So… I finally started the “Ask Mama Cassie” section of my blog and this first question is a doozy! With everyone being home on quarantine we’re cooking more than ever! And… it’s not the easiest chore to manage! One of my regular readers and devoted social media followers realized that this is just part of my everyday life and couldn’t help but ask how I do it! So, I thought giving everyone some basics to help make cooking simple would be a great idea for a post and video!
I know you don’t want some big long flowery story about family meals, grandma’s cooking or how I learned to cook myself before I get into the nuts and bolts of it! Those food blogs that have 2,000 words before you even get to the recipe are super annoying, I get it. And of course, as a blogger I understand why it’s done! But I’m not a food blogger, even though every now and then I’ll share a recipe I love that’s pretty simple. But I try to keep it straight to the point with no frills! And I’m going to try to do that here too. That said… this post is LOOOONG so feel free to skip around to find exactly what you’re looking for!
Making Cooking Simple Starts with Kitchen Safety
Before we get started on picking recipes and actually cooking, we should cover some safety basics.
Food Borne Illness
The most common cause of tummy trouble is food borne illness. It’s very important to handle and store food properly to keep your family healthy!
First things first! Before and after preparing food, you need to wash your hands thoroughly with warm water and soap. Be sure to get between your fingers and your wrists. If you can’t sing the ABCs twice while washing you didn’t wash long enough. This is particularly important after handling raw meat!
And don’t forget to start with a clean kitchen. Counters, cutting boards and tools should all be clean as well!
Meat & Eggs
Meat and eggs are two of the most common sources of food borne illness. It is vitally important to wash your hands and anything that raw meat has come in contact with immediately. Do NOT use wood cutting boards to cut raw meat because they are porous and bacteria can seep into them. As a general rule, I prefer not to use wood cutting board at all for this reason. Plus, they can’t go in the dishwasher and shouldn’t be washed with soap. That’s why I prefer a plastic cutting board with a dripping divot and rubber edging for easy use and clean up! It is safest to cut foods that will be eaten raw before working with meat. That way you can set them aside and not have to worry about contamination.
You also need to be mindful of storing raw meat with other foods. Never bag meat with other foods at the grocery store and it’s best to use disposable bags for meat rather than your reusable ones. If your bag gets contaminated so does anything that goes in it after. When thawing meat in your refrigerator set it on a plate and keep it away from produce. You can also thaw meat safely and more quickly by placing your frozen meat in a sink filled with cold water. Do not thaw and refreeze your meat.
Meat Cooking Temperatures
Ground beef, poultry (chicken & turkey) and pasture raised pork all need to be cooked to well done. It’s best to use a meat thermometer but a good rule of thumb is that it shouldn’t be pink inside at all. Cuts of beef that aren’t ground, industrial pork (not recommended) and most fish can be cooked to your preference.
Bad news for those of you who, like me, love a fried egg with a runny yolk! Unless your eggs are pasteurized you should always cook them until the yolk and white are both firm. If you get eggs from a local egg farm or distributor they likely aren’t so be sure to wash them and store them in the refrigerator to reduce the risk of contracting salmonella and cook them completely.
Most eggs sold in the grocery store are pasteurized. Which isn’t the same as “pastured” or “free-range” so check the packaging to be sure. And while we’re on the topic of free-range pastured eggs… don’t bother with cage free. Cage free chickens don’t live in only slightly more humane conditions (if at all) and don’t have natural diets. You’re paying a lot more for no benefit to your nutrition or improvement in living conditions for the animals.
Typically, leftovers are good, kept in the refrigerator for about a week. You can always dish out the amount you want to eat and warm it, but you shouldn’t reheat and put it back in the fridge.
Seafood tends to go bad faster. So, I’ll only eat left over seafood for about 2 days after it was originally cooked. And hard-boiled eggs tend to last longer so I’ll often eat these up to 2 weeks later as long as the shell isn’t damaged. If the shell cracks while cooking, I’ll eat these first (within a couple days).
