Recently, I read an article on National Geographic magazine named “The new face of hunger” which describes the millions of middle class households in the US who have at least one full time working member, yet cannot afford to eat fresh, home cooked food. A lot of these people have to rely on food stamps (SNAP) and can only afford fast food from drive through windows or canned food from food banks to sustain themselves. One of the reasons for this as described by the article is that fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy etc cost a lot more than canned or processed food. Moreover it takes an average person 128 minutes to shop in the grocery store for fresh vegetables/meat, cook, clean up and serve dinner while it takes only 34 minutes to drive to the fast food drive through window and grab a meal on the go. The article can be accessed at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/hunger/
This article got me thinking; cooking meals at home using fresh ingredients is certainly more expensive and time consuming if not done right. Most items in the produce aisle have very short shelf life. Most busy families do not have the time or energy to think outside the box or come with indigenous ideas to maximize the grocery shopping and cooking process. Here a couple of simple tips to help busy families eat fresh, home cooked meals.
1. Always look for deals when shopping for meats and produce: This is a simple tip offered by most experts. If an item is out of season or expensive don’t buy it. Mangoes in winter are neither tasty nor cheap. Buy cherries when they are on sale during summer. Most grocery stores offer sales on different types and cuts of meat. Buy the item which is on sale and cook or freeze by the use by date.
2. Buy only the amount you would use: You may be terribly fond of grapes but do not buy two packs of grapes even if they are on sale. You cannot eat all that fruit before it does bad. I usually buy ½ pound of most vegetables, four or five potatoes (about 2 lbs), 5 bananas etc each week. Anything more than that usually goes bad and has to be thrown away.
3. Be sensible in planning that to cook first: When I plan my weekly cooking, I first cook the vegetables that have the least shelf life. So if I bought okra, spinach, cauliflower and beets, I cook the okra and spinach first and keep the cauliflowers for later that week. Beet can also be cooked a week later, so I reserve it for next week.
4. Reserve time for prepping before you actually cook: One of the things I have learnt to do while cooking during busy week nights is to prep the food a day before. I usually reserve 30 minutes before bedtime to chopping vegetables, marinating meat, soaking/boiling lentils for the meals that I would cook the next day. On very busy weeks, I also prep during Sunday night, portion out the chopped vegetables in different Ziploc bags to be cooked during different days of the week. I clean and marinate meat, fish and poultry with salt and turmeric as soon as I buy them (or a day later) and freeze them in different freezer bags. Salt and turmeric also keep meats fresh and prevent freezer burns.
5. Cook enough for at least two meals: Since home cooking and clean up takes time, it makes sense to cook a couple of meals each time. The thumb rule is to cook enough so that you can serve dinner and have leftovers for next day’s packed lunch. I usually cook items for two dinners and two lunches. Grilled or curried chicken can be served with rice for dinner and then also be combined with lettuce for a sandwich for next day’s lunch. I also make sandwiches or wraps with cooked vegetables like okra, cauliflower or cabbage.