Feeding our families seems to be a ‘parenting gift’ that we give to our children daily. On average, it’s not uncommon to prepare almost 3 meals daily for an average family of 4. It becomes easy to resent doing what almost begins to feel like a chore.
It’s not uncommon to feel despondent and give up the idea of cooking a meal or planning a days worth of meals entirely almost halfway through the actual preparation phase.
For me personally, striving towards planning dinner after having completed cooking 3 other meals for the day, attending to work and household duties and taking care of my personal needs is the most difficult challenge that I face daily. Without an actual meal plan, or a fully stocked grocery cupboard, fridge and freezer (this in itself is exhausting to upkeep), I find myself wasting money, time and resource in trying to plan meals on the day.
I know that it appears that I’ve become precious about perfectionism. Admittedly so. Being driven by proper schedules and plans helps me to focus on using my time productively.
Having understood my own frustrations in the kitchen, I wanted to hear what your kitchen challenges were. I posed the question online, and the response was overwhelming. Many citied similar concerns. With my knowledge, and to the best of my ability, lets break this down in the form of a simple Question and Answer.
Most common Questions summariased:
- Deciding what to cook everyday
- Finding ideas or inspiration to break the monotony of cooking
- Finding time as a working mum
- Being overwhelmed by the actual process of cooking
- Having a family of fussy eaters
- Prep versus organisation – storing fresh fruit and vegetable
- Fear of trying new things
- How to balance flavours
- Simple recipes limiting ingredients
- Trying to cook healthy yet flavourful food
- Timing of individual servings at lunch or dinner – getting multiple elements ready at the same time
Deciding what to cook everyday: Before I even attempt answering many of these questions, I needed to take myself back 10 years and then to the stage that I am at now, and unpack the different stages of what my own challenges were and how I managed to overcome it. I am still learning everyday, and always looking for opportunities and ways to streamline the time that I have in my day.
I use visual and practical methods to determine the food that I feed my family. Looking towards Instagram or photo-sharing tools like Pinterest is great in giving you inspiration on what to cook. By saving or pinning these for later, you already have a whole gallery of ideas to sift through. If you want to be practical and methodical about it, categorise them on your ‘notes’ app on your phone into sub categories like Meat or Veg, Meal type or type of cuisine.
I like to have a standard ‘library’ of relatable and practical meals that get cooked often in my home – like Chicken and Mutton Curry, Lamb biryani or Grills. These are the meals that require little mind-work and can be prepped quickly and efficiently.
By having a mental idea of what your typical meals for a week should be, you can further break down the list into sub categories, for example:
- Monday: All vegetable and roti
- Tuesday: Chicken and rice
- Wednesday: Fish and bread
- Thursday: Lamb and roti or rice
- Friday: Chicken and rice
- Saturday: Sandwiches or pizza
- Sunday: Casual food
This gets further broken down into sub categories:
- Monday: Vegetable (Options: Dhal, Vegetable curry, Dokra, Vegetable bake or casserole, Soya, etc)
- Tuesday: Chicken (curry, Grilled Turkish Chicken with seasoned rice, Butter chicken, Chicken Korma, Chicken Akni, etc)
I can assure you that by spending an afternoon using the above technique in planning, you will always have a reference guide when planning your own meals. The list is not tangible – you can shift the days up depending on what is in your grocery cupboard or freezer. Once you are more confident and moving towards being slightly more organised, spend some time planning different weekly meal options that get rotated. Vary them for interest depending on what you find online, or taste.
Finding ideas or inspiration to break the monotony of cooking: We are fortunate to always be surrounded by an ever-increasing community of women who love to cook and love to share. I find it difficult to say that we are not presented with the bounty of choice – in fact, there are so many options that are readily available to us, it’s about filtering it down and eliminating what we love to eat and what we love to feed our families.
It’s often the case of finding the type of food that we enjoy eating and then filtering it down to the different ways of preparing it. If you are open to exploring new styles of cooking, investing in a few new recipes books, or looking online for some inspiration is often all we need. Remember to note down simple things like flavours or meals that you enjoyed when eating out. Often they are not difficult to replicate in your own home.
Often the monotony comes from a lack of time in being able to prepare something different. If you have saved a recipe or been inspired by a meal that someone prepared online, make a list of the ingredients and method and refer back to it when you’re in a better space to prepare it. Often, just paging through a magazine or looking through a recipe book is enough to spark an idea of your own. Remember, being able to taste food, or cook from instinct is not a craft – it is engrained in us all. Allow yourself to appreciate food and the preparation thereof and you will see the difference that this understanding can bring into your life.