Proper Food Storage
Store leftovers in sealed containers! A good rule to follow is that if any of the ingredients came from the fridge it needs to be stored in the fridge. If not go ahead and toss it in the pantry. Be mindful about reading labels though. Many sauces and condiments require refrigeration after opening. And anything that you find in a can that would usually go in a fridge belongs there too (vegetables and creamy soups come to mind). When in doubt… put it in the fridge!
I like to stick a piece of masking tape to the container that has the date I cooked it written on it. You could also write the day to toss it instead. I do this whenever I open things like lunch meat as well. Lunchmeats have a sell by date, but they typically go bad faster once they’re opened. I’ll only keep open lunchmeat for a week.
A Note About Sell by Dates:
Sell by dates aren’t officially regulated by anyone so for the most part they’re useless. Feel free to take advantage of sales and buy foods that are at or nearing their sell by dates! The only exception here is dairy. If your milk still smells fine you can still drink it but sometimes you may notice a change it the flavor near or after the sell by date. Eggs, boxed, or canned foods are often good for far longer than their sell by date. That said, stores often toss outdated items which greatly contributes to the food waste crisis. So, take advantage, save some cash, and buy nearly expired or expired items!
A Rule of Thumb About Food Safety
In general, if it isn’t discolored, doesn’t stink and isn’t slimy (when it shouldn’t be) it’s probably fine to eat. If you’re diligent about cooking temperature and cross contamination from meat and eggs whatever is wrong with your food will be apparent and unappealing. It’s also worth mentioning that mold on cheese or bread can be removed and the rest is still edible.
Kitchen accidents are sometimes unavoidable but there are a few things you can do to keep yourself as safe as possible.
- Always turn the handles of pots in over the counter. Do NOT leave them so they are extended into a walking path where someone could walk by and knock the hot pan off the stove. The handle should also be over the counter to avoid it heating up and causing burns!
- Never place anything on your stove except pots and pans. You don’t want to start the bad habit of setting things on your cooled stove top only to have someone set something there while a burner is still hot and start a fire!
- Don’t leave utensils in cooking pots! This is a great way to burn yourself! Those utensil handles get hot, melt, or can even catch on fire!
- Use oven mitts when handling anything that is in or has been in the oven! Don’t use towels or potholders!
- Be cautious of steam burns! When boiling or steaming foods try to stick with the back burners to avoid having to reach over a steaming pot.
- Be careful to set hot pots on safe surfaces (stone counters, trivets, or potholders).
- When cooking with oil, whether deep frying or pan frying always have a box of baking soda or large container of salt nearby. If there is a grease fire DO NOT put water on it. Turn off the heat if you can and pour salt or baking soda on it! Only if that doesn’t work should you use a fire extinguisher!
- Always carry knives so that the point is down!
- Use a cutting glove to avoid cuts!
Now that we’ve gone through all of the kitchen safety details let’s take a look at the nuts and bolts of meal planning, shopping, and some kitchen hacks to save you time and money!
How to Pick the Perfect Recipes
You might already have some family favorites that you rely on or you may be starting from scratch with your recipe collection. Either way, knowing how to pick recipes that will have your family raving and are simple can be a tough task!
Pick a Hit
When looking for a recipe consider what types of foods your family likes. Do you like to keep it pretty bland, well-seasoned or spicy? What proteins does your family love? What dietary restrictions do the members of your family have? These are all factors that need to be considered when selecting the perfect recipes (especially for dinners).
I am a HUGE fan of Allrecipes.com! It allows you to enter ingredients you want included in the recipe and those you don’t want. This is a great resource. You can also use it to find ways to cook things you already have on hand which allows you to be more flexible with your shopping day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve intended to go to the store and then something comes up that prevents it and I’m stuck scrounging for something to make for dinner! With this website I’m never at a loss. Plus, it perfectly accommodates my food allergies because I can simply enter in the “don’t include” section anything I’m allergic too. It has several categories as well. So, you can search by the dish you want to make, ingredient dos & don’ts or category (side dish, breakfast, lunch, soup etc).
