For me, the biggest challenge to eating paleo is the time commitment required for preparing and cooking everything we eat. The loss of convenience foods, including prepackaged foods, easy frozen meals, take-out and delivery, means alot more time in the kitchen. Although, it also happens to mean some money saved. In general, the more time you invest in food preparation, the more money you save. For example, the less a butcher has to work for your cut of meat, the cheaper it is (a whole chicken is a lot cheaper per pound than a chicken butchered into legs, thighs, breast and wings). If you do that work yourself, you save money. But how do you find the time? I could easily suggest that you buy your meat cut exactly how you want it or that you buy your fruits and vegetables pre-chopped, but then you’d be spending more money. If you have the money to spend, go for it. I don’t. I have time. But, even as a stay-at-home mom, I don’t have that much time and I can still get easily overwhelmed. So, I’ve assembled a list of tricks that I use to be efficient in the kitchen.
Plan ahead. Having a sense of what you are going to cook over the next week will help you save time (and be more efficient in the grocery store!). If you know that you’re going to need a meal of leftovers one night because you won’t have time to cook that night, you can plan for that. If you know you’re going to need to do some baking for a picnic lunch, you can make sure you find time in the days before. You don’t need to have everything mapped out to the last detail, but having some idea of what you will eat each day can be extraordinarily helpful.
Roasting is fast, easy and the meat lasts a few meals. My favorite way to cook meat is to roast a big hunk of it. Whole chicken, whole turkey and pork roasts are the most economical, followed by boneless leg of lamb and then roast beef. If you are near a farm, you might be able to get some goose, duck, goat, ostrich, emu, venison, or bison too. I don’t do much other than put some simple seasoning over the surface of the meat and stick it in the oven at the appropriate temperature for the appropriate length of time (most comprehensive cookbooks will have a table with oven and meat temperatures times as well as approximate cooking times but be aware that grass-fed meats often cook faster). The best part about this is that the meat lasts a few meals, can be frozen for quick meal later if you don’t want to eat it 5 nights in a row (for most meats, that’s the longest you should keep it in the fridge after cooking it). You can change up the meal by cooking some different veggies on subsequent nights, or even by using the meat for a stir-fry or curry later in the week. If you have a large enough oven, you can also multitask by roasting some vegetables at the same time.
Have a repertoire of quick meals for during the week. I have certain meals which I know are easy to prepare that we like to have mid-week. These are typically things like tacos, meatballs, roasts (you have to put them in the oven early, but they don’t take much prep), dinner salads, poached fish, and stir fries (which require more prep, but I try and fit that in earlier in the day). During the week is also a great time for a crock-pot meal, although you need to plan ahead. Breakfast for dinner nights are also a great option for saving both time and money. You can go classic with some sausage, bacon and eggs or do something like a frittata. And because I like to freeze one meal’s worth of leftovers when I make a big batch of something, this is another great option for nights when I’m really low on time.
Leftovers are your friend. I never make a single batch of anything, except maybe fish because it tends not to reheat that well (but in the summer, we’ll enjoy leftovers cold). Get in the habit of doubling or tripling recipes. A couple of large pots or frying pans can be very helpful for this. Leftovers don’t necessarily need to be for supper the next night. They also make great lunches and even breakfasts. I even make extra when I scramble eggs; they reheat well enough that my kids will still eat them and I save alot of time on those mornings that I don’t need to cook anything.
The freezer is for more than just raw meat. If you haven’t invested in a Freezer yet, I highly advise that you do so. Not only will this allow you to save some money by buying in bulk and taking advantage of sales (maybe buy a quarter grass-fed cow?), but it’s also a great place to store one meal’s worth of leftovers when you make a big batch of something that you can thaw and reheat for a quick mid-week meal. I especially like to freeze soups and stews, but I also freeze roasted meat and any casserole-type or one-pot meals I make.
Do food prep earlier in the day (or the night before). I often grab a few minutes here and there scattered throughout the day to do my food prep. Maybe I peel and chop yams while my kids are having a snack. If we’re going to have a stir-fry, I find time scattered throughout the day to chop veggies, mince garlic, thaw some bone broth, soak dried mushrooms, etc. I also often use the feature on my oven where I can set the start time. If I know we’re having roast chicken for supper but we’re going to be out at my daughter’s ballet class right when it should be going into the oven, I get it ready a little early (not too early because that would invite salmonella issues), stick it in the oven and then set the start time.
Multitask and be opportunistic. When I am devoting some time to cooking, I often add something extra for some paleo baking or something I know I will need for the next day. For example, if I know that I will want to bake broccoli-banana muffins tomorrow, I might incorporate steamed broccoli into tonight’s dinner and make enough for the muffins too. If I’m steaming some vegetables for supper, which doesn’t require much work but does require me to be in the kitchen, I might use that time to make some trail mix, or make some cookie dough that can be baked the next day when I have more time. Or if I’m baking cookies in the morning, I might put together a salad for lunch or supper that night. I try and do as many things as once as I can manage without messing anything up (or getting too stressed, which is not the goal here!). I’m also opportunistic when it comes to grabbing time to cook or bake. For example, if supper winds up quicker than usual, I might whip up a batch of muffins to bake while we’re getting the kids ready for bed.
Set aside some special cooking time. This is especially useful if you are doing any paleo baking for yourself or kids. I typically end up spending most of Sunday afternoons cooking and baking for the week ahead. It would be typical for me to bake a loaf of paleo bread, bake some muffins or granola bars, bake a batch of waffles (using the recipe from The Paleo Parents’ Eat Like a Dinosaur) and make a no-cook cookie or bar (homemade larabars, recipes coming soon). It’s also a good night for a supper that might take a bit more time to prepare.
Practice: The more you practice time-saving strategies, the more natural, easy and efficient they become. Think of the first time you tried a recipe and how much work is seemed. Now that you make that recipe every week, you don’t even need to measure anything anymore. It’s the same with everything you do in the kitchen: practice makes perfect. And this is why my new mantra is:
It’s only effort until it’s routine.