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Learning, Sharing, and Teaching => Ask a Mustachian => Topic started by: shelivesthedream on April 26, 2015, 12:21:53 PM

Title: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: shelivesthedream on April 26, 2015, 12:21:53 PM
I'm finding it hard to get into a routine with cooking that involves real, healthy meals on the table at a reasonable time each night. Too often, I don't start thinking about it until seven (we like to eat at eight), discover there is no food in the fridge, then panic and end up making a quick pasta dish. I'd like to get into a better routine about planning and executing cooking, especially as we are trying to eat more fruit and vegetables.

Problem 1: Storage
We live in a small flat with a tiny freezer and nowhere to put another one, so although I would love to batch cook and freeze for the future, I cannot do that on a large scale. Subtracting some space for frozen peas and things, I end up with enough space for about four meals in the freezer, which is nice but not enough to make a big difference to our lives. Cupboard space is OK, and fridge space OK too (we shop little and often as we have no car).

Problem 2: Food preferences
My husband is an adventurous eater (much more so than I am!) and has two simple (and, I think, reasonable) requests when it comes to dinner: variety and flavour. I am very happy to eat the same meal for a few days in a row, but he simply will not eat today what he had yesterday. Again, this would not be a problem if I could batch cook and freeze as he would have the whole freezer to choose from, but at the moment it means cooking a totally new meal every day. He also hates bland food (steamed vegetables are anathema!) which is not the way I grew up eating, so I do sometimes struggle to think of things he will like (curry, we have established, is good). He can be a bit faddish, leading him  Apart from this, he will eat pretty much anything, while I tend to avoid spicy food and lots of meat, and am intolerant to onions and garlic (there goes that flavour thing again...)

Problem 3: Lack of routine for me
My husband is studying so during term time I do most of the cooking and during the holidays it reverses. It's term time now, and I am struggling already to think of things to cook. When I was growing up, my parents did Pasta Monday, Chicken Tuesday, and so on. I think I could get away with this on a three-week cycle, maybe even two weeks, without his taste buds revolting, but it seems so hard to sit down and plan it all out. I am not very good at routines in general in my daily life, and so don't really have a daily structure I can fit it into, which is why it all tends to happen on the fly. I work freelance, so don't have much of an office-based routine. The only thing I have managed thus far is baking bread every Sunday morning while my husband is at church, because I know that happens at the exact same time every week!

Problem 4: Lack of cooking experience
I'm an OK cook, but only for the things I grew up eating, which were mostly vegetarian and repetitive and quite bland by my husband's standards! I am very willing to learn and experiment, but I think this is contributing to my problem in that I can't just think up new things to do - I tend to stick to my old favourites. I also grew up vegetarian which means that, while I now eat some meat and fish (and enjoy them!), I don't really know how to cook them as I didn't eat them during the crucial late-teen learning-to-cook years.

I would really love to hear about how you fit cooking into your lives and what routines you use to make it go more smoothly.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: swick on April 26, 2015, 12:46:09 PM
I would check out Jamie Oliver's "Save with Jamie" or "Jamie's money saving meals" series I think it is basically the same, but with a different name over here vs. the UK. His "Save with Jamie" book is also good too. Mostly because he deals with a lot of the problems you mention and, is tailored to the UK. The premise basically is cook a Sunday roast and be creative/inventive with the leftover meat to make new and exciting dishes. Might fit in well with your Sunday schedule. He also has loads of tips for adding flavour, using up leftovers, making the most of space and pantry ingredients.
Title: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: pbkmaine on April 26, 2015, 01:11:38 PM
Take a look at She cooks from scratch every night at very low cost, and many of her meals are vegetarian. Also a British website:
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Catbert on April 26, 2015, 01:14:48 PM
Try to come up with a few more quick fall back dishes in addition to pasta (e.g., frittata, soup, lentils, burritos).

With regard to your spicy/non-spicy tastes look for dishes where you can vary the spicy level by servicing sauce on the side.  For example, can you cook veggies and meat, remove 1/2 for you and then continue cooking your husband's portion in curry sauce?   Or with tacos and burritos the hot sauce can be added in final assembly.

Ah, variety.    Well one suggestion is for him to make his own damn food.  On a nicer level, swick had a good suggestion for getting creative with leftovers.  Or make double of a typical meal and freeze half.  Serve the second half the following week to free up freezer space.  Or you could take the second half and divide into individual lunch size portions for you to eat.

Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: MLKnits on April 26, 2015, 01:49:42 PM
If he wants variety, he can take over the cooking. (Or he can do whatever "adventurous" things he wants for breakfast and lunch, and then damned well be happy to eat any dinner you put in front of him.)

My cooking is very limited-repertoire but definitely keep frozen veggies on hand--they  mean you always have SOMETHING healthy available, even if you forgot to pick up produce, and you can still do them a variety of ways (my default is to saute in some butter, versus the usual, and admittedly healthier, steaming option).

Do you have any friends who cook, but who aren't obsessive about it? I find foodie friends and home-chef friends useless ("oh, just braise a quick [something french I've never heard of] in [sauce I'm vaguely aware exists at fancy restaurants], it's the easiest thing in the world!") but people who just do regular cook-for-the-family stuff like you are hugely helpful. I cook my lunches for the week on Sunday, and this week, inspired by a regular-cooker coworker, is penne with rapini, garlic, and sausage. Delicious, pretty easy, and something I would NEVER have made without a human being going "oh yeah, it's great and simple" to my face. Googling recipes does not have that benefit.

Can you lay in a supply of flavour additions, like feta and chili powder, so you only have to make a rotation of "base" meals and then he can toss flavour/variety into it each time it's on the table?

Honestly, though: a week's rotation of basic meals is 100% reasonable. If he wants more, he can make half the meals (or all of them). Ta-da: variety.

Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: CommonCents on April 26, 2015, 02:05:40 PM
Menu plan on the weekend, purchasing necessary foods for the week so you don't have an "oh shit!" moment in the fridge at 7pm.  (Shop meals based on the sales.)

I bet you could rotate meals on a 1.5 week schedule and he wouldn't really notice as long as you didn't do the same dish every Monday night.  Vary up where it hits in the week.

What does he mean by wanting flavor?  For example, a lot of veggies are delicious grilled with a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper and depending, lemon or lime juice.  (I add lemon to asparagus but not peppers, for example - just when you need the acidic bite.)  Also try experimenting with toppings for the flavor punch.  I don't like steamed broccoli, but I'll eat it with some cheese on top.

Eat fresh peas and you have space for another frozen meals.  (Although 4 frozen meals still gets you quite a ways through the week.)
Try a new recipe once a week until you have enough favorites that you no longer feel the need to it regularly.  For healthy recipes, I really like  Last night, I had with and grilled asparagus for my dad's birthday.  Click recipes, and you can browse by main item, time of meal and specialty requirements like gluten-free.  Some favorite meals for us from it are a Black Bean Mango Salsa on a teri chicken (teri chicken is a family recipe) and Zesty Lime Shrimp and Avocado salad (leave off the onion on both).

Are you actually intolerant of onions and garlic, or do you just not care for it?  If it's that you just don't like it, then with love, I'm telling you to try to work on that.  I grew up with no garlic in the house, because apparently my grandfather didn't like it (so my grandmother never cooked it, and thus my mom never learned to cook with it).  Now, it's a pretty big staple for me.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: shelivesthedream on April 26, 2015, 02:28:41 PM
Just a quick check-in on a few misunderstandings:

He DOES do half the cooking, just we effectively split it that he does all the cooking half the year (university holidays) and I do it the other half (term time). I've just had a month of hardly entering the kitchen except to ask what's for dinner. And I don't think a bit of variety is an unreasonable request - it's just if left to my own devices I would literally eat the same meal for days in a row, which I am aware is not usual.

I'm not particularly asking about cost, more about how to cook the food once you've bought it when you also have to work, clean, have a bit of time to yourself...

Yes, I am genuinely intolerant to onions and garlic (and leeks, shallots, etc - all members of the allium family). This causes me great sadness as they are absolutely delicious! I can take a bit of garlic-infused oil, but anything more than that and my insides go haywire. This also means we cannot buy almost all prepared food, from sauces to entire ready meals, and so have to cook properly - no popping some chickpeas in a ready-made curry sauce or having fish in white sauce out of a jar. We can't even bail and have a takeaway if we don't feel like cooking!

