Monday, September 16, 2013

My Favorite Things (#7) -- Kitchen and Cooking Tips

1- Clean/Dirty Dishwasher Trick

Is one of your most commonly uttered household phrases, "Are these dishes clean or dirty?" Or, worse, have you ever emptied half of the dishwasher before realizing, ew, those were dirty. Nevermore. And you won't even have to put one of those homemade signs or kitschy magnets on the door of your dishwasher. I learned this trick from a college roommate, made my husband learn it when we got married, and my own parents even adopted it after visiting me a few years ago.
The trick: IMMEDIATELY after emptying a clean dishwasher, before closing the door again, put the dishwasher soap/tab in the dispenser and close it.
Think about it: If the dishwasher soap dispenser is closed, you always know the dishes are dirty because as soon as the dishwasher runs and cleans the dishes, it will open and remain open until the dishes are emptied and a new tab is added and the dispenser is closed again. It takes a week or two to get in the habit, but once you do, you always know:

2- Easy way to dispose of grease

Am I the only
one who hasn't known this their whole life? I know some people pour grease into a can, but that's not always an option. Not to mention: wide pan + narrow can opening = disaster. Solution: Line a bowl (preferably a wide one) with some aluminum foil, pour in grease, toss it later. You don't even have to wash the bowl after. Brilliant.

3- Make Your Own Taco Seasoning - Cheap

Okay, this recommendation is coming from the girl who didn't find out until college that cakes could be made NOT from a box. So maybe I was the last person to discover that packet taco seasoning is not nearly as good as making your own (not to mention packets have a bunch of grody additives). This is probably cheaper, too. I didn't discover this until one night when I needed to make tacos and didn't want to run to the store. I already had all the spices in my cabinet. Why have I been buying it all these years? It seriously took 3 minutes and I could have easily doubled or tripled it so in the future, it would take zero time. Here's the link to the recipe:
Check out the tip from Gregsgirl63 who recommended:
- Brown the ground beef, drain the fat, add 1/2 Tbsp flour to 3 Tbsp spices per pound of meat, add 2/3 cup water, mix, let it simmer down. If you prefer less spicy, cut the red pepper flakes. Reduce salt if desired.

4- How To Keep A Toddler Entertained While Cooking

My little guy loves to "help" me cook. It's super sweet because as he's scooping flour all over the counter and himself, he has a huge smile and yells, "I'm helping!" I can't bring myself to send him away, even when he's less than helpful. So I stole my sister-in-law's idea to buy him some el-cheapo dried beans, give him some bowls and measuring cups, and very seriously ask him to please help me move all the beans from one container to another. Sure, he still spills beans. But it's a lot easier to clean up than flour.

5- How to "Sift Flour" Without Sifting

When I used to read a baking recipe that instructed me to use "sifted flour," my brain magically removed the word "sifted." Sift? What a pain--I said to myself, "Self, how important could that be?" And really, I was not ready to invest in either buying or storing a sifter. That was until I was informed that putting flour in a bowl and whisking for a bit has the same effect as sifting. Brilliant. Done. I don't have to ignore "sifted" anymore.

6- Food for the Homeless

Maybe this is a controversial topic, but I've always felt awkward when faced with pan-handlers. On one hand, we donate to our local food bank and United Way, so I have a general policy against handing out money. But is that really the example I want to set for my kids? Our local church group came up with a solution that I thought was great. We made lunch sacks full of nonperishable foods (beef jerky, cracker sandwiches, granola bars, etc) and bottles of water to keep in our cars, ready to be handed out if the opportunity arises. I hear a lot of stories along the lines of, "Once my dad gave a homeless man a bag of delicious fast food and as soon as he drove away, the man threw it in the trash because all he wanted was money for his drugs and alcohol." But I have yet to experience that. All I've had are humble and sincere responses of "Thank you" and "God Bless You." Obviously, safety first. I wouldn't roll down my window if I was driving through a seedy downtown area with no one else around. But that is not the situation in the area I live in so this works well for me.

7- Homemade ice pack

Why fumble with a bag full of melting ice cubes when you can have a nice, flexible ice pack? You'll be gelling like a felon (anyone else remember those commercials?). It's cheaper than buying one and mine has lasted forever. Here is a recipe from
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup rubbing alcohol
- 2 zip-top bags - quart or gallon size
Mix the water and alcohol together in a zip-top bag and add food coloring, if desired (I didn't). Release as much air as possible and seal the bag. Double bag for strength.

