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Back to Busy – Kitchen Helpers for the Back to School Crunch

The sudden, abrupt arrival of fall – and with it, winter – this year has made it tough to readjust to early morning schedules and the after school dinner crunch. When you’re forced to go from lazy mornings and dinners on the patio to school bus pickups and extra-curricular activities, at the same time navigate school lunches, after school snacks and proper dinners, along with shorter days and cooler, sometimes snowy, weather, planning day to day menus can be more of a challenge.

It’s the time of year when many resort to packaged convenience foods or hitting the drive-thru (and the pizza delivery guy gets more popular), but there are ways to streamline dinner prep, with the help of some wonders of the modern culinary world. Here’s a Top Five list of small appliances that are worth the minimal investment for their time savings – and when you compare cooking from scratch with ordering in, they pay for themselves in no time.

Slow cooker - back to busy – kitchen helpers for the back to school crunch

1) The Slow Cooker.

For decades, the slow cooker has been a timesaver for busy parents; typically they come out of hiding in the fall and are put to work making soups, stews, curries, chili and other hearty meals to feed busy families. Toss a few things into the slow cooker as you make breakfast and lunch to go, and you’ll come home to dinner already done. Today’s larger 6 quart slow cookers will accommodate an entire chicken; all you need to do is put the chicken into the slow cooker, cover and set on low for 6-8 hours – the result is the moistest, juiciest bird you’ll ever eat (minus the crispy skin), with the beginnings of a flavourful stock already in the bottom of the pan. If you’re doing a chili or stew, toss in twice as much as you need for one meal; typically slow cooker meals have broken down to the point where leftovers freeze beautifully.

There are many great slow cookers out there, but the Hamilton Beach Deluxe Set & Forget 6 Quart Oval Slow Cooker is a good size, it’s programmable, has a removable dishwasher safe stoneware liner and glass lid – so you can see what’s going on without taking off the lid, which can cut into your cooking time by as much as 20 minutes.

Fast slow cooker - back to busy – kitchen helpers for the back to school crunch

2) The Pressure Cooker.

In a classic case of what’s old is new again, the pressure cooker is making a comeback; the opposite of a slow cooker, the pressure cooker fast-forwards the cooking process, cutting the cooking time of everything from beef stew to chili by two-thirds or more.   A pressure cooker is fast and furious, cooking food intensely using moisture and steam; pressure builds inside the sealed pot, reaching about 15 psi (pounds per square inch), which raises the boiling point of the cooking liquid from 212°F to about 250°F. First generation pressure cookers were known for their ability to blow their tops; fortunately, these days pressure cookers have had their kinks worked out. With locking handles and multiple safety valves, you can rest assured they’re far safer to use than their ancestors. Pressure cookers are available in stovetop and electric varieties, the stovetop versions resembling slightly clunky pots with fancy lids, and the electric versions like an upright slow cooker. You can even get both gadgets in one, with the Breville Fast Slow Cooker, which is perfect whether you get ingredients going in the morning, or need a push to help get dinner on the table after you get home from work.

The Breville Fast Slow Cooker is a 6 L pressure and slow cooker in one electric unit – it can make meat tender in minutes using pressure, or long, slow stews and braises over the course of the day.

Food saver - back to busy – kitchen helpers for the back to school crunch
3) The Vacuum Sealer.

This was a bit of a hard sell on me – I’m not really the gadgety type, and I have a bin full of Tupperware containers and lids just like everyone else. The problem is, I wind up spooning things into ziplock bags or wrapping them in plastic – or putting them into a container that inevitably cracks in the freezer, drying its contents out – then tucking them in to forget about until they’re so freezer burnt they wind up in the trash anyway. While these food sealers were created with campers and hikers in mind, they work wonders for leftovers, or if you want to get together with friends and prep a bunch of food on a Sunday afternoon (add wine and it’s a social event) to freeze and stash for instant dinners on busy weeknights. Removing all the air from the package ensures it will remain un-freezerburned, and making small, flat packages means food freezes through more quickly, maintaining its quality and structure. And of course it takes up far less real estate in the freezer than food packed in plastic containers. When you do prepare dinner, double your recipe – or cook extra rice, assemble two lasagnas or roast two chickens instead of one – it will take just as much time and effort, and you’ll have already taken care of dinner on another night. Bonus: if you like making your own granola bars, trail mix or other healthy snacks, they can be sealed to pack in school lunches and gym bags, or to bring in the car to soccer and other extra-curricular activities.

The FoodSaver 3460 Vacuum Sealer Kit has a space-saving, upright design, a built-in roll holder, cutter and bag opener, liquid detection to prevent spills and even a marinating setting to help infuse food with flavour.

Panini grill - back to busy – kitchen helpers for the back to school crunch
4) The Panini Grill/Waffle Iron.

Older kids who come home from school hungry will love being able to make their own grilled cheese – or Panini, if they decide to add other ingredients from the fridge. On nights when everyone has to eat at different times, assemble a bunch of sandwiches – add sliced or crumbled cooked sausage, roasted red peppers, leftover roast chicken, pesto, or whatever ingredients you like in your Panini, along with grated cheese – cover and keep in the fridge for everyone to pop in the grill when they’re ready to eat. A Panini grill that comes with waffle iron plates – like the Cuisinart Griddler – can do double duty on the weekend making enough waffles to freeze and pop into the toaster on rushed weekday mornings.

The Cuisinart Griddler is 5 appliances in one – contact grill, panini press, flat grill, half grill/griddle – and the cooking plates are designed to drain grease from food for healthier cooking.

Smart stick - back to busy – kitchen helpers for the back to school crunch
5) The Hand Blender.

One of my favourite kitchen tools, the hand-held immersion blender is far easier to pull out of the drawer than a full-sized blender, and can make a smoothie for one in about a minute. It’s easy to keep a bag of chopped mango or mixed berries in the fridge to toss into a nutrient-dense smoothie – it makes use of any fresh or frozen fruit (and is a great way to use up any that’s starting to go soft or wrinkly, to prevent it landing in the compost bin) along with milk or yogurt, even a shake of oatmeal or spoonful of peanut butter for added protein. Pour it into an insulated to-go cup and you (or your kids) have a healthy, balanced meal in the morning, after school or en route to soccer practice. A hand held immersion blender is also perfect for pureeing soup; simmer fall veggies (or even add stock to leftovers) and puree for a warm, satisfying soup you can also heat and take to go in that same insulated coffee mug.

The Cuisinart SmartStick Hand Blender comes with a stainless steel blending blade, whisk and chopper attachments and a powerful motor to help get the job done whether it’s breaking up frozen fruit or pureeing soup in a hurry.

a man carrying two children

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