I've not lived in a self-contained household for long (graduated from postgrad last year having lived in halls and then at home) and somehow missed out on that 'learning basic household management' thing that everyone else seems to do, so I am trying to catch up.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Rural on April 26, 2015, 02:49:21 PM
You might get the best use of your limited freezer space in using it for multi-meal batches of sauces. You could even reduce them so they take less space, then add water when you defrost.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Noodle on April 26, 2015, 04:07:54 PM
OK, here's my suggestion. Go to the used bookstore with your husband and pick out about three cookbooks that have fairly simple recipes that he thinks he would like. (I would normally suggest a few titles here, but I don't know how available or useful they'd be in the UK). Take some time with a box of sticky notes and tag a bunch of things that look good to you and in your capabilities, and (optional step) then have him take out the ones that he doesn't like the looks of. At whatever interval you shop (I go once a week, but you mention that you go pretty frequently) pull out the books and randomly pick as many tags as you need meals. Don't think all your meals have to be new recipes...sometimes you just want to get food on the table, so keep including some of those old favorites. Go get the ingredients and then make sure you put a note somewhere obvious (phone, fridge, whatever) as to what you're making. It's amazing how easily you forget a menu plan under stress. After you cook something, you and DH decide if it's a keeper or not. If not, make a note on the page and trash the sticky note. Eventually, you will have a bigger repertoire of tested recipes to draw on. When you exhaust a cookbook, go get another one.

It's also handy to be able to whip up improv meals (open fridge, create food) but I think that came to me when I was a bit more advanced cook.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Jakejake on April 26, 2015, 04:34:55 PM
Is there a way you can cook a main item and repurpose it different ways over a few days to save time? For example, cook chicken on day one, day two leftovers become chicken burritos, day three some of the chicken becomes a chicken curry, then chicken strips on a big salad or in pasta the next day. It would cut down on the amount of actual cooking you need to do; the followup days would be more of assembling and reheating. The freezer could even be used for the cooked basic meat chunks, and would take less space than trying to freeze a whole dish.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Annamal on April 26, 2015, 04:59:37 PM
1) Hare Krisha food is not supposed to have garlic or onion  and (judging  by their local restaurant) they manage to make very flavourful food. I would suggest scouting some of their recipes for flavours and spice combinations.

2) Could you cook up a base ingredient like felafel and serve it in different ways each night (i.e. we often have burgers one night, donner kebabs the next, very different flavour profiles but most of the cooking has already been done). I think JakeJake just suggested the same thing.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Erica/NWEdible on April 26, 2015, 05:09:36 PM
Yeah, stop trying to "cook from scratch" every night. That's your problem. I am one of those obnoxious foodie chef types, and I don't even have the patience for that. What I do is prepare meal components on Sunday for the upcoming week.

Here's what that looks like...assuming a varied omnivorous diet, you are going to need some veg, some starch and some protein. All veg can be cleaned and either blanched or roasted to be eaten throughout the week. A pot of rice, a pot of pasta and a pot of wheat berries or something can all be cooked and tucked aside. Chicken thighs can be marinated (try marinating in yogurt and tandoori spice blend), a steak can be seared, tofu can be marinated in teriyaki. Make a few complete-meal salads. I just did one that was wheat berries, garbanzo beans, artichoke hearts and chard. That'll keep for days and days. But whatever - make components you will eat.

All this stuff then turns your fridge into a meal-component deli case. So, when it's time to cook, you're looking at maybe 10 or 15 minutes because you are just combining or finishing meals, not going start-to-finish every night. Simple basics can get "tweaked" into many meals by just adjusting a sauce or spice at the end.

This method will save you on clean up time, too. Good luck!
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Returnoftheyeti on April 26, 2015, 06:00:48 PM
Try Blue Apron.  Some on here will argue that it's expensive, but I think the routine and training is worth it.  You get 3x meals per week.  All ingredients are provided, and comprehensive cooking directions are provided. 
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Kwill on April 26, 2015, 07:11:37 PM
I'm interested in seeing the replies here. I didn't start cooking until after college, and then it was a hard transition. I've learned enough in the years since then to be happy enough feeding myself, but I still don't feel confident about cooking for other people.

Bacon is nice to have on hand. A little bit adds a lot of flavor. It might make up for the kinds of flavors you lose from not having onions & related vegetables. I don't have it on hand that often myself, but my mother will fry up an entire package, drain it and chop it into one-inch pieces, and then freeze it for use in cooking, things like spaghetti sauce. I think that probably doesn't take up that much space.

