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Published January 21, 2011, 12:00 AM

Prairie Faire: Time, money influence food preparation

If you were to draw a circle and break it into a wheel with 24 segments representing hours in the day, how would you spend your time? I’ll get you started.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

If you were to draw a circle and break it into a wheel with 24 segments representing hours in the day, how would you spend your time? I’ll get you started.

On an average weekday, you might spend eight hours sleeping and nine hours at work. If that’s the case, you have used up about 70 percent of your time. You now have seven hours to do everything else.

In those seven action-packed hours, you may need to build in time to commute to work; care for your children, pets and/or home; pay bills; and, we hope, have some time for exercise and recreation. You might want to brush your teeth and take a shower, too.

This thinking exercise made me a little tense. Did I forget anything we need to jam into those seven hours? Oh, yes, we need to eat, too. That usually means cooking unless you have unlimited funds for takeout or restaurant meals.

Most of us do not have an unlimited budget. In fact, food plans such as the “thrifty food plan” have been devised to help limited-income families stretch their dollars to be able to feed their families with a healthful diet. However, following the thrifty plan usually requires spending about 80 minutes a day on food preparation.

How does available time influence food preparation decisions? We could make a guess based on our personal observations. However, we need unbiased research to be able to make statements based on actual data.

An economic study reported in a publication by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that income, gender, employment status and number of children influenced the time spent on food preparation.

Women spent more time cooking than men, and married women with more kids spent more time on food preparation compared with single women. Full-time working women spent about 45 minutes preparing food, while nonworking women spent 70 minutes preparing food daily.

Marital status also influenced the amount of time spent cooking. Single women spent 15 minutes less per day on food preparation than did married women.

The amount of time available for cooking was more significant than the amount of money available. According to the researchers, low-income women with full-time jobs had just 40 minutes available per day to prepare food.

So, what’s a time-strapped person to do in the kitchen to put healthful meals on the table and not break the budget? The NDSU Extension Service can help. For five weeks of sample menu plans and most of the recipes, go to Additional recipes and tips are available at

These are some ideas to get you started:

  • Plan your menus a week at a time. Consider consulting the weekly specials in the sales ads.

  • Prepare portions of a meal in advance.

  • Prepare double portions of the entrees and freeze the second pan.

  • Use leftovers as the basis for another meal. For example, have chili one night and chili-topped baked potatoes a couple of nights later.

  • Try time-saving equipment, such as slow cookers, microwave ovens and pressure cookers.

Here’s an easy recipe courtesy of the North Dakota Beef Commission. From preparation to serving, you could have the main entree on the table in about 30 minutes. Dish up a side salad, sliced fruit for dessert and low-fat or fat-free milk, then ring the dinner bell.

Ranchero Beef and Rice Skillet

1 pound lean or extra-lean ground beef

1 medium red or green bell pepper, cut into ½-inch pieces

1 large clove garlic, crushed

1 Tbsp. chili powder

½ tsp. salt (or less)

3 cups cooked rice

1 cup frozen peas, defrosted

¾ cup prepared salsa

Prepare rice as directed on the package. Wash and chop bell pepper. In a large, nonstick skillet, brown ground beef, bell pepper and garlic over medium heat eight to 10 minutes or until beef is no longer pink. Break the beef into ¾-inch crumbles. Pour off drippings. Season with chili powder and salt. Add rice to skillet; mix well. Continue cooking two minutes or until rice is hot; stir occasionally. Stir in peas and salsa; heat through.

Makes four servings. Each serving has 340 calories, 45 grams (g) of carbohydrate, 5 g of fat, 3 g of fiber and 550 milligrams of sodium.

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.