One of the things that I realized is that many from-scratch meals take lots of preparation, but you don't have to think on a meal-by-meal basis to have everything on hand. There are certain basics that you can start to recognize and incorporate into a rhythm of sorts. It's actually kind of comforting. Once every week or two I will make yogurt, soak and cook beans, soak oats, make stock, menu plan, defrost meats, bake bread, feed my sourdough starter, make kombucha, etc. Not all in one day of course, but it's a list of "basics" for our house that I've come to just recognize a need for. I'm slowly adding to that list, too. For example, I'd love to get a handle on making/freezing sourdough pizza dough (for a weekly pizza night or something). Anyway, much of this prep work is incredibly easy. Actually, all of it is. It's mostly putting something in a bowl with some water, or setting the crock pot on all day- not labor intensive in the slightest. The only things that actually do take a little work are things that I've spaced out to be once a week jobs, which is totally manageable on a Saturday morning or something. Because of this easy easy prep work, I have the building blocks for countless meals at my fingertips, all with homemade and nourishing ingredients. I've got a big tub of cooked beans in the fridge, oats that are soaked and can be cooked in just a few minutes, fresh bread, yogurt for a quick breakfast or snacks or a sauce, bulk meat that's been thawed and is ready to use, etc. This ridiculously easy prep work contributes to so many of our meals. Sure, I could buy all of it at the store, ready to go. However, if I make it myself I get to ensure the quality, maximize the use of my ingredients, and know that my family is not eating a bunch of additives and refined foods. Also, it tastes way better, and makes us feel better too. It also forces me to recognize where my food comes from and what it really takes to bring it to the table. I deal with way less packaging, we eat less junk and are less prone to impulse buying... we just benefit all over the board by bringing so much of this stuff home. The better I get at managing my time and this work, the more I can add to it and the better the food gets.
One of the easiest things you can do is to make your own stock. I will likely never buy stock again, unless I'm really in a bind... but I always make way more than I plan to use, so there's always a surplus.
My friend Katy had the genius idea to keep a container in the freezer for vegetable scraps for this very purpose. Brilliant! Most of our scraps go in the compost, but I'll save some onion, carrot tops... a variety of stuff, with the sole purpose of eventually making stock out of it once it gets full. I could just go ahead and make veggie stock with this stuff, but I usually have bones to add to the mix. We usually just cook a whole chicken at a time and I make stock that night, but sometimes I'll do the same kind of thing and keep a bag in the freezer with chicken bones/wings or beef bones until I get enough to add to the stock. All that stuff would just get thrown in the trash- and yet it's going to feed us again. It's a good feeling!
Then I throw it all in a big pot together and pour a bunch of water over the top. I bring it all to a boil and then down to a low simmer for as long as I want. I usually let it go overnight. Today, I just threw all this stuff together in the morning and then let it simmer until dinner time. I've been known to keep stock on the stove for over a day... it just gets better.
I skim some of the impurities off the top of the stock, and then I strain it into freezable containers . Viola! I made enough for a generous batch of soup for dinner, then 3 quarts to freeze for later meals.
Homemade stock is really good for you, too. Stock is full of minerals and vitamins that are easily absorbed by the body (making it really good for sick/weak people!). Bouillon is just not going to cut it, in my opinion. It's also a frugal food- one that focuses on wasting nothing and stretching our food out while keeping it really nourishing. What's not to love?
When I cook a chicken I pick it clean. Making stock, though, loosens up all the rest of the meat left on the bones so that I can easily pick off a whole bunch for another soup or some tacos or something. It's not pretty work, but it's making use of this animals life and wasting none of its body. That's important to me. I got almost a full pint of meat from this chicken carcass that I didn't even know was there.
And finally, dinner last night. It was simple- homemade stock, a can of homegrown tomatoes, half a can of homemade/grown salsa, a can of corn, an onion, garlic, salt & pepper, cumin, a little chili powder, and some chopped cilantro added at the end. Also some locally made tortilla chips to add a little flavor and crunch. Took me about... 5 minutes of work to make this meal (of course I let it simmer for an hour or so, but that's not work). Fast food, and so good. It fed me, Jeff, Vera, and our friend who lives downstairs a big dinner, and there's leftovers for lunch today.
All in all, the stock making took me maybe 10 minutes of actual work from my end. Honestly, I'm starting to think that much of the reason that I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of doing a lot of this basic work was because outside influences had convinced me I couldn't and that it was too hard. I come across commercials sometimes- you know, the ones that are black and white and have a woman sweating over the easiest of jobs when BAM the screen turns to color and the magical new product comes to save her from a life of toil. Yeah. I never bought those products. I just bought into the idea that work was horrible and we all want to escape it. Surprise surprise, I actually like this work. So much of what I do now I wouldn't trade for something "easier".