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New job leaves me crunched for cooking time. I need time management tips.

Hi everyone,

I recently took a new job that involves a bit of a commute. I went from having lots of time to plan and cook meals to having very little time. I know what I need to do is make better use of my freezer and free time on the weekends, but I'm not quite sure how to do this. I'm quickly falling into the take out hole and I want to stop that from happening. What are your best tips for eating well all week when you don't necessarily have as much time as you would like.


P.S. I can't decide how I feel about leaving a crock-pot on all day when I'm not there.

P.P.S. My apologies if this has been discussed in other threads. I did a preliminary search, but couldn't find any. Links to relevant threads would be much appreciated.

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  1. Congrats on the new job. Here's a recent thread on freezer meals.


    ETA: here's a comment from a firefighter/fellow chowhound on the safety of leaving a crock-pot running all day. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/7601...


    1. Frozen seafood defrosts and cooks really quickly. I'll make a large batch of a sauce, then freeze it in individual portion bags. Defrost a handful of shrimp, warm up a pre-made curry sauce, throw them in, and you're done. I also like to make patties out of ground chicken, which can be defrosted and either grilled or pan-fried quickly. I think you'll need a few weeks to make large batches of things and freeze in individual portions. Once you've got a bit of a stockpile, you'll have enough variety that things won't be redundant.

      1. One of the ways I deal with this is spend time on Sunday and cook basics, then I can throw different flavors spice and quick cooking items with them for a quick late night meal. I will make say a london broil with just salt and pepper. Then for lunch make a sandwich and for dinner slice it up and serve with or over rice, pasta or a salad with different flavorings such as balsamic vinegar or what have you. Towards the end of the week then it is usually frozen shrimp or scallops, mussels that as stated defrost quickly.

        1. I think it helps to identify what you like to eat. Is pasta a favorite or are you a meat and potatoes type? Are stews perfect or last minute seafood cooking? If you don't want to cook ahead, you can certainly shop and prep ahead. That means cleaning produce before putting it away, slicing/chopping those things you use in lots of dishes, maybe making a basic sauce (that would be a marinara for me) that you can modify throughout the week by using some plain, some with lots of herbs/olives, the rest in a cream sauce. But I go back to thinking about what you like to eat first because having a freezer full of food that doesn't really appeal to you will still turn you toward fast food.

          1. I've got pretty crazy hours too, but we manage to eat home cooked dinners almost every night. We have a chest freezer, so I'll make doubles of casseroles (enchiladas ... dare I say vegetarian "shepherds" pie), soups, tamales, etc. Lasagnas are always big enough for 3 meals, so I bake and cool the entire thing then split off the other two thirds for later dinners.

            We're members of a CSA so vegetables are abundant. Things like greens get washed and dried immediately, to be used for meals later in the week. Excess greens get frozen, as do eggplant and zucchini. Those I freeze together in equal portions to combine with onions, bell peppers, etc for a quick ratatouille in the winter.

            I buy large bags of beans and rice, cook the entire bag and freeze in 1 cup portions. Rice reheats well in the microwave on low, still in the plastic bag. Lentils cook quickly, so I don't pre-cook those. But if you have time and think about it, leaving lentils to soak in the morning will cut cooking time down to about 15-20 minutes.

            1. Obviously the weekend shopping and cooking is a must, but before I retired I often made something fast for dinner, then afterwards cooked an entree for the next day, usually enough for several meals. I do not mind having the same thing 2-3 days in a row, so sometimes the finished dish was frozen in portions, other times just refrigerated. I can make 3-4 quarts of soup starting at 7 pm and by using a Rubbermaid container filled with water and kept in the freezer, for plopping into the middle of the finished pot, it's ready to freeze/chill by 10pm.

              1. In addition to the excellent advice you've already received from other posters, I'll add this: plan ahead. Make a written weekly (or longer term) meal plan for dinner. You can plan your meals based on what's in your pantry or freezer, or the week's grocery store flyer, or cravings you might have, whatever. Then use that plan to shop, cook and prep as much ahead as possible so that when you get home you know exactly what's for dinner and what you have to do to get it on the table.

