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Before you begin, you might want to check out the first article in this series on the importance of cooking with your kids for ACADEMIC growth: The World’s Greatest Learning Activity: Food Preparation and Cooking at Home
If you are like a lot of people, and I am certainly one of them, you did not get launched into the world with good kitchen skills.
The days when we learned this stuff in school are long gone for most of us. I taught at a small girls’ school for several years, where my daughter also attended high school, and they had decided to sacrifice their cooking room to create another science lab years before we arrived.
I never got to take Home Ec myself because I was in the band, and band kids had to take band for their elective, every year. Then in high school I had to take all of those pesky academic classes that they make you retake in university anyway…such a racket!
My grip on my kitchen was shaky, but one day I found myself a single parent with a young kid, so I realized I needed to get myself together. I also was a student for several years, so I had limited funds but a bit more time at home than a lot of parents…on the other hand, I didn’t have anyone to help me…for example, a lot of moms started dinner at home while the dads did the soccer practice run, but I had to do both, and still get the kid into bed by 8 at the latest, or my life wasn’t worth living.
I also had a limited income, and I challenged myself to maximize my quality of life without overspending, so I could continue to have that time with my daughter at home.
When my daughter was 8, we got to spend some time visiting relatives in Italy, and what I learned from that trip is the different between European cooking and American cooking is that Europeans generally use basic ingredients but really fresh. At that point, I made a commitment to myself to both cook at home and use “whole” ingredients, meaning that I avoid what I think of as processed foods.
My concept of processed foods might differ from other people’s, but basically over the years, I worked out what I’m ok with and what I’m not, based on cost, nutrition, level of preparation, and taste of the finished dish.
In some cases, I figured out shortcuts to get a “whole food”, which is generally cheaper and healthier, than a “processed food” on the table, in some cases, I go with the processed option if the difference in taste, nutrition, and price is negligible, and some days having a hot dog for dinner is better than picking up fast food…and of course almost anything is ok in moderation.
Note: The kitchen items I’ve shown in this post are intended as examples. There are lots of different items available from lots of different companies.
The Problem with Most Cookbooks
I mostly taught myself to cook from books, but if you just start with any old cook book, you are going to have a problem, and that’s that most cookbooks seems to assume that we cook full on for all meals, and most of us don’t.
Most cookbooks also REALLY don’t tell you how to get things organized, stock a kitchen, etc., and even if they do, the books I’ve seen are usually loaded with the author’s biases or tastes…and remember, cook book authors are usually almost always professional cooks!
Some do pay lip service to setting up a kitchen, but again, often they aren’t in reality land. They also don’t pay enough attention to the fact that once food is purchased, it doesn’t sit in your kitchen forever. A lot of it will go bad, so you have to use the same ingredients relatively quickly, preserve them somehow, or buy in small quantities. In American supermarkets, we have package size control over surprisingly few products.
When it comes to the equipment that you need, really need, the cookbooks I’ve looked at are more consistent. I would start with a good list from a cookbook. If you look at more than one cookbook, you will see which are absolute necessities and which are probably still author bias.
After you have been cooking a while, you will find some extra things that you really do need and when more general tools get you through.
What I’ve learned over the years is to avoid buying things I can only use for one thing unless I make that thing a lot, or in large quantities.
For basic gadgets, often the inexpensive version from the discount store works fine, but it pays to get better quality for things with moving parts, especially appliances. Cheaper ones don’t do the job well, and they are difficult to clean: in short, they will just take up space.
Also be sure to get a good chef’s knife that you can sharpen and is comfortable in your hand. Take care of it. I always wash mine immediately, dry it with a towel, and put it away.
Over time, you may find that you need multiples of certain things. For example, I have about 5 small cutting boards so I can whip them out for quick jobs and stick them in the dishwasher. Because they are small, they don’t take up much room, and they came from the Dollar Tree.
2 Cookbooks to Get
It seems funny to me: recipes are one of the easiest things to get online, but there still seem to be a lot of cookbooks in the stores. I know my local Barnes & Noble gives them a lot of real estate, and given how much space they now give to things that aren’t books, cook books must be a real money maker!
