How I got into the habit of home cooking
It took me years to get into the habit of home cooking. It's not that I don't like cooking, it's actually one of my favourite things to do. I could go as far as to say it is my hobby. But hobbies are a pastime, not a chore. And when I was working long hours there was no way I had time to pass. But I craved homemade food. Ready meals and takeaways never taste as good, are much more expensive and are incredibly unhealthy. Even the "healthy" ones often have too much salt and not enough veg. It was only when I discovered, or developed, my three step approach did I manage to finally form the habit of home cooking.
My three step approach to forming the habit of home cooking:
Figure out your cooking style and plan your meals around that.
Get savvy about shopping.
Getting organised to make everyday cooking a breeze.
Let's break it down...
Meal planning is the foundation of calm in the kitchen. But meal planning can feel extremely restrictive and tedious. It's important to tweak how you plan your meals to fit in with your mindset and your lifestyle.
Everyone has a different approach to planning
I have friends that plan each and every meal for the week ahead and buy exactly what they need. They do not deviate from the plan. On the other hand I know people that freestyle it - they have a well stocked kitchen and decide what they want just before each meal. There are pros and cons to both approaches.
My Style of Cooking
My personal style has always erred on the side of freestyling it each day. I would go to the supermarket, or do an online shop, buying what caught my eye and replenishing things that I normally have in the kitchen as I wandered along each aisle. But with a hectic life that really didn't work well for me because I inevitably didn't have the time or energy to cook when I got home from work. I would end up throwing a large amount of fresh food away each week. It was disheartening, sickening even.
Eventually I realised that I had to plan if I wanted a chance of eating homemade, healthy meals. I planned every meal of each day but I soon realised that approach didn't suit me because I wouldn't know in advance which days I would be working late or out for drinks or dinner and which days I would be at home to eat. And you know what? Sometimes I just want to decide what I'm going to eat on the fly! I don't always fancy what I have planned to eat. I needed a flexible approach to meal planning.
Analysing what cooking style suits me
But first I needed to understand what type of meals would suit my lifestyle. My best bet was to have some batch cooked meals frozen in portion sizes that would replace times when I would otherwise rely on ready meals or take outs. To accompany the batch meals I would have frozen veg. If I knew in advance that I would be working late I would place the frozen meal in the fridge the night before to defrost, otherwise I would heat it from frozen when I was ready to eat it - the latter was normally what happened simply because I would often forget to take the portion out of the freezer and place it in the fridge the night before.
Taking note of how my cooking style makes me feel
As I said, the key for me was to have choice - I would make every excuse under the sun as to why I couldn't make the meal I had planned to on a specific day: not enough time, too tired etc. etc., I would end up having pasta with a quick pasta sauce (invariably pesto or a simple homemade sauce) and cheddar cheese grated on top. "This is not the plan!" I would think to myself, and the guilt would set in.
When I am very busy...
But when I had a plethora of homemade meals in the freezer to choose from I felt the exact opposite. I felt smug, efficient, like a domestic goddess. One of my faves is pulled pork...my mouth is watering just thinking about it. I'd whack a potato in the microwave or heat up a portion of frozen rice or grains or even a flatbread and chuck on the pulled pork. If I was feeing energetic I would add some salad, chilli sauce and yogurt. Honestly, this is heaven and took no time at all. Better than any takeaway and cheaper too...and quicker.
When I have some time..but not a lot:
At other times I had a bit more time but not enough energy to make a leisurely meal. For these times I would often make my meal using frozen or long lasting ingredients e.g. chicken breasts, fish fillets, paneer, mince. I'd get frozen ingredients that can be cooked from frozen - I don't have time to sit and wait for it to defrost and I certainly don't have the foresight or will to put it in the fridge the night before. The supermarkets do sell meat and fish in portions that can be cooked from frozen, for example, frozen chicken breasts that can be taken out one at a time and cooked in minutes.
The beauty of frozen foods is that they take no time to prep but there is so much you can do with them. For example, I might fry up some sliced mushrooms (possibly frozen) with some cream cheese or cream, depending on what I have to hand (cream can also be frozen) and add fresh herbs and seasoning. Once the chicken is cooked I top it with the sauce and add a serving or veg and rice on the side. Job done. Feeling smug 🙂
And when I have loads of time...
And then there are times when I can go to town with cooking. I feel like making an amazing meal and have the time and energy to do it. I might even have a glass, or two, or three, of wine whilst I'm at it. When I'm in this state, I totally switch off and am fully absorbed in cooking. My stresses melt away as I work on my masterpiece. And that is what cooking is, an art. But it's an art that anyone can learn. The key ingredient is love. Then time and patience. And all of a sudden you can cook.