The biggest question I hear about recipe selection for a family is regarding spices. It can be difficult to imagine what something tastes like if you aren’t familiar with various seasonings. So, here’s a good rule of thumb, dried spices that start with the letter C (except cinnamon) and all peppers pack some heat. If your family likes spicy go for it. If they don’t that doesn’t mean you have to avoid the recipe all together. Most pepper spices can be omitted in cooking and added at the table, so go ahead and do that! If you find that the recipe you’re looking at has a lot of spicy seasoning (more than 2 peppers) you might want to skip it. Most other spices and spice combos are generally liked, so no worries, be adventurous!
Keep it Simple
When choosing recipes keep in mind that the biggest time commitment is in the prep work! It really doesn’t matter how long something takes to cook if you can put it in an oven or crock pot and forget about it! Often these are the easiest meals! So instead of looking at cook time look at prep time. And, if you’re new to cooking double it!
The thing that adds the most time to prep is chopping ingredients so as I mention in my video, forgo recipes that require a lot of chopping! Especially if the ingredients can’t be prepped in advance. This is true of softer veggies like cucumbers, tomatoes and bell peppers. Chopped onions that aren’t frozen also go bad quickly so if you chop your own onions measure them out, label them with the recipe name, and toss them in the freezer.
In order to simplify lunches, you may also want to consider whether this meal is likely to be just as delicious warmed up. Meals that heat nicely include sauces (but have no breaded components), soups, stews and casseroles. Most things that get cooked in the crock pot also warm up very nicely and quickly for lunch. Avoid re-warming pork and seafood (unless it’s in a soup). These commonly dry out and nothing will stink up your kitchen more than fish in the microwave!
Don’t Overdo it
Also… only use a recipe for your whole meal or one component of your meal! If you’re making a protein recipe keep your starch and veggie simple! Don’t over do it with two side dish recipes and a protein recipe. It’ll be near to impossible to have it all done at the same time! That’s called holiday cooking! No need to do that on a daily basis!
How to Make Your Grocery List
Since I work at home, I have a printer and find it easiest to type my grocery list so I can cut and paste to re-organize it. That said… right now I’m quarantined up north without one, so I’ve been writing it out by hand. So… let me share the best way to make your grocery list so you can get in and out of the store as quickly as possible! Which is always a priority for most people!
Plan Your Meals
First write down all the days of the week that you’re shopping for and next to each write the dinner you have planned (including side dishes). Then write “breakfast”, “lunch” and “snacks”. Now write what you have planned for those meals and snacks as well. Keep in mind that you might want to have leftovers for lunches or make a big pot of soup. You should keep these additional meals and snacks as simple as possible. (For detailed meal planning guidance check out my YouTube Video).
Create Your List
Now… using your recipe books write everything you’ll need for each recipe that you aren’t completely sure you have already. Keep in mind that if you’re planning leftovers for lunch or you have big eaters in your house, you’ll likely want to double your recipes. Both big eaters and planning leftovers? Triple it!
Circle any items you’ve written that you think you have but need to check on. And don’t forget to include the items or recipes you have listed for breakfast, lunch and snacks! In my house we all eat the same dinner and are on our own for the other meals. So, it helps me to think about each person in my family and what they’re likely to eat for each meal. If you’re making these additional meals for young kids be sure to keep it simple and kid friendly. And, whenever possible, avoid dessert for breakfast, waffles, sugary cereal, pancakes and French toast are likely to cause a sugar high early in the day and irritability in the afternoon. Who wants that??? Opt instead for fruit, scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, oatmeal or yogurt parfaits (that can be prepped in advance).
Now… go check out your kitchen! Look for the items you have circled on your list! If you have them cross them off, if not leave them.
