Hint: Stop putting away those groceries so quickly!
Over the years I've written many articles on cooking from scratch for a hungry family, but it wasn't until I read Anna Francese Gass's article in Food52, titled "How I Cook Healthfully & on Budget for my Family of 5," that I realized I've never zoomed in on one particular detail that is key to success. It's one of those home-cook tricks that I practice regularly, and yet take for granted. As soon as Gass pointed it out, I'd never really thought about it in detail before.
This trick will save you enormous amounts of time, and, in the long run, considerable money by minimizing waste. It sounds very basic, but it works:
Do as much ingredient prep as possible as soon as you get home from the store.
In other words, once you stumble into the kitchen with heavy grocery bags in hand, DO NOT start putting vegetables into the crisper immediately or replenishing the pantry shelves. Stop, wash your hands, make a cup of tea, and sit down for a minute with the detailed menu plan that, hopefully, you made prior to going grocery shopping. Open the recipes you plan to make that week and figure out what can be done right away, in order to save time in the next few days.
The moment of peaceful contemplation passes too quickly, then the washing-peeling-chopping extravaganza begins. I put all the vegetables on the counter and do whatever I can to speed along future meals. This might mean washing, drying, and storing lettuce, spinach, or kale wrapped in a clean towel in a container; or washing and cutting broccoli or cauliflower florets and stashing in a big glass jar; or peeling and cutting carrot sticks for kids' lunches. I snip the ends off beans, trim Brussels sprouts, dice butternut squash and sweet potatoes, and slice leeks. A big bowl on the counter collects all the vegetable scraps, which are later fed to our backyard chickens.
Many of these prepped veggies goes into large glass jars in the fridge, where they line up far more neatly than if I transferred them straight from the grocery bags. Because they're ready to go, they're more likely to get used up entirely, and less likely to get lost or forgotten in the murky depths of the fridge.
Others go into pots on the stove or onto parchment-lined baking sheets for roasting. I love roasting large quantities of random veggies on shopping days, just to have them on hand for instant meals. They add heft to breakfast, make a quick and filling lunch when paired with soba noodles or leftover rice, and can be transformed into a near-instant curry with an onion-tomato base, a can of chickpeas and some coconut milk.
It sounds like Gass's routine is similar. She writes:
"As tempting it is to just throw everything in the fridge after shopping, there is a better, time-saving way! For example, if I know the beef stew I want to make on Tuesday requires three carrots, I'll peel and chop them, place them in a container, and store them in the fridge. Then, when I'm ready to cook, I'll be grateful at how a few minutes of organization saved me precious minutes at crunch time, when everyone is ravenous and yelling, 'Geez, mom, is dinner ready yet?'"
The prep doesn't have to stop with vegetables. Sometimes I start soaking dried beans I've just bought, mix up a bread sponge, blend salad dressing, puree a batch of hummus, or put on a pot of bruised apples (found on the clearance rack, of course) to cook down into applesauce. It's amazing how the smallest efforts can make future meals so much easier, and there's no time better than the post-grocery shopping hour to keep that momentum going.