If I cook when my heart isn't in it or I'm in a rush, you can tell. It's just not as nice. But when I'm in the right frame of mind it can't help but turn out nice. Why? Because if it goes wrong, and boy can it go wrong, I have the impetus to put it right. If I have added too much salt I might balance it with sugar. If I put too much water in my falafel kit, I'll add more of the falafel mix or flour. And I'll take my time over it. So it's hard to get it wrong in the end.
Getting clarity on how I cook...
Through analysing my cooking style I discovered there are four types of meals I have:
- preprepared (ready meals, take outs, almost ready made e.g, pasta and sauce)
- homemade ready meals
- homemade meals using prepared ingredients e.g. frozen chicken breasts
- cooking a meal for the fun of it
Whichever type of meal I am cooking they usually consist of the same basic components to make a great homemade meal. Of course, there are so many variations but the basic formula is:
- the star piece (pie, flan, tagine, curry, any cooked dishes e.g. pulled pork, creamy chicken)
- carbs: potato, rice (plain or fried with vg and spices), grains, bread, flatbreads etc
- sides (salad, veg - usually frozen or preprepared)
- flavour boosters (condiments and seasonings, sauces, salt, pepper, chilli powder, harissa, lemon juice, yogurt, cheese)
Turning it into a plan
Taking time to analyse my cooking style and how each type of cooking makes me feel helped me to figure out how to get into the habit of home cooking.
1. preprepared meals
I have to accept that there will be times when I eat ready meals or takeaways and I shouldn't beat myself up about it. Acknowledging it and having a ready meal in the fridge or freezer will mean I have it to hand when I most need it.
2. homemade ready meals
My aim was to have enough homemade ready meals in the freezer that I would never be caught unprepared and there would always be some thing I fancied. I would probably have these three or four times a week. That means that in order to keep my freezer stocked I would need to batch cook a meal once or twice a week depending on how many portions I ate and how many portions each batch cook made. I would need to plan what I wanted to batch cook, check what ingredients I had and what ingredients to add to the shopping list.
3. homemade meals using prepared ingredients
I might make homemade meals using prepared ingredients a couple of times a week. This requires no cooking ahead but to make sure that my kitchen is well stocked. My planning for these types of meals just involves ensuring everything I need is on the shopping list. Invariably this means adding items to the shopping list as they run out.
4. cooking a meal for the fun of it
Cooking for fun is the hardest one to plan for. Knowing the types of meals I like to make means I can have the non-perishable ingredients stocked up and buy the fresh ingredients either with my main shop or on the day I wish to cook, if I am unsure as to whether I get around to cooking.
Once I had identified what type of cooking suited my lifestyle I needed to plan around it. I needed to keep my kitchen well stocked with staples, always have enough home cooked ready meals in the freezer and to have food that I can cook in a hurry and, every now and then, cook a special meal. Note that I haven't planned my meals for each day. Indeed I haven't even planned any meal in particular that I will eat. Instead I have planned:
- what batch meal I will cook and freeze (which may or may not be consumed this week)
- to keep my kitchen well stocked with non-perishables
- to buy perishables that I eat every week - the basics
- to supplement my shopping with extras when I know I will use them
This flexibility means I don't feel constrained, I am free to chop and change my plans but I know I have a delicious home cooked meal any time I want it, with the ability to flex the time and effort I put into getting it on the table. This freedom is essential in forming the habit of home cooking.
So what worked for me was to keep my freezer stocked with things like:
- portions of homemade meals
- portions of ingredients to make my star meals (as above)
- portions of carbs (as above)
- frozen veg
- frozen cubes of cream
- whole chillis
To have my fridge stocked with at least some of the following:
- cream cheese
- cheese (all sorts)
To have my cupboards stocked with stuff like:
- stock cubes
- spices or spice blends
So now I have a shopping list, which brings me to the second stage of my three step approach:
Whilst having a shopping list is the holy grail of getting shopping done, there are other things to consider.
Creating a shopping list
Putting together a shopping list can be a time consuming exercise. As with all things, the longer a task takes the less inclined we are to do it, unless of course it is an enjoyable task. But I doubt there are very many of us that think constructing a shopping list is enjoyable. There are things we can do to make it less onerous. As and when anything runs out or I realise I need something, I note it down. I don't wait until I am going shopping to make a list - that would be carnage.
