5 Steps to a Happier Kitchen Life

5-Steps-to-a-Happier-Kitchen

I spoke a bit last year about how to learn “the basics”. Both online and in real life, I seem to be asked often about how I cook, well, and on a regular basis. But what do I need? You ask. What are your staples? Basically, most of you (and my offline friends) want to know how to do the simple stuff. 

At the start of last year, I talked you through my philosophy of how to eat well. Today, I want to talk to you not so much about cooking, as preparation. Tools, tricks, habits to garner better results from your life in the kitchen. These are some simple tips I’ve picked up over the years. This post has been sitting in my drafts for about 8 months, and I’ve been adding bits and pieces as I go, trying to share only the really valuable tips. Some of them may seem like common sense, but it’s alarming how many people tend to ignore something so obvious – myself included of course. I hope these ideas help, after all – the way I see it, I’ve learnt the hard way so that you don’t have to.

1. Cook in a clean kitchen

Now I understand that this might not always be an option. You might get home late from work, tired and grouchy, see the dishes piled up in the sink and think no thanks, I’ll have an oven pizza. The last thing you’ll want to do is wipe down the surfaces, sharpen your knife and fasten your pinny at the back. But, where possible, it’s a great idea to take a few minutes out to prepare your space before you cook. A grubby, cluttered kitchen will stress you out, throw off your timings and put you at risk of burning yourself or damaging your crockery if you’re fighting for space. Grab a cloth and spend just five minutes decluttering your prep area and, trust me, your experience will improve tenfold. You might even enjoy yourself.

Of course, this’ll work even better if you clean as you go, and spend ten minutes after dinner every night doing dishes and wiping down the hob. But after a couple of hours slaving over a hot stove and a belly full of good food, that’s not always realistic. Cleaning as you go is beyond valuable if you have an open plan kitchen like mine. No one wants to arrive to see their hostess whisking furiously in a cloud of icing sugar with dirty pots covering every surface, and there’s no door to hide behind. Simple adjustments like using a mixing bowl as a make-shift bin to keep your surfaces clean as you prep can make a world of difference. It’s a space saver and it’ll fence in the amount of mess you can make. I’ve done my best to get into these habits after renovating my kitchen and it’s really improved the time I spend cooking and baking.

2. Build up that store cupboard

This is more about cost than anything else. Without doubt, you’re less inclined to play around in the kitchen if each recipe you attempt costs £15 minimum. Experimenting can be expensive – and in January, money is tight. If you do have the cash, just one big shopping trip will sort you out – spend a morning wherever you usually buy your groceries stocking up on dried goods and herbs. Follow that with a trip to your local Asian supermarket for cheap sauces and spices in bulk packs. Health food stores are also great for large bags of pulses and grains – if you’re in Leeds, try Millie’s for things like couscous, pearl barley, corn kernels and lentils. It can be a big outlay at first, but it means you only need fresh ingredients to create an awesome meal.

If your budget doesn’t stretch, add bits and pieces in small amounts to your weekly shops. Things will soon build up, and with a full store cupboard you can get creative anytime. Use my list as a starting point. You’ll also start to learn a lot more about marrying flavours and what tastes good with what. Over the last year or so, I’ve come to rely on the fact that I can raid my cupboard and freezer anytime and be set for a day or two if needs be. Speaking of which… 

3. Use your freezer (and not just for chicken nuggets)

For years my freezer was the place where unidentifiable liquids and pieces of meat went to die. In our old flat, the freezer drawers were all but frosted closed: loose spinach leaves lying brittle and sorry for themselves, old chicken breasts shrivelled with freezer-burn. These days, I run a tight ship. Number one, my new freezer is frost-less and it’s BRILLIANT. It’s also full height so it’s easy to keep track of what’s in it, much less chance of something slipping by, unnoticed for months. Number two, I am very organised about it. I have regular sort outs and I keep an inventory stuck to the door. When I use or add things, I delete or add them to the list accordingly. It’s sounds a bit obsessive, but trust me, it’s a good system. I love a system.

Knowing what you’ve got in the freezer makes you more inclined to base your meals around what you already have, instead of buying new. This is great because it cuts down on waste, and it saves you money. Outside of pizzas, peas and ice cream, there are a great many things you can put in your freezer. Some of my favourites are berries, pastry, cookie dough, bread, spinach, herbs and chicken bones. Take a look at this Lifehacker infographic about shelf-life for a bit more info. For example: Matt and I never get through a whole loaf, but we love having sourdough bread around. When we buy it, I slice half straight away and put it straight in the freezer, and toast it straight from frozen in the mornings. Also, when do you ever use a whole packet of fresh rosemary or coriander? Chop herbs, add water and freeze in ice-cube moulds to add to stocks and sauces. Save your chicken carcasses and freeze them until you have four or five to make a stock from. Pinterest is a breeding ground for freezer talk, have a look on there for inspiration – make sure you follow my boards while you’re there!