Certainly, if you need a simple recipe, the Internet can be helpful, but it isn’t necessarily the best for developing an overall cooking strategy. You never know who is sponsoring the recipe your reading (in other words, food companies that will sell their product through the recipe) or how well the recipe has been tested.
You probably don’t need a whole library of cookbooks at home, but these are two I recommend you keep on hand, especially if you are in the process of learning.
Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book
My aunt gave me a Better Homes & Gardens New Cook Book (BHG) when I got married. My mom said that my aunt always gave cook books for weddings. My said when she got hers, she though it was a strange gift, but it actually turned out to be very useful!
Over the years, BHG has changed quite a lot…I think they go through a new edition every year or two. In the 17th edition, you can find almost anything you would want to make, including many items that you probably pay a lot for at specialty stores.
The book also includes a lot of detailed cocktail recipes, that are definitely not in the edition I received 30 years ago!
In what I guess is a response to the Internet, the editors have done a great job of including tips and techniques, including the best advice I’ve seen on how to stock your kitchen with basic food. Most books that do this include a lot of ingredients and flavorings that the author of the book likes, and they really fail to acknowledge that some people and families prefer some shapes over others. For example, I like sesame oil, so I use it a lot (even when olive oil is called for sometimes), but I don’t like hoisin sauce that much, so it’s not a necessity, and generally I avoid recipes that use it as a central ingredient.
BHG acknowledges that people have different tastes and helps you understand which items overlap/can be substituted.
BHG also gives excellent advice on using herbs and spices economically. Most authors will tell you to only use fresh herbs, especially for certain ones. In terms of flavor, they are right, but for someone in a home kitchen with limited needs (and probably not a family of gourmets), their advice will cause overspending and waste if not taken into proper perspective.
BHG is for the home cook who needs to get food on the table everyday but also needs to cook sometimes for parties and holiday events.
If you need a recipe for a certain dish that you already know, BHG has a good one. They also offer a surprisingly good range of basic recipes from different ethnicities and cultures. You can use your BHG for a good meat loaf recipe and also for a good falafel recipe.
They have several sections that show you how to make a basic dish several ways, using different flavorings and add ins. I like the meat and pork sections too, mainly because they explain what all the different cuts are and what can be substituted for what. Sadly, they don’t do this in the poultry section…I was looking to see if they explain how to cut up a whole chicken (it’s cheaper to buy them that way).
Check out the section on meal planning/nutrition/table setting…also excellent for teaching children and teenagers.
I don’t normally like to use nonfiction books in e-reader format, but I got a new edition of this cookbook from the library in a digital format, and I am really impressed with how well it works on a laptop. It’s very easy to navigate. I would highly recommend this edition, especially if you are comfortable using your lap top or tablet (or smartphone) in the kitchen. Alternatively, you can use the laptop version to locate recipes and print them out rather than having to worry about keeping a book clean in the kitchen.
With BHG’s simple lay out and clear directions, this book is good to use with children 8 and up, with supervision of course…but I hope you’re not leaving children younger than 12 or so alone in the kitchen at all, especially if they are cooking!
How to Cook Without a Book
BHG is about cooking anything you would ever want to cook, and many things you might never have though of making at home. How to Cook Without a Book is about getting dinner on the table every night with nice food that tastes good, is healthy, and quick to make.
I wouldn’t go out and buy everything Anderson suggests for your pantry right away. Instead, try things from different chapters using meat/protein, vegetables, and seasonings that your family like…and go from there.
You will learn to get basic meals on the table that includes more traditional protein centered meals, pasta dinners, easy Chinese/Asian food similar to what you get for take out, home made pizza, and more.
She also shows you the trick to making a little “mise”, which is what I call “home processing”. That’s when you make a lot of something when you have the time, such as roasted vegetables, that can then be stored and quickly reheated for another meal or added to another dish when you are short on time.
