What would you do if you wanted to serve dinner to your family at around 6 p.m., but you also wanted to avoid using household energy (electricity or natural gas) for cooking during the three hours immediately prior to your evening meal?
We’ve been working around this very scenario ever since we switched last year to a cost-saving scheme — er, plan — offered by our local power company.
Here’s how that works. The plan provides lower rates on weekends and holidays, plus all but three hours of each regular weekday. Those “on-peak” hours — 3 to 6 p.m. — are billed at a higher rate to discourage customers from using more power during that portion of the day.
That means we turn off the air-conditioner in summer (brutal here in the desert Southwest!) and use as little electricity as possible for those three hours (I call it “power-down” time). And it means that we’ve had to make adjustments to meal-preparation routines — either finishing everything before 3 p.m. or using alternative methods to cook meal components that need to be served hot around 6 p.m. We’ve had to come up with some creative solutions. Here’s what we’ve tried so far:
• Meal flip-flop: Sometimes we eat our hot meal — say, something we’d normally have for dinner — at noon. Then we eat lunch-style stuff (sandwiches, salