Make Dinner Easier

August 10, 2016

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^Dinner a few weeks ago. Techniques used: breading, pan frying, and doing a finishing roast in the oven. 

If you heard me last week on the Jen Fulwiler show on Sirius XM talking about making dinner easier, you know that my goal is to make cooking easier and more fun. Since we are getting into the busy season of life again after the lovely slowness of summer, I thought I would recap my pointers for anyone who found me from her show (hi new readers!). I can’t tell you how much I agree with this Julia Child quote:

“To the new generation of cooks who have not grown up in the old traditions: learn the basics and understand what you are doing so cooking can be easier, faster, and more enjoyable. To the more experienced cook: have fun improvising and creating your own versions of traditional dishes.” 

I think a lot of people battle with perfectionism in the kitchen and if they aren’t Martha Stewart or Ina Garten, they throw in the towel and think, well I don’t have time to learn so why bother trying? Food becomes whatever is the easiest thing to make that day. But the problem with this is any time you have to cook, for your kids or a holiday, it stays a giant chore. Big huge mountain to climb, every time.

No one is born a great cook. You learn one dish at a time. And if you love to learn, it becomes a bright spot in your day because you are learning every time. So I hope you find ways to learn new techniques and grow and make it easier. Here are some things that help me get dinner on.

1. Get a freezer and buy a half or quarter cow of grass fed cow or local half pig. – This is what got me started food blogging, because I wanted to learn how to cook all the cuts of meat.  It is so fun to have a Prime Rib in your freezer for Christmas, beef cubes for kebabs in the summer or beef stew in the winter. It gets you connected to seasonal living and celebrations. And I always have tacos or grass fed burgers that I can make in 10-15 minutes. Don’t sweat the cost of the freezer it will pay for itself since ALL the cuts are around $7/lb.

Living in New England there are lots of opportunities to get other locally raised meat. My husbands cousin lives 20 minutes from us in Southern Maine and his family just decided to raise pigs. So now we have a half pig in the freezer too with ham and the best bacon.

Also – one large piece of meat can stretch into 2-3 meals. Capitalize on that.

2. Have a list of 6-8 dinners you know almost everyone will eat, and keep those ingredients on hand. For me, these flow and change seasonally but our pantry always has the makings for tacos or fajitas, tomato pasta dishes, creamy pasta dishes, slow cooker rice bowls, hamburgers, beef stroganoff, beef stew, a few different soups and chili. They all take between 15-30 minutes of prep time. I try to make them early if we have sports.

3. Keep your pantry well stocked. Once you keep these 6-8 meals in mind, it is easier to keep the makings for them in their own place in your pantry or cabinet. If you find you have more time, you can do twists on these, like making enchiladas instead of tacos, or chicken tortilla soup instead of rice bowls.

4. Only try new dishes when you have time on a slow day or on weekends. New recipes keep you connected to learning and novelty. You can add the ones that you love into your rotation of meals. A lot of the recipes on my blog are the ones that we loved during weekends or experiment days and are adding to the regular rotation. But it is stress inducing to have to put dinner on the table and know that what the recipe said would take 20 minutes is taking 40 and everyone is hungry and grabbing marshmallows from the pantry. Don’t put yourself through it.

5.  Find stores that will do curb side pick up for groceries or better yet deliver. BJ’s just started doing curb side pick up. And in our region we have Peapod grocery delivery. We even have a local milk delivery service to get organic milk. Not an option for everyone but a game changer if it is.

6. Let the grocery store be your sous – chef.  I learned this tip from Jacques Pépin (one of my heroes). He cooked on Julia Child’s show and did a joint cookbook with her and is an amazing chef from France. His tip is to look for meat or veggies that are already sliced or marinated, or pick up a rotisserie chicken or produce that has been grilled or prepared. I love cooking chicken tenders that are a little more expensive but go right into the pan, no slicing or chopping of raw chicken. Get a lot of veggies frozen that are ready to cook quickly. They are cheaper and frozen at the hight of their freshness.

Sometimes it can be a bit more expensive but if it saves you 10 minutes at 5 o’clock maybe the 50 cents is worth it? Yesterday I got char-grilled corn that was packaged as kernels for 90 cents. Do you know how much effort and time it would take me to peel, cook, grill, and cut 5 ears of corn?

7. Do what works for you to capitalize on fresh produce. Maybe a CSA makes you happy because they are awesome. Some seasons I found that much produce stressful to manage and it was going to waste. Maybe you want to get out of the house and do Farmers Markets. I love them but I can never go because we are so busy on Saturday mornings now. Right now we love having a garden but maybe that is not realistic for you if your kids are little or you don’t have a sunny spot in the back yard. Just find one way to connect with the seasonal produce and just feel good about doing that. Maybe it is just going to that section of the grocery store.

8. Give yourself a break when you are feeling burnt out without feeling guilty. Ordering pizza costs $20. We order pizza almost every Friday night for movie night. And we are play/experimenting like grilling or trying a new slow cooked meal one or two nights. So that only leaves 3 nights a week where dinner feels like ‘work’ and then it is not so bad.

9. Think like a kid in the kitchen.  If you can look at cooking as playing or having fun, it totally transforms the daily chore into something you might even look forward to. Not every day,  To quote her a second time, Julia Childhood said:

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

Kids don’t analyze PlayDoh. They pick it up and start touching it. So pick one recipe that looks good to you and try it. Or try one technique – say making a béchamel or braising fennel. I am amazed at how much you can learn from trying one thing, and once you know it, you know it. Cooking becomes easier. And it can really ignite the passion for cooking when you try something new. Even if you make a mistake you learn something. Google how to fix it and you will have acquired a skill.

10. Turn on music when you cook. Everything is more fun with music. And wine.

To learn more, check out this list of cooking techniques from Bon Appetite. If you learned one of these you will grow in confidence as a cook (even better – start with searing a steak and making a pan sauce. That is 2 items and also a great date night dinner.) 

Happy Eating xoxo Katie

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