I found _Cooking for Dummies_ really helpful when I was getting started. It focuses on basic skills and techniques rather than on recipes. Charts of herbs and spices with their uses in that book and elsewhere were helpful.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: MayDay on April 26, 2015, 07:41:57 PM
I would come up with a Neal rotation of, say, 15 meals you both like. Make 5 each week. Have your H pick one new meal each week (his job to do if he wants variety!) And have leftovers one night.

If it's easier, have one soup night, one pasta night, one egg-based night, one Asian night, etc, but 3 meals for each category, so they rotate through.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Zikoris on April 26, 2015, 07:54:39 PM
We have a "master" meal list of about 25 dishes we both really like. We make weekly meal plans based on that, crossing them off as we go, so nothing gets made more than one per month/cycle. Knowing what were making ahead of time ensures that we always have the ingredients and have done the necessary prep work (like making dough) ahead of time.

Sometimes we make new meals out of leftovers as well. Like, make a pot of chili, then a day or two later make tortillas and have burritos, then use the remaining chili for nachos or chili dogs or something. I've heard of people doing that with chicken - roast a whole chicken for meal 1, chicken sandwiches for meal 2, chicken soup from the bones and scraps for meal 3.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: lpep on April 26, 2015, 08:11:38 PM
Roasted veggies are always good! You can roast pretty much anything.

You could look into more Asian food. Stir-fries are very easy because instead of a meat, a starch, and a vegetable cooked separately, it's all thrown in together! Get some basic sauce ingredients from a local Asian market, if you have one (fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, maybe hoisin sauce, chili sauce for your husband) and mix something up that has a good balance of sweet and tangy (add sugar if needed), it's not as hard as it sounds. Stir-fry some vegetables, then add the sauce and cook it down a little! Serve over rice or add some noodles (instant or rice noodles, soaked in hot water first, work nicely) at the last couple minutes and stir fry. You can add egg for protein or fried tofu or fish or any meat you like (I'm pescetarian, so don't know when you would add the meat).

I like to make big pots of black beans and freeze them to make various things. Veggie burgers are good, my meat-eating BF loves them. Black beans + chopped onion (or skip for you!) + bread crumbs + egg + seasoning/spices, mixed with your hands until it sticks together to form patties - you probably need more bread crumbs than you think. Fry for 10ish minutes and serve with a fried egg on top on a bun, really filling and tasty. The burger mix keeps well too, and you could probably freeze it. Not so healthy but serve with a salad...? :)

Also with black beans: tacos. Fry up some bell peppers and zucchini, add onions to your husband's. Cook with just a little oil on medium-high heat to get a nice blackened fajita-ish look to them. Sometimes I do this as a taco filling casserole.

Dal is another great one. Yellow split peas plus spices - you don't need all the spices in an Indian recipe - usually includes an onion too, but you could probably replace with kohlrabi even. So easy, flavorful, and super filling, makes a big batch you can freeze. It goes really well with homemade flatbreads (I pretend it's nan) made from just a simple bread dough cooked on a hot frying pan. Stir-friend kohlrabi with salt and pepper on the side is good too.

Thai curry. Cook some veggies (bell pepper, eggplant, zucchini is a good mix, or potatoes, carrots, green beans... mix and match as you like), prepare sauce according to your curry paste's directions - usually with coconut milk - serve over rice. Very filling, could add meat. Once you do this a couple times it gets really, really easy. Spicy and delicious.

Bowl of stuff: Stir-fry some vegetables in just fish sauce, maybe with a little soy sauce and sugar or chili. Serve over rice with a fried egg or two on top and sprinkle sesame seeds. It's called bowl of stuff because you can add whatever sauces you want to it and use whatever veggies you want! You could do an onion on the side for your husband.

Chili would be good for you guys too. Homemade spaghetti sauce with other veggies added, there's a name for it, but who cares.

