What’s not to love about food? A delicious comforting bowl of pasta, a warm soup on a cold day, a crisp salad in the summer…food evokes memories, tantalizes taste buds, and just makes us feel good!
However, if you’re anything like me, you don’t have time to microwave, let alone prep, cook and put a gourmet meal on the table every night (or, let’s be honest, even once a week…or once a month, for that matter)! This is why so many of us end up going out to restaurants or relying on fast food. Even if we love cooking, with busy schedules, it can be SO hard to find the time to do it!
Meal planning eliminates dinnertime stress and overspending. Rather than navigating weeknight meals without a plan, go in with a plan and dinner is served. Simple!
Unfortunately, as much fun as it can be to go out to restaurants, it can also add up and take its toll on our budgets. The average person spends around $13 per meal outside of the home…and we all know how fast that can add up. (Yikes.) For those of us trying to save, eating out can be one of the first budget areas we need to cut back on.
So, if you’re interested in saving money, but you still want to enjoy more meals at home that feel like the restaurant experience, it’s time to up your chef game! Does it mean spending hours in the kitchen each night as you reenact your favorite scenes from Chopped or Top Chef? Of course not!
But if you’re looking for less eating-sandwiches-over-the-sink and more wow-now-THIS-is-dinner, then here are a few little touches you can add to make your home meals feel more special and enjoyable.
1. Mise En Place
Mise en place is a French term (as many cooking terms are) that means “everything in its place.” Every chef knows this is one of the key concepts to keeping their kitchen running efficiently. If you’ve ever seen a chef’s kitchen or watched a cooking show or demo, they often keep ingredients in cute little bowls already pre-measured and ready to go—that’s mise en place. It’s organizing, assembling, and preparing the stage BEFORE you start the main performance.
For the home cook, it’s also when you check your ingredients and assemble them ahead of time, preheat your oven, and collect the tools you’ll need before you start cooking. This saves you from opening refrigerator doors with sticky hands or trying to find something buried in the back of the cupboard. It also helps you think of substitutions or change up your game plan if you realize you’re missing a key ingredient (before the dish is halfway prepared).
2. Prep Once/Use Multiple Times
When you have a family meal plan, you have a picture of the week’s meals and ingredients. You can look over the list and anticipate overlaps. Using a half-pound of ground beef in tacos on Tuesday and a half-pound in spaghetti on Thursday? Brown a whole pound at once and save yourself time (and dishes!) later on. Need onions for a few dishes? Chop them all at once rather shifting back and forth between the cutting board and the stove.
3. Clear Surfaces are Easier to Clean
This is one area where home cooks often differ greatly from commercial cooks. As home cooks, it can be hard to clear the counters! Often our countertops become a go-to place for papers, mail and such because the kitchen is a central hub of our home. It’s a gathering place and that means some clutter, but it also makes cooking a challenge.
Chefs know that food produces steam, grease, crumbs and splatters. When you’re cooking, it can be hard to keep those particles off of the rest of the items in your kitchen. Even decorative items can be hard to clean so they can end up grimy over time, let alone papers, mail and whatever-else-ends-up-on-the-counter. If you plan to do some cooking, take some time to clear the counters and make a space to work. It will keep you more efficient and cleanup will be simple at the end.
4. Use a Good Knife…and Practice
Chefs have great knife skills. They can slice, dice and chop—and in a matter of seconds, they can prepare a whole array of ingredients that would take most of us hours and hours. One of the secrets chefs know is that to gain excellent knife skills, you have to start with good quality, sharp knives.
Many of us try to chop things with dull, small knives that can barely cut through butter, let alone meat or veggies. Using a chef knife might seem intimidating (they’re big and sharp) but the extra pressure you use with a small, dull knife means a greater likelihood of slipping and having an accident. Using a sharp knife makes cutting fast and easy, and it’ll “cut” your chopping time way down (and boost safety way up)!
5. Gadgets Aren’t Necessary
Those strawberry hullers, avocado slicers, and onion-savers aren’t necessary and often clutter up your kitchen. Most chefs are pretty minimal when it comes to their use of gadgets and preparation tools. They know that having a bunch of small appliances and “one-trick pony” tools just clutters up your countertops and workspace. Often the jobs can all be done with just a few simple tools.
Now, don’t get me wrong, gadgets can be fun, and some really ARE useful, especially for specific tasks. But before you spend money on gadgets and appliances, ask yourself if there’s really nothing else in your kitchen that can do the same job, and consider how many times you will use the gadget in your cooking. Yes, a spiralizer might be awesome for zucchini noodles, but if your kids don’t like zucchini and you prefer regular pasta, then it’ll just end up taking up space in a drawer, adding to kitchen clutter.
6. Make Ahead and Freeze
When chefs have a big event, they often do prep way ahead of time and freeze ingredients or pieces for later use. Now, that doesn’t mean you can freeze a soufflé or meringue, but if you have leftover ingredients or if you prep two meals, freezing them can help you avoid waste and really stretch them out.