Be sure to add any hygiene, cleaning or paper products your family might need to the list. We keep a running grocery list on the kitchen counter. Each person is responsible for adding anything we’re running low on to the list. With 5 kids we had to be pretty specific about what running low means. In our house it means if what you’re using is half gone. So, if we have a 12 pack of toilet paper and you take a roll leaving only 6 it goes on the list! This prevents unnecessary trips to the store mid-week! We also add staples to the list so that I don’t have to copy spices or pantry items from recipes. For example, we always have condiments, salt, pepper and corn starch. And of course, I never run out of Italian seasoning, Lawry’s and Garlic Powder!
Here’s the biggest shopping time saver EVER! Put your list in the order of the store you’re going to! Don’t know the order? NO PROBLEM! Just organize your list by category. When I start this process, I use a numbering system based on a typical store layout and assign each item on the list with a number. Mind you not every store is laid out this way but clumping your items together will keep you from having to wander back and forth through the store!
- Canned veggies & tomato sauce / paste
- Soup & Broth
- Baking goods & Spices
- Dry breakfast food & Oatmeal
- Ethnic food (including rice, beans and pasta)
- Frozen foods
- Cleaning products
- Dairy & Eggs
Once you have your list numbered rewrite it starting with all of the 1’s then the 2’s all the way to 12. If you don’t have something for one of these categories just skip it! When you head to the store over the next couple weeks you can write little adjustments to your order and switch up the numbers accordingly. Because… you’ll have a pen and your list when you go to the store, OF COURSE!!! Not only will shopping like this save you time, it’ll also save you money! You’ll avoid buying items you already have, and you won’t be tempted to make impulse purchases!
Often people have some sticker shock the first few times they do this. When you’re buying food for all of your meals and snacks for your family at one time it seems like a lot of money. In reality you likely spend more in small amounts throughout the week ordering out and impulse buying snacks. You may also notice a little more food waste in the first couple weeks. As you eat healthier your appetite will begin to decrease. Use those extra veggies to make some soup or a stir fry rather than tossing them and freeze your fruit to be used later in smoothies! (For a deep dive into saving at the grocery store check this out.)
Meal Planning Pays Off
In typical times you can also look in sale papers and go to a couple different stores to get better prices. Or you can stock up on items that are on sale. I always buy extra paper and hygiene products and meat and frozen veggies when they go on sale. I know they’ll stay good for a long time and they’ll get used!
Meal planning and eating at home is much more likely to result in a healthier diet. And healthier diets pay off in the long run. The idea that eating healthy is more expensive is a fallacy. There are several ways around this!
How to Read a Recipe
So, before I start this section, I just want to mention an important difference between baking and cooking!
If you’re baking, as in making baked goods, bread, cakes, cookies etc you need to follow the recipe EXACTLY! Do not improvise or estimate! Baking is very technical and finicky. It is sometimes possible to substitute ingredients but when you google the substitution be sure to use the term “in baking” in your search bar. For example, “substitute eggs in baking”. This will give you better results that are more likely to work.
When cooking you can be a lot less rigid. Estimating ingredients and even “adding to taste” is completely fine. You can really exercise some creativity here and wing it a little. You can even swap out main ingredients using chicken instead of pork for example or broccoli in place of brussel sprouts. Cooking isn’t as reliant on following the instructions exactly and oftentimes if you forget a step you can even do it later. So, when cooking, try to relax and enjoy the process it’ll make it go a lot faster!
I get asked a lot about what certain recipe abbreviations and terms mean so I thought I’d share.
- T: tablespoon
- t: teaspoon
- c: cup
- oz: ounces
- lb: pound
- g: grams
The first 5 appearing on this list are common in American recipes (cookbooks, online etc). But if you’re looking at a recipe created by someone outside of the States you’re likely to see grams as a unit of measure. No worries, if you don’t have a food scale there are all kinds of conversion charts online to help you make sense of this. I’d hold off on using these recipes though until you’re a lot more comfortable in the kitchen!
