When your schedule is packed full it can seem near impossible to top off the day with a home-cooked meal. After the preparation, the cooking, the cleaning even making a simple meal doesn’t seem so simple. Enter – the very real appeal of eating out or ordering in. But while meals prepared by a restaurant are quick and easy solutions to the time crunch problem, they’re definitely not budget friendly.
So what can you do if you’re too busy to cook?
In a perfect world the way make more meals at home would be to carve out more time to cook. But if it were that simple then nobody would struggle with the challenge. Instead, the more realistic way to get the most out of your kitchen time is to supplement your efforts rather than reroute them entirely. Finding time isn’t always easy but maximizing how you use your time can be.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Streamline the process
Take advantage of anything that will help you streamline the process of cooking. That means putting things to work for you while you’re away working on something else. For example, you can take advantage of appliances that are able to do the grunt work. There’s a reason that the slow cooker has gained recognition as a time saver. It’s an incredible appliance to have if you’re busy! Nothing saves more time than dumping all ingredients in a single place and then letting heat and time work some magic. Less action required in making a meal equals more time saved. For a list of some great slow cooker meals you can check out online recipe sites like Allrecipes.
Chop, Chop, Chop
… then chop some more! The number one way to slash time spent in the kitchen is to prep your ingredients ahead of time. As soon as you bring home your groceries, take time to wash, chop, store in Tupperware and then organize in your refrigerator. If you can swing preparing a big batch meal at the beginning of the week (think along the classic example of vat chili or stew) that’s great! But if you can’t, simply chopping and prepping your ingredients ahead of time can save so much time for daily meals. That means that you can come home after work and toss in your pre-prepped items. Easy.
Prioritize simple meals
Cooking doesn’t have to be crazy. It doesn’t have to be inventive. At the end of the day, it’s nourishment for your body. While you want it to provide nutrients it doesn’t have to be a full on gourmet meal.
No need to give yourself another reason to choose eating out by picking complicated recipes. Keep easy cooking staples handy, and mix and match to make your meals. Some solid stand-by ingredients include: rice, pasta, eggs, chopped vegetables, tortillas, spreads, roasted chicken, cheese and beans. These items aren’t necessarily crazy but they’re also each easy to use in various recipes with varying flavor profiles.
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Plan meals ahead of time
My mom has the endearing quality of ending breakfast or lunch by asking, “What’s for dinner?” Brought on by a genuine love of food, it’s also a pretty smart question for anyone who has to squeeze cooking into their busy schedule. When you have a meal in mind it’s easier to stick to actually making it once you get home. If making a weekly meal plan seems to be too time-consuming, start out with a single day. After you eat breakfast, take a quick look at ingredients on hand and choose a meal you’d like to make for dinner. Simply having a head start on what you’re going to make will at the very least give you the alternative when you’re asking at the end of the day, “stay in, or eat out?”
Have your groceries delivered
A big element of cooking is the ingredients. If you’re avoiding the kitchen because you have little to no time to actually fill your fridge then consider having your groceries delivered directly to your door. Even big name stores have options for online grocery shopping and delivery which will give you the added benefit of choosing sale items as you would in the store.
Another great option is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box. The boxes are made up of locally sourced and often organic fruits and vegetables and are delivered directly to you. Some include the option to add milk, eggs or other staples at an additional cost. You’ll likely have to pay a delivery fee but it can be worth it if you’re constantly pressed for time. In the end, it’s a matter of understanding what your time is worth.
Most importantly, pick your budget battles
When you’re busy, you’re busy. No matter how you rearrange your schedule, hacking out an extra hour in your day doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll want to spend it cooking. Start by making efficiency the goal and give yourself the permission to take shortcuts where appropriate As with any other budgeting strategy, it’s about maintaining a balance that’s sustainable long-term.
Eating out is easy, but it’s also expensive. The sheer number of alternatives to cooking makes it easy to forgo cooking in favor of saving time. But cooking at home is a habit that’s healthy for you and your bank account.
Image Credit Courtney Dirks