Thursday, January 6, 2011

Finding Time to Cook Paleo

We all live a busy life these days so finding time to cook at home, and keeping it Paleo,  or "whole foods" with little processed foods, can be a challenge some times.  Here are a few tips to help you cook at home without losing your mind:

Cook Ahead -

If you google "once a month cooking", you'll find a plethora of sites specializing in cooking a whole bunch of meals at one time and freezing them for later consumption.  Of course, many of these sites are not "Paleo-friendly" (most of their recipes have grains or dairy in them) but they are still a treasure trove of information and tips.

As you know from my great "Chicken Broth" demonstration, I do practice this method now and again.  I cook all of my chicken ahead of time so I always have ready-to-eat protein in the freezer.  You can do a lot with already-cooked chicken - instant chicken soup, chicken salad, chicken taco lettuce wraps...the list goes on and all.  Best  of all, all the bones and skin are immediately available for chicken broth.  I also cook "hard to cook" beef and pork, like large roasts or ribs, ahead of time to save me time and hassle.

Do Your Prep Work Ahead -

Wash your fruits and vegetables the moment they come into the house.  Lettuce can be washed, spun dry, and stored in the salad spinner one head at a time so you always have salad fixings.  Carrots and celery can be sliced into sticks for lunches and easy snacks.  Boil a dozen eggs and store them in the fridge for easy protein snacks.  The time you spend on the weekend prepping food will save you even more time during the week, when you're tired and hungry and grumpy.

Frozen Vegetables Are A God-Sent -

I use my microwave to do 2 things: heat up cold coffee/tea and cook frozen veggies.  Feel free to buy the cheaper store brands - you don't need the buy the special (and more expensive) "steam in the bag" frozen vegetables to fully utilize this convenience. For my family, I buy broccoli, California Blend veggies, and spinach - all of which I find at Target for around $1/lb.

My method: At the beginning of my food prep, I pour the veggies into a large glass bowl, cover, and microwave for five minutes and walk away.  I don't return until I'm ready to plate-up the meal.  I've found that the extra time allows the steam/residual heat to finish the cooking and by the time I'm ready to plate, the veggies are at the perfect temp for us to eat them.

Portion....Portion....Portion -

Portion out your whole foods into easy-to-cook amounts.

For example, two or three times a year I can find London Broil for under $2/lb.  Steak is a luxury in our house and when it's that low of a price, I load up my cart with 6 or 7 huge steaks (think "roast" size).

((Side note - Some time last year, I was heading home from my usual Friday night dinner with friends when I stopped at my local Safeway to partake in one of the great "London Broil" sales.  It was almost 10 PM and I was the only person in the line buying real food - everyone else was buying snacks and alcohol for their Friday night parties.  One of the college kids behind me asked, "Are you having a BBQ tomorrow?"  I laughed, "No, this is for my family."  His eyes got huge, " many kids do you have?"  That's when I enlightened him on the wonders of freezer storage.))

Anyway...since I know the kids and I can't eat one of these monster steaks in one or two meals, I always take the time to portion them out before freezing them.  I slice the steaks into meal-sized chunks, wrap them in foil, and label it with a big "LB" so I know what's in there.

I usually take one of these steaks out on days I know are going to be a little crazy.  They don't take a lot of time to cook via my method -  fry two minutes on each side and then place in a 300 degree oven while I make the rest of dinner - and I can use the leftover oil and drippings in my pan to cook a bag of frozen Spinach straight out of the bag.  Tah-dah!  Dinner is served!

Plan Your Meals Out -

Part of my New Years Goals included eating Paleo 90% of the time and restricting my carb intake to under 100g a day.  To keep to this goal, I sit down every morning over breakfast and plan out our meals for the day.  That's when I pull something out of the freezer for dinner and make sure we have all the ingredients.

(BTW: FatSecret is a great tool to do this with.  It lists the carb, protein, fat, and calories right next to each of the food you add to your daily menu, so you can see at a glance what your daily intake is without having to flip to different pages or dig out a calculator to add stuff.)

Of course, not everyone has the ability to do this every morning but the same idea can be modified to a weekly or even monthly planning.  For example, you could sit down on Sunday and decide what you're going to have for dinner each day of the week.  Make sure you take in account your schedule - that way, you can accommodate late afternoon appointments, soccer games, or any other engagements that could train wreck your dinner plans and send you running for the nearest McDonald's.  Post the menu somewhere where you'll see it every morning and remember to take that day's protein out of the freezer to defrost.
Don't Be Afraid To Use Modern Conveniences -

Crock pots are the greatest time savers in the world for busy families.  Pop in a roast in the morning and you have food ready the moment you walk in the door that night.  You can make some great soups, stews, and chili (minus the beans) without worrying about it boiling over or setting itself on fire.  I've even heard of people roasting whole chickens in there!  Be inventive!

My favorite kitchen tool has to be my electronic pressure cooker.  I bought it a couple years ago and haven't looked back since.  I've discovered that I can make some great soups in there in no time flat....and ribs are "fall off the bone good" when they're pressure-cooked first.  Protein cooks faster in there and always come out juicy and yummy.  I've stewed whole chickens and made pulled pork in there (though learn from my mistake - cut the large pork roasts into large chunks first.  Otherwise it takes forever to cook through,) and everything always turns out so good.  It was a great investment for me.

Always Have Easy-To-Cook Food Available -

I learned pretty quickly that with work and kids and house, I don't always have the time (or brain power) to cook a full meal.  So now I always make sure to have some easy-to-cook meals ready in the wings for those crazy "pull out my hair and scream" sort of days.

My go-to easy meal is fried eggs and veggies.  It takes about five minutes for a bag of frozen vegetables to cook in the microwave.  While they're cooking, I heat up my cast-iron pan (yes, I cook with cast iron - can't do without it!), and prepping the eggs for a quick fry in some butter.  If I'm lucky, everything is done about the same time and we can sit and eat within 15 minutes of starting dinner.

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