Monday, February 25, 2013

No time for scratch cooking? Think again.

So, you think you don't have time to cook from scratch? I'm here to tell you that you do. I know, you have a busy schedule--you have a full time job, you have kids, you have pets, etc. Well, many of us do and many of us still manage scratch cookery. It isn't as hard or time consuming as you may think.

No matter what the diet you choose you will most likely be told to eat fresh and to avoid processed foods, unless the diet consists of processed prepared meals such as Weight Watchers and many others.  The only exception to the no-processed food laws are found when you are told to use fat-free mayo, cheese, and the like or if you subscribe to Atkins and have their products, which are all heavily processed, dangled in front of your eyes--even their recipes call for Atkins processed products.

It's hard to get away from processed foods, and when I say processed, I'm not talking about everything because foods like oils, butters, and many more require some amount of processing. I'm talking about the ones that require additives and extra chemicals to make them look and taste like actual food.

The most important thing you can do is to plan and prepare in advance. Yes, everyone tells us how important that is and there is a reason for it--it works.  Advanced planning and preparation can save you time and money making it possible to cook or prepare fresh healthy meals every day.

Look, I don't have a maid or a personal chef or any help at all.  I am up at 4:30 every morning (personal choice because I love the early morning), having my coffee and lacing up my running shoes. Next comes the run. I run almost every morning for about an hour to an hour and a half.  I take the dogs so this provides their exercise as well. 

I run a small baking business that takes up several hours of the day, but while things are in the oven it allows me time to do other things.  I have a 4 bedroom house to clean and here in the desert it must get done daily, I do my laundry--all of it--by hand, plus do the marketing for fresh fruits and vegetables every day.  In the midst of all of this I must also find time to do my online courses, write my books, take my Spanish lessons with a neighbor, teach English during the winter months two evenings a week, crochet, knit, weave, along with making time for my husband and other things I'm sure I've forgotten to mention.

This does not make me superwoman. It makes me super organized. Believe it or not, I am usually done with everything and relaxing by 7 pm most days.  I still have plenty of time for pleasure reading, social networking, or watching movies, and getting to bed by 10 pm.  I am not moving about at a frantic pace nor am I breathless with exertion. I am just organized and methodical. This didn't happen overnight. It took me a long time to become this organized but I found what works for me.

The most important part of organization is planning.  Trust me, without a plan my life would be a disorganized mess--a nightmare from which I would never awaken.  The plan came along slowly as did the increase in activities and much of the planning came quite by accident.  I'd be baking and need to finish a blanket or something else I was working on and say to myself... "hey, those cakes are going to be X amount of time." So, instead of watching TV or sitting around doing nothing, I would take that time to work on a craft or start the housework. It grew from there. The baking would be done and it would still be before noon most days so while things were cooling and waiting to be packaged for delivery, I could walk to the farmer's stand near my home buy what I needed for lunch, dinner, and the next day's baking get back home and start making lunch.

When I realized I was spending way too much time in the kitchen preparing meals and getting precious little else done during the afternoon and starting to feel overwhelmed because I was getting behind on other things or cancelling classes, etc., I realized that a lot of what I was doing was the same thing I had done the day before and the day before that. This is when I decided that I could start doing many things in advance and there'd be no problems. 

I buy my onions, garlic, bell peppers, tomatoes, and some salad vegetables for the week.  I chop these items that I use every day all at once, put them in air tight containers and pop them in the fridge. I can buy my fruit for personal consumption, wash them and put them in a covered fruit bowl and they are ready to eat. You wouldn't believe the amount of time that saves. Doing this every day means you have to wash, chop, and clean your work area every day. Doing it in advance means you don't and it is the clean up that takes the most amount of time--for me, anyway.  

Now, when I go to the farmer's stand on the corner, I just get whatever I need for that day only. I use a salad spinner to quickly wash my green leafy vegetables that used to take a lot of time and waste a lot of water before I started using one. Now I just take my kale, Swiss chard, and spinach, toss it in the salad spinner with enough water to cover it, spin it, drain, spin it again until no more dirt or sand is left and then spin it dry. It takes only a few minutes and these dried greens will keep perfectly fine in the fridge for a few days and be ready when you need them for salads or for cooking. 