If you want to make half of a recipe simply cut all the ingredients in half, double everything to make twice as much, triple to make 3 times as much etc.
You’ll also notice when you head to the grocery store that while your recipe ingredients are listed in the terms above a lot of the ingredients aren’t sold this way. You’ll need to know how to translate these measurements into packaging quantities like pints (pt) and quarts (qt).
To make this process easier and help you translate recipes into buying quantities I’ve created a handy printable!
Here are some common cooking terms that you’re likely to come across.
Turn on the closed oven and allow it to reach the temperature indicated before putting anything in it. This is a common term. You’ll see it in most recipes that require using the oven. I usually just turn on the oven before I start prepping and that’s plenty of time!
Low Heat, Medium Heat, High Heat
If you have an electric stove top you likely have indicators for low, medium, and high heat but if you have a gas stove you might need a little help here.
With low heat the flame should be below the grate, Medium the flame should be licking at the bottom of the grate and high heat it should be coming up the grate. High heat does not mean fully on at the highest level of heat. That temperature is usually WAY to hot for most cooking and you’ll likely only use it for boiling water!
Simmer can either be a cooking heat or indicate what’s happening in the pan.
If a recipe says “turn the heat down to a simmer” they mean the lowest heat selection available to you. This is when you would use the simmer selection on a gas or electric stove.
However, if the recipe says “bring to a simmer” that means heat or cool until tiny bubbles form at the bottom or on the sides of the pan but don’t rise up to the top or turn into big bubbles. This can take some tweaking. The real goal here is to keep what you’re cooking hot without making it boil. Don’t worry if it takes some time to figure out just how to do that.
Usually recipes that tell you to bake will also tell you where in your oven to place your pan or dish. If not, you should place it in the vertical center of your oven. This doesn’t have to be exact but having the rack near center will help. When your oven is set on bake the heat comes from the bottom and fills the space in the oven, so you want your food to be surrounded by heat.
You’ll often see instructions to baste when you’re baking something for a long time. This simply means either brushing or pouring liquid or drippings over the meat. You can pull out the oven rack and use a basting brush, baster, or spoon to scoop up some of the liquid from the bottom of the pan and put it over the top. You may also be instructed to baste with a marinade or something not already in the pan. This is typically easier because getting to those pan drippings can be tricky.
When broiling the heat comes from the top of the oven and is VERY intense. You’ll place the rack as high as it goes and use a short pan (most ovens come with a “broiling rack”). This is a common way to sear meat.
This is where you have big bubbles rising to the top and popping. A rolling boil means that you liquid is boiling so hard that when you put something in it it continues or goes right back to boiling. I’ve never seen an instance where a rolling boil is wrong so just put your pan on full heat and get it super hot!
Poaching sounds super fancy but it basically just means you’re cooking in liquid. If your recipe tells you to poach something it’ll give you details about whether the liquid you’re poaching in should be simmering or boiling. Just follow the instructions you’re given and you’re all good! Don’t forget to use a slatted spoon to remove the poached item when it’s done to avoid collecting too much liquid and potentially burning yourself.
You can use a small appliance called a steamer to do this and simply follow the instructions that come with it or you can get a steamer basket and put it in any saucepan. Fill the bottom of the saucepan with water (keeping the water level lower than the steamer basket). Place what you’re steaming in the basket and then put the lid on. Put it on the stove over medium – high heat. If the heat is too low the water won’t get hot enough to produce steam, too high and it’ll evaporate too quickly.
Searing is done by heating the pan before putting the item to be seared into it. You may be heating an empty pan but will usually be heating a pan with a little oil in the bottom. Do NOT leave this pan unattended while it’s heating. This is a common technique for meat and helps keep it juicy. You simply place the meat in the pan, and it will cook the outside sealing in the juices. This is sometimes recommended for cooking pot roast even in a crock pot. I always skip this step if I’m using my crock pot. I’ve never even heard of meat drying out when cooked that way, so I see no reason to sear it!
