How to make cooking every night of the week as stress-free and enjoyable as possible.
- Plan what you’re going to cook next week. This means you can make/marinade/prep ahead to make it easier on the night and more interesting meals possible, and also avoids that last minute panic at 6pm when you don’t have anything in the fridge, or any inspiration for what to cook. I don’t know what I did before my meal-planning blackboard; I highly recommend doing something similar (the down arrows are to remind me to take something out of the freezer, the right hand side is the shopping list):
- Planning ahead makes cooking evening dinners interesting rather than a hurried chore. It sounds like one more thing you have to find time to do, but twenty minutes of planning will cut a lot of time out in emergency Co-op runs and last minute flicking through online recipes. It means you’re more likely to try new dishes, rather than fall back on the regular meals you know you can churn out without thinking – which is more fun both to eat and to cook.
- Keep a folder of recipe cut-outs that catch your eye in magazines, and stick post-it notes in your favourite recipe book pages to prompt you to use them as inspiration rather than decoration. Make sure you check prep and cooking times of these, so you know this is a folder full of accessible recipes, all of which will work on a week night. This makes planning your week easier as you’ll have a bank of ideas to flick through and get excited about. When you try the recipes, write any improvements and changes you made on them – an unfortunate amount of magazine recipes aren’t tested, so you will often find that they’re much easier to make the second time around, when you’ve learnt what needs altering.
Stocking your freezer and cupboards with the basics makes cooking and shopping simpler and more organised. It makes meals more interesting, means there’s always something lying around that will make a quick lunch or dinner, and dramatically cuts back on wasted food (your freezer is particularly invaluable for this – see the tips below). These are what I try to keep stocked:
Freezer: grated cheddar and parmesan; fresh chilli and ginger; sliced bread; breadcrumbs; bags of berries, spinach, peas and sweetcorn; chicken stock; small portions of meals for babies and children; butter; milk; fresh herbs; a couple of complete meals for knackered days; home-made tortillas. Label everything!
Fridge: eggs; butter; jams, chutney, pickles, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup.
Cupboards: cartons of tomatoes; grains (tins of beans and chickpeas, quinoa); jars of olives, gherkins and capers; coconut milk; rice (basmati, Arborio); pasta (at least spaghetti, fusilli and noodles); cous cous; olive oil, balsamic and white wine vinegar; plain flour; baking powder and bicarbonate of soda; caster sugar; oats; raisins; nuts.
Veg basket: onions, garlic, potatoes.
- Keep fresh chilli (whole) and ginger (whole and peeled – the easiest way to peel ginger is to scrape the skin off with a teaspoon) in the freezer. You can take them out, leave them for five minutes to warm a little, and then chop or grate as normal.
- Fresh herbs can just be put in the freezer in their bags, then taken out and quickly crumbled or chopped when still frozen, to use as normal. They lose a bit of potency, but still work (and saves throwing away half-used bags of parsley). The only time this doesn’t work is for garnish (e.g. parsley or basil) as they lose their fresh leaf shape. Use within a month or they lose their taste.
- Tear up and freeze the ends of loaves of bread in a bag, then when you’ve collected enough you can whizz them up in the food processor (from frozen, no need to defrost) to make breadcrumbs. I find the easiest way to do this is to push them through the grater attachment, but you can whizz them with the blades too.
- You can portion up cake, whipped-cream filling and all, and wrap in tinfoil and freeze. It defrosts very well.
- I keep all leftover hard cheese in the freezer, in separate bags: cheddar, parmesan and a mixed bag of other cheeses, crumbled, grated or chopped small. Using some of your mixed bag in things like a white sauce is wonderful – every sauce is different, and so much more flavourful.
- Brown bananas can be broken up and frozen – amazing in smoothies. Other fruit like apples, berries and pears can be quickly stewed on the hob, cooled and frozen in pots for easy and healthy puddings like crumbles, mixed through yoghurt or dolloped onto porridge.
Making the most of your freezer is the best way to save on food waste. It’s such a shame to throw away bread, herbs, cheese and leftovers when they’re so useful frozen.