                For example, if you've got something in the freezer, fish perhaps, it generally needs to be thawing in the fridge the day before. With no plan you might well forget to take it out of the freezer, or worse, just not plan to use it at all. And there's nothing worse than standing in front of the fridge, the door open, wondering what to eat and realizing you don't want anything you've got!

                Clean produce and wrap properly when you get home from the market. Do your shopping and as much advance prep as you can on your days off. Glance at your plan every day, looking ahead a couple of days to see if you need any last-minute purchases or have some actions to take. After a while a routine like this just becomes second nature, but it takes commitment on your part. There's no magic, just discipline and motivation.

                Eliminating last-minute decisions and choice can go a long way in reducing your stress and smoothing the transition from the hectic commute to the cocoon of your home.

                1 Reply
                1. re: janniecooks

                  i agree with this...on my fridge I have a list of all meals I can make from exactly what I have on hand and then another list for shopping.

                2. I'm in the same boat. I usually have a well stocked freezer with some items that I've packed away after a big cooking day. Stuff like chili, lentil soup, meat sauce, brown rice, slow cooked pork shoulder, homemade burritos. The freezer is also full of some quick-defrosting items that I can turn into dinner pretty quickly. Things like shrimp, individually packed fish filets, breakfast sausage and waffles.

                  With these basics, I can do a good number of things...sometimes the chili goes in a bowl solo, sometimes over rice or noodles. Sometimes I cook it down and put it on a bun like a sloppy joe. The lentil soup is great served over pasta. The pulled pork can be doused with bbq sauce or thrown into a stir fry (I slow cook it on its own, no sauce or seasonings. This leaves my options open). The shrimp or fish can go with the rice or some pasta. I usually make a quick lemon and butter sauce to go over them, but sometimes they go into a stir fry. I do breakfast for dinner a lot. One of my favorites is fried egg over rice (with lots of soy sauce!).

                  As for the slow cooker, I was worried about the idea of leaving it on all day, too. So I eased into it. First I used it on a day I was planning I was spending at home anyway. I kept hovering over it, but there was no problem. Then I used it on a day when I was going to be out for an hour or two here and there. Then I left it on one day while I was at work (but came home at lunch to check on it). Now I'm okay with letting it go for the day!

                  Congrats on the new job. Hope my two cents helps.

                  1. I fry fish fillets. I make a salad, sometimes using bagged spinach, arugula, altho' I also use lettuce I need to rinse. And, I either serve corn on the cob, in season, bread from the bakery, pasta, or rice. Once a week, I buy a cooked chicken, on the way home, and can get 2 meals out of that. I serve tofu, in a stir fry, which doesn't take too long to make. I sometimes buy the prepared tofu at WF, and serve that as the protein. Sauteing shrimp is v. quick. And delicious!

                    1. I use the crockpot all day. I love coming home to a hot hearty meaty dish.

                      I also try to use leftovers for my next day meal. So if I make chicken tacos one night I plan on making and using the extra chicken in a chicken ceasar salad the next night. Or, pork roast one night, pulled pork sandwiches the next. It takes a bit of planning. Chili one night, taco salad with chili as the "meat" the next day. Fish one night, fish tacos the next.... IT really cuts down on the cooking time.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: danionavenue

                        When I prepare something and use the leftovers to create another meal, I try to skip a night in between. For me, that makes me feel like I'm eating something "new" rather than reheated.

                      2. Great advice here....in addition, please consider:

                        1. How good you are at multitasking. For example, if I'm boiling pasta, I'll make a quick sauce at the same time and microwave-steam some vegetables directly on my dinner plate. The trade-off sometimes is that there are more dirty dishes by cooking multiple things at once.