Hot breakfast cereal? Great! I love it. Each weekend when I'm chopping onions, peppers, and the like and doing so much of my other do-aheads, I take a few hundred grams of shredded coconut (without sugar) and cover it with boiling water and give it a good stir and then let it sit until it comes to room temperature. Squeeze the coconut and what you have left is coconut milk. Pop that in a container and put half in the fridge and half in the freezer along with the coconut you used to make the milk. Now, both are ready to use for a super, duper, grain-free porridge that I make with the coconut, coarsely ground almonds, walnuts, and fresh fruit. You can grind these nuts on your prep day and put them in an airtight container and then scoop them out just before you make your breakfast porridge. Chop the fruits or wash the berries during your prep and you can have a filling, nutritious, low carb breakfast every day in just a matter of minutes. Not allergic to or don't object to using regular milk? Well, you can skip the whole making coconut milk part and just put the nuts and shredded coconut in a small pot with milk and cook until the fruit is hot. Easy peasy. 

Get yourself one or two whole chickens. Roast them. Take the meat from the bones, which are now roasted, and use those bones to make the richest stock on earth. This stock can be used for soups, stews, or cooking liquid for so many things.  Cooking the stock doesn't have to be a chore because you can put it on and let it simmer away with some onions, garlic, celery, and a carrot or two, then go about your business doing other things.  The meat from the chicken can be used in your salads or in casseroles. Shred or chop it and pop it in the fridge or freezer. Once your stock is made, strain it and put the liquid into containers and freeze or refrigerate. 

Homemade tomato sauces and soups are easy too. Rough chop those tomatoes add some water and let them simmer away. Use a stick blender to blend them right in the pot for a smooth sauce or cook them longer and mash as you go for a chunkier sauce or soup. Easy. Of course, I know that in some places tomatoes aren't as cheap as they are here (so cheap they're practically free) and you may not be able to afford to buy 8 or 10 pounds to make sauce. Feel free to buy canned sauces but check the ingredients. You wouldn't believe what they put in that stuff! Wheat in tomato soup? In tomato sauce? Yep, some companies do that.  Even if you buy canned stewed tomatoes, please check the label and make sure you aren't getting wheat or corn or sugar along with the tomatoes.

Pumpkin. Super duper food and in many countries you can buy it canned, year-round.  I think Libby's is a brand that is just pumpkin. It's for more than pies and sweet treats. I eat pumpkin puree several times each week but I have to cook it every weekend.  We can buy pieces of pumpkin here at the farmer's market all year-round and have it fresh.  When you can get it fresh, it is worth the effort to cook it. So, when you're getting your pumpkins for carving this Halloween, grab a few extra for cooking. You'll see. Nothing tastes quite so good as fresh pumpkin AND very few vegetables have as much nutrition.

Keep your meals simple.  There are many chefs that will tell you that you don't need a million ingredients to make a good meal and that often times the more simple meals are the best.  I have found a great deal of truth to that.  I also found that if I make enough for more than one meal the leftovers often taste better than the first round because the flavors have had a chance to marry.  

Use the freshest and best ingredients you can afford and if possible, buy local and seasonal. The gold standard for eating is: local, fresh, and seasonal.  I know many of you would also say "organic."  Then there are those who will say "I can't afford organic," to which the first group would say "you can't NOT afford organic," and the debate rages on and on.  Firstly, not all of us KNOW if something is organic. Here, in Chile, when you go to the agricultural markets the vendors have no clue. There are no laws here that say it is required to disclose this. So far, nothing has killed me. Then, I've also read that much of what is sold in other countries that is labeled as organic is not really organic at all. 

My take on this whole debate is this: Buy the best and freshest you can afford. If you really don't have it in your budget to shell out for organic this or organic that, don't feel like you are going to fail at this lifestyle and just give up.  I personally believe the dangers of eating wheat, oats and, depending on your genetics, other grains, far outweighs the potential hazards of eating non-organic foods or those that aren't labeled as organic.  As I said, my health has improved drastically--nay, miraculously--and I have no clue as to whether or not my food is organically grown or not. 

So, plan ahead, prepare ahead, keep meals simple, make more than enough for one meal, buy the best and freshest and preferably local, and you'll find it isn't that hard or time consuming to do some great scratch cooking. 

Until next time.


  1. This is so thorough! I'm currently in the "knowing it'd be so much easier if I did advance prep on the weekends but always putting it off and winding up having to do it all every day instead" stage. Hopefully I can kick it because I know using tips like these will save me lots of time and energy.

    1. Thank you!
      I understand and I have so been where you are. Trust me, it is easier to say than to do, until you start doing it and then you can't understand why you never did it to begin with.
      What's really funny is that just when I think I could not add another thing to my schedule, I find a way to add it in. It seems that if you want or need to do something enough, you will always find the time.

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