Make sure to get the new edition pictured above because the old one is 20 years old and doesn’t have pictures. She updated the book to reflect changing tastes, and in particular, she includes a lot more options for the non-meat eaters in your family.
I’m a meat eater myself, but I am ok with meatless meals, and I think getting used to that concept is good for everyone.
I would not try to use this with kids younger than 13-14 years old, and really, it’s better for 16 and up. The younger ones will be ok with it if they already know their way around a kitchen a bit.
This is a good gift for high school or college graduation, especially if the graduate has some time on his/her hands in between life stages.
When life gets busier again, you will have young adults who aren’t quite so reliant on take out or frozen food even if they only adopt a few of the ideas. They will also know what to do when they do need to put a nice meal on the table.
The BHG cook book has a good section on safe food storage.
I’m going to write about the practicalities of running your kitchen without losing a lot to food waste.
If you ask me, it’s the storage that brings down most people. You buy a bunch of groceries, you’re all excited, and then suddenly you don’t have what you need to make anything or half of it has gone bad. And funnily enough, that’s what cookbooks never seem to explain very well.
Food storage is trickier than food prep. Here’s what works for me.
A. Buy all storage containers square or rectangular to save space. Also get the mini rectangular laundry baskets they sell at the dollar store to help you organize, especially if you don’t have enough containers.
I personally like Tupperware Modular Mates, pictured above. Full price, they are expensive, but buying a membership to Tupperware isn’t expensive and saves you a lot of money over time, even if you just buy for yourself, and that way you can also get a little bit at a time and not go into debt.
In my experience, Tupperware keeps the food fresh a lot longer than cheaper brands, and I have found evidence of mice unsuccessfully breaking into them (years ago, in a garage).
The key thing, whatever you get, is the modular, clear design so that you can see what you have quickly, and also find out where things are.
Rubbermaid is not my favorite brand because I don’t think the food keeps as long in them, but maybe you don’t need to keep food as long. The square shape is key to fit and find everything in your fridge.
Ikea also makes good containers. If you aren’t getting Tupperware, in my opinion, anything will do as long as the sides are straight, to maximize space.
If you want to use your containers to reheat things in the microwave, you need something made of hard plastic or glass (which gets heavy). Fats and acids ruin soft plastic containers.
B. Label everything with a Sharpie (permanent marker). It comes right off with a Magic Eraser (those white microfiber spongy things). Label what it is, and the date, especially if your family is large and different people cook/eat.
C. Everything in the pantry goes into a plastic container as soon as it is opened. If I need information from the box, such as mixing directions for pancake mix, I cut that out and tape it to the side. Unopened items go on the top shelf. I have everything lined up in rectangle containers, short end out and labeled, so I can see everything. Get modular containers so you can stack them up.
D. One box of cereal may be opened per person at a time. That’s my rule: you make your own. Just limit it somehow so things don’t go bad/you have a bunch of messy unopened boxes in there. Each person in my family has a cereal keeper.
G. I use hard sided square containers with lids that vent for the microwave for leftovers. I make mini meals in the container when I have leftovers, which then become convenience foods. When I am running low on the special leftover containers, I know we need to eat down what’s in the fridge before I cook anything that is going to generate more leftovers…either that, or I need to see what has gone bad.
E. I also put all of my spices into airtight containers that match, and I label them with a Sharpie. The supermarket spice containers are not designed to make the spices last. You might just want to use small airtight snack containers: really, how often do you need to “shake”? Usually, you just need to spoon, or anyway spooning works.
I have these spice containers from Tupperware, but if I had to do it again, I might just get square snack cups. I just don’t completely trust Rubbermaid; I had it when I was young.
I keep my spices on a shelf in a cupboard next to my stove. I also keep oils and anything I pour into the pan in a cabinet by my stove, not the pantry.
The BHG cookbook has a good section on substitutions for spice mixes (such as Italian seasoning). I don’t buy the mixes because it’s hard to use them up AND use up the individual spices before they go bad. If BHG doesn’t have the substitution, you can find it online.
BHG also tells you how much of a dried herb you need to replace a fresh one if you don’t have the fresh on hand. If you don’t grow them, they are expensive and sometimes, you just don’t want to spend the money or be bothered.