                        2. On a related note....for some people, having mise en place at the beginning is crucial, and I'll agree it is for certain dishes, like stir-fry, where things happen in quick succession. However, there are times where it works for me to prepare as I go along. For example, for a soup, I'll chop some longer cooking vegetables, get them cooking, then chop the shorter cooking items and toss them in as I go along. It may not turn out perfect all the times....and yes, there are times when I may have forgotten to put something in until later when I'm very frazzled....but in general, it works for me when I'm very rushed. However, this is very subjective to your cooking style- I tend to cook on the fly a lot and make things up instead of using recipes.

                        Good luck!

                        1. When I'm busy to that degree I find that my brain goes on the fritz and if I'm hungry it's even worse!

                          So I started making flow charts.

                          Ex: Roast chicken (or rotisserie when super busy). Then flow to recipe ideas by secondary ingredient or category. Category ie: canned goods for when the fridge is bare could become pasta with artichoke hearts or olives or curry with coconut milk, pineapple,etc.

                          Each time I find a quick concept for a frequent leftover item I jot it onto the chart. If nothing else it kind of jump starts my brain!

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: meatn3

                            What a great idea! You wouldn't happen to have your flowchart posted online somewhere, would you?


                            1. re: The Dairy Queen

                              I don't have it online...my scribbles are hard for me to decipher! I hope to get it into a nicer form someday.

                              Actually, this could be a fun group project if anyone has the graphics skills to do it!

                              I'm pretty visual, so the idea works for me.

                            2. re: meatn3

                              You had me at flow charts! This sounds like a technique for idea mapping that could really work for me. Thanks!

                            3. If you have good intentions but are lazy, like me, you can at least do this: On the weekend stock up on produce. Make sure your freezer is stocked with frozen protein, veggies, and starches (bread and rice both freeze well). Every night, take some frozen protein and stick it in the fridge. Then when you come home, cook that up with a starch and a vegetable. For instance, thaw a frozen fish fillet, and when you come home the next day pan-fry it, put it aside and cook some frozen broccoli in the same pan, and while you're doing that heat up a roll in the toaster oven. Dinner in less than 10 minutes.

                              Everyone else's ideas about meal planning and everything are much better than this, and I know I should do that stuff, but if you can't get it together or are having an extra-busy week you can try this.

                              1. Did not see it mentioned, so here's something that has helped me.

                                If you have a decent collection of cookbooks, explore the idea of subscribing to www.eatyourbooks.com

                                I find that this resource really helps with planning...from any PC with an internet connection.

                                It remembers all the cookbooks you own, if the book is indexed, it knows the recipes and their "major" ingredients.

                                So if you want a recipe with "X" ingredient and "Y" ingredient, you type them in and the site spits out all the NAMES of the recipes in YOUR books that combine those two ingredients...you still have to go to the book to find the whole recipe.

                                I love it.

                                1. Whatever you cook, whenever you cook it, make double or triple if you have the freezer space. Here's what I mean. We love salisbury turkey steak. I make a triple batch, flatten out the patties and freeze them with wax paper between tightly sealed in in plastic zip bag. Toss frozen patties in pan, make up mashed potatoes, steam a green veg or open up the salad. While the meat cooks, I mix up a simply flour broth basic gravy recipe and dump it and mushrooms in the pan. Cover and finish the sides, let the meat cook through, serve and enjoy. Presto, main dish for 3 nights. Same for the Italian bean soup, shrimp creole (just don't cook the shrimp in the big batch), meatloaf, stroganoff or anything else that will reheat well or thaw and cook well. I go ahead on weekends and dice up the celery, carrots, onions and bell peppers if fresh is cheap, or pick up the frozen when they are out of season so I always have the chopping out of the way. If there is a good buy on fresh mushrooms I'll prefer those, but if the meal is happening towards the end of the week and the mushrooms won't last, there is no shame in canned. Even ground beef or turkey can be cooked up and frozen in bags so be added to sauces, etc. "stew" etc.

                                  Crock pot cooking has it's place but can tend to leave you eating a lot of soupy type meals and the the crisp/fresh flavors are often lost. It's great when you are using winter veggies and its the only way to cook beans. And steel cut oatmeal.

