconds, then let the bowl sit.
Take a teaspoon of butter and put it in the middle of a skillet. Put it over medium heat and let the butter melt, then use a plastic spoon or a spatula to move the butter all over the skillet until the skillet is coated. Add the scrambled eggs and let them cook for a minute, then slowly pull that plastic spoon or spatula along the bottom of the skillet to pull up egg curds off of the skillet’s bottom. Do this over the entire bottom of the skillet, then repeat every thirty seconds until the eggs look like slightly wet version of the scrambled eggs you’d normally eat, then remove from the heat, wait a minute or so, and serve.
You can obviously mix lots of things into this recipe. Almost any savory vegetable works, as do most cooked meats and most cheeses. It all turns out delicious and with such little effort.
Handle Dirty Dishes the Smart Way
One of the big obstacles for many people in terms of cooking at home is dealing with the cleanup. If you eat at a restaurant, it’s done for you; if you get takeout or delivery, you can just toss the wrappers and other items. On the other hand, if you cook at home, you have to deal with all of that stuff.
A dishwasher makes it much easier, but even then, there’s some extra work involved. Also, many apartments and some homes (like my parents’ home) don’t have a dishwasher and don’t have space for one.
So, how do you solve this conundrum? Here are a few strategies I know from having lived most of my life in places with a kitchen too small for a dishwasher.
Have good tools. Have a strong scrubbing brush and a dish rag at your sink, along with good soap at hand. If you don’t have those things, it’s going to take far longer to wash dishes.
If you have a two bin sink, keep one sink full of water with a bit of soap in it. Just block the drain, fill it perhaps a quarter full with hot water, and add a bit of soap. Then, put your dishes right in that soapy water throughout the day, perhaps adding a bit more hot water once in a while. Just let the dishes soak. It’ll make it much easier to wash them when the time comes, and the other sink bin will be free.
If you have a one bin sink, get a large plastic bin, put it beside the sink, and keep your dirty dishes in there. This keeps the sink free of dishes so that you can easily start in with cleaning whenever you’re ready. Just toss dirty dishes in the bin for the moment, then wash everything in the bin at once when you’re ready. Since the sink is empty, you can dive right in. If the bin is watertight, you can put a bit of hot soapy water in there to soak some of the dishes, as noted above.
If something has caked-on grease or food pieces, pour a bit of vinegar, a bit of baking soda, and a bit of soap in it and fill it with hot water and let it sit for a long time, like a day. After that, it becomes really easy to wash. This takes care of basically every nasty caked-on grease problem I’ve ever faced.
Wash things in “streak order.” What do I mean by “streak order”? Start with stuff that will show streaks easily – glass items – then move onto silverware, then plates and plastic items, then pots and pans.
Have a drying rack beside your sink to put dishes in to dry, plus a ton of drying towels. Most things can air dry relatively quickly once rinsed, but a drying towel is great if you need something dry immediately. You can get a simple dish drying rack at most kitchen supply stores, and flour sack towels are great for drying dishes, as are leftover t-shirts.
Buy dish soap in bulk, then have a pump to dispense it. You don’t really want a bulk bottle of dish soap at your sink because it’s heavy and it takes up lots of space and when you pour it, it dispenses large amounts of soap. However, bulk soap is cheap. The solution is to get a cheap soap pump and fill it with bulk-purchased dish soap so you can use the soap one pump at a time. This cuts the cost of liquid dish soap down to almost nothing.
These tactics, in concert, make hand washing dishes into a pretty easy task, even if you don’t have a dishwasher. My parents have lived in the same house for 40-plus years without a dishwasher and use most of these tactics because they simply work.
If you can handle the things above, you’re already well on your way to cooking a wide variety of things at home. Move on to trying other simple dishes – pasta, for example, is incredibly simple – and try variations on the things you already know, like adding tarragon to the scrambled eggs.
Eventually, what will happen is that the repeated tasks begin to seem easy, the dishes you cook regularly begin to turn out consistently well, and you start trying out new things and new variations.
It’s at that point that you’re at the sweet spot that a home cook should enjoy, where preparing a meal doesn’t seem overwhelming and throwing something together in fifteen minutes seems like a fun challenge rather than an impossibility. At that point, the time and energy advantages of eating out almost completely disappear and you find yourself eating at home much more often and saving a ton of money doing it.