"I wish I had more time to cook" is a complaint I hear from friends on an almost weekly basis. And since most of us work 10-hour days (at least) and spend time commuting home, it's understandable. However, there are ways to save time in the kitchen that can make the difference between a healthy home-cooked meal and $15 dropped on takeout — it's just about knowing a few tips and hacks.
And preparing food at home isn't just healthier — it will legitimately save you money. In an article for Forbes, certified coach and financial planner Mindy Crary said when she works with clients, time and time again food is the single easiest and most significant way they can save money, as well as a way to maximize personal satisfaction out of what they eat. She noted it can be incredibly easy to give into cravings when you're tired or don't feel like cooking, which is why it's also important to keep basic staples on hand at home so you never feel like you have to make a trip to the store in addition to preparing a meal.
And again — I get it —I really do. Sometimes the last thing you want to do after a really long day is cook. So here are nine time saving hacks for when you just don't have the time.
1. Frozen Veggies
In a piece for The Huffington Post's healthy living section, physician Mark Hyman recommended purchasing frozen fruits and vegetables over fresh ones. The nutritional content is exactly the same, yet they already come chopped, diced, and ready to go. He also recommended purchasing frozen fish to keep in your freezer for days when you just couldn't make it to the grocery store.
2. Don't Fear Canned Foods
Progresso Black Beans, $19.09, Walmart.com
Hyman noted that canned foods are super convenient to keep on hand. "Carefully chosen canned and jarred foods, such as vegetable or chicken stocks, sardines, wild Alaskan salmon, artichokes, and roasted red peppers, make it easy to toss together last-minute meals," he said, and also, "Always choose lower-sodium versions and read labels carefully to be sure that gluten, dairy, sugars, and other unwanted ingredients aren't inadvertently sneaking into your diet. If choosing canned food, opt for PBA free cans whenever possible."
3. Keep Convenient Whole Grains Around
This tip from EatingWell.com recommended having fast-cooking whole grains on hand, like quinoa, which only take 15 to 20 minutes to cook. I, however, actually don't have the patience for even 15 to 20 minutes when I'm rushed, which is why I recommend something even simpler — whole grain bread or pasta. Bread especially can be tossed on the side of a bowl of soup or eggs with avocado, and you're good to go. I like to keep a loaf in the freezer especially for time-crunch situations.
4. Cook Once, Prepare Many Ways
A piece for LifeHacker accumulated time-saving tips from actual professional chefs and food experts, and Beth Bader, author of The Cleaner Plate Club, said she lives by the "cook once, prepare many ways" motto. "Long-cook items like roast chicken are for weekends, but leftover chicken can make quick chili with canned beans, chicken salad or chicken for salads, quesadillas and other easy, fast weeknight meals," she said. "Roast two chickens in that oven when you have the time! Serve one, carve and use the leftovers for easy weeknight meals and lunches."
This is a personal tip that leap frogs off my earlier point of always keeping bread around. Sandwiches are crazy fast and easy, and yet we often totally forget about them when thinking about dinner. Just throw some meat, veggies, and avocados between two pieces of bread, or even just some natural peanut butter, and bam — you're done!
6. If You Don't Have A Crock Pot, Get One!
Crock-Pot, $19.99, Staple.com
In the same piece, food and budget writer Beth Moncel encouraged readers to cook more slow-cooker meals. She noted that they usually make a ton, create minimal mess, and the dishes usually keep and freeze super well.
7. Make Two Of Everything
In a piece on MarthaStewart.com, her staff recommended making doubles of things when you have the chance. For example, on a day when you have time and were going to make a pot roast, make two and freeze one. Or cook double batches of soups and chili when making for company so you have a whole extra batch for your week. I personally like to just grab two roast chickens from the grocery store and eat them with veggies, in sandwiches, and in instant ramen dishes throughout the week. That way I don't even have to spend time cooking them, and they're generally super cost-effective.
8. Clean As You Go
This is another personal tip. One of the reasons I dislike cooking is the thought of the cleanup. It's literally the last thing I want to be doing after a long day. That's why I've learned that cleaning as I go makes a giant difference to the overall process. Rinse measuring cups and put them away as soon as you've used them, and wash bowls as soon as you're done with them. I promise it will make end-time clean up so much more bearable.
9. Plan Ahead and Plan To Fail
And finally, according to EatingWell.com, plan ahead. Take inventory of what you have on Sunday before going to the store and make a list of what you need (this helps if you have an idea of what you'll eat for dinner each night). It might seem tedious, but it will make a world of difference when you come home totally tired from the day. And perhaps even more importantly, as said by food blogger Taji Mortazavi, plan to fail sometimes. Keep a few (relatively healthy) frozen dinners on hand, or make sure you have basics you can grab, like bread and avocados. That way, even if you have zero desire to cook, you still won't necessarily give into the temptation of ordering in and spending way more than you intended.
Most of us are already pretty over-extended when it comes to balancing work and personal life, so preparing super healthy and time-consuming meals just isn't always a realistic option. The good news is, you don't actually need a ton of time to eat relatively healthy; just make sure you plan ahead and keep your kitchen stocked with a few super easy to prepare basics.