Brain Food: 4 Pro Tips for Saving Time & Winning Dinner

We're foodies, maybe, but not professional chefs, and we're certainly not here to write about cuisine. But, like all people, we do have to eat—and like all busy professionals and happening creative people, we have to fit even our biological necessities like eating and sleeping into a packed schedule. Not eating isn't really an option, so it's just a question of how best to "hunt and gather" the food we do need.

In this post, we're going to give our four best pro tips for making your cooking life easy as a busy creative person. We're not offering any recipe suggestions or actual cooking tips—just some surefire ways to make life easier and more flavorful for the meals you already make. 

If you eat out constantly or you don't cook, this post probably isn't for you. In the former case, you can't beat the convenience if that's the main draw for you (and if you can afford it). In the latter case, no amount of life-hacking can make you enjoy cooking if you just don't. But if you do cook for yourself and you want to make it all smarter and easier, give these a shot:

1—Start a Cookbook (AKA Start Collecting Recipes)

Don’t get nervous—this isn’t going to be hard. A cookbook is, well, just a book of things you can cook; your cookbook should reflect specifically what you like making. Your cookbook should (eventually) be full of recipes you’ve already had, maybe even dishes you can make from memory.

The process for maintaining a cookbook is very simple. All you have to do is (1) find a recipe somewhere, (2) try making it, and (3) add it to the cookbook if you like it. While you’re cooking and eating something new, note how you modify the recipe and, if you’d make it again, what you might try next time. For bonus points, keep all of your recipes in a central location: bookmark them, print out copies, or save your own digital copies (in our case below, we save them to Dropbox, then we can access them on our phones in the kitchen).

Even though you could easily spend too much time on it, pulling together a cookbook isn’t just a frivolous personal project. This is how you start building a permanent store of cooking knowledge; all you have to do is identify the recipes you like and keep them somewhere. Lots of people don’t bother, and when the printout inevitably winds up in the trash (or the browser window gets closed), there’s a good chance that that tasty info was just lost for good.


2—Create a Menu

Once again, don’t get nervous—this one’s even easier to do. Pulling together your cookbook can be lots of work if you’ve got mountains of recipes and you’re picky. But a menu is only one page. It’s just a list of things you can make. If it helps you think about it this way, this is literally all you have to do: take a sheet of paper, write MENU at the top, and then print a tidy list of every recipe in your cookbook. Stick it on the fridge; you’re done. (Or you can find too much spare time, as we did below.)

Why is this a good idea? Because of every single friggin’ time when, at 7pm on a weeknight, your roommate looks over at you and asks, “Hey, what are we doing for dinner?” You don’t know, so you rattle off a few suggestions. Most of them are the same suggestions you always have, and none of them sound appealing to Roomie. Roomie tries to find enticing recipes online; half involve bitter lettuces, a quarter are expensive to make (or involve a trip), and anything else won’t be ready to eat until midnight. You wind up making pasta (again), or you order pizza (again), or you give up entirely and eat refried beans with a spoon (again).

As it turns out, even people who can cook lots of stuff can’t remember every dish off the top of their heads. The “menu"—again, just a list of things you can cook—is there to remind you of the options available in your own “restaurant.” When Roomie asks what’s for dinner, just pass over the menu; if nothing looks good, then like anywhere else in the world, they’re gonna have to pick another restaurant.


3—Plan Your Meals

This article is quickly veering out of cool-people territory, but if you’ve gotten this far, you’re likely also among the partially-crushed who don’t care anymore and just want, you know, food for dinner on a regular basis. It hurts to write, but one of those horribly cliché grade-school aphorisms got it right: if I plan to learn, I must learn to plan. (That’s painfully true the way it’s painfully true that you remember 1-800-CALL-ATT because of Carrot Top.)

The easiest way to be sure you’ll have meals you’ll like every night—without endlessly repeating your staples—is to plan them out in advance. If you plan them out—and if you plan from your menu, where a whole list of likable options is in front of you—you’ll avoid repetition, make your grocery trips more effective (meaning you don’t go back so many times), and best of all, you’ll avoid decision fatigue. It is so tiring to stop and figure out dinner, all over again, every single night. Spare yourself. Give yourself ten minutes every Sunday—or 20 minutes at the beginning of every month—to do all of the thinking at once.

Again, making your own meal plan might not sound super sexy. But, to that point, we could compare planning meals to scheduling sex, a practice that (apparently a lot of) relationship counselors advise for busy couples. Whether with food or fornication, planning it may cost something in spontaneity and romance, but we’re busy people—and given the choice between having it planned or having it less, we’ll choose the former just about every time.


4—Prep Outside the Box

Most people, when they cook dinner at home, prepare the one meal they’re going to eat and then they eat it. Aside from any leftovers, that’s it for the food, and so the process repeats itself every night. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s the opposite of efficient; it’s the equivalent of Ford’s workers assembling cars one at a time (which is, of course, the opposite of what Ford is known for).

If you like cooking at home, but want to shave off an hour of cook time per week (eating the same food), consider doing the prep for multiple upcoming meals all at once. If you want, you can fully cook those meals, too, and then reheat them later in the week—but, short of that, just do all of the cold prep. For example, most vegetables can be chopped in advance, then bagged and chilled/frozen for a while; spices and other dry ingredients can be mixed and left indefinitely. If you prep in advance, you remove most of the tedious, time-consuming, mess-making work from daily dinner; you just heat up the water and oil, assemble the meal from your selection of bagged ingredients, and serve.

The tradition of home-cooked meals might suggest that this, too, removes a lot of the romance. At the least, it risks converting cooking—to many, a pleasurable hobby—into an efficiency-bound list of tasks that you complete only of necessity. But, again, if you’re a busy person, it might mean choosing between an arbitrary habit and having an hour of valuable time back. If it’s important to you to cook for yourself, as it is for us, acknowledge that the main cost of cooking is time; if time is scarce, you should save it where you easily can!


What we all work towards, maybe, is the hope that, someday, we can take four hours to make dinner if we want to—that our ambitions can carry us to that level of personal success where that valuable time is ours to spend as we please. Until then, we just gotta eat—and during the time of our lives when time is most valuable, it's tricks and compromises like these that can keep us from going hungry (or going insane). 

Thanks for reading Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog. (Last week, we wrote about ambition and The Social Network, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here.

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