H. Whenever you buy fresh herbs or green onions, cut up the whole bunch and store the rest in airtight containers in the fridge until needed. You will be amazed at how many dishes benefit from a sprinkle of green onion if they are chopped & ready to go.
I. Basil, rosemary, and mint are easy to keep on hand live, in a pot, which is also the cheapest. Never plant mint in the ground unless you want it to spread EVERYWHERE. A big pot will grow you plenty. Growing cilantro, parsley, and green onions is more complicated as you need multiple plants. They are cheap to buy in the grocery but go bad on you easily…that’s why I keep them chopped and ready. The work is worth the additional flavor over dried and the savings over buying them fresh and chopped from the store.
Organizing your kitchen
I work on this premise: I start with where I’m going to mostly use each thing, and I store it near there. Mixing things go near your biggest counter, spices, vinegars, and oils go in a cabinet by the stove (all other food goes in the pantry or the fridge). Cooking utensils, hot pads, and pans go by the stove. Dishes and flatware go by the dishwasher, which luckily is also near my table. We keep the coffee mugs by the coffee maker, which is across the kitchen from the dishwasher, but we found it works fine just to place them on the island, which is in the middle, when we empty the dishwasher and then put them in the cupboard all at once.
Buy drawer organizers…often found at the dollar store…for each individual utensil or small groups of utensils. I put the things I use a lot in the front of the drawer and the things I use less often in the back. For example, my measuring cups and spoons are in the back of my least accessible drawer because I only use them to bake, which I don’t do that often.
I usually shop every week to 10 days, with a milk run when we run out. I think most people, in theory, anyway, know how to keep a running grocery list. I do the shopping and most of the cooking, so I keep a list on my phone, but there is an old fashioned fridge list for other family members that I check before I go.
Go ahead and add things to the list when you see you are running low while you cook. Then you will probably think to check to see if you already bought the replacement. Sometimes I get so organized that I notice something is running out twice and replace it twice.
When our evenings get complicated, I start writing the meals on the calendar so I know which days I need a “quick” dinner and which days I have more prep time for. If I have time in the afternoon or at lunch time, sometimes I can pre-prep then, but if it’s a full-on day, or something unexpected happens, I have my “last ditch” backups.
I personally usually have one frozen pizza, one frozen macaroni & cheese, a big container of fresh baby spinach, and pasta/jarred pasta sauce for emergency dinners, but I also have some planned quick dinners I can do (bacon is a good emergency meat if you forgot to thaw something) and, on the flip side, some crock pot/mostly prepare in advance and quick cook meals I can do.
When my daughter was young, she would always eat those horrible frozen premade chicken nuggets in a pinch, and they are cheap, so I always had them on hand. You do what you gotta do, and I figure that’s better, or at least not worse, for her than McDonald’s, and even McDonald’s costs more, in both money and time.
In our house, the cooker doesn’t clean. I like to cook, and I prefer to do the shopping, so I barely clean at all…and that includes the whole house.
What kids can do to help you organize:
1. If you take them shopping with you, have them help you pick things out (that you need) and especially show them how you calculate the best values.
2. Show them how to pick fresh foods in different categories, check the eggs, check the date on the milk etc.
3. Have them help you fetch and carry, of course.
4. When you get home, have them help you put everything away in the right places.
5. I find it’s a good idea to try to budget about one hour for “putting groceries away” when I get home so I can do my “home processing”. That includes chopping my broccoli, which is chopped in all dishes, cutting my green onions, packing my fresh meat in family sized servings and wrapping in foil to freeze, and putting whatever automatically goes into containers in the containers.
Kids can definitely help with all of these. If I don’t get a chance to do it when I come home from the grocery store, I work on it while I’m cooking when I don’t have anything to do (while food is cooking), but I would have kids help with that stuff during cooking time too.
You Tell Us
Add your ideas and hacks for organizing your kitchen below.
Check next week’s post for ideas on getting through the day with your kids in the kitchen.