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Six tips for successful home cooking

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Francois Lenoir/Reuters

(Read caption) A plate of cheesy mussels. Good time management and a willingness to try new ingredients will ensure a successful repertoire of home-cooked meals

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For most of 2011, I’ve been posting a regular series entitled “Dinner With My Family” on Friday afternoons. In those posts, I’ve discussed inexpensive homemade meals that my family has enjoyed for dinner. Some of these meals were also incredibly quick to prepare, and I made an effort to try a variety of meals to appeal to everyone.

I plan on continuing the series on an irregular basis, but doing the series each week has taught me some worthwhile lessons about food, frugality, and time management.

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Experimentation has rewards
 One of the big reasons for us to start doing this series was that we both enjoy experimenting with our cooking. We love trying new meals and, believe it or not, our food adventurousness has rubbed off on our children as well. I’m amazed when we have friends with children over (or visit them) and their children refuse to eat most of the items on the table. Our children try them with relish.

The biggest reason why I love experimenting is that I am constantly discovering new ingredients. For example, I would have never even thought of getting fresh tarragon, chopping it up, and putting it into scrambled eggs. I tried it on a whim due to a suggestion of how to use tarragon – and I found that it made the eggs wonderful. Now, whenever I can find some fresh tarragon, I make some amazing scrambled eggs.

Try a new vegetable or a new fruit or a new herb or spice or a new type of cheese. You might find something that you really enjoy that you never expected. Even better, you now have something new to look for during food sales as well as a broader repertoire of ingredients you feel good using in your kitchen.

At the same time, there’s always another meal
 Of course, the immediate drawback that many people point to with such experimentation is that you might wind up with a meal that you don’t like at all.

My philosophy on that is this: I usually try new ingredients when I can get a good discount on them. That way, if it turns out that I don’t like it, I’m not out very much money. Most of the time, though, I find that I do like this new ingredient. Even during the worst case scenario, where I find the meal inedible, I can always find something else to eat if I’m hungry.

The upside to discovering something new that I like is far greater than the downside of a dollar or two lost and the potential prospect of remaking a single meal.

A regular repertoire of meals is invaluable
 We’re a two income family with three children, two of which are in multiple activities. The simple reality of things is that we don’t have the time in the evening that we would often like to have. Quite often, one of the parents is on autopilot when it comes to dinner preparation. We simply want to be able to prepare something easily, something that we know how to do, and something that will please everyone while being reasonably healthy.

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When we try new meals, we’re often asking ourselves whether this meal should become part of our regular meal repertoire. However, most nights, particularly during the school year, we just pull a meal from that repertoire and assemble it for dinner.

Adventuresome meals are fun, but they often don’t work in the context of a typical day at our house. The vast majority of the time, we rely on things we know how to make or variations on those themes.

Preparing meals in advance is invaluable, too
 Along with that tactic is the incredibly useful tactic of preparing meals in advance. We’ll often prepare a full meal, store it in a sealed container in the freezer, and pull it out the night before or in the morning of a day when we know that dinner plans are going to be tight. Sometimes, we actually just pull out a kit we’ve assembled from the freezer and just add it to the crock pot. Other times, we put out a frozen casserole dish with a note saying “put this in the oven at 350 degrees at 4:30.”

These meals prepared in advance also make being adventurous a bit more difficult, as you don’t want to prepare a quadruple batch of something before you’ve tried it out with the family. Thus, our premade meals are invariably old standbys, like tuna casserole or vegetarian lasagna.

Having these meals on hand makes it possible to get one kid to soccer, another kid to dance, and still have a good meal on the table when everyone converges at home.

Let what you have on hand lead you
 People often get stressed out about following recipes and finding a bunch of obscure ingredients. You really don’t have to do that. Just use what you have on hand and you’ll almost always come up with something good.

What really works well is when you have a “framework” recipe, like the flexible casserole recipe or ratatouille. These are recipes where you can basically plug in whatever ingredients you happen to have and make something that works. At least a couple of the “Dinner with My Family” posts resulted from this type of experimentation.

Instead of panicking about what to have, just throw open your cupboard door and try to assemble something. Keep an open mind and you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with.

Let what’s on sale in the grocery flyer lead you, too
 We love using fresh ingredients in our meals, but they can often be expensive at the store. So, often, we just buy whatever produce is on sale and use that as the backbone for our meals for the week.

If cabbage is on sale, we’ll make some sort of cabbage rolls or cabbage-based soup. If eggplant is on sale, we’ll make eggplant lasagna. If spinach is on sale, we’ll make a spinach alfredo and have spinach salads with other meals. If bananas are on sale, we’ll eat one bunch and use another to make a loaf or two of banana bread.

Again, many of our “Dinner with My Family” recipes have resulted from just this type of purchase. We buy some vegetables that are on sale and make a dish based on them. It’s cheap, tasty, and fun.


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