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Save Time with Efficient Kitchen Skills

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Efficient Kitcher

This is a guest blog by Nikida Koraly. Nikida is a 5th-grade math and science teacher in Austin, TX. She also runs a teaching productivity site called TeachBalanc(ed). Nikida’s mission is to help teachers keep teaching by sharing productivity tips, systems, tools, and energy management techniques that allow teachers to be more effective inside the classroom (so they have time to have a life outside of it). Nikida loves nothing more than helping people live healthier and more active lives. If you want to ask Nikida a question, request a topic for a future post, or just say “Hi,” connect with her at TeachBalanced.com.


Sharing a studio apartment with an Asian Efficiency team member (and our dog) keeps me in a pretty constant state of homemade optimization. Combine that with relatively high standards of eating fresh, home-cooked meals, a quick stint in a professional kitchen, and the surprisingly long hours of working in a public middle school, and BAM, you get this assortment of tips, tricks, and recipe basics to streamline your kitchen time.

The fact that you’re reading kitchen tips from a productivity blog means you are on a mission to get things done, and to get things done, you need to make energy a priority. Doing your best possible work means prioritizing your body, and making your own healthy food is the easiest option. Cooking your meals at home makes you more likely to use whole ingredients—saving money and avoiding triggers for bad eating habits.

Cooking all of your meals from home may seem daunting. You might have even tried to become a home-cooking hero before you gave up under the weight of wilting vegetables, stinky leftovers, or shocking grocery bills. But if you get a crock pot, batch your meals, and master the whole foods hacks that you use most often, then you and whoever sits down with you at your table will reap the delicious and nutritious rewards.

This article isn’t meant to make you a great cook. It is designed to make you a good cook and then get you out of the kitchen and back to your projects.

Batch Smacking Your Meal Plan Into Shape

Eating your frog becomes substantially easier when you don’t have to consider what you are actually going to be eating. Take the burden of planning, cooking, and cleaning out of your increasingly important weekday by batching most of your meals on the weekend.

Every other Sunday, I spend 3-6 hours in the kitchen, catching up on podcasts and making my neighbors’ noses jealous. By the end of the marathon, the fridge/freezer is full of healthy breakfasts, soups, pre-cut veggies, and crock-pot meals that Zack and I mix-and-match for the next two weeks. Sometimes I even make dessert.

Freezer Bags + Crock Pots = Eating Dinner Before 9pm

When the primary cook goes straight to the gym after work, dinner gets pushed back into the hangry-zone. But when the primary cook is plugged into a wall, dinner is always ready on time.

Using a crock pot is easy to prep, easy to cook, and easy to clean. The only downside is that you can’t adjust to taste as you go. After years of experimenting, I’ve created a few rules to ensure maximum flavor of any recipe!

Pre-saute onions and garlic. It multiplies the flavor of the garlic and keeps the onions from getting rubbery under the slow heat. If you are cooking some soups as well, you’re going to be using that big pot anyway.

Brown all of the meats. Even if you are shredding the final product, use your tongs to brown any meat you are using on all sides before throwing it in the bag. Taking a few extra minutes on prep day makes for some easy wins throughout the week!

Start with crunchy vegetables. Unless you really like mush, don’t put any soft vegetables in the pot until the last 30 minutes.

Spice with caution. Using too many spices or herbs can overpower the meal very easily. Only use one or two spices and if you are using fresh herbs, put them in at the end!

Storing your meals in gallon-sized freezer bags lets you stack them up in the freezer to save space.Freezer compartment of a refrigeratorWrite everything anyone needs to know on the bag. Some meals have different cook times or temperatures. Sometimes you forget ingredients. Sometimes you add a bunch of vegetables in at the end. If you start this adventure with this habit in place, anyone in your household can make dinner.

