5 Cooking hacks I learned in quarantine
The lock-down ended my former eating habits.
No lunch with my colleagues. No week-day dinners at my parent’s house. No restaurants. No cafes. Nothing.
Of course, there were various food delivery options available. But the cost of that would surely add up and in the midst of a global pandemic, how could I know the precautions taken when the food was being prepared?
Add to that, the fact that delivered food seems to lose 70% of its flavor on its way to you, and my wife and I were certain we would need to cook all our meals going forward.
It’s not like we’d never cooked before. We’d cooked the odd meal here and there, tried a few things, even sometimes managed to make 3 or 4 meals in a week. But this ended up being quite different.
In addition to our usual 9–5 jobs, there seemed to be a pile-up of housework. Making 3 meals a day was a different animal to our usual one-meal-at-home per day. Grocery shopping became a multi-hour expedition with long lines and full trolleys. There seemed to be so much going on.
This became quite tiring. We’d end up eating late dinners, get tired of eating the same things over and over, and usually ended the day burnt out from everything.
Since then, however, we have learned a few things. Things we did not know before. Things that might help you if you feel you are in a similar position.
The following are the 5 cooking hacks I wish I knew when I had started.
Find easy go-to meals
You won’t always have the time to make the lasagnas and ratatouilles. Maybe on certain occasions, you have extra time and don’t mind the cathartic hours of multi-step cooking, but for the most part, you want to be able to make meals as quickly as possible. And tasty.
Finding a few meals that you wouldn’t mind having multiple times a week, are quick to make and don’t cost a tonne, are great to have in the bank.
Some days you will be up to your neck in work and responsibilities. Other days you will be downright shattered from earlier activity. It’s always useful to have a meal you can pull out when you are low on time and energy.
There are plenty of recipes out there that cater to your tastes and dietary restrictions. Just spend some time trying to find them and you will reap the rewards for a long time to come.
Meal planning is key
When I was in uni, I ate out 95% of the time. The times I cooked were when I felt the inclination to eat healthier or just wanted to try to make something I liked.
I’d end up spending a large amount of money on my grocery trip, buying spices, cans, and fresh vegetables that were too much for a single meal. I’d end up making a single meal and the remaining ingredients would go to waste.
Even if I wanted to use the remaining ingredients, I’d often need to make another trip to the store to get the things that I didn’t have and the cycle would repeat. I wasn’t sure exactly how much I’d need of each thing. Some things just came in too big a quantity. Life and laziness would often get in the way and I’d end up eating out for weeks, leaving everything in the fridge to go bad.
Fast forward to today, something that has really helped us avoid food wastage and extra trips to the grocery store is meal planning. Planning your meals may take up a bit of time, but the benefits are undeniable.
Our meal planning looks like this:
- Look at the upcoming week and note down all the meals you plan to cook for the next 7 days. This could be anything from 5-weekday dinners to every single meal. It doesn’t matter. As long as you have noted them down.
- Think about what you want to make for each meal and note down the name. We found that cooking a double portion for dinner meant we could make the next day’s lunch an easy leftovers meal. If you are able to cook huge portions and freeze them, that may also be beneficial. Busy days may call for your easy go-to meals.
- Once you have your list, note down the ingredients for each recipe and the general quantity required. The more specific the better, but a general quantity should suffice.
- Check your current stock and make a list of all the extra things you will need on your next shopping trip.
- That’s it. Sorted for the week
The above may seem obvious or too much of a hassle, but trust me it helps. Not only do you save money from a lack of food wastage, not only do you save time by only needing to make a single trip in a week, but you also free up your mind for the rest of the week. You allow it the freedom of not having to think about your next meal and give it the liberty to focus on the more important things you have to do.
Wash your vegetables
This one is quite straight forward but has helped us a lot.
Chances are a lot of your vegetables are not pre-washed. Prior to chopping up and using your ingredients for cooking, you need to wash them.
I found that spending some time to wash and store all my vegetables after a shopping trip saved me time and effort throughout the week. Now, every time I want to make something, if everything is clean and ready, I’m able to just take what I need out of the fridge and start cooking.
May sound obvious to some or unnecessary for others, but in the past, I used to wash and prepare things on a need-by-need basis which would end up adding time to my whole cooking experience. Bulk washing acts as a bit of an investment for time-saving throughout the rest of your week.
(Pre-peeling and chopping vegetables may also help save time for some, but do note that vegetables go bad faster once this is done)
Have everything ready
A simple tip here that may seem obvious but makes a difference: Get everything ready before you start.
- Make sure you have all the ingredients you need. Nothing worse than getting midway through a meal and realizing you are missing a key component.
- Go through the recipe once before you start. Does the oven need to be preheated? Get that going before you start on dicing your tomatoes. Does your rice need to cook for a while? Better start that early in case you get caught up in making the sauce and end up delaying dinner.
- Make a mental note of the order of things that need to be done so you are conscious of what needs to be prepared. I sometimes found myself frying onions and then realizing I forgot to cut the carrots. Then it became a game of trying to prepare the carrots to go in, without burning the onions.
A side note to saving time here: while waiting for things to bake or boil, go ahead and do as much of the washing up as you can. Dishes in the sink after a meal is the worst. I’ve never felt the desire to wash up post eating so I try to minimize my work for later.
It's OK to mess up. It comes with practice
I used to spend ages cooking. I would start at 6 and have my meal at 9. I rarely cooked and each time I went through a situation like that I’d be demotivated to cook again. My experiences were too sporadic to lead to any noticeable improvement and I often wondered if I’d ever be comfortable cooking for my kids in the future.
But I guess that’s one thing I also noticed. Taking my mom as an example, I realized that cooking is a skill just like any other that takes time and practice. She too likely had to practice for years before she was able to attain the speed and ability she has today. Honestly, one time I could have sworn she made an entire salad on her trip from the kitchen to the dining table. It takes patience but that’s how you become a seasoned professional.
In addition to speed, expanding your skillset is very helpful. You can be great at 1 or 2 recipes, but researching and finding new recipes to try will always help you grow.
It’s alright if you don’t like something you made. It’s alright if it doesn’t taste great the first or even third time you try something new. But the more you try, the more you enjoy the journey and the less you think about the temporary setbacks, the easier it will be once you start to see the fruit of your labor.
I hope you find these cooking hacks helpful. Happy cooking.