I got into a discussion on Twitter the other night about how to balance the need to rustle up tasty home-cooked food when you’re short of time. I don’t believe that dashing about like a mad thing after a long day at work is the answer, so I’ve decided to make this blog post a collection of Top Tips to help you get the food you want without the rush. I’m going to concentrate on evening meals, when everyone needs to be fed quickly and properly. That being said, this will be a blog post with almost no recipes. Suggestions, guides, places to look for inspiration and help in the organisation, yes – but no actual recipes as such. What is favourite in my house might not suit everyone, but you can make timesaving versions of your own family favourites with some help from these guidelines.
I chose to name the blog Time To Cook for the many ways that those three words can be interpreted. It is a line in the sand. It is time to cook – not to press a button and zap a plastic covered atrocity in the microwave. Time to cook for yourself – because ready meals and junk food are either hideously expensive or packed full of artificial colours/flavours and frequently both. Cooking takes time, but with just a little forethought, that time doesn’t have to be intrusive or all-consuming. Also, cooking for yourself is a life skill – right up there with swimming in my opinion, and should be encouraged for all. Make time to cook and it will become a joy, because you will hve used your time well to feed loved ones the food they deserve.
Planning ahead is the key to stress-free evening meals.
- Decide in advance what you’re going to be eating and when.
- Cook meals in advance, so all that you need to do when you get in is heat them up.
- Do as much preparation as you can beforehand.
If you’re lucky enough to have a freezer, then this will make planning and organising meals so much easier.
- Deliberately make extra, with the intention to freeze some later.
- Cook specifically to freeze.
When freezing food, you need to decide whether to freeze individual portions or whether to freeze family-sized portions. Smaller portions thaw more quickly, and you can use as many or as few portions as you require, depending on circumstances. Great for unexpected or last minute guests!
I tend to be a ‘deliberately make extra’ person, so we eat some and freeze the rest, but that is because I don’t go out to work. Your own circumstances will dictate whether this approach is workable, or whether you feel happier cooking specifically to freeze.
There are certain dishes that are almost tailor made for preparing ahead. Most curries develop a much richer flavour if made one or even two days before and kept in the fridge or frozen. Sometimes one item can be used for a number of different dishes. Here are some examples:
Can be made into a big batch of tomato-based meat sauce (go full Bolognese if you like, or keep it more vague for maximum versatility), which can then be used over pasta, or made into lasagne, cottage pie, chilli, pasta bake, turnovers, pasties or pies or stuffed into vegetables. Meatballs in gravy is another speedy freezer-to-table option.
For a lot of chicken recipes, the first thing you’re instructed to do is to cook the meat, so I tend to cook whole chickens, strip the meat from the bones and portion it up into meal-sized quantities, and freeze. This gives you a head start when making it up into a meal. Add a sauce, either a plain white sauce or a veloute (half milk, half stock) and you’ve got the basis for a chicken pie (add some cooked vegetables and a pastry lid) or chicken with mushroom sauce to serve over pasta, or with a baked potato, or with rice, or with some sweetcorn, a wonderfully thick and creamy chowder. I cook the chicken (or chickens if there’s a special offer on) either in the slow cooker (see below) or in the oven. Mary-Anne’s oven roast chicken recipe: Put chicken(s) in roasting pan, cover with foil, put in oven at 120C for 6 hours. That’s it. The foil covering means the chicken stays moist and becomes fall-apart tender and the no fussing around with herbs or flavourings means the cooked chicken is deliciously chicken-y and can then be used for a wide variety of dishes. There’s even enough chicken juices to make gravy.
Pork, lamb, beef: All ideal for long slow-cooked dishes such as stew, tagine, curry, goulash, stroganoff: make extra into pies & turnovers.
Sausages and bacon
Can be made into casserole, cowboy hot pot, pie, ragu, breakfast casserole for supper, sausage gravy on baked potatoes
Remains of Sunday roast, or any other large joint of cooked meat.
Trim all fat and gristle. Cut down into bite sized portions and freeze separately on a tray, then bag – the individual cubes thaw quickly and you can grab just what you need. OR pour over the remains of the gravy to make a ready pie filling to be topped with mashed potato or covered with pastry that will be ready in 25-30 minutes.