Breakfast > No Breakfast

Healthy breakfast

Our morning routine includes the same breakfast every morning for weeks at a time. For me, a heap of protein and vegetables included in breakfast makes for my most productive mornings. Since I filled my bowl with skim milk and Cheerios for much of my life, this was an intentional transition that I can still slip out of the habit of doing. So I need to plan this one ahead. My favorites include:

  • Breakfast Hash: Brown a pound of uncased sausage (my favorite is hot Italian chicken sausage) with half of a chopped onion and a pinch of minced garlic. Remove the meat, and use the grease to saute 2-4 cups of shredded or chopped starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes or butternut squash. Once the starch is softened, add the meat as well as a pound of chopped baby greens (spinach, kale, chard, etc.), and mix until the greens are wilted. You can heat this up by itself or with an egg all week.
  • Veggie Scramble: Saute whatever vegetable and protein that you want and put it in its own container. Heat up with eggs every morning. (Some people are fine with scrambling the eggs with the vegetables on their batch day so they have less work during the week, but Zack and I both prefer fresh eggs to the extra few minutes we’d save with that step. Experiment to find what is best for yourself).
  • Greek Yogurt and Breakfast Salad: A few weeks of breakfast buffets in Israel got me hooked on eating salad with my breakfast. One of my favorites is to mix shredded red and green cabbage, shredded carrots, a splash of lemon juice, and seasonal fruit (especially fresh berries and cherries) together to serve with high-protein Greek yogurt.

Soup for Days

Tomato and red lentil soup

Soup is great to make ahead for several reasons. First of all, it is easy to stuff a ton of healthy goodness into soup. Second, aside from the chopping, it only uses one pot that doesn’t take up too much space on the stove and is quick to clean up. Third, it keeps for a long time in the fridge or the freezer so that it is easy to grab at the end of the second week. And finally, you can portion in into baggies so that it packs flat and doesn’t take up precious Tupperware.

  • Chicken and Greens: This one is easy because you don’t have to brown the meat to make it taste delicious. I will either bake a roasting pan full of chicken so I can use half for salads, or pull it off of a rotisserie at the grocery store since (in the U.S.) they are mysteriously cheaper than raw chickens. Chop an onion and two cloves of garlic, and put them in the stock pot with a pinch of salt and 2 T of oil on a medium-high heat. Stir them up while you chop 3-4 carrots and 3-4 celery stalks until the onions are translucent. Add the celery and carrots and mix until they are coated with oil. Add a few handfuls of shredded chicken and 6 cups of chicken broth. If you want to add herbs, do so one or two at a time. It is really easy to over-herb a soup. While the soup is coming to a boil, chop up your greens (kale, chard, spinach, collards, or whatever dark leafy green you prefer). Once the soup has boiled for a few minutes, turn the stove down to a simmer and add the greens. Simmer until the leaves are soft.
  • Beef Stew: Heartier than brothy soups, but still lighter than chili. While you are prepping the rest of your wonderful food, chop steak into spoon-sized bits and salt it generously and let sit for 30-60 minutes. Actually, you should do this whenever you eat red meat. Put half of a chopped onion and 2 cloves of minced garlic in a pot with 2 T of fat and saute until soft. Add 1 T of flour or 2 T of almond flour and whisk into a paste. Add the beef and mix until everything is good and coated. Once the meat is brown, add 3+ cups of crunchy vegetables (carrots, celery, chard stalks, broccoli, cauliflower, or potatoes). Now for the fun part. Add a little bit (half cup) of broth at a time. Every time you add the broth, mix everything into a homogenous-looking stew. Once it starts bubbling again, add another half cup. Keep doing that until your pot is full. You could just add all of the broth and let it simmer until the vegetables are soft, but this extra step makes the soup creamier without added thickeners/calories and is easy to do while I prep other things.
  • Broccoli and Cheese: This is one of Zack’s favorites. Put a chopped onion and a few minced garlic cloves in a pot with some fat. Saute them until the onions are clear while you chop a head of broccoli into florets. Add most of the broccoli (stalks and all!) to the soup, leaving out the prettiest spoon-sized florets. Add three cups of broth and heat until the broccoli is tender. Add 8 oz of cream cheese, 2 cups of hard cheese, and a cup of heavy cream. Once everything is melted, blend (I use an immersion blender) together, then add the pretty florets and simmer until those are at your desired softness.

