It’s the 21st century, we are in the middle of a Pandemic, my kid is now my full-time student and my dining room is now my office. Most of us want to cook healthy meals that won't break the bank and will not require four hours on the stove (Sorry Megan, your Zucchini pasta just won’t do). My mother was a firm believer that “We eat to live, not live to eat”. I know right now there’s the whole “Foodie” trend, everyone is now a connoisseur and loves to take pics of their foods and endlessly discuss every morsel on their plate like a judge on Master Chef. But as a busy mom juggling work, home learning, and many other things coming our way (three loads of laundry to be precise) we need meals that can be made between our zoom meetings and before our kid’s next online class.
I’m a big fan of learning quick recipes online, in particular Youtube. One of my favorite channels is called FunCheaporFree by Jordan Paige. Let me tell you, this woman knows how to save money! The main thing she taught me was that there are soooooo many meals you can make ahead and freeze in the comfort of your own home. This simple method of always having freezer meals and pantry staples always on stock means you will always be able to make delicious meals any time of the day.
Some of the easy steps I do to make sure I don’t spend 4 hours in the kitchen making dinner are very simple.
Buy in Bulk
Some people go to the fresh market once a week to buy their meats, fish, and seafood. I learned from a local butcher that meat can actually be stored in the freezer for up to 6 months. Ever since I found that out, I have been buying my proteins at the beginning of the month, and then portion them in small freezer bags to be used later. Some people buy more than a month’s supply and if you have the budget for it, please do, it will save you so much time.
For example, I buy 1 kg of shrimp. I would put them in 4 individual freezer bags and then freeze them. That way, when I want to use them, I just take out 1 bag and cook them. This has saved me so much time! I don’t have to go to the supermarket or order them online every single week. Be on the lookout for items that you need that are on sale. Where I’m at, things that often go on sale are rice, sugar, cooking oil, and cheese. When they go on sale, I tend to buy extra and stock up.
A fully stock pantry doesn’t have to break the bank. Some people have back stock that lasts for months and that’s awesome but if you’re on a budget, and can only stock up what you will use for the month, that’s great as well. Don’t buy things that you will only use for one dish. Example Paprika, unless you plan on making a lot of tacos, I’d skip this all together personally. I find that other staples such as Cumin, Coriander, and Oregano are things I will use in many dishes, so I won’t be buying Paprika just because I feel like making taco that one time. Buy ingredients and items that you will use in a variety of dishes and that will get plenty of usages. Then you can decide whether to buy the big bottle or the small bottle for your pantry.
Another trick I’ve learned is Shelf Cooking. It’s a term that Jordan Paige coined to basically describe cooking with what you’ve got. I know some people like to plan their meal by the week and then go grocery shopping on the weekend for ingredients for what they have planned.
But as a busy single mom, my weekends are usually spent with me recharging. I buy staple items that will last me a month and figure out what to cook based on what I’ve bought. So at the beginning of the month, I will buy my basic staples such as Cheese, Pasta, Rice, Chicken, Fish, and Shrimp. I also make sure to have enough condiments and sauces that I can combine with each other and other staples to make a meal. Such as Soy sauce, Sesame Oil, Fish sauce, Butter / Margarine, Garlic Powder, Worchester Sauce, Honey, Ketchup, and Chili sauce to name a few. I also buy ahead fresh Garlic, Shallots, Onions, and Ginger and keep them in the freezer (yes you can freeze these).
I learned a long time ago that Asian food is some of the easiest and most delicious quick meals out there and they always use the same type of condiments but in different combinations. So by having all the basic oils and sauces, onions, I can whip up a quick meal with a full flavor in under 30 minutes.
Double Your Cooking
If you’re really swamped or just beginning to learn how to cook and have mastered a few basic recipes, then please double your cooking. I know it’s tempting to eat fresh all the time and have different meals for different times but the biggest challenge for me when I’m cooking is not actually the cooking part, but more of the washing, cleaning up, and prepping. And who wants to go through all that ordeal every single mealtime right?
