As with many things in life, cooking for most people involves an eternal conflict between an ideal that lives in our brain and a reality that doesn't look much like that ideal. Sometimes I convince myself that I can be the perfect cook: I tell myself that I’m going to bake my own bread, and make stock from scratch, and learn how to make pasta, and that I’m going to look like Betty Draper the whole time. But then, after a long day of working, exhausted and irritated, I find myself at the grocery store and reality sweeps in; I will count myself lucky if I manage to make anything that is not a frozen pizza.
The challenge we have to work out for ourselves is not how to be the ideal cook, but how to cook in ways that work for our actual lives. There is no shame in taking shortcuts; Sometimes buying things that are already prepped or even pre-cooked is undoubtedly the way to go. I, for one, will take all the help I can get. In fact, I think shortcuts are often the things that allow us to eat healthier, better food: if I don’t have to worry about making pizza dough, then maybe I’ll buy something fresh and extra nutritious to put on top of it.
Here are a few suggestions for simplifying your cooking life. Is it cheating? Maybe. But as long as it tastes good, who cares?
1. Use roasted chicken in everything
Roasted chickens are the unsung heroes of the grocery store. On really busy nights, they make a great dinner all on their own, and the leftovers can go in all sorts of things: soups, curries, tacos, salads—really, everything is better with roasted chicken on it. If a recipe calls for cooked, shredded chicken, you can buy a whole roasted chicken at the store, and skip having to cook the raw stuff. They’re not even particularly expensive; my grocery store sells whole, cooked chickens for about $10, which isn’t too far off what I would pay for a raw one.
2. Take advantage of precut vegetables
You can find vegetables ranging from broccoli to butternut squash at the grocery store that have already been cut into bite sized pieces. Admittedly, they tend to be a bit more expensive than their untouched brethren, but on some days that extra $1.50 is so, so worth it. Throw these babies in an pot to steam when you get home, and you’ve got fresh, healthy food. And don’t forget baby carrots! They’re not just for vegetable platters. Toss those suckers in a pan with a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast for 20 minutes. Easy and yum.
3. Leftovers are your best friend
When you do go to the effort to cook, make that effort count for as long as possible. Make double batches of your recipes and put the leftovers in the freezer. Nothing is better than getting home from a long day at work having dinner already made (just remember to defrost your food the night before). Soups, pasta sauces, and stews freeze particularly well.
4. Freeze herbs
Did you know that you can freeze herbs? You can! There are a number of ways to freeze herbs that let you pull out just what you need for a particular recipe. It makes cooking easy, and you save money because you’re not wasting anything.
5. Use pre-made pizza and pie crusts
Pre-made pizza and pie crusts can make great bases for delicious, healthy meals. Grab a pizza crust and add exactly what you want—cheese, fresh vegetables, literally every pepperoni on earth. With pie crusts, combine fresh vegetables, eggs, a bit of cheese, and huzzah!—you have a quiche.
6. Use spice blends and curry paste to give your cooking a big kick
Jarred spice blends and pastes can add a ton of flavor to a meal without requiring a lot of effort. I am a huge fan of Patak’s curry pastes, which I’ve used to add major zip to curries, fish, and roasted chickens. (My go-to easy curry recipe is this one by Jamie Oliver. Authentic? Probably not at all. Tasty? Very.)
7. Add your own twist to jarred sauces and soups
If you’re looking to save time, start with a jarred pasta sauce or soup and doctor it up. Add fresh garlic, some chili flakes, and fresh vegetables, and voila! You’re a cooking genius.