Use tools to help you keep a shopping list
To make it easier to add to my shopping list I use Alexa, she really does make life easier in so many ways. She has a shopping list and when I want to add something I just say "Alexa, add bananas to my shopping list". It's great. She can even send me a text or email with my shopping list so I have it when I go shopping. But if I am honest, I don't like using the list when shopping because it is in the order in which I added things, which is very different to the way the store is laid out.
Keeping the list on my phone
Instead, I keep a note on my phone with the title "Shopping List" to which I add the items from my Alexa shopping list. It's the only way I can be assured I will always have my shopping list to hand at all times. I have subheadings for the aisles in the shop, in the order that they appear in the supermarket. Most supermarkets are laid out in the pretty much the same way so it works no matter which shop I am going to. I would have sections for fruit and veg, meat and fish, dairy, store cupboard ingredients and bread. Having the items listed by aisle makes shopping so much easier and efficient - this is equally true whether I shop in-store or online.
Deciding when to shop
I use to do a big shop on the way home from work but I never got around to prepping food as I would be too hungry and tired. So now I shop when I have time to shop and prep in one go. It really does make a difference. Prepping the food as soon as I get it home somehow gives me more energy as I feel organised. That's the power of getting into the habit of home cooking.
And where to shop
Where to shop is also an important consideration. I like to do most of my shopping in the supermarket as gives me ideas about what to cook and I find I get better deals in store. Online shopping is for stocking up as I live on my own and the minimum order amount is just too high for me to shop online often. When I need bits and bobs in between big shops I'll pop into the supermarket or express store on the way home. I use the corner shop for milk and last minute ingredients.
Obviously, all the planning and shopping in the world won't do any good if you don't get around to cooking. I have some tactics that help with this. More often than not they actually work really well.
Prepping food before putting it away
I try to get the shopping in when I am going to have time and energy to prep it straight away. When unpacking the groceries, I chop up the veg, coat in oil and roast straight away. I roast peppers, butternut squash, potatoes and onions whole. Roasting onions saves so much time - they eliminate the need to fry onions when cooking. I also roast garlic, either the whole bulb or individual cloves. If I am roasting a joint, I'll prep and roast it as I am doing the veg.
I try to make time to batch cook each week to replenish my freezer full of homemade ready meals. The aim is always to cool it, portion it up and freeze on the same day but it'll inevitably end up in the fridge before I get around to portioning it up for freezing. That's ok, nobody is perfect.
Whenever I cook I almost always make extra portions, even when I'm not cooking the batch meal. Leftovers are a godsend after a long day or even on a lazy weekend. If I am batch cooking to freeze portions, I will always keep three portions in the fridge - one for a meal that day and two more for meals later on in the week, perhaps even one as a packed lunch. This approach applies equally to the main dish as it does to grains and rice. Why cook enough rice for one or two meals when I can cook for eight meals and freeze it in portions?
Freezing my meals
When freezing, I always portions it up so that the whole lot doesn't need to be defrosted at once. I weigh out portion sizes and put into freezer bags, labelling as I go. My aim during lockdown is to make beeswax bags for freezing as I do hate wasting the earth's resources on single use freezer bags. Let's see if that happens. Another way I get around it is to freeze in silicon muffin cases. When frozen I take out and freeze altogether in one big bag.
Making food go further
I try to repurpose meals and ingredients into another meal to make them go further and save time e.g. if I open a tin of chick peas to make hummus I will save some to use in a salad the following day. If I make curry I might save some to put in a toasted sandwich the next day (this only works with dry curries). The roasted veg can be used in so many ways - as a side with a main dish, in bakes like lasagna, soup and roasted veg and cous cous salad (can also be made with grains instead of cous cous). Leftover salad can be used as a base for a chutney. I'll post the recipe for the chutney soon, I promise!
So there you have it...this is how I formed my habit of home cooking
It took a while for me to get in to the habit of home cooking, and there was a lot of trial and error. That's why I wanted to share this approach with you - so that you can learn from my mistakes 😉 Of course everyone's cooking styles will differ so you will may want to tweak my approach according to what suits you.
The more I did it the easier it got. And now a lot of the time planning, purchasing and preparing is second nature to me. But don't get me wrong, there are times when I get caught out and end up having pasta! This is especially true during lockdown when my routine has changed as has access to food. To overcome that I have had to consider my my new normal and tweak my approach to adapt. Creating a habit of home cooking is not about being perfect, it's about making small improvements and being good enough.
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