You can make these specifically or use extra left from a meal: wrap individual slices in foil and freeze – no need to unwrap, just put in hot oven as is to defrost/heat up.
If it’s hearty enough, a soup can be a meal in itself. If you think it’s a little too light, add salad & bread. Or make toasty cheese sandwiches for dipping.
Make it both customisable and fun by having a range of toppings to hand so that everyone can garnish their bowl to their own taste:
Baked Potato Soup is great for this DIY approach, but it works with other types of soup too. Here are some suggestions of things that can be added:
- Grated cheese
- crumbled cooked bacon
- croutons – cube stale bread and bake dry, or lightly fry in oil or herb butter.
- Chopped herbs such as – parsley, coriander, mint, rosemary, chives, pepper flakes.
- sour cream, crème fraiche, yoghurt.
- mini pasta shapes, egg noodles, spaghetti, gnocci.
- mini meatballs – make sure they’re fully cooked before using: beef is fab in tomato soup, turkey/chicken in vegetable-based soups, remove the skin from sausages and roll the meat into mini balls.
- croutons baked from pastry offcuts,
Other meal-in-a-bowl soups include:
- Bacon and beans
- Leek and potato
If you’ve got a slow cooker, then it is almost priceless in terms of having a hot meal ready for you when you get in.
The obvious dishes that spring to mind are stews, casseroles (I’m never quite sure what the difference is between those two!), curries, goulash, tagines – but they are also great at cooking large joints of meat including whole chickens
Whole chicken in a slow cooker: Put 1 onion cut in half, 2 sticks of celery and 3 carrots in the bottom of your slow cooker and put the chicken on top. Put the lid on and cook on low for 8 hours. There is enough liquid in the vegetables and the chicken to keep everything moist. The chicken will be fall-apart tender. The skin will be a little pale, but we don’t eat that anyway and I always ‘dismantle’ the chicken and put the meat onto a dish to serve.
Baked Potatoes in a slow cooker: Rub each potato with olive oil and sprinkle it with salt. Wrap potatoes in foil. Cover; cook on Low 8-10 hours (High: 2 1/2 to 4 hours).
- ‘baked’ in the microwave – no crispy skin, but done in 10 minutes. Downside is that the more you cook, the longer it takes. Still quicker than an hour in the oven, though.
- Slow cooker baked potatoes – also no crispy skin but can cook during the day.
- Quick potato gratin
- Boulangere potatoes – like the above recipe, but with stock and sliced onions instead of milk.
- Mashed potatoes
- Potato cakes – like fishcakes but with seasoned mashed potato, crumbed and baked/fried
- cook and freeze in individual portions
- oven baked risotto
- Noodles and Rice – fabulously tasty, great ‘shelf life’ in the fridge and reheats beautifully in the microwave
- Cook and freeze or cook and store in the fridge overnight (must be covered to prevent drying out). Drop into hot water or microwave to thaw/heat. Mix with sauce before freezing to have a 1 dish meal all ready to go.
There are several approaches to vegetables to help with cutting down meal delivery times. Don’t think you have to chain yourself to the kitchen sink till the wee small hours preparing vegetables – turn the radio on (Radio 4 Extra has a great selection of comedies and dramas) have a seat at the table and be entertained while you work. Alternatively, take a leaf out of my mother-in-law’s book, take your bowl through to the sitting room and watch your favourite tv show – then peel/chop etc while the adverts are on. You’d be amazed how quickly it gets done!
- Wash/sort/trim the night before & leave ready to chop/slice when you get in
- Peel/chop/dice the vegetables the night before, or first thing in the morning, depending on your schedule. Store in ziplock bags in the fridge.
- Wash/peel/slice root vegetables and potatoes and keep them in bowls, covered in cold water.
- Prepare and slightly undercook vegetables the night before. In order to keep their bright, fresh colour you MUST plunge them into very cold water once done in order to stop the cooking process. When cold, bag and store in the fridge. A quick blast in the microwave will heat them up when required.
- Prepare, cook, season and mash potatoes and root vegetables the night before. Store in the fridge.
- Peas, sweetcorn, broad beans – all are prepared and frozen within hours of being harvested. Their flavour and tenderness is excellent and all cook in just minutes in boiling water.
