Cooking Ahead

It is 6:45 p.m. as you pull into the driveway with a box and a bag of fast food filling your car with a unique and lingering odor. "Here we go again," you mutter as you enter the house. "I wish we could eat real food at the table like real people."

Busy people don’t have time to cook is a lie. Busy people just need to do a better job of planning. Cooking Ahead can be a key to quick, tasty and wholesome meals at home.

An important step in preparing meals in advance is to have a well-stocked pantry. You do not have time for multiple trips to the grocery store if you really want to have meals ready ahead of time or quickly.

We have found that our well-stocked pantry reduces our more frequent grocery excursions to fresh ingredients that we like to buy at the last moment anyway. (Fresher is better!)

For example, we will stop by the store during a lunch hour or on our way home to buy fresh herbs, seasonal vegetables and fruits. These trips do not take long and also help keep our food costs reasonable.

There are those moments when we find ourselves in the middle of a recipe and discover that we are out of a significant ingredient. These things just happen. You can’t always have everything you need. But you can help reduce these occurrences by keeping a well-stocked pantry.

Here are a few steps to follow to make sure your larder is full:

  1. Plan a "sample" menu for a week or 10 days.
  2. Make a list of the ingredients you require for the recipes.
  3. Go through the kitchen cabinets, freezer, refrigerator and pantry and see what non-perishable items you will need to purchase to make your meals.
  4. Review your list for ingredients you would need for other recipes you like.
  5. Pay particular attention to specialty items that may not be available at your local grocer (things like hot chili oil or jalapeno jelly).
  6. Make a master pantry list using your word processor so you can make changes as you discover items you need to add or take away.
  7. Purchase the best quality pantry products you can buy and use in a reasonable amount of time. For example, a gallon of olive oil is a bargain if you store it properly and use it before it turns rancid. Check container labels and "reference" cookbooks for proper storage.
  8. Post your master pantry list on your refrigerator so you never run out of the pantry basics. (We use a dry erase board and marker for our list and for the menus).
  9. Keep an eye on expiration dates. Be sure to rotate your pantry items so that you finish the last little bit of wonton skins stuck in the back of the refrigerator before opening a new package.
  10. Do not be a slave to your pantry. If you see a recipe calling out for preparation, go to the store, get the ingredients and fix it! Cooking should be fun, not a chore.

We also recommend that you separate your pantry list into these nine areas:

  • freezer
  • oils and vinegars
  • baking needs
  • bottled sauces/juices
  • nuts, berries and seeds
  • canned goods and condiments
  • dried goods (grains, beans, pastas)
  • dry spices and herbs
  • wines and liquors

You do not have to have the perfectly stocked pantry immediately. Take your time and add to your pantry as time permits.

For example, we have started cooking more Asian cuisine, but we did not run out to our local Asian market and stock up on every kind of oil and sauce. Instead, we look ahead and buy the sauces, pastes and oils we need for coming week or two. This spreads out the expense and helps us to buy things we will use.

We find that a well-stocked pantry is quite a time-saver when Cooking Ahead.

Next time: Freezing meals.