Kitchen Focus

Why is it that so many of us wake up tired only to end up progressively getting more and more exhausted throughout the day? Our lives are filled with stress because we have too much to do and not enough time to do it and one of the most important tasks we have to fulfill -- properly fueling our bodies -- gets put on the back burner until we succumb to energy bars or takeout for basic sustenance.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In a world that insists on multi-tasking and time saving, I'm pleased to report that both concepts have their place in the kitchen ... and that's a good thing! Like everyone else, there are days that I find myself running in every direction but the one that takes me to the stove to make a healthy meal. The difference in my case is that I've taken steps to make the most of the time I do have in the kitchen and spent some quality time that I have found on weekends and the like to prepare for those ever-present rush hour moments. This month's column includes a list (not comprehensive by a long shot, but hopefully enough to get the creative juices flowing) of some of the things that I plan ahead, some things I've learned to save time and those ever-helpful multi-tasking tips. I hope that they can streamline your kitchen time and make the challenge of feeding the mind, body and spirit a good one.

  • One of the biggest time and energy savers I can recommend is taking some time at the beginning of the week (I usually choose Sunday) to think about what you'd like to make for dinner during the week and what will be necessary to make those dishes. I then make a grocery list and fill in the blanks with fresh fruits and vegetables that can do double duty as sides, desserts, main dish salads and the like. I try to plan ahead for at least 4 meals each week. That leaves me with enough flexibility to make something on the fly or even go out for an evening without leaving me drawing a blank to the age-old question (What's for dinner?) on the other nights.
  • I like keeping an assortment of flavored tortillas on hand. It's amazing how many leftovers and deli fixin's get a new lease on life when tucked inside a flour tortilla. Wrap sandwiches are popular for many reasons: they're quick, easy to make and ultra portable. What more could you ask for in a meal when you have 15 minutes to get to the soccer game and you're hungry?
  • Some cooking methods are faster than others and some of the slower methods don't require constant supervision. Ask yourself if that chicken dish can be broiled instead of baked or if the soup you're making would benefit from a long simmer in the crockpot. Of course, some dishes require special preparation, but try to reserve these types of dishes for days when you will have the time to devote to them. It will make the process more fun for you too.
  • Whenever I'm making rice, I always double the batch. It doesn't increase the cooking time much and then I have rice available for a quick stir-fry, casserole or soup. It can even be frozen for use much later down the road. This sort of small investment in time one night can make dinner in the middle of the week a no-brainer.
  • Funny enough, how you arrange your kitchen can actually save you a lot of time. If you have half of your cutlery in one area of the kitchen and the rest in another, you can actually waste time looking for that favorite chef's blade. If your spices are scattered all over, you may take more time than you need to get things in order for your cooking and baking. Try to keep things that get used together in close proximity and certainly keep things organized enough to know where your tools are located.
  • When you get ready to cook, look over your recipe or think about the dish you are about to make and check to be sure you have everything you need before you begin cooking! There's nothing fun about making stew only to discover that you have no potatoes.
  • I like to think of large cuts of meat as planned-overs. That is, you know that you're not likely to finish a large roast in one sitting, so it just makes sense to plan ahead to use the leftovers. Sure, you could just warm it up again, but wouldn't it be more interesting to shred some of that beef and add southwest seasonings and make some quick enchiladas or cut it into smaller pieces to add extra flavor to your favorite soup? And, of course, there are the infamous turkey sandwiches that are enjoyed the day after Thanksgiving.
  • When I'm chopping onions, peppers or carrots (or any other number of often-used vegetables), I take note of the list I worked on in the beginning of the week. If I know I'm going to need the same veggies again in a day or two, I save myself some time by chopping enough for later too. That way, I don't need to dirty more dishes and get weepy eyes (if I'm cutting onions) again!
  • Whoever insisted that potatoes need to be boiled for everything from potato salad to hash browns was silly. Instead of waiting for water to boil and fill your kitchen with steam -- especially on a hot day -- wash, peel (if necessary or desired), and cut potatoes into 1-inch cubes and toss into a large glass bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and pop them in the microwave for about 10 minutes on HIGH. Then, let them sit another 10-15 minutes in the microwave before taking them out and using them. I use this method for everything from buttered new potatoes to garlic mashed potatoes. No more draining or hot stove to contend with. Instead, I just ignore the spuds while they happily microwave and rest away while I move onto other aspects of cooking. Whew!
  • Try to free yourself from the idea that dinner equals meat and potatoes. Sometimes dinner's hiding right in your refrigerator without you knowing it. Slice some of the deli smoked turkey and toss with some baby spinach, sliced berries, red onions and a light dressing and it's dinner -- especially if some crusty bread invites itself to the party. There are times that I will look in my refrigerator or pantry and a single ingredient -- like goat cheese or garlic -- will inspire an entire meal. Don't cut yourself off from that kind of fun possibility. Remember, that's the sort of thing that makes cooking fun!

If there's a topic that you'd like to see covered in this column, let me know. You can always post comments in the discussion board using the forms provided in the articles or email me directly at .

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