Finding time as a working mum: Although I don’t ‘work’ a strict 9am to 5pm job, I feel like I am able to relate to this on so many levels. Of late, it’s been difficult to juggle between home, kids, family and myself. I often say to myself, “I don’t know how working mums cope”. I think that many are so quick to assume that these woman don’t provide for their families, or don’t make enough time to cook ‘proper’ meals. The challenge in itself is finding the balance between feeding your family and attending to everything else that doesn’t fall within that parameter.
Its easy to assume that meal prep or planning can be done over the weekend. However when you’ve worked an entire week, you’re likely not invested in spending time in the kitchen then planning for the week. Having worked during being married and before having kids, the challenge was always to make it home in time to cook a meal before Mohamed arrived home. Even though I was cooking for just 2 people, I would cook full portions of a meal and freeze the balance if suitable. This helped with meal prep and to avoid any wastage. I suppose its different when its a larger family, in which case there are rarely left-overs. For some, considering waking up slightly earlier and half-preparing meals during the time that you’re preparing school or work lunch seems like an easier option. This leaves minimal prep time when home.
If you feel more comfortable planning meals over the weekend, remember to label and date whatever goes into the freezer. Portioning food eliminates wastage and also helps to ensure that you’re attempting at making more nutritious food for your family. Look into saving a list of marinades that you are able to follow with ease and simply alternating them on a weekly basis. Making whole jars of marinades then portioning and freezing that is also a great time-saver idea.
Being overwhelmed by the actual process of cooking: I find it difficult to relate to this because I consider this as a ‘fight or flight’ approach. I know that feeding yourself or your family is a necessity, so it is something which just has to get done. Often there’s no real time to think these things through – you simply look through what you have available and cook something to the best of your ability.
To further break this down, lets consider the different stages of cooking:
- Planning what to cook
- Reading through the recipes
- Making a list of what you need to get versus what is readily available at home
- Timing yourself adequately
- Prepping the ingredients before you actually start cooking
- Following the recipe and re-reading to make sure that no steps have been missed out.
- Tasting as you go along – this is important in becoming a successful cook
- Making notes where possible of where or how you improved on a recipe or if you felt inspired to try something different the next time
Often being overwhelmed is a ‘mental’ thing. If you let yourself go and allow yourself to connect with food or the process of cooking, you will slowly learn to appreciate and understand how satisfying it is to get better at something. It’s also important to understand that as a young cook, or even one hoping to learn a new way of cooking, with practise and time and enthusiasm, you learn new methods that suit your own cooking style.
Having a family of fussy eaters: I could never relate to this over the years of interacting with readers with the same concerns. I was quite strict about what and when I fed my children ensuring that they were exposed to as many different flavours and foods that I was able to offer them. Not only did this help in them finding and creating their own palate, but also in being open to explore all types of food form very early on. this does not apply to husbands unfortunately!
Often, its just easier to cook to your familys preference. If they have a particular sentiment to certain flavours or foods, there’s no harm in cooking what they like. If an isolated member of the family refuses to eat something, simply encourage it or look at ways to make a similar meal suited to your own cooking style.
I find that fussy eaters often grow out of it if exposed continuously to other foods. Eat as you might prefer and perhaps it might be considered by the other members of the family. As tedious as it might become, learning how to portion and cook might be the only viable solution in this instance.
Prep versus Organisation: storing fresh fruit and vegetable: Before having 4 children I would purchase smaller quantities of fruit and veg and that would see me through a few weekday meals and have it stretch over the weekend. Now, with the frequency of my cooking, I needed to look into larger quantities which sometimes actually translate into spending less when buying in bulk. It’s important to consider where you’re buying your fresh produce from – this ultimately impacts on how long its able to last in your fridge. I am quite particular and stick to 2 places for most of my shopping and rarely deviate unless I have to and a Woolworths or Oaklands fruit is closed or out of my reach. I am now slightly more educated on simple things like the variety of tomato or potato to purchase, so I look at buying a particular brand or type because I know how long it will last me, and the quality that I am buying.
I rarely pre-prepare or organise my vegetable into portions other than tomatoes, lemon juice and dhal. I find that some of the basic prep time can be eliminated by just being smart about what you’re able to freeze and store. My mum often advises me to boil the whole tomato and to remove the skin and then freeze it (although this isn’t what she does). I buy a large box of jam tomatoes, liquidise it, portion and freeze. I portion into freezer-suitable plastic containers from Stashy in Fordsburg and usually label it with the date. Even if I haven’t had time to defrost it, I simply place it into my pot and allow it to defrost/melt into my food. Another convenience tip is to boil your dhal and portion this. Lemon juice can be squeezed and frozen into ice-cube trays. Once frozen, pop them out and sort in a freezer-suitable container.
