Strategies to Battle: “I don’t have time to cook”

It was a simple question, posed on Twitter: “When people say, ‘I don’t have time to cook’…what do you think to yourself?”

Responses included:

@SonjaGrosset - Probably the same as me saying, "I don't have time to work out." Excuses, excuses....

@HeatherHAL - I think of what I can do in 45 minutes, which is the average wait time for delivery.

@KimRicketts - Lazy and family/health not a priority

@MelRovins - Get creative, good meals don’t have to take time if you plan.

@Jaydeflix - Since I now work 4x10 + 2 hours of gym, + 30-60 minute commute *and* I need to get a good night sleep, I can believe it.

@CookLocal - I don't believe ppl who work full time jobs + commute can cook every night. I think they can cook often.

The truth is, I enjoy the idea of cooking, but until recently, I did very little cooking. There are a hundred reasons why. I was single and would have leftovers for days. 30 minute meals took me two hours. At heart, I’m a baker. I’d rather spend 2 hours making a cake than making an entre. And of course, as a food professional, wasn’t it my job to keep up on the latest restaurants? In a typical week, I ate out 7 to 10 times a week.

I like to cook…for parties.

Cook on a day-to-day basis?

No thanks.

It seems rather ironic. As the food movement was taking shape around me, I was still dodging dinner.

The Twitter discussion continued, with noted food professionals chiming in. (The following Tweets are extrapolated from that conversation.)

@CookLocal - "Anyone can cook any night, not everyone can cook every night."

@RebekahDenn - Anyone can cook (or learn to cook) but commute/kids/

@RebekahDenn - issues of modern city life mean that it is not always #1 priority. A couple times a week = better than none.

@CookLocal - Yes, and when you do and don't is largely about priorities.

@RebekahDenn - I do wonder how much of this debate is about our definition of "cooking"?

@RebekahDenn - If my kids get fried egg sandwich=cooking, but not pasta with jarred sauce.

@KitchenMage - I love frozen food. MY frozen food. I make vats of soup, chili, marinara, double recipes, freeze half.

While I’ve worked with top-tier chefs, I was ashamed to reveal what I really ate at home. It was comforting to know I wasn’t the only person dealing with these issues, even among my peers.

For me, the pivotal shift occurred last summer. Friends of mine had extremely busy schedules, but they wanted home cooked meals. Would I consider preparing some meals? (Over the years, I've done some informal catering for them.) The idea was daunting. I wasn’t a real caterer. And yet, this would provide an opportunity to cook on a weekly basis, and line my pocket with some much-needed cash.

After a few weeks and a ton of feedback, we narrowed down the goal. Each week, I made 5-7 entrees and 2 side dishes. They rounded out meals with simple salads or vegetables. I spent weekends trolling for recipes and honing that week’s menu. Mondays, I shopped and prepared food for the entire week.

It was a eureka moment that changed my life.

I began to realize, “I don’t have time to cook” really means: “I don’t have time to cook TONIGHT.”

I dreaded cooking on a daily basis, but carving out one or two days a week, working on multiple dishes at a time? That I can do!

These days, I always have something worthwhile in the fridge.

Here’s my strategy:

Double everything. Freeze half.
With minimal effort, this pays big rewards…and ample variety. Currently in my freezer, I’ve got everything from braised pork to French-onion soup base. In the morning, before I walk out the door, I pull something out of the freezer. At long last, now I look forward to dinner at home.

Stockpile soups and braises
Braises take hours—and most of that is unattended cooking time. Once your recipe is at the braising stage, you’ve got time to make a couple more dishes. Think: soups, stews, or a hearty marinara. You’re in the kitchen anyway. A braise in the oven and marinara on the stovetop? This is efficiency at its best.

Make a hearty grain.
Brown rice, barley, and other grains can take up to an hour to cook. This is a perfect time to make a big batch, and nibble on it all week. Whole grains add a heartiness to soups and stews, provide a welcome partner for braises, and serve as the base for deli-style salads and stir-fries.

The night before I cook, I soak a bag of dried beans. Like whole grains, beans become the base for a number of my favorite dishes. I use them in soups and stews, or cook them down to a refried bean consistency and top individual portions with a poached egg. Beans simmered with a smoked ham hock or turkey wing? You’ll be fighting for leftovers!

Once I’ve made the braise, a soup or two, and a pot of grains or beans, I turn my attention to marinades. These pack a wallop of flavor and provide an easy solution for weeknight meals. When I cooked for the family, I made the marinade on Monday, and they used it later in the week for a change of pace. I’d leave a note: Toss the marinade in a Ziploc bag, add your protein. When you’re home from work, throw the meat on the grill or, depending on the recipe, bake it in the oven. Couldn’t be easier!

Oven-roasted veggies
I have never been inspired to eat a whole head of broccoli--that is, until I learned about oven-roasted broccoli. Toss broccoli with olive oil, garlic and a pinch of crushed red pepper and roast in a hot oven…I’m in heaven! This became a launching pad for multiple ideas. From there, I started roasting cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms, carrots…you get the idea. There are two strategies at work here…delayed and instant gratification. Option 1. [Delayed gratification] On the day you cook, prep vegetables by cutting them into bite-sized pieces. Toss in a Ziploc bag, save for later in the week. This becomes a quick side dish with the bulk of prep already done. Option 2: [Instant gratification] Roast the vegetables on the day you cook. Caramelized in the oven, oven-roasted vegetables provide a terrific depth of flavor when you add them to soups and rice or grain-based salads.

Roasted garlic
While you’re roasting things, consider roasting garlic. Pop roasted garlic cloves from the skin, add to a jar and top it off with olive oil. This is my secret weapon that ends up in everything from soups to marinades and salad dressings.

Compound butters
If you implement just one of these strategies, let this be the one. Compound butters offer incredible versatility. Take a softened stick of butter and incorporate flavor builders like herbs, garlic (fresh or roasted), sundried tomatoes, anchovies, etc. Dump your seasoned butter on a sheet of plastic wrap and roll it like a sausage. Slide the compound butter into a freezer bag and voila! You’ve now got flavored butter to top baked fish, tuck under the skin for roast chicken, or lob off a knob and add it to steamed clams, mussels, vegetables, or pasta.

And you? How do you get food on the table?