Food Prep Hacks

No matter what diet/situation/mantra guides your food choices (paleo, raw, vegan, gluten-free, ketogenic, vegetarian, slow-carb, what the cafeteria has, juice cleanse, locavore, coupon addiction, food pyramid, MyPlate, flexitarian, or because that is what your mom made) the healthiest version of that is when you use whole ingredients. These farm-to-table ingredients come with a little extra work and even fewer instructions.

Inefficiency in any repetitive task adds up quickly, especially in the kitchen. Sharpen your favorite chef’s knife and use these cheats to get through your prep time much faster!

Knife Skills:

Anytime you are at the cutting board, these basic rules will save you considerable amounts of time and Band-Aids.

  • Put a slightly damp (very slightly) kitchen towel under the cutting board. This eliminates the potential for the board slipping under the pressure of chopping.
  • Curl your fingertips under to hold the food in place while you cut.
  • A sharp chef’s knife takes care of most of your food-prepping needs.
  • When cutting, put the tip of the knife down to the cutting board, and rock it through the food. Move the food, not the knife. This keeps the knife most stable (safe) and sharp. If whatever you are chopping is too thick, you can saw through the top before you point the blade to the board.
  • Scrape with the dull side of the knife. This will help maintain the integrity of your cutting board as well as the blade of the knife. Once you build a better relationship with your knife, you’ll finally understand why it is the only personal item competitors use on Top Chef.

Onions:

I love the smell and flavor of sauteed onions, and they start a lot of the best recipes. I’ve seen a lot of friends and roommates take over 5 minutes to chop one onion, give up on the rest, and dump them into the food processor. This seems like a great option, until you taste the result. Sauteed onions are delicious and make everything better, but sauteed onion mush tastes like armpit smell. If you want your homecooked batch to be sustainable, it needs to be delicious, not armpitty.

  • First Steps: Slice the “top” of the onion off, so you have a flat surface to balance the onion on. Cut the onion in half, perpendicular to the root knob. Then you can peel the outer layers back, so you and the rest of the onions have something to hold while chopping.
  • Slicing: Place the onion flat side down, holding the root. Slice from the tip to the root.
  • Chopping: Place your hand flat on the top of the onion to keep it steady. Cut toward the root, parallel to the table depending on the size pieces you want. Then, pinching the onion from the sides, slice towards the root perpendicular to the table. Now your onion is ready to slice from the tip to the root.

Garlic

Another taste necessity. The stuff in the jar just doesn’t do it. Preparing fresh garlic involves a lot of smashing. Get excited.

  • Bulb → Cloves: Put the garlic bulb on the cutting board with the roots tilted towards you. Place the broad side of your knife (or the bottom of a sturdy mug) against the root and tap it with the heel of your hand. Keep tapping harder until you feel like the cloves are loosening, then put consistent pressure against it while the cloves fall away from the bulb. Tapping harder will still work, but they may fly all over the place.
  • Cloves → Minced Garlic: Hold the broad side of your knife against a clove, flat against the cutting board. Then pop the heel of your hand against it, smashing the garlic pretty flat. The skin will easily peel away from the smashed garlic, which is the most time-consuming part.

Leafy Herbs on Stems

If you like cilantro, then you probably love cilantro and want to use it all the time. If you want to use it all the time, but don’t, it’s probably because you’ve picked the leaves off of the stems for 20 minutes only to get a tablespoon of chopped cilantro.

Slice stemmed bunches “up” the stem: Grab the bunch by the bottom, tilt it towards your cutting surface, and chop at the leafy bits. This is imperfect, but will cut down tons of time attacking the leaves individually.

Cauliflower Hulk Smash

Using cauliflower to up the veggie count is easy because it has a versatile texture and takes on whatever flavors you cook it with. Chopping cauliflower is not so easy. Instead of cutting all the florets off one at a time and cutting those into smaller pieces and getting tiny bits EVERYWHERE use the Hulk Smash technique.

Keep the head in the bag, stem side down. With the heels of your hulky hands on the biggest parts, smash the cauliflower onto a sturdy counter…really hard. Then you can flip it over, cut the bag, remove the stem, and all of the florets are neatly in the bag!