If you’re able to, attempt storing as much as you’re able to in one section of your freezer using this method. It’s a quick glance to see whats slowing finishing and what you’re left with before planning your meals.
I find it easier to have everything prepped in terms of being cut, grated or sliced and then beginning cooking. It avoids incorrect cooking times, burning food or getting the ingredients incorrect.
Fear of trying new things: What are you afraid of? If you dislike it, just don’t make it again or look at a way of improving it as a personal challenge to yourself. I always assumed that my children wouldn’t like vegetables with names we’re barely able to pronounce. Instead, I offered it to them and they often prefer it over meat. I only ate sushi well into my high school years. I grew up in a mainly vegetarian home, where raw fish was never a consideration. It was never a case of fearing it, but rather not knowing any better.
If you might think that you’re scared to try something new, opt for trying it at a restaurant first or with friends who are willing to share the experience. Often we just need a nudge to being open to exploring new food.
How to balance flavours: I think this can be further defined, as balancing ingredients. By being slightly cautious as opposed to being ‘reckless’ when cooking, begin gradually. Use smaller measurements of ingredients and taste as you go along cooking. Salt is one of the things that can cause a dish to go horribly wrong. Always start with a smaller quantity (use a spoon measurement if you’re a novice) and adjust as you go along. The varied heat in chillies is also difficult to control when learning how to cook. If you’re not traditionally a person who eats spicy food, you need to be cautious when following a cookbook by an Indian author. Begin with half the quantity specified and work your tolerance up from there.
When I speak of cooking, I refer to it in the context of cooking indian food. Balancing flavours or ingredients seems easier. We cook with spices – this brings Indian food together. It might seem complicated but essentially once you begin cooking and following Indian recipes you begin to understand how they marry together.
Simple recipes using limited number of ingredients: I recently purchased the Tashas Café Classics cookbook. Many of the recipes are easy to understand with not more than 12 to 15 ingredients per recipe. Food with minimal cooking time is encouraged to retain the freshness of the produce. I think trying to achieve this in an Indian kitchen is difficult. Our methods are often long and the slow cooking often deters people from attempting, it involves a multitude of flavour profiles and often breaks down the protein. Finding your own cooking style, saving recipes or buying recipe books that focus on minimal cooking time with fewer ingredients might be the most suitable option if you’re leaning towards this cooking style.
A suitable alternative is to mix small quantities of all your spices into one portion making it easier to spoon one out measurement rather than multiple spoonfuls.
Consider having basics like tomatoes grated and frozen for convenience using peeled ready-to-purchased baby potato instead of having to peel your own or even coriander cubes instead of using freshly chopped coriander.
Trying to cook healthy yet flavourful food: In order for a meal to be considered healthy, one must also consider the types or quality of the indredients that are used. If you are trying to work towards a more organic, unrefined lifestyle, food automatically becomes more flavourful based on how fresh or pure the ingredients are. If you are trying to work towards eatng healthier, consider options on replacing saturated and trans fats with ‘healthy’ fats.
Often inredients that we think add favour to a dish, actually don’t. Its often suitable to omit ghee, and replace with coconut oil, or even certain vegetables for starch. If you’re looking for inspiration, click on my Recipes Tab > Spice of Life > Edition 5. There is a whole section on healthy cooking that might aid in some inspiration.
Timing of elements at lunch or dinner: I think this is difficult to achieve if you’re cooking a large meal with multiple accompaniments in a small kitchen. However working with what we have available here are a few tips to consider:
- Invest in a Wonderbag. I place my whole pot of Biryani or Akni into it and it helps keep my pot hot for hours. I often dish out into my platters straight from there before putting onto the table.
- Half fry items like chips or chicken that can be placed back into hot oil in the last 5 minutes before serving.
- Keep certain things like rice or braised rice on low on the stove so its very hot and still steaming to complete the cooking process.
- Keep garnish ready and chopped just to sprinkle over at the last minute.
- Keep platters ready and arranged on your countertop to access quickly with ease.
- I find warmers most useful during Ramadaan. Either use the electric ones which dont emit the ‘gas’ smell, or the tealight candles (which sometimes might scorch the bottom of the tray). I have a Russel Hobbs warmer which works by filling the base with water. This doesn’t always look presentable but ideal for smaller families and for serving a hot breakfast.