Cooking on a workday: how to make it work

I’ve addressed the issue of dining out vs. dining in before, but taking the cheaper, healthier route of making and eating your meals at home is easier said than done. Here are some of my strategies for making it easier to cook and eat in more often, especially on workdays. (These assume that you do enjoy cooking to some extent and “would like to do it more”, and also that your workday ends at a reasonable hour. If your job entails that you have dinner at work… that sucks.)

Rethink meal preparation. This involves treating meal preparation as more functional than romantic and the workday dinner as one- or two-dish rather than multi-course, chow rather than culinary masterpiece. Leave that recently discovered amazing-but-lengthy recipe for the weekend. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on taste or satiety: there are still a thousand simple ways to fulfill both those needs while cutting down on time and thought.

Meal plan. A lot of people seem to swear by this, that having meals planned for the week makes both shopping and cooking easier, but personally I can’t think more than a day ahead, if that. I do, however, often think about what to make for dinner during the day (I do have the luxury of letting my mind wander at work, heh), and might look up some recipes during my break so I’m all ready to go when I get home. With meal planning, even if I can’t avoid the occasional unexpected dinner call from a friend, I can at least be sure microwavable meals or delivery don’t make it in there.

Simplify. There’s nothing that turns me off cooking more than reading long, complex recipes calling for ingredients I can’t get (or don’t even recognize), so I’m a fan of Stonesoup, a blog that offers “minimalist cooking” tips and simple 5-ingredient recipes that you can either follow or just take inspiration from. I enjoy variety, so 5 ingredients usually aren’t enough for me (unless sauces and seasonings don’t count), but I never try to get wild and ambitious in the kitchen when I’m hungry and tired. Our kitchen is also pretty minimal in terms of tools and appliances, so that also simplifies the whole meal prep experience. As was implied by many a creative writing assignment in college, limits can liberate, or something like that.

Hasten. I have friends who can’t live without their oven, and I’ve been debating for months whether or not to get one. But here’s the truth: stir-frying usually takes less time than baking. Granted, you have to watch the pan when you’re frying, though if it’s hunger you’re trying to solve, 20 minutes of “active” cooking can be more appealing than the thought of waiting an hour for the oven timer to sound.

Stay stocked. With relatively long-life ingredients like garlic, eggs, legumes, and pasta/noodles so in the worst-case scenario, you can still make egg fried rice or spaghetti with fried eggs. I have trust issues with my freezer here so I don't keep much in there, but I discovered frozen veggies as a college student and might use them more — at least for emergency dinner situations — if they were more available and cheaper. Still, there’s nothing like fresh produce.

Cook meatlessly. This was what we did in Shanghai even before we went fully meatless, saving our meat eating for when we dined out. It's just faster and simpler. Unless you're in the middle of an E.coli outbreak, you don't have to worry about making sure your vegetables are truly fully cooked. There’s no defrosting, de-skinning, de-boning.

Create physical habits:
1) Shop strategically. If you pass by a market on your commute, consider stopping by on your way to work rather than after work, when you are in no mood to wait in line with every other exhausted 9-to-5er at the checkout. If there's a grocer near your workplace, go and grab a few things during your lunch hour, and stick it in your office's fridge (remember to get them before you head home!). While you're there, skip the frozen or pre-packaged "meals" and get ingredients instead. Or, promise to cook for your roommate/significant other if they do the shopping (and washing) ;)

2) Head straight home. That is, if you have some ingredients available and don't need to pick up any on your way home. If you already have an idea of what you’ll be making when you get home, it's a lot easier to forgo temptations along the way. And once I’m home, if there are ingredients available, it doesn’t make sense not to cook.

3) Make a beeline for the crisper. When you get home, rather than auto-pilot to the TV or computer, first stop by the kitchen and take out your ingredients for dinner. If you need a rest before plunging in, try to spend 3 minutes getting your veggies soaking, your rice cooking, your meat defrosting before you plop down on your chair, couch, or bed. I'm not very good at this yet — sometimes I'll get comfy in front of my computer and before I know it, it's 8pm and I'm dinnerless. On these occasions I'll usually resort to toast.

Lastly, develop a repertoire of fast, satisfying one-dish meals that you'd be willing to have over and over again. When you've made the same dish a couple times, you'll have discovered shortcuts to make the process even easier (and the meal even tastier). For me, the tofu-veggie stirfry on rice is fail-proof: I'm usually done bustling about the stove before the rice is done cooking, and there are a hundred variations that I can spin depending on what veggies happen to be lying about. Pasta with veggies is another.

Of course, there are a few times a week when dining out is a much more appealing option: when friends call, when the cupboards and crisper are bare, when you’re craving something you can’t make or that would take too much time or effort to make. (Those last two are why Sean and I went for jiaozi, or dumplings, tonight at the Back Gate. So satisfying.)

Do or would these strategies work for you? What are some of your own?

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3 Comments

Filed under eating in

3 responses to “Cooking on a workday: how to make it work

  1. Iris

    Not everyone is as utilitarian about food as I am, but for weekday cooking my strategy is just picking up a protein and a veggie, and cooking it whatever way is fastest and easiest. I don’t really think it terms of meals, or a dish.

  2. Thought I commented earlier today… anyway, in addition to all your fine points I would add: try to wash up the same night you cook. Few things discourage like a counter full of dirty dishes that you have to clean up before you start cooking (due to lack of space + possession of only 1 frying pan or 1 paring knife…)

    • That’s a really good one! I guess I didn’t think of it since most of the time Sean does the washing, but the occasional coming home to a full sink does make my heart sink. At the same time, owning only 1 of each and very few bowls/plates/cups helps to prevent a sink full of dirty dishes :-)

      I originally included something in the post about washing up *as you cook* (the knife, chopping board, etc.) but it didn’t make the edit — your point is more relevant!

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