Casserole Comfort... on a DietTwo of the pinned recipes are frequent go-to recipes for our family. Light King Ranch Chicken Casserole is one of our favorites. This is absolutely a meal you can eat on a diet despite being comfort food. It is very forgiving if you want to pack in lots of extra veggies. I usually add extra onion and bell pepper, maybe even corn or extra tomatoes, and fresh mushrooms. Fresh or frozen (except mushrooms) works since this is a casserole (but make sure your tomatoes don't add extra liquid). Note: I've found Campbell's Healthy Request soups are lower fat than the low-fat. They are also low sodium so you may need to add salt.
This casserole can be frozen and/or made in the slow cooker.We like it with one noticeable change (and this may be why it freezes so well for us). We don't put tortillas in it. Instead, we serve it over corn chips. Ideally, the casserole should cover the chips like cheese covers a pizza, leaving a crust. The covered chips should be allowed to get soggy while the "crust" stays crunchy. I normally make this in the crockpot without the cheese on top. I then plate-up, add the cheese, and microwave to melt the cheese. The chips get soggy while microwaving. You can obviously defrost a frozen casserole and microwave it instead of baking it for the same results. Either way is fast and a very satisfying meal. The left-overs are just as good, so the time-savings just keep adding up.
Healthy SplurgeMy other "light" go-to favorite is Kraft's low-fat alfredo recipe. Make it alfredo primavera (or use spiralized veggies instead of noodles) for a healthier meal. We have this spiralizer, but I understand some great handheld ones have come out since we bought it. You can use a veggie peeler to make pappardelle style noodles if a spiralizer is an impractical purchase. This recipe is very forgiving, too. I don't actually use a recipe anymore. I just use up whatever blob of Neufchatel cheese I have. I haven't tried EathingWell's quick alfredo, yet. I'm looking forward to trying it soon to see how it compares.
A Fast Splurge and a Bonus LinkThe perhaps "odd" inclusion on a board about time-saving is the Pin to the Craftsy class "Artisan Bread in Minutes." If you're happy with a bag of bread from the store, this won't save you time. If you want to make homemade bread, this class is amazing. My sister refuses to try it because she insists what she likes about making bread is the process (i.e. the time it takes). I just like bread, especially fresh, hot, bread. The method taught in the class is almost the only way I can manage to make bread. If a class isn't for you, it is based on a book, available from Amazon.
FYI, Craftsy also has a great FREE mini-class on pizza making. The dough can be frozen (we get three crusts per recipe, one fresh, two frozen). You can make pizza dough from the "Artisan Bread in Minutes" recipe, but the pizza class can help you with your overall technique. I always struggled with the sauce part. I now just buy a can of San Marzano tomatoes, smash them up a bit, and freeze them in tiny plastic bowls (yes, I use these storage bowls for freezing, for tomatoes it works just fine, and the size is just right). The bowls are also great for freezing one to two uses of fat-free refried beans for nacho night. I add a little water to the beans and "sling" them on the chips instead of dolloping larger blobs of beans. The 4-ounce size seems to be a good amount for two adults and a picky kid, depending on if I add sauteed onion and peppers.
Back to the pizza, though. Although a frozen pizza would be faster, that seems like a meal we've settled for rather than want. Homemade pizza also allows your picky eaters to make their own pizza. My preschooler makes her own mini-pizza which I count as an activity rather than making dinner so to me, that saves time. Considering the activity aspect, the satisfaction level, and the cost, homemade pizza isn't literally the fastest but is well worth the extra time versus frozen pizza (it's faster than most stove-top meals, too).
CookbooksI don't have one way I save time in the kitchen. Since I like to cook, sometimes I want to cook. Lots of times, I'm just too tired to make a traditional dinner (prep the ingredients, stand over the stove, possibly finish it in the oven). So, to try and "cook" most meals, I've sought out a variety of cookbooks on different time-saving techniques. Here are my top picks for time-saving cookbooks.
