One of the common complaints leveled at vegan living is that the food prep is too involved, which results in too much time in the kitchen. Relying on convenience and prepared foods is an option these days that didn’t exist before for vegans but making whole, plant foods the center of one’s diet is really the most healthful, ecological approach. Although many people complain that they don’t have enough time to chop vegetables and wait for whole grains to cook, the truth of the matter is we have time for anything that we prioritize. In all honesty, to live healthfully it is very difficult to avoid washing and chopping a variety of vegetables: they are the cornerstone of a nutrient-rich diet. That being said, there is no reason to spend countless hours preparing meals, even one that emphasizes plant foods. With a little planning and a few tricks up your sleeve, you can cut back on the time you spend in the kitchen and reap the benefits of all those health-promoting phytochemicals abundant in a plant-centered diet.
Make large meals and extend them
One way to cut down on the time you preparing meals is to make one large dish that can be extended over several meals, maybe on a Sunday or whatever day is convenient for you. For example, prepare a large pot of veggie chili one night that can be served over rice with fixings one evening, as part of tacos another, and on top of potatoes a third. Serving one dish in a variety of different ways also keeps it from being too monotonous.
Create a weekly menu plan and shopping list
Although this takes a little time at the outset, creating and sticking with a weekly menu plan has quite a few real benefits: it can help you save money by cutting down on impulse purchases and it can also help you to plan more nutritionally balanced meals over the course of a week. Another great advantage of a menu plan and shopping list is that you don’t go to the grocery store with a bunch of random thoughts and find yourself wasting time wondering what to cook. Another time advantage is that you can plan things so you only go to the grocery store once or twice a week rather than having to dash off every other day. What I do is set aside a half hour or so once a week – Sunday works best for me – and I use two pages of scratch paper side by side. As I write the menu plan, I also write my shopping list. Feeding two birds with one scone makes life easier.
Chop a bunch at once
If you already know what your week is going to look like meal-wise, you can look ahead and see that you’ll need three diced onions, six minced cloves of garlic, two butternut squashes, two heads of broccoli and so on for the week ahead. On an evening when you have a little more time, you can chop for a few meals ahead and portion them out into containers or just eyeball out what you need as you go. Again, this will require a little more time at the outset but pays off when you can just come home and start dinner right away.
Get a slow or pressure cooker
How much do I love my slow cooker? I’m not sure it can be measured, but let’s just say a whole lot. His name is Melvin. He is another member of the family. With usually not much more than a quick sauté of your chopped ingredients, you can place everything in the slow cooker and come home sweet home to the tantalizing aroma of an already prepared meal at the end of the day. What a reward for very little effort, just a little forethought and preparation. The same principles of efficiency and ease make the pressure cooker appealing, but Melvin is very possessive so I will just leave it at that.
Audio kitchen support
This will not cut back on the time you spend in the kitchen, but I have found that a kitchen radio/CD player helps the time seem like it’s moving more quickly. We bought one of those wall-mounted radio units a couple of years ago and ever since, I can now enjoy NPR while getting dinner ready. Again, two birds, one scone.
Cook two, freeze one
You’ve already got the water boiling, the oven on, the cutting board, knives and spatulas dirty: why not double a recipe and freeze half? Again, a readymade future meal you will be grateful for just a little extra effort. This also works for cookies: bake one batch and freeze another for a later date. There are some plant foods that do not freeze well, particularly those with high water content, but otherwise, freezing can be a great tool for those trying to save time in the kitchen. Check out this helpful guide for tips.
Keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer
Even with the best of intentions, sometimes we all fall short of our goals. We catch a cold or we have to work extra-long hours one week and we don’t want to go to the grocery. This is when it’s very good to have a few staple items we can reach for to make quick, spontaneous but still nutritious meals. Do you have beans, tomato sauce, an onion, garlic and frozen corn? Then you have veggie chili. Do you have penne noodles, marinara and cauliflower? Then you have pasta. Do you have rice noodles, coconut milk, peanut butter, lime, peas and broccoli? Then you have a Thai noodle dish. Some of the staples I like to have on hand for improvised, on-the-fly meals are tomato sauce, chickpeas or other beans, rice, marinara, pasta and rice noodles, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, peanut butter, coconut milk, frozen peas and frozen corn. What do you use a lot? Can you have this on hand?
Garden and can your own food
What could be easier than going outside and picking your own baby lettuces for a lunchtime salad or beets and kale to go with dinner? What could be more convenient than reaching for soup or ratatouille you canned over the summer? Not much and you’ll the satisfaction from knowing you did it yourself, too.
Glance over recipes and instructions before you start
There is one brand of rice noodles I get that has to be soaked for five minutes in hot water before adding to a pan. There is another brand of rice noodles I sometimes get that has to soak in cold water for thirty minutes before using. Guess how annoyed I am when I mistakenly think that dinner’s almost ready until I discover that I actually got the noodles that need to soak for thirty minutes. Very. Skimming over recipes or preparation will give you an idea of what you’ll need to do: you can also gather what you need (what the French call “mise en place,” or “putting in place”) and you’ll be able to save time by consolidating your movements.
Want to throw eat some veggies with your pasta? Steam over or cook with the boiling pasta. Roasting a pan of vegetables anyway? Throw a couple of bulbs of garlic or sweet potatoes in your oven, too, so you can have them for another purpose. Making grains in the rice cooker? Put your vegetables and spices in with it for a one-pot meal. Have extra vegetable scraps and you don’t feel like going out to the compost heap? Use them to create a soup stock since you’re in the kitchen anyway. (Many time-saving tips also make good frugal-living tips, you may have noticed.) Think: how can you latch onto things that you’re already doing anyway to make the best use of your time?
Vegan food prep can be as easy or extensive as you want it to be, that’s for sure. There is no getting around the fact that fresh produce will need to be washed and chopped for optimal health. You may as well make peace with this. What you don’t ever need to do, though, is spend hours in the kitchen unless you really want to do that. I love to cook but I have my limits, too. With a few strategies and making healthy eating habits a priority, you can make a nutritious, plant-based diet a reality without too much effort.