We all know the feeling – the day flashed by in a blur of phone calls, reports and emails and by the time you’ve been to the gym, walked the dog and done the laundry… It’s dinner time.
Our busy lifestyles have contributed to the rise of fast food and ready meals and let’s face it, it’s very tempting to put your feet up and watch Coronation Street, whilst you wait for the doorbell to ring or for the distinct ‘ding’ of a microwave.
However, there are many ways to make getting back into the kitchen feel a lot less daunting – here are our top five tips for making cooking that little bit easier for those living a busy lifestyle:
1. What do you LIKE to Eat?
It’s quite satisfying to get meal ideas together that are simple, healthy and look great on paper but, if it’s not something you’re going to really enjoy, the thought of eating it, let alone cooking it, simply won’t excite you. Before you know it, the pizza delivery man is knocking on the door again as you promise yourself you’ll cook your kale and alfalfa sprout stew tomorrow.
The great thing about home-made food is that it’s totally adaptable to you. Your all-time favourites can be stripped down to basics, reworked and can become fast, delicious and healthier versions of themselves.
Try to think about recipes differently and make food that inspires you!
2. Make Your Kitchen Work for You
If you want to cook super-quick, super-easy meals, you need to equip yourself. Forget the mountain of crockpots, stock pots, casserole dishes and other pots and pans that are collecting dust in your cupboard – to make your kitchen more efficient, take everything back to the basics.
With nothing more than a good-sized saucepan, large frying pan, a baking tray and a wok, (choose the appropriate sizes depending on how many people you cook for on a daily basis) you are able to make a wealth of great dishes – this is your basic weeknight kitchen arsenal.
Hate all the chopping, peeling, slicing and dicing that comes with cooking dinner? Investing in a food processor with peeling and chopping attachments can be a life changer, cutting down your preparation time considerably. However, if this isn’t for you, make sure that you have some sharp knives to hand!
3. Be Strategic with Leftovers
Let’s talk leftovers… It’s Monday, you cooked a little too much roast lamb yesterday, what are you going to do with what’s left? Make a sandwich? Give it to the dog? Throw it away? As a busy cook, it’s time to see your leftovers as an ingredient, not an inconvenience.
Leftover lamb can become shepherds pie. Leftover chicken can become spicy chicken fajitas. Leftover beef can become chunky chilli con carne.
The same goes for your veggies: leftover sprouts and cabbage stir-fried with chilli and garlic make for a great cheat side dish, leftover roasted vegetables are great for bulking out sauces and soups, and day old mashed potatoes can be easily made into fish cakes, fritters, potato cakes… You name it!
The list really is endless and the fact that the ingredients are already cooked reduces the overall cooking time for your meal.
So, if you’re cooking a Sunday roast or any meal for that matter, deliberately making too much can truly save you some time come teatime the following day.
4. Wok ’n’ Roll
Chinese takeaway food has gained itself a bad reputation with its fluorescent, gloopy, MSG laden sauces – but real, authentic Chinese cuisine can be fresh, healthy and ultra speedy to prepare, not to mention entirely delicious.
The humble stir-fry is your fast food secret weapon. A repertoire of a few stir-fried dishes is invaluable to the busy cook and the vast variety of dishes you can rustle up in a wok means you can never get bored. The fact that some can be prepared in a mere 10 minutes means that there is no excuse for picking up that take away menu.
Fuchsia Dunlop, Ken Hom and Ching He Huang have all written fantastic recipes that are perfect for busy people and accessible to cooks of all levels.
Yes, the lists of exotic ingredients you need to create real Chinese dishes at home can be daunting, but many are now available in larger supermarkets. Keeping a few in your store cupboard means you will always be able to create something fast and delicious, and they will also last you quite a long time if stored correctly.
5. Be Smart When You Shop
The key to fast cooking is preparation and this extends to what you have at your disposal in your fridge, cupboards and freezer. Ingredients that add flavour to dishes, have a long shelf life and are easy to use will always come in handy.
Make sure you have a small selection of herbs and spices in your store cupboard – try to only buy ones that you know you will use regularly. In addition to this, things like dried noodles and risotto rice are ideal go-to ingredients for easy meals for when you fancy something a bit different. Jarred ingredients can also be ‘flavour bombs’ that really elevate a quick meal to a new level, for example, olives, capers, sun-dried tomatoes and curry pastes can all transform a recipe in a heartbeat.
Your freezer can also be a lifesaver when cooking in a hurry. Frozen chopped garlic, ginger, chillies and onions will always be a welcome addition to your meals, as will other handy frozen ingredients such as stocks, frozen fish/seafood and vegetables.
It is also worth having some ‘stand by’ meals in the freezer: pies, lasagnes and casseroles all freeze extremely well and can be defrosted and popped into the oven in a food emergency… or when you just want to sit back with a hot cup of tea after a long day.
Cooking after work needn’t be a chore – enjoy it! Making quick, tasty and nutritious food is entirely achievable for even the busiest of people. If you get yourself prepared and use a dash of creativity, there is no end to the wonderful meals you can create.