It's All in the Timing

We have six people in our house - a vegetarian (me) and a bunch of carnivores (my wife, a teenager, and eleven-year-old triplets). And I pretty much cook for all of us. Everyone has different tastes. Sometimes just keeping track of everyone’s likes and dislikes can drive me nuts. Some nights it’s a bit of a madhouse.

One thing that has become an issue for me (and I bet some of you) is timing. How do you get everything to come out at the right time and at the right temperature and cooked just right? Sometimes it’s so hard to have everything ready at the same time without anything being ruined - over-cooked, under-cooked, ready too early, ready too late. Part of the key I think is planning and simplification (plan ahead and/or simplify the tasks needed).

Here are some tips that I have found helpful - and you can start using today:

  • Commonness. Try to find several meals everyone will eat and then cook some of those dishes several times per week. And take a deep breath while everyone eats the same thing!
  • Cross-over dishes. Find some dishes that you can serve everyone (at least in part). Then even though you are still making more than one entree, you can limit the other dishes you make. And sometimes one of those dishes can be an entree for one person and a side dish for someone else. Salads are a great example.
  • Ingredient overlap. Recipes using the same ingredients (see below). For example, if you have two recipes that call for chopped onions, you can chop them all at once - saving a little time.
    • A related hint - after chopping, place them into their final measured groups. For instance, measure out and set aside one cup for this recipe, 1/2 cup for that recipe, etc.
  • Double up. Find recipes that cook at the same oven temperatures (and can cook at the same time).
    • NOTE: You’ll probably need to adjust your oven a bit because of there's more food using the oven’s heat. Maybe add 10% to the recipe's time - and check frequently.
  • Self-serving. Make something people can assemble themselves - using the same ingredients. You just put out bowls with the ingredients and let people go. Good examples are fajitas, tacos, pasta bars, etc.
  • Bring ‘em together. Sometimes you can get everyone on the same page by pushing them to try new things. Eggplant Parmesan is a great example in our house. I used to be the only one who ate it and little-by-little everyone tried it and liked it.
  • Overlap. Try to plan a long cooking dish AND a short cooking dish. Then you can work on the shorter dish while the longer-cooking dish is cooking away.
  • Time me! Sometimes just setting timers (and setting them near your cooking food) can help. Use the timer on your oven. Use a portable timer on the cooktop if you are letting some dough rest or food in a skillet that needs time to cook. It's just less to try to think about.
  • Cook in advance. If a recipe can simply be assembled - or finished or just heated up - it can make things a heck of a lot easier. Cook extra (especially things like grains) and refrigerate/freeze the excess. Cook big batches that can be pulled out and heated up as a part of your meal.
  • Write it out. OK, I admit it. Sometimes my small brain just simply gets overloaded. So I feel better when I can step back and just read what to do. So sometimes I write everything down on a schedule - 5:30pm: Start preheating at 400F. 5:30-6:00pm: Prepare _____. 6:00pm: Put ____ in preheated oven. Then when the time comes I can simply consult my list and do what it says. I've also done this to track everyone's likes and dislikes.
  • Mise en place. That’s French for “putting in place”. I know, fancy, right? The idea is to plan in advance and have in front of you all the tools and ingredients you will need to cook a recipe. Have them within reach. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve screwed things up by rushing to the cabinet at the last second, desperately digging through all our spices. “Where the heck is that dried basil!?!?!?!” All the while my dish is cooking, cooking, over-cooking away. :|
  • Get to know your recipes. Read them carefully well in advance. Again, another thing I seem to mess up on a regular basis. I’m cooking something and the recipe only has 1-2 steps left - and then I realize one of them takes 20-30 minutes. Yikes! A step that is much longer or more involved than expected can really mess things up! Read your recipes thoroughly BEFORE you start.

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I hope you can look at your cooking timing challenges and apply at least one or more of these tips to start to make things simpler. Let me know what was helpful to you!

So, what works at YOUR house? Can you share any tips?