Need food fast? Try eating at home! Eating at home can be faster, easier and less costly than eating out. It's often healthier, too.
The best part may, however, be that it's possible to have dinner on the table in less time than it can take to drive to a restaurant, says Sandy Procter, Kansas State University Research and Extension nutrition educator.
Here are some tips to speed meal preparation:
- Check your calendar before grocery shopping. If one or two evenings are packed with activities, consider a sandwich supper. Sandwiches are quick, versatile, easy and filling; add fresh raw vegetables, salad, fruit, even a few chips make a meal quickly. The fact that sandwiches also can be portable is a plus.
- "Planned" overs, the term for leftovers that cooks actually plan to have, also save time. For example, planning to serve the other half of Sunday's roast as barbecued beef sandwiches on Tuesday night, can save time and money. It's like cooking once, but eating twice. The same is true for doubling recipes on a weekend or evening when there is more time to cook. Wrapping and freezing the extra quantity for a future meal speeds meals on busy days, she says.
- Learn to use appliances that add convenience. "Slow cookers speed meal preparation. In fact, the aroma of slow-cooked foods, like a roast, chicken, soup or stew, is like a "welcome home" at the end of the day. Adding a salad and vegetable takes just a few minutes," says Procter, who notes that one of her favorite easy meals is baking potatoes in a slow cooker. She adds chili, grated cheese and vegetable toppers to complete the meal.
- Microwave ovens also can be helpful in thawing frozen foods that will be used in other recipes, such as a stir-fry combo or skillet supper. Microwaves can also cook vegetables or other foods to complete the meal quickly, and are a terrific way to reheat leftovers.
- Learn quick-cooking techniques, like stir-frying. One-dish meals -- like stir-fried meat or poultry and vegetable combinations -- can be ready in 15 or 20 minutes. One-dish meals also allow savvy cooks to combine convenience foods with leftovers or pantry staples. For example: Stir-fry thin-sliced flank steak with pre-cut frozen vegetables; serve over quick-cooking or microwaved pasta or rice.
- Combining convenience foods with home-cooked foods, pantry staples or leftovers is called "speed scratch" cooking, she says. As an example, she suggests keeping frozen, pre-cut vegetables on hand to make preparing a soup, stew, or stir-fry meal quickly. Choosing a roasted chicken from the deli can make a hurry-up dinner, too. Add a salad and vegetables to complete the meal. Have leftover chicken? Strip the meat from the carcass after a meal; place it in a shallow container (two inches, for example) and refrigerate it (covered) for use within a day or two, or wrap and freeze it for a future meal.
- Stock staples -- like frozen or canned fruits and vegetables; pasta; and rice -- that can make finishing a meal quick and easy. Stocking staples also can reduce the number of trips to the grocery store, which also is likely to save time and money, says Procter.
Convenience foods usually cost more than preparing a product yourself. Making the decision to spend the money rather than do it yourself is a way of buying time. "Sometimes saving my time is worth the extra cost. By planning scratch cooking steps ahead of when I need them, I can save both time and money," she says.