Top Tip: I have a rather battered but still useful steamer saucepan set – a regular saucepan with two ‘colander’ saucepans that stack on top. It is great for cooking all your potatoes/vegetables in one. I put potatoes in the bottom with the water and cook the vegetables in the top two pans – usually root vegetables in the middle pan and green vegetables (that need less cooking) in the top pan. You can easily remove the pans with the vegetables in when they are done. Helps keep steam levels in the kitchen down too! I highly recommend getting a set of these pans if at all possible.
- Wash/sort/trim the night before/early morning & leave ready to chop/slice when you get in.
- Leaves should be wiped free of dust/dirt with just a damp cloth – dunking in water will make them sad and soggy.
Pasta with basil pesto was one of the first things my daughter ate after she moved onto solid foods – one day she just helped herself from my plate – although she now prefers sun dried tomato or red pepper. Throw in some sweetcorn and peas, a few shreds of chicken or ham, a sprinkling of cheese and it’s a superfast meal in minutes.
Fantastic for whipping up something quick.
Scrambled egg with salmon bits, tuna, any cooked fish – or spice things up with chorizo or Italian spiced sausage
Omelettes either plain or with fillings such as ham, cheese, bacon, cooked sausage, chorizo, salmon, herbs, vegetables
Frittata Basically, a more substantial omelette or a quiche without pastry. Great for using up all those little bits of cheese, vegetables, herbs, meat and fish from the fridge which, on their own, don’t amount to much. Chop, slice and lightly fry any vegetables, toss in any ham/bacon/fish, whisk and season some eggs and pour over, sprinkle with grated cheese/herbs and either cook over a low heat or bake in the oven until the eggs are set.
Breakfast Casserole – breakfast for supper! Prepare in the morning & then bake at night – takes an hour to bake, but there’s no mad dash round the kitchen.
Mini Quiches – Line a cupcake tin with shortcrust pastry and drop in any suitable fillings – ham/cheese, diced and cooked vegetables, salmon trimmings, cooked sausage. Whisk some eggs, season them and pour over the fillings. Bake for 15 minutes at 180C Fan.
You can taste the time taken in cooking – the richness of caramelised onions, slow-roasted vegetables and gravy made from slow-cooked meat juices. So having these to hand means you can create the wonderful depth of flavour of a meal long in the making – in just a matter of moments. Save and freeze whatever you have extra, or when you have the time, make batches and freeze in small portions – ice cube trays for example – then bag the frozen cubes for later use. The small size means they de-frost quicker.
Food building blocks suggestions
- Grated Pecorino/Parmesan cheese in the fridge – a little goes a long way and having it ready grated is a real time saver.
- Tomato Sauce – useful for sauces, soups, pizzas
- Unmixed pastry – Just flour with the fat rubbed in to breadcrumb size. It can be used as is for pastry (just add water), or add sugar and oats for a crunchy crumble topping.
- stewed/cooked fruit
- breadcrumbs – for toppings on pasta bakes, macaroni cheese etc and for thickening casseroles that are a bit watery.
- chopped sautee’d veggies – Great time-saver. I use the same basic formula to jump start batches of soups/sauces/stews/casseroles, but it can also be varied according to season and preference. Also fab for sneaking in extra vegetable content to soups and sauces. Just remember 1, 2, 3, 4 – 1 onion, 2 carrots, 3 celery sticks, 4 cloves of garlic. Whizz everything in the food processor (or chop finely by hand) and tip into a large pan with 2tbs oil. Cook over gentle heat until you no-longer see steam rising from the pan – this means that all the water has evaporated and all that is left is concentrated, delicious flavour. Cool, then pack into ice cube trays and freeze, decant into a large freezer bag when frozen. Other vegetables to include or swap in: parsnips, swede, turnip, courgette, aubergine, leeks, parsley, sprouts, cabbage,
- caramelised onions
- stock – I find 300ml (1/2 pint) batches the most useful size
- grated cheese – freezing makes cheese crumbly, and having it grated means it’s not too noticable. Freezing also alters the texture of the low fat cheeses like Edam, which makes them a bit more palatable – improves the flavour too. If you find your frozen grated cheese has stuck together in a lump, just give the bag a couple of whacks on the counter top to loosen it up.