- Slow Cooker Revolution Volume 2: The Easy-Prep Edition and Healthy Slow Cooker Revolution both from American's Test Kitchen (you will see a theme with my love for ATK cookbooks. I am a loyal Cook's Illustrated subscriber, too). It is very important you get volume two (that's the Easy-Prep volume) of Slow Cooker Revolution if you are really short on time. I have never browned a cut of meat for the slow cooker, and I don't plan to start now. SCR2 will teach you how to get flavor without the browning. These recipes also don't come out like mush like many slow cooker recipes I've tried. Some of the "tricks" are fantastic. As with pretty much any cookbook from ATK, you need to read the text at the start of the book and preferably the introduction to the recipe you are making. That is where the magic comes from (they also warn you about substitutes you can't make and why). Also, after reading all this, you can apply the techniques to other recipes or make up your own. And when I say, make-up your own, I don't mean meticulous planning, I mean stone soup; throw what you have in the crock and get something delicious out at dinner time. I've included the Healthy SCR because lower-fat options don't traditionally do as well in the crock pot. If you read this book, you will be better equipped to make healthier slow cooker meals.
- Fix, Freeze, Feast by Kati Neville and Lindsay Tkacsik. I have successfully used this book to semi-stock the freezer several times, and it is a life saver (I'm struggling to accept how much it will cost to buy several types of meat during one trip to Costco, one package of meat will semi-stock the freezer). There are some issues you may or may not be aware of when adapting a recipe for the freezer. You also need to put some thought into the organization of a bulk cooking day and freezer storage/organization. This book covers all of it, so you don't spend all day on Pinterest looking for ideas. If you have the time, yes, you can find similar information on blogs for free. The Kindle book is currently $2.99 and my time is worth more than that, so I went with a cookbook.
- The Make-Ahead Cook from America's Test Kitchen. What I like about this book is the variety. Not the variety of recipes, the variety of methods. The subtitle is "8 Smart Strategies for Dinner Tonight." Usually, a cookbook is for your slow cooker or buy-in-bulk and freeze (see the above recommendations). This provides different options (on Amazon you can "Look Inside" so I won't describe them).
- Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. Like the pin to "Artisan Bread in Minutes," this is a book that only sort of belongs in "time-saving." If you want to make more of your kitchen staples, this is a great book to help you consider both the cost and time it takes. I made a number of the recipes from this and The Homemade Pantry after I first bought the books. Then I moved and had a second child. I haven't been able to use either book lately (aside from one batch of homemade tortillas, yum). I'm hoping to get back to both as I really did enjoy making some of my pantry staples or other items I had never considered making instead of buying (e.g. yogurt, without a yogurt maker; ricotta cheese). If you're toying with this idea but aren't sure about the time or the budget aspect, I highly recommend Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. You may save yourself from finding out the hard way that you don't have time (and just wasted a lot of money on ingredients). If you're perfectly happy with what you pick up at the grocery store, this isn't going to save you any time. [update, Alana Chernila has a Craftsy class similar to The Homemade Pantry called The From-Scratch Kitchen if you've been curious about yogurt from a slow cooker-- yeah, that's right, slow cooker-- this is a way to see how it's done. I've made several batches without a problem].
I got started with these cookbooks after my daughter was born because I suddenly had so much less free time (and a whole lot of baby weight I wanted gone). To keep from wasting money buying cookbooks I didn't like, I hit the library. If I really love a cookbook, I need to buy it to refer to much later. I don't want to deal with trying to copy what I want (tried it, it didn't work). I only need to buy cookbooks I love, though. I suspect most libraries have a lot of cookbooks aimed at saving time versus gourmet cooking, or they should. Just like in business where you have to spend money to make money, you probably need to spend some time to save some time. Get a selection of cookbooks from the local library. See what works for you before you buy. Don't forget about inter-library loan. You can use it for genealogy; you can use it for cookbooks. I can do a lot more genealogy when dinner's in the slow cooker. I've got more money to order records if dinner's in the freezer instead of at the local Chinese restaurant.
I'd love to hear your suggestions for cookbooks, kitchen products, or websites you've found help you save time in the kitchen. I saw this bag holder, and this freezer cookbook on Amazon and considered getting them to help me stock my freezer (falling bags have been a problem in past). [update: I bought the bag holders. They work great but I haven't done a marathon of pre-made food with them yet. Very easy to store, though.] The reviews are good and the price right on both but do you have a better suggestion? Have you organized your freezer meals with Evernote? Leave a comment if you've got suggestions or questions about saving time in the kitchen.