                                  Individually frozen fish filets are great as are non traditional tuna salads. I just served the family a super quick nicoise salad that was pretty much assembled in 5 minutes. I had the potatoes cooked the day before, along with the eggs, the green beens just thawed in the fridge, the olives sat happily in their little container and the tuna can was opened. I mixed it up, threw together a viniagrette and tossed the whole shebang over bagged greens and served with a crusty baguette. The family vote was to leave out the anchovies but, how hard is it to open a tin?

                                  But the best advice I ever got was to double/triple up during cooking. Keep in mind you don't have to cook the frozen meal that week. It comes out next week. If you do that every night for a week you have 2 more weeks worth of meals all ready. Just be sure to bag and TAG what you freeze. I promise you will not be able to tell the difference between the bag of Italian bean soup, the chili, the red beans and rice and the baked beans once they are frozen. sometimes even the sniff test fails you.

                                  Plan on the weekends, have a plan and try to stick to it. My downfall is not looking at the plan the night before and making sure the protein goes into thaw time. But then I can always yank out the bag of italian bean soup, serve up the salad and the bread and hew presto we got a good dinner on the table.

                                  1. I've read the 20 replies so far and there is a lot of very good information for you. Using your freezer to your advantage will make a world of difference when you're tired and hungry - it can keep you out of the "take-out hole" you describe.

                                    Before I retired, I worked long days -- 6 AM - 6PM with an hour drive each way. I was tired and hungry when I finally reached home. I wanted to relax with a glass of wine, not necessarily prep a full meal. In addition to my freezer stash, I found it helpful to have a very well-stocked pantry. Knowing there were always ingredients available to make supper freed my mind and saved my budget. Keeping an inventory of things you like to eat may be very helpful.

                                    EX: canned tomatoes, rice, pasta, tuna or other canned fish, canned beans (or cooked & frozen), broth, crackers, polenta, dried mushrooms (porcini), oils & vinegars, dried fruit all store very well. My fridge always contained: eggs, cheese, olives, smoked fish (often salmon), mustards, mayo, various other condiments, vegetables (often some wearing furry coats, if truth be told) like cabbage or kale, carrots - all long keepers. In dry storage, I tried to have garlic, onions & potatoes always on hand.

                                    This gave me more than a dozen dinner possibilities without having to think very hard about what we were going to eat.

                                    Risotto = rice + stock + whatever I found in the fridge + cheese

                                    Stuffed baked potatoes = potatoes + cheese + ???

                                    Pasta possibilities included: tuna, tomato + cheese + garlic, oil + black/red pepper, w/ lots of cheese "ends", pasta + white beans + garlic, smoked salmon + cream + peas

                                    Grilled cheese sandwiches

                                    Omelets and fritattas of many descriptions

                                    Polenta + sauce of: tomatoes + dried mushrooms + onions/garlic + cheese = one of our favorites

                                    Soups were quick & easy & satisfying. Again, there are endless possibilities. Heat broth, add: tomatoes, beans, kale (which keeps very well in the fridge), some pasta, bacon or sausage if you have it and, voila, you have "Poor Man's Minestrone".

                                    BTW - if you keep kale in the freezer, it reduces cook time significantly. I used to cut out the stenter stalk and bag it. Freeze. When I wanted to use some, it broke apart like flimsy crackers and was ready to go, cooking quickly.

                                    Bean & pasta soup is self-explanatory.

                                    The second part of my planning was to fill the oven once a week. Instead of just roasting a single chicken, I would cook two. When cooking a pork loin, cook two. Add a pan of mac 'n cheese, a sheet pan of vegetables to roast, a couple of baking potatoes and a pan of apples (baked fruit compote) and you have a great start on the week's meals; pantry can supplement.

                                    The chicken can be used many different ways. Add some to make a chicken-pasta dish one night, make chicken-noodle soup another. The roasted vegetables are good "as is" or they can be made into a hearty salad or soup. The potatoes are ready to stuff or make potato salad or potato gratin or fried potatoes etc.