Where to find recipes
The internet is your friend – use it to find recipes that can be scaled up easily
The following sites are searchable collections of recipes. The bonus is that the recipes are rated by the people who make them – no need to fret over whether an untried recipe is good or not, when in doubt, do what I do and go for the most popular version!
Not quite as wide ranging, but still good and with rated recipes is
The following two recipe sites are great if you’re seeking inspiration – gorgeous photography from the people who make the dishes themselves. The recipes aren’t rated, so in effect, you’re just going by the photo/blog post – but there are options to see the most popular submissions of the week/month/all-time, which helps.
How to make this happen
Organisation and preparation are the two main factors in getting good food to table quickly. All of the above might seem daunting, but here’s a suggestion on how to go about making a start.
Making a start
- Download the meal planner chart and print off 2 copies: Meal Planner
- Fill in the month and number the days with the correct dates. Do this for the following month as well, so you can still be planning ahead as the month draws to a close:
- Investigate what you currently have in your fridge/freezer and if you already have some meals, pick a day when you’re going to serve them and write them onto the planner. Start with the current week, but there’s no need to cram everything onto the planner as soon as possible. Just having made the decision on what to have on a particular day will eliminate a lot of stress and help focus your mind on that particular day.
- If there are any odds and ends that won’t make a meal in themselves, add them to the ‘Freezer Extras’ section. It’ll act as a reminder to plan something that will use them up.
- Stick the planner on your fridge/freezer where it’s easily seen.
Filling the gaps
Now decide how you’re going to fill in the gaps.These are examples only – choose what your family likes.
- Pick a family favourite to make a large batch e.g. Bolognese sauce.
- Decide how many batches you’re going to make (e.g. I would make 4, because I have some large saucepans) and write them in on the planner. A double batch of a regular recipe is probably easier. If you don’t want to eat it every week, then write it in every other week – this is where having the second month already printed out comes in handy.
- Make the planned batch. I’d put 2 portions in the freezer and make 2 portions into lasagne. Don’t forget to label clearly.
- Repeat until most gaps are filled in.
- Write in the side dishes (potatoes/vegetables/salad) so that you know what to set aside/defrost when doing prep work.
If you’ve got the time/energy/inclination, you can have one massive cooking session over a weekend and get a huge number of meals prepared in one go. This might be too exhausting, so take things gradually. Your fridge/freezer stock-take will hopefully have given you a bit of breathing space in order to get some meals into the freezer. While you’re pondering, boil some rice and/or cook some pasta for the freezer. Caramelise some onions – it’ll take about 45 minutes with occasional stirring – the smell is amazing.
Suggested meals and their follow-ups.
- Roast chicken (oven or slow cooker) -> Chicken and ham pie/ chicken in mushroom sauce/Chicken Divan/ chicken fried rice/Chicken and Corn chowder.
- Beef joint -> cottage pie/beef and mushroom pie(top crust only)/turnovers and pasties/Beef fried rice.
- Lamb joint ->shepherd’s pie/lamb pasties/lamb risotto/curry
- Pork Joint ->pork turnovers & pasties/pie with gravy/pork fried rice
More suggestions for filling in the week’s suppers. As you can see, each ‘theme’ can be interpreted a number of ways, which keeps the family thinking you’re eating something different each night. Together with the above suggestions, there’s more than enough to ring the changes for a whole month. If something comes up and you don’t eat what has been planned (spontaneous take-away/meal out – I’ve heard they do sometimes happen in the magical land of NotInThisHousia), be sure to re-write the meal in on the planner for a later date:
1. Mince – in gravy, as a pasta sauce, dry curry, meatballs in sauce or gravy
2. Eggs – frittata, omelettes, mini quiches, scotch eggs, breakfast casserole
3. Fish – baked/fish pie/fishcakes (made with extra cooked potato)
4. Sausages/fish fingers/burgers – grilled, casserole, gravy
5. Cauliflower cheese/macaroni cheese/oven baked risotto
6. Home-made Takeaway: pizza/curry/stirfry/chicken nuggets
7. Meal-In-A-Bowl Soup with DIY toppings and/or toasty sandwiches
There’s bound to be errors and mistakes, things that need some extra explaining, so PLEASE leave a comment – helpful suggestions too! This is going to be very much a work in progress, and it will only get better if you tell me where I’ve messed up.
Hope this helps! M-A