Winning the War in the Kitchen

by Betty Winslow

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The kitchen was once the most popular room in the house, but in many homes today, it's a battle zone. A shortage of time and money makes cooking a pain instead of a pleasure. Even getting people to the table is a fight, since everyone (even you) is tired of what they'll find there. Don't surrender quite yet, though; after thirty years of kitchen skirmishes, I've discovered a few successful battlefield tactics that may help.

The Problem: Finding family pleasing, easy-to-fix meals that don't take too much money or time to produce.

The Solution: Make a list which includes:

  • your usual main dishes
  • family favorites (Ask them and you may be surprised)
  • dishes you've always wanted to learn to make
  • foods that you often omit due to time or money constraints, as well as areas that need more thought, such as serving more vegetables or less red meat.

Then take this list to the library or bookstore and browse. Buy a new cookbook or subscribe to a good cooking magazine. Collect some new recipes to try.

You are now ready to do some meal planning. Use your calendar and family schedule, keeping it simple during the week (one-pot dishes, broiled or roasted meats, steamed vegetables, salads, fresh fruit desserts) and ultra-simple on extra-busy days (cold meat subs, omelets, soup and grilled cheese sandwiches). Save fancy touches like sauces and multi-step desserts for weekends or days off from work.

Before heading off to the store, check pantry and refrigerator contents against your "planned meals" list and add needed ingredients, as well as paper goods, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. Do one shopping trip, thus avoiding those time and money wasting "I forgot the garlic salt" and "we're out of shampoo and salad dressing" trips we all hate so much. (Be sure to post the meal list somewhere, to remind yourself of what you've planned.)

Here is a tip if your life seems to require lots of quick meals. When you have time, make twice as much of whatever you're cooking and freeze half. It doesn't take much more time or energy to make two batches of lasagna, a bigger pot of chili, or a huge pan of tuna casserole. Later, all you will have to do is thaw, heat, and serve.

If you can't cook ahead or don't have the freezer space, spend a few minutes during kitchen clean-up making part of tomorrow's meal. Throw together a gelatin dessert. Chop some vegetables. Skin tomorrow's chicken, put in a bag with some marinade, and refrigerate. Tomorrow, steam the vegetables while the chicken is cooking and set the table. Dinner is ready!

Another Problem: You hate to throw away leftovers, but what good is a little gravy, some corn, three tablespoons of chili dog topping, and one serving of chicken a la king?

Another Solution: With three grown-ups and two teenagers at home, I seldom have leftovers. When I do cook more than my family can eat, I turn to the quart freezer boxes labeled "soup", "chili", and "spaghetti sauce" that sit in my freezer.

  • Soup ingredients (leftover corn, gravy, chicken a la king) go into the soup box.
  • Chili fixings (chili topping, stewed tomatoes, taco meat, and sauteed onions) go into the chili box.
  • Leftover sauce goes into the spaghetti sauce box.

When a box is full, I thaw and heat it, add any needed extras, check for seasoning, and serve. Besides the obvious possibilities, the contents can be turned into shepherd's pie, chili-mac casserole, homemade pizza topping, and tacos. You will be producing meals from food that would otherwise go to waste.

Yet Another Problem: There are several grocery stores in your area. Which one do you go to and how do you save money once you get there?

Another Solution: Instead of automatically choosing the store with the best sales, consider sticking to the one that offers the best prices week-in, week-out. Determine which one has the best prices for what you buy regularly, and then shop there each week. You may end up spending a dollar or two extra once in a while, but the time you save by knowing where everything is and what they carry is worth the small increase. Besides, with the price of gas seesawing, driving from store to store can get expensive!

If there is a store that offers deep discounts on a few items you use regularly, or which carries stuff not offered elsewhere, make a trip monthly and stock up. Buy only what you can use up in a reasonable amount of time. Even canned goods and toiletries don't last forever!

Use coupons only for items you know you'll use and will use up. A dollar off a big can of coffee is wasted if you only serve coffee to guests. Don't automatically reach for name brands. Even with a coupon, a name brand may cost more than the house or store brand of the same item, so at least try house brands. Eggs are eggs. Flour is flour. And does Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup really taste 63 cents better than the store brand? Will anyone really notice once you've stirred it into a casserole? House brands are often sold with a money-back guarantee. If you don't like them, take them back!

One More Problem: You love the convenience of mixes for baked goods, spice rubs, puddings, and other foods, but they're expensive.

Solution: Make your own! It's easy and only takes a few minutes. Stir up batches of dry ingredients for favorite recipes such as biscuits, coffeecake, pudding mix, and bread machine bread. Make your own spice mixes. Not only is this cheaper than buying store bought, but you will know exactly what's in it all. Love cinnamon? Add more. Hate garlic? Allergic to MSG? Leave it out!

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