                                    If you add pears or another fruit to the apples, they're ready to spoon over ice cream or eat "as is". Raisins and the cooked apples were wonderful added to my breakfast oatmeal.

                                    When you make something like "Sunday Sauce" make enough for the week + freezer. You'll never lack for a meal. Ditto for posole, beef stew, etc. I like to keep some ham in the fridge, although a steady diet of ham can be monotonous; someone's definition of eternity = 2 people and a whole ham. I dresses up your grilled cheese sandwich and is very versatile; happy at all meals.

                                    Hope this helps.

                                    1. Thanks Everyone! As usual, you have all been so helpful. I feel much better about being able to continue home cooking, even with a busy schedule!!

                                      1. Your crock pot and freezer will be your best friends.

                                        I'm a sophomore in college, and I live alone (well, with two cats). So instead of battling with recipes and trying to cook for one, I just make enough of Recipe X for four people, or whatever it calls for, and then freeze the rest to eat later. Works great when you're lazy but still want great food; just pull out a one-portion baggie of chili/chicken stew/beef stroganoff/whatever, microwave it, maybe add some fresh or frozen veggies, and voila -- instant healthy meal.

                                        I've also found that frozen individual portions of fish work well. For example, I can get a bag of individually packaged, frozen salmon filets at Wal-Mart for about $9. They take about 5 minutes to thaw in a hot water bath. Then you can throw some lemon juice, olive oil, lemon pepper seasoning, and fresh dill on there (or whatever else you'd like) and broil for five minutes or so. Great instant entree. Serve with veggies, bread/rice, etc.

                                        And don't worry about the crock pot being on all day. I've left it on low all night while I slept AND all the next day while I was at school, continuously, while I was cooking a tough piece of meat. (Threw it all in the pot right before I went to bed.) And nothing burned down. And it was amazingly delicious.

                                        1. If you're uncomfortable with a crock pot, consider a programmable rice cooker. A rice cooker will only be on for a relatively short period, but can have many different grains ready shortly after you get home. Because I prefer whole grains to say, white rice, I find this convenient for weekday meals. I can have any number of quick cooking proteins and veggies ready within thirty minutes or so, but it's the brown rice that takes longer. There are also grains like quinoa that cook more quickly, if you prefer not to use a rice cooker. You can also alternatively soak grains ahead of time, so they cook up more quickly and evenly. I'm big on making steel cut oats the night before for breakfast in the morning. Just bring it to a boil, clap on the lid, and remove from the heat, then let it sit overnight. In the morning, it reheats stovetop or in the microwave quickly and sticks with me until lunch time. I used to commute for a minimum 45 hour a week job when I lived in the Triangle area of NC, so I feel for you. Home cooking can be done. It just takes planning, mostly.

                                          1. I used to get home close to 6 pm, and then I would make dinner to eat around 6:30 or 6:45. It can be done. When I started to work again, I had to relearn how to make meals, and that is what you are doing now. I didn't like having to spend a lot of time in the kitchen on most weekends. I simply learned to fix quick meals. The key for me was to think ahead and pull out a piece of meat to defrost in the fridge on the day before. But I've also defrosted stuff in the microwave too. You can use your pressure cooker to make a fast meal. I didn't like using a slow cooker during the week because I had to do so much prep work in the morning. I didn't start using a slow cooker again I retired. Here are some quick ideas:

                                            soak lentils during thel day and cook them super fast and add to braised spinach.

                                            grill pork chops

                                            bake fish

                                            saute chicken breasts

                                            make tacos or similar dishes with ground meat

                                            make hamburgers

                                            make a salad and top with the protein of your choice

                                            Be sure to make extras when you make a nice meal over the weekend; use those as the basis for another meal during the workweek.

                                            Its the creative touches to these basic ideas that make the meals good. You'll get the hang of this faster than you think. Congrats on the new job.