At the supermarket I always check the reduced section for cuts of meat or fish – usually their used-by dates are fast approaching and that’s why they’re discounted, but I just take them home and whack them straight in the freezer to call upon when needed. You can make massive savings this way and get some really lovely cuts. Taking advantage of offers on meat is also a really cost effective way to fill your freezer. Finally, I’m really into freezing leftovers after I cook too much, which happens a lot, instead of living off them for days at a time. I’m rubbish at eating the same meal twice so freezing works well for me – I just make sure I label everything clearly with names and dates, and add it to my list so I don’t forget it’s there.

4. Cook from scratch

Over the last two or three years I’ve managed to cut out almost 100% of processed foods from my kitchen. The weird thing? It was kinda easy. It started small, I wanted to learn a few basic recipes – things like how to make an easy pasta sauce, a Béarnaise to eat with steak or a simple custard for an apple crumble. I wanted to learn basic skills, like how to fry safely and cleanly at home, how to steam and chargrill and all that stuff. Gradually, I started to realise that my new recipes weren’t all the effort and money I’d expected. Once I had them down after a few goes, they were really quick, they tasted better and they actually cost less than something prepackaged.

I also found it really easy to get my five a day all of a sudden. Knowing what goes into your food doesn’t guarantee a healthy diet, of course, but it does help you learn a lot about how your body reacts to things and factors like seasonality stop being a mystery and start to define how you pick your meals. It also ups your enthusiasm for high quality, basic ingredients. Since then I’ve learnt that you can eat like a prince on cheap, common ingredients like lentils or chopped tomatoes, and even from someone who relies on at least one burger a week – the amount of sugar and additives in a lot of shop-bought dishes makes me turn my nose up. Cutting out processed foods sent me on a real path to finding my way in the kitchen. Sure, I liked to cook before that, but this level of enthusiasm was all new. Skills are easily picked up and transferable, so making one dish could lead to five more – opening the door to a whole new culinary repertoire. 

5. Create in bulk

Sometimes, inspiration just isn’t there. And you can’t force it. Other days, however, the kitchen is the only place I want to be. On a quiet, rainy day, with a sunbeam or two peaking through the window, I can stand at the hob for hours on end making stock, flavouring oils or roasting veg. It took me a while to realise, but those days don’t have to be wasted on making cupcakes for the sake of it, or a massive lavish dinner for your other half – although sometimes it’s nice to do that. Those days can be spent stocking your cupboards, fridge and freezer for the days ahead. One of my favourite things to do is caramelise onions. Pretty sad, right? I know, but there’s something about it – watching those chunky, sharp slices turn from white to translucent, all the way through to brown – picking up a sickly sweetness on its way that’ll add oomph to any gravy or sauce you chuck them into. I do this in bulk sometimes, at the start of the week, and keep a box in the fridge.

I also love to roast sweet peppers, sprinkled with rosemary and garlic and left to sizzle in a hot oven. Keep them in the fridge, or in a jar of oil to preserve them for longer, and add them to sandwiches or serve with roasted sausages and slices of halloumi for an easy mid-week meal. I’ll also buy olive oil on offer and stuff the bottles with garlic, peppercorns and rosemary, or hot birdseye chillis – shove them to the back of a shelf and let them infuse for a few months. You can also make a batch of your favourite cookie dough, roll it into balls and pop each portion in a ziplock bag. Pull them out one at a time and cook on a baking tray in a 200º oven straight from the freezer – satisfaction in minutes! Stocks, soups and ragus can bubble away on the stove all afternoon and then be portioned out into tubs or bags for the freezer, too – then when you hit a busy patch, or you’re stumped for cash, you have an easy, stress-free solution. 

So there you have it. That’s what I’ve learnt. I hope these ideas help, and I hope I can share more with you as I pick up more skills. Do you have your own tips for staying chirpy in the kitchen? If so, tweet them at me @whipuntilfluffy or share them down in the comments. Thanks for reading!

  • I like to think I have a fairly organised kitchen but you are blowing me out of the water! It’s one of my aims for January to go through the cupboards, label stuff better, throw out stuff that we’re realistically not going to eat and get things sorted! Your freezer sounds like the stuff of my dreams – there are definitely too many rogue peas rolling around in ours…

  • I absolutely LOVE this post, we are trying to do more meal planning but it can be tough! Pinning this for future reference and inspiration 🙂

    Maria xxx

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