Good luck!!!!
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Flyingkea on April 27, 2015, 12:40:36 AM
I would invest in tupperware - food can easily last for a week if stored in the fridge in an airtight container - preserves precious freezer space!
I tend to go quite often to the supermarket as I refuse to drive the 200m, but carrying a 11kg baby limits my grocery capacity!
For example this is what I tend to do;
Meat - tend to freeze that straight away - buy a pack of 4 chicken breasts and a kilo of mince, I've found about 125g of meat per meal works out well. So half a breast each for dinner - freeze 2, 1 in the fridge chicken pasta bake one night, thai style stir fry the next, cook up a lasagne with 500gm mince the next (half goes to fridge or freezer), homemade hamburgers the next (250gm mince), pasta + roast vege bake, other half of lasagne, chicken parmigiana the day after, sheppard pie the day after that, and maybe another stir fry.
I tend to cook from scratch most nights, and have a few easy go to items - stirfrys, pasta dishes, lasagne etc. How long does your partner require between repeats? 3-4 days?
Budgetbytes is my favourite food website, it's easy, full of step by step photographs, helpful hints and tips.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: sarah8001 on April 27, 2015, 04:16:05 AM
I cook from scratch for three days, then my fiance warms up meals from the fridge for four days, so I agree with people who say to stop cooking from scratch every day. Try precooking meal components on one or two days a week to use later. For example, on Sunday you might make roast chicken and mashed potatoes with roast veggies for dinner. You would also make pizza dough, prep pizza toppings (grate cheese, cook proteins, etch), cook extra roast veggies and make rice. After dinner, you would bone your chicken, and divide the meat in half. Half you would make into a chicken, corn, sweet potato soup (if you have a slow cooker, you don't even really need to cook this, just prep and combine the ingredients) and half you would make into a gravy for a chicken pot pie. This sounds like a ton of work, but with good music and comfy shoes, it's not that bad. With the ingredients you prepped you can have the following meals:
Chicken, corn, sweet potato soup
Chicken pot pie
Savory potato pancakes made with leftover mash (add a sauted protein/some of those extra roast veggies)
Rice with roast veggies served on top (can add some saved chicken breast for protein)
Homemade pizza
Saute some sausages and serve extra roast veggies on the side
Combined with the original meal, that's seven days, and six of them required very minimal prep. Each meal is different, as well. Some things might make two meals (you could make four mini pot pies and enough soup for two meals) so throw those two meals in your freezer for the next week or for "emergency" meals.
If your SO thinks your food is a little bland, try mixing up the spices every night. Roast chicken is flavored with rosemary and lemon juice, sweet potato soup has Ethiopian spices, buy a Polish sausage for the sausage night. Also, make sure you are using enough salt. Garlic alone does not flavor add. I once forgot to salt some mashed taters and added enough garlic to almost burn the mouth, but they were still . . . bland. As Alton Brown says "Salt doesn't make food taste salty, salt makes food taste good." (rough paraphrase). If your SO really likes onions and garlic, add them when you are making separate dishes for you and him (carmelized onions and garlic as toppings on HIS pizza, but not yours, onions and garlic in HIS pot pie, but not yours).
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: Merrie on May 01, 2015, 08:01:03 PM
Try to use a slow cooker. You can throw something together in the morning and let it cook all day. These recipes usually make a lot, though, but you can either freeze some extra or serve it different ways. We found an article on Huffington Post that lists a bunch of slow cooker recipes. We made the "carnitas" recipe, basically crispy shredded pork, and we can eat it in burritos, tacos, over rice, in salads, (in the case of our toddler) by itself... you get the idea. Make a batch of some versatile meat, freeze half, incorporate the rest into different dishes throughout the week. Then the next week do a different meat, and for variety you can thaw some of the previous week's offering.

I also totally second Erica, I definitely do this. I also have started making beans in the slow cooker, cooked in water flavored with a bunch of different things, and froze some in quart-sized freezer bags. Freezer bags are great, you can fit a lot of things in around the edges in a freezer.
Title: Re: Struggling with cooking routines
Post by: TN_Steve on May 01, 2015, 09:09:42 PM
Three thoughts.

1.  I am extremely adventurous eater, while DW is "merely adventurous."  At home, I often add spices (and onions, and garlic, etc.) to the base meal that one of us cooks.

2.  On sunday/steak night, I grill 4-6 ## chicken breasts (seasoned with Merquen) and put in freezer.  We pop them out to add to various weekday meals.

3.  We often just do salads, followed by wine/cheese_w._Crackers (and sometimes skip the salad!).  Say 2 times a week?  This is for the meals on days that neither of us gets home within 12 hours of leaving in the morning .....