Deep Fry vs Pan Fry
Deep frying means you’re submerging your food in oil where pan frying indicates cooking it in a pan coated with oil. I don’t deep fry at home at all. I find it to be messy and a nuisance. If you choose to do it though you simply heat oil on the stove in a deep pot (leaving some room at the top for splattering) and then when the oil is hot you place your items to be deep fried into it. Again, be sure to remove items using a strainer or slotted spoon to avoid grease messes and burns.
With pan frying you heat a small coating of oil in a pan and then place what you’re cooking into it. Typically, the amount of oil is a bit more than searing (your recipe will indicate how much). You shouldn’t be surprised if you need to add more oil as you’re cooking. When you pan fry, you’ll cook your food all of the way through so you’ll use lower heat than searing, usually low – medium, so the inside can cook without the outside burning.
With both deep frying and pan frying I don’t recommend using olive oil which becomes carcinogenic under high heat. Instead I suggest Avocado oil.
Sauteing typically uses a similar amount of oil as searing but lower heat like pan-frying. This technique is often used for vegetables. In place of oil you may use ghee or butter.
Grilling is often done outside on a charcoal or gas grill. You can simulate grilling using indoor tools like a George Foreman Grill which is good but not quite the same. Grilling on an outdoor grill often results in charring which is a carcinogen. But… it’s oh so delicious so occasionally splurging on a grilled meal might be something you want to consider.
Whip & Mix
Sometimes you’ll see instructions to whip or mix. You can use a whisk, fork or spoon depending on what you’re working on. Even if the instructions tell you to use a wooden spoon or whisk you can generally swap it out for whatever tool you have. Unless told otherwise you’ll want to mix until well combined, which means you can’t see any of the individual ingredients anymore.
When to Use a Mixer
If the recipe specifically tells you to use a mixer you probably should. This especially true when recipes contain eggs. If your recipe doesn’t contain eggs you can usually use whatever you want to mix whether it be a mixer, spoon, whisk or fork. You should be sure to use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides of the bowl when using a mixer and use a bowl deep enough to prevent splatter.
The term “cut in” is more common in baking than cooking. It usually refers to mixing a partially solid fat into a dry mix like flour. You can use a pastry cutter for this or 2 forks or butter knives. I sometimes even do this with my hands being cautious not to get the fat too warm. Essentially you smash the butter into the dry mix repeatedly until it is fully distributed. This process is difficult, and I recommend avoiding recipes that include this instruction until you have more cooking experience. To see it being done check out this video.
This is also a more common baking term, but it’s pretty easy. If you’re making chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies, you’ll see this instruction. This is how you add the whole chunks to your batter gently without crushing or smashing them. To fold something in sprinkle some of your addition on top of your batter then going bottom to top stir it in. When it’s well incorporated add more until everything is mixed together. This is often the last step before baking!
Cooking Hacks and Tips
I thought I’d mix it up a little since I knew this post was going to be super long. Enjoy these tips and hacks to streamline, save time and make cooking easier!
When I said in the video that’s it’s very important to make only one meal, I meant it, but I know that’s easier said than done! The trick to that is to get the whole family involved in picking and ranking new recipes! This is a surefire way to get even the pickiest eater to happily taste new recipes and food. Create a sticker chart for your meals and allow your kids to give their favorites 5 stickers and least favorites 1. Use these to create future meal plans your family is sure to LOVE!!!
Making Cooking Simple
Whether you love or hate cooking you’ll find that these tips will save you tons of time with meal planning, shopping, prep and cooking! Plus improving your cooking skills now will pay off financially and in your health. You’ll find yourself losing weight, having more energy and even performing better at work and home. Take the time to learn this skill, it’s worth it! The more you do it, the more you’ll enjoy it and the faster you’ll get!
Feel free to reach out if you have any questions about simplifying cooking!
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