What I do is I always double my portion. So I eat half now and then half for later. This has also helped me not only in saving time but being more productive. It makes a huge difference when after a long day of homeschooling and work, you still need to cook dinner from scratch versus taking out something from the fridge and simply reheating it. Most meals retain their original flavor only for one reheating. That’s why I only do double portions. Plus, you’ll get bored eating the same thing more than twice in a row. I love sweet and sour shrimp, but please don’t ask me to eat it four times in a row.
You don’t have to buy frozen food from the store (which by the way will end up costing the same as getting take out). You can make whatever you want and freeze it. “This is too good to be true” so I thought. But after having freezing items I never thought were freezable, I am now a firm believer in this technique.
One of the things I tried to make in a big batch and freeze were breakfast burritos and pancakes. These, for me, were the ultimate weekend comfort food. But now, I can have them any day of the week. I’m the only one who likes thick fluffy pancakes in my house. So for one person, I make around a dozen pancakes and burritos on the weekend, wrap them in either aluminum foil and wrapping paper, and put them in the freezer. This combination can last me two weeks. I’ve seen people freeze up meals for up to a month. But for me, freezing food that long sometimes leads to freezer burns, so I tend to finish my freezer meals in 2–3 weeks max.
For snacks, I stick to very basic and very simple things that again can be made in advanced and frozen. Chocolate Chip Cookies are my main go tos. You can freeze the dough in the freezer, again in small batches, take them out, pop them in the oven, and voila, fresh cookies ready to go.
Some other snacks that are super simple to make are Chocolate pudding, Cream Caramel, and Banana Fritters. Again these are items that can be put in the fridge for a week and taste delicious the same as the day you made them. I avoid getting ready to eat snacks such as chips, chocolate, or cookies that come in a box since they often have too many ingredients that I prefer not to put into my body. I keep my snacks the same way I keep my wardrobe, classic and simple.
Don’t overcomplicate cooking
You may have watched Julie and Julia and are a big fan (as am I) but please don’t ask me to cook Duck during a weekday (or any day). A lot of Western cooking will call for the use of the oven and some type of baking for 45 minutes, which is why I keep my daily meals in the Asian region. Asian cooking is filled with stir-fried veggies, simple soups, and rough chopping that can be accomplished in under 30 minutes. Take for example my favorite dish of steamed Red Snapper fish with ginger and soy sauce. It only takes 8 minutes to make. I’m not kidding. You only need 8 minutes to steam the fish with Ginger, Spring Onion and make the soy sauce mixture separately. You can’t beat that. And the taste is out of this world!
Other simple meals that are constantly on my rotation are Vegetable soup, Stir-fried vegetables, Tempura, Beef / Chicken Yakiniku, and Teriyaki.
Another approach I take to simple cooking is I try to get close enough to the original flavor or recipe without it being absolute perfection. I’m not competing in MasterChef so if I feel like having vegetable tempura and don’t have the Mirin for the tempura sauce I’m not gonna schlug myself to the store and get a bottle of Mirin. Instead, I will make do with what I have on hand which is soy sauce, and combine it with sugar and water and call it a day.
Often in recipes, you can get away with not having a certain ingredient. The other day I made chicken pot pies that called for lemon juice to be used on the chicken. I didn’t have any on hand so I didn’t use it. The pies still came out fine and I couldn’t tell the difference. I mean yes it probably would have cut that chicken-y taste from the chicken and elevated the pie to restaurant quality but considering my aim was just to have a chicken pot pie at the time, the lemon juice wasn’t a deal-breaker and I was very contented with the pot pie that I had.
The key to always having a great meal comes down to two things: Preparation and Storage (Freezing). It is vital to have all of your pantry staples at the beginning of every month, that will save you a ton of time and money from going back and forth to the store because you just need one item. Yes sometimes you feel like it’s a lot to spend at the beginning of the month or maybe you don’t feel like making that dish, but that’s the great thing about shelf cooking and pantries. You can make any meal anytime you want. You don’t have to make it now, you can make it in a week’s time when you have the urge.
There are so many things that we have to get done in a day, slaving over a hot stove for hours shouldn’t be one of them.