We have so many great ideas for freezer meals! Make-ahead freezer meals make your life SO much easier and they’re the secret helper for busy moms. By doing your prep and cooking ahead of time, all you have to do is heat and eat. It’s that simple! The great thing is that fully prepared meals often freeze beautifully! There are so many make-ahead ideas you can prepare all at once and eat from all week (or month) long!
7. Food Continues to Cook After the Stove
Do you ever wonder why your eggs turn out rubbery or your steaks seem over-done? Chefs know that after you remove food from heat, it can continue to cook. Unless you hit it with cold water or cool it down instantly somehow, food will continue the cooking process for a short time after it’s removed from the stove.
To avoid rubbery eggs and other hazards of overcooking, err on the side of undercooking ever so slightly. This is also important if you’re waiting for another ingredient to finish up or trying to keep things warm for a while. Veggies taste better with a little crispness and pasta is better when it’s “al dente.” Pull things off the stove a little ahead of time to avoid sogginess.
8. Don’t Over-Season
Commercial chefs know a little secret: people love to season their food. In fact, some restaurant patrons reach for the salt and pepper before they even have a chance to taste the meal. If the meal was already veering on salty or spicy, it might be pushed over the edge. It can be a challenge to season food properly as well, because raw meat and other uncooked ingredients can’t be sampled ahead of time.
Cooking concentrates some flavors (especially slow-cooking) and can dull others. Salty foods become saltier and spicy foods are even hotter after a few hours in the crockpot. More nuanced flavors disappear (like herbs). Seasoning foods at the end allows you to give it a taste, and, since it’s already cooked, now you can determine if it tastes how you intended. If you’ve over-seasoned: add a raw potato to the pot for a few minutes to help with over-saltiness, or add milk or cream to counterbalance too much heat. Always keep in mind, your diners will probably reach for the salt-and-pepper shakers or they may have sensitive palates, so a little under-seasoning can help.
9. Vegetables Can Be Exciting
Having a vegetarian meal once in a while can be a great way to save on your grocery bill, as meat can be expensive! If your husband and kids are anything like mine, though, they probably find vegetarian meals a little boring, bland or dull. Chefs know the truth: vegetables can be just as exciting as meat ingredients!
In fact, many chefs think of meat as more of a garnish or way to amp up flavor. A little bacon at the end or crumbled sausage can add a world of flavor without much fat (or expense). The key to cooking vegetables is to pick veggies your family is comfortable with and incorporate them into dishes they already like. Adding cheese, spices and dressing can also make veggies more fun and exciting.
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
Even professional chefs have a “miss” once in a while, but they don’t let it stop them from experimenting and trying new things. Combining new flavors, swapping out ingredients in a recipe to make it your own, or just using a new technique you aren’t as familiar with can help you take your cooking skills up a notch. If you mess up? It’s totally okay! Everyone has a kitchen fail once in a while. Laugh about it and see if you can learn something new for next time.
Sometimes experimentation is necessary, like when you’re out of an ingredient or dealing with food allergies or preferences. Ask friends, seek out new recipes, and give them a try. Pick a new vegetable or fruit at the store, or try a type of cheese you haven’t used before. These little touches can make your meals more exciting and interesting, and they’ll still help you save money by enjoying the experience from home.
11. Fresh Herbs & Lemon are Next Level
Restaurant dishes taste so good because they have a burst of freshness and flavor…that comes from adding fresh herbs, lemon and lime at the end. For very little expense, you can grow a few windowsill herbs like chives, parsley, thyme or dill and add them to your dishes. Watch for sales on lemons and limes, and buy real butter or a nice type of Parmesan cheese.
These little touches add tons of flavors to your dishes and make them seem restaurant-quality at the finish. You might use margarine or olive oil throughout the cooking process, but adding just a touch of the “real stuff” at the end gives it the polish and taste of something much fancier. If you love the cheese in the green can, shake away, but try a few shaves of Parmesan on your next pasta dish or in a salad to ramp flavors up. Using sharp cheddar at the end of the dish, whole milk, sour cream or other strong ingredients goes a long way. Try parsley, chives, capers or mint to make your meal complete.
12. Presentation Makes the Meal
Chefs know that presentation is SO important. Having the lettuce leaf on the plate, the little drizzle of sauce, or the sprinkle of herbs on the top makes it FEEL beautiful. It completes the experience and takes almost no time at all.
For home cooks, you can easily make slow-cooker meals or oven casseroles seem special by simply setting the table. Somehow, when you’re gathered around the table, eating off plates and chatting about your day, it makes it feel like a gathering, a meal—an experience. If you find it hard to get everyone together at the same time or find you’re running back and forth to the kitchen, bring the dishes to the table and allow everyone to serve him or herself. Add some final touches: a sprinkle of paprika, some flaky sea salt, or a wedge of lemon to squeeze over fish, and it’ll feel better than a restaurant.
Eating at home can be just as much fun as eating out—and these little touches go a long way (without stretching your budget). Take a few cues from chefs and you’ll be enjoying a meal at home that’s just as delicious as anything in a restaurant!