Food Storage

Leafy greens are nutritionally dense, easy to cook, and rot in the fridge easily, especially if you pre-cut them. In an effort to have more greens readily available, package them for maximum storage time. Put a folded paper towel in the bottom of a gallon zippy bag, and put your greens in with a bit of room at the top. Blow in the bag, then zip it quickly. Your CO2 actually helps preserve the leaves, and the paper towel absorbs excess water.

Stalks and stems such as asparagus, parsley, chard, and celery can be stored upright in a jar with some water at the bottom.

Cheat Sheets

The internet is full of kitchen cheat sheets that are pretty to look at once and forget about. Unless you are like me, print them out, and tape the ones you actually use to the inside of a cabinet door. The ones I have right now include grain ratios and cooking times, a vegetable cooking cheat sheet, and instructions for kombucha and cold brew.

Next Actions

A key to personal productivity is not about how you manage your time but how you manage your energy.

Everyone has the same number of minutes a day. The variable you can control is how much energy you put into those minutes. Healthy, freshly cooked meals will give you the fuel you need to take full advantage of each day. Along with sleep and exercise, food is at the base of the energy pyramid.

 

The Energy Pyramid of The Power of Full Engagement

The Energy Pyramid

The better you take care of yourself, the more productive you will be.

You know this.

You know fast food and caffeine are only short-term fixes that will lead to energy crashes and long-term health consequences.

It’s taken me years of practice and experimentation to get the kitchen skills I have today. Take what I’ve learned and apply it to your own kitchen right now.

Choose one area that you can immediately implement, whether it is buying a crock pot, batching a few days together, or re-learning how to chop an onion. The more tips you implement, the faster you can get to “good cook” status.

As a “good cook,” you can get in the kitchen and quickly come out with healthy meals and energy to take on your biggest projects.

 


This is a guest blog by Nikida Koraly. Nikida is a 5th-grade math and science teacher in Austin, TX. She also runs a teaching productivity site called TeachBalanc(ed). Nikida’s mission is to help teachers keep teaching by sharing productivity tips, systems, tools, and energy management techniques that allow teachers to be more effective inside the classroom (so they have time to have a life outside of it). Nikida loves nothing more than helping people live healthier and more active lives. If you want to ask Nikida a question, request a topic for a future post, or just say “Hi,” connect with her at TeachBalanced.com.

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2 Comments

Posted by Rhonda  | October 4, 2016 at 9:51AM | Reply

Thank you for these tips, Nikida. Breakfast is the thing I most need to have ready, and the thing I most often cook up ahead of time. When I’m in the kitchen anyway, is when I usually get something started or prepped for another meal, kind of the batch processing idea.

I also use a “clean out the fridge” approach…grab any bits and leftovers and add to a meal or toss in a soup or stew or taco mix.

Posted by Linda Maye Adams  | April 24, 2016 at 7:42AM | Reply

I sigh when I see cooking advice because it assumes things that aren’t always true.

Cooking advice assumes 1) That you know what you’re doing in the first place, 2) That you know the basics, and 3) That you enjoy cooking. I would never spend 3-6 hours of my weekend batch cooking.

I grew up in a house where the primary cook wasn’t very good, so much so that when I enlisted in the Army, I thought the food was better. I spent decades struggling with cooking, and botching most of it. Nothing ever tasted good, even when I followed recipes to the letter. And if I did a meal plan for the week, it was gone to the wind by Tuesday, and I wasted most of the food I bought.

I spent the last week getting hit from two different directions. I got way overloaded at work, and the pollen count has been in the stratosphere–major week-long sinus headache. I should have been eating mac and cheese and peanut butter sandwiches all week. Instead, I had a different meal every day, and better still, some of them tasted pretty good.

The most important thing is to learn how flavors work together. Everyone talks about flavors, but skips to the part where everyone knows what they’re doing. If the brain’s on low energy, you pick a simple combination of flavors that you know well, and done.

Also learn how to cook without recipes. Recipes didn’t always exist; they were a marketing thing (for someone who wanted to sell a cookbook) that took off. Cooking without recipes means I can go to the farmer’s market at pick 5 vegetables and 7 fruit that look good; go the grocery store and pick up fish or meat on sale; and then put meals together as I go through the week.

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