Does the thought of cooking dinner tonight make you shudder? Do you dread prepping breakfast and lunches each week? You're not alone. Most of us have some level of stress and anxiety about bringing a meal together. After all, there are a ton moving pieces: chopping, cooking, seasoning, timing, running back and forth. It's a lot to keep track of, and a lot to manage.
To "help", food companies have developed all these products that are supposed to make our lives easier. Frozen meals, sauces in a jar or packet, boxed side dishes, all inventions to take the stress out of cooking. But, products like these are expensive, loaded with salt and sugar and preservatives, and are usually no where near as delicious as the homemade stuff.
What if I told you that there are simple tips and techniques that make cooking from scratch just as easy as using those convenience foods? I've compiled 5 of my favorite cooking shortcuts that will save you time, money, and energy. With less to worry about, you can relax a bit and begin to enjoy being in your kitchen.
I feel like frozen veggies have gotten a bad reputation over the years. In fact, frozen veggies are one of the most affordable ways to get fresh, high quality produce on your dinner table.
It's a common myth that frozen veggies are not as nutritious as fresh. While nothing beats fresh veggies picked right from the farm or garden, frozen veggies can be an excellent source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Frozen veggies are picked when they are at the peak of ripeness and are quickly frozen. While the processing to get them to the freezer can cause some loss of certain vitamins, the same can be said about fresh veggies that are picked before they are ripe and stored for a while as they are in transport to the market and waiting for you to purchase them.
One thing to remember is that the freezing and reheating process causes some changes in the texture of veggies. You'll never get a crisp green bean from the freezer, there's just no way around that. But some veggies survive the freezer amazingly well: peas, carrots, corn for example. For other veggies, it just depends on the dish you're making. Frozen kale, spinach or collard greens work great in a soup or frittata, and frozen asparagus or mushrooms are perfect for risotto or pasta dishes.
Using veggies from the freezer saves you valuable time washing and chopping. You also know you're getting really flavorful veggies because they were picked at peak ripeness. Plus, even organic veggies are more affordable when you buy frozen!
Using chicken, beef or vegetable broth in your dishes adds a TON of flavor. You can boost the flavor of plain rice just by cooking in broth instead of water. I love adding broth to sauces or stir fries for richness. And homemade soup comes together super quick by using store bought broth. But how often do you actually use a whole carton?? Maybe you use half, and then the other half sits in your refrigerator, you forget about it, and then 2 weeks later you have a bloated, stinking mess. Sound familiar? This was my life, until I discovered concentrated bouillon.
This has to be in my top 5 favorite things in my kitchen. My favorite brand, "Better than Bouillon", makes a variety of concentrated bases, including organic chicken, beef, mushroom and vegetable bases. Just add a tiny amount to water and you instantly have a delicious broth. The jar gets stored in the refrigerator, and seems to last forever, so you don't have to worry as much about it going bad. These concentrates are certainly not low sodium, so a little goes a LONG way, and when I cook with this concentrate I rarely need to add additional salt.
Using this kind of concentrated bouillon is an easy way to add a ton of flavor to your meals with hardly any effort. Making your own broth is something I love to do, but on weeknights or when I'm busy, this product is my go-to for making my dinner extra flavorful.
Cook Rice Like Pasta
Rice cookers take all the guess work out of making rice, but they take up a lot of valuable counter and cabinet real estate, and sometimes your rice can come out gummy or crunchy. I personally have never been a fan, especially after I learned this tip.
The usual way to make rice involves boiling a specific amount of water, adding a specific amount of rice, covering and cooking the rice until the perfect moment when all the water is absorbed. It really does require some skill to get it just right. In my kitchen, I inevitably end up leaving the stove on a little too high, and I get water boiling over everywhere. Not fun.
Now the "pasta" method. Boil water in a pot, as much as you'd like. Add rice, as much as you'd like. Boil the rice until it tastes done. Usually it takes half the normal time. Drain the rice in a strainer (like this), return to the pot, and cover with a lid until you're ready to eat. That's it! No stressing about how much water or rice, finding the right temperature to keep the rice at a simmer, worrying about overcooking the rice and burning it. Plus, with this method, you're rice will cook so much faster! It's truly amazing.
Keep it "Rustic"
Stop peeling your vegetables. Period. It's a waste of time. It takes energy, and creates more dishes and garbage. There are lots of nutrients in the peels of veggies, so just wash your veggies really well and embrace the rustic look!
And since we're on the topic of rustic, don't stress about cutting your veggies up all the same size. Most cooking shows and chefs will tell you that it's absolutely essential that your carrots are all diced to be uniform and perfect, because if not, they'll cook unevenly and dinner will be ruined. But, in reality, who cares if one piece of carrot is a little more or less cooked than it's neighbor? As long as they're all chopped to be of SIMILAR size, not the SAME size, you'll be good to go.
When you're stuck in a meal rut, one of the easiest ways to add some excitement to your food is with different herbs and spices. Spice blends, whether you make them yourself or buy a pre-blended mix, add a ton of flavor and make your dish really unique. Even on a busy weeknight, a plain chicken breast or bag of frozen broccoli can be transformed into something magical and exciting, just by using spices.
Check out my recipe for an amazing Sweet & Spicy BBQ Rub, which is great on meats, veggies, or fish. My favorite spice blends to purchase are from Penzeys Spices, they are fresh, flavorful, and really high quality. When buying spice blends, be sure to check out the nutrition label to see how much sodium is in there, and try to choose a low sodium option as often as possible. If there is a lot of sodium in the blend, avoid adding extra salt to your meal until the very end after you taste it. The extra salt in the spice blend may mean you don't need to add any more.
What's your favorite cooking shortcut? Let me know in the comments!
*Title photo by Igor Miske on Unsplash