8- Picky Eaters? French Kids Eat Everything-- Free from Library or $17 from Amazon

After my third time checking it out from the library, I finally finished French Kids Eat Everything. I really liked it. I feel like I recommend a lot of books, so I should warn: I don't just like books that I 100% agree with and plan on following to the letter and/or adopting as my new religion. To me, non-fiction books are meant to be read critically (you may or may not agree with everything), but if it adds an important perspective and was worth the time to read = good read.
Even though so much of what she said about how to help kids eat better shouldn't have been such a revelation, it was. The ten french food rules have joined Michael Pollan's quote on our fridge. I must admit I don't know if I'll ever be able to follow one of the rules--not using food as a distraction. The only way I keep Little Man in his stroller on our Saturday morning excursions is by basically putting his breakfast in a ziplock bag and letting him munch away while I walk/run. Call it rationalization, but I count it as "Al Fresco" dining. What better way to enjoy your breakfast than by taking in nature at the same time? ;) Anyway, interesting read for anyone with a picky eater.

9- Soft Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe 

I'd like to call this "the best," but I think we all know that's much too subjective. After extensive research (we probably eat more chocolate chip cookies than the Pillsbury dough boy), here's our family's favorite:

10- You Tell Me!

Parenting Tip - How do you keep your little ones occupied while you're cooking?

What food items that are typically bought prepared do you prefer to make from scratch (e.g. seasonings, bread, etc.)? What's your recipe?

Any other nifty cooking shortcuts a newbie like me should know?


  1. I'll be honest, the dishwasher tip totally blew my mind when I was visiting Lisa this April. I think I had to ask her at least three times throughout the visit if the dishes were clean or dirty. But, it definitely makes sense now!

    Pro-tip: Works best when you have either A. a dishwasher like Lisa's that toddlers can't open or B. no toddlers

    1. So true. Our old dishwasher broke. It was a bummer shelling out the money, but our new one:
      (A) is too stiff to be opened by our toddler
      (B) has a "lock" button so he can't play with the buttons.
      Sooooooo worth it. :)

  2. Well not really a cooking tip, but I did use an over-the-door shoe holder in our guest bathroom for extra cleaning supplies/toiletries and I thought it was pretty brilliant.

    The dishwasher one is good though... I can keep track but it would be so nice to have my husband NOT put dirty dishes in a clean dishwasher so this might do the trick :)

    1. That is an awesome tip! I totally need to get one for our master bathroom!

    2. Agree on the shoe holder! We have one in our linen closet for our cleaning supplies, and have the bottom half clipped up so it's out of reach.

  3. Just today I couldn't find the seasoned salt I thought I just bought for a recipe. Turns out you can make that from scratch too. I've found a lot of mixes you can make from scratch in a crunch.

    Love the ice pack idea. And as for the grease thing... just the other day, feeling desperate, I tried to pour all of the grease into a 6oz tomato paste can. Glad to know I never have to do that again! :)

    1. So true! I used to ALWAYS make brownies from a mix (economies of scale, right?) until I didn't have any and realized it was almost as easy and way tastier to make them from scratch.

  4. I love the dishwasher trick idea. I will have to try that.

    A few of my favorite kitchen / cooking tricks:
    --Put new, unused garbage bags in the bottom of the garbage can so it is quick and easy to line the can again when you take the fully used bag out (learned this one from cleaning my church!).
    --Buy an extra set of measuring cups and spoons and just leave them in or next to your canisters of flour, sugar, etc. No need to fumble around a drawer for those and then wash them every time (especially if you like making cookies often).
    --Make guacamole in a ziploc bag - just dump in avocados, tomatoes, lime juice, and salt - easy to squish, then cut a corner off and squeeze into a bowl to serve.

    1. Ha! I read the garbage bag tip and my first thought was church trash cans!

    2. Okay, so now I desperately need some guacamole. Awesome tip!!
      And I can attest to the extra measuring spoons. I have an extra set that I never remove from the ring that came with them so it's bulkier, easier to find, and they always stay together. So if I can't find one of my loose measuring spoons, I can always find and use those.

  5. Also, a trick I learned from Lauren's husband before I even knew Lauren... Drizzle some honey on your grilled cheese sandwich. Mmmmm, sweet and savory. I have never gone back. True story.


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