Tips for planning, shopping and cooking more efficiently

This was in todays news paper… Thought it was interesting, thought to share

MOORHEAD - Deb Williams wanted to be the perfect hostess.

Yet she always struggled to bring her Martha Stewart aspirations to life.

Her friends knew better than to drop by unannounced. If Williams was going to entertain, she needed several days to plan, shop and cook – and she would often wind up taking a vacation day to get everything done on time.

Then, about 10 years ago, Williams made a New Year’s resolution. She decided she would try a new recipe every two weeks. In order to do that, she realized she had to become a master meal planner.

“This is a case where organization means more than having your space organized; you have to have your time organized too,” says Williams, who runs Ducks in A Row Organizing in Fargo.

Williams spent years refining her systems for meal planning, grocery shopping and pantry wrangling. She shared some of her hints last week during a Moorhead Community Education class, “Doing the Dinner Dash.”

The all-female attendees consisted mostly of busy working women who were starved for meal-planning ideas.

They talked about the four biggest obstacles to getting food on the table: ideas on what to make, available time, ingredients on hand and a lack of structure.

Deb Randall of Fargo says she and her husband are both self-employed real estate agents, so their schedules are sometimes unpredictable.

Randall says she struggles to “come with ideas and just make a plan … I don’t shop with a plan, so we have all this odd stuff in the kitchen.”

But Williams suggested several ways in which cooks can solve their dinner dilemmas.

Plan, plan and plan

The first step, Williams says, is to get everyone on the same page.

The same calendar page, that is.

She suggests compiling a family activities calendar, so you’ll know which nights everyone will be home.

This at least gives you a starting point to plan meals.

Williams also suggests setting a fairly stable meal time, which gives you a goal to shoot for (“dinner should be done by 6:30”) and lets everyone know when to be home.

Early in the week – say, a Sunday evening – set aside a half hour for planning the meals for the next week ahead.

If you have kids, include them in the planning process. “If you involve a child in meal planning, they’ll be more likely to eat what you serve them,” Williams says.

Use this time to brainstorm. What are your family’s favorite dishes? Is there anything in your pantry or refrigerator now that you’d like to use up? Have you clipped recipes which you’d like to try?

Use this information to schedule meals and write out your grocery list. If you use an electronic calendar, consider special apps like “Out of Milk.”

“Out of Milk” (www.outofmilk.app.com) helps you manage shopping and pantry lists by using a barcode scanner. It also helps you keep track of which coupons you have available and even what spices you have in your spice cabinet.

If you prefer the low-tech approach, Williams suggests the following system: Attach a small magnetic basket to your refrigerator door and place two different-colored pads of Post-It notes and a couple of pens inside.

Designate one of the pads for groceries and the other for nonfood essentials.

As you run out of items through the week, write them on the lists. You can keep relevant coupons and meal plans in here as well.

Keep oft-used items close

Williams lives in an older house, so she doesn’t have much storage in her kitchen.

Her solution has been to set up a secondary pantry for lesser-used items in her husband’s basement shop. “I bet I’m not down there but once a week,” she says.

Williams also uses a “one ahead” system for shopping. That means she’ll have one opened jar of often-used condiments –ketchup, peanut butter – in her kitchen, and one unopened jar in the pantry downstairs.

Her new system has allowed her to convert a previous food-storage space in the kitchen into a snack cupboard for her husband. This works much more efficiently, she says, because he goes into that cupboard at least once a day.

“You should keep the stuff closest that you use the most,” she says.

Consider a pantry raid

A clean, well-organized pantry also can help you cook more efficiently.

Williams suggests the following five-step method:

•Purge: Food you don’t eat is clutter. Donate it if it isn’t expired.

•Group like items together: Pastas and spices can go in one area; canned meats in another.

•Consider access: If you use this item a lot, keep it front and center. Place items you don’t use much on highest shelves. Use inexpensive “lazy Susans” on high shelves or in corner cupboards so you don’t have to get up on a stool to see what items are in back.

•Containerize: Group small items – like cake-decorating items or spice packets – in containers like clear plastic shoeboxes.

•Evaluate: Periodically check in to see how your system is working and adjust accordingly.

You can use the same systems to organize your refrigerator and freezer, Williams says. When cleaning out the refrigerator, always group like items in the same areas to “train” your family where to keep things. And don’t forget to leave room for leftovers.

Chest freezers can be tougher to keep clean, as it can be hard to see what’s inside.

Williams suggests freezing foods flat in freezer-proof, resealable plastic bags, then stacking them vertically – like books – in baskets. Keep a Sharpie nearby in the kitchen so you can date and label food as soon as you package it.

You might also hang a freezer inventory right by the appliance. As you remove or add a package, mark it accordingly.

Cooking for two meals

Williams uses a “two-for-one” approach when planning meals.

That means she’ll make a larger, more involved recipe one night (say, roast chicken with mashed potatoes) and a dish from the leftovers (chicken salsa soup) the next.

Some other tips to make the most of your time in the kitchen:

•Always make more than you normally would, so you have ingredients on hand for subsequent meals. When Williams opens a bag of boneless chicken breasts, she cooks the entire package, then freezes what she doesn’t use. She also freezes cooked items like rice, dressing and twice-baked potatoes. She’ll even freeze onions, which will lose their crisp consistency when thawed but can still be used in cooked items. “I figure anything I can buy frozen, I can freeze at home,” she says.

•If using her “two-for-one” method, think of edible ‘envelopes’ for the second-day leftovers. Leftovers work well if folded into food containers such as omelets, puff pastry, pie crust or biscuit dough.

•Most vegetables cook quickly, and turn out well, in the microwave. Williams likes to make carrots or broccoli by mixing them in a microwave-safe bowl with 1 tablespoon each: soy sauce, brown sugar, butter and water. She’ll then heat them for 3 minutes or until done.

•Dust off the slow cooker, as it’s one of the easiest ways to ensure everyone gets a hot meal at the end of the day. “At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘Mom’s here,’ ” Williams says.

•Keep items on hand for emergency meals. That includes ham, eggs, boiled eggs, salsa and butter. In a jam? Ham, eggs and toast make a quick, easy meal.

All pretty sensible stuff that I've been doing for years. In fact, it's time for a pantry clean-out again :)

I do a lot of batch-cooking, where I spend a few hours on an afternoon cooking up several casseroles or stews in the oven and soup on the stove. I freeze the results in single-portion containers to be turned into instant meals via the microwave at some future date. One or two afternoons a month is enough to cook up 30 or 40 future meals.

That not only helps minimise time for cooking but also helps keep costs down; I go into more detail here: The Price of Eating Healthy

Cheers, Alan, T2, Australia
Everything in Moderation - Except laughter

There are some healthy shopping online stores you can easily find out those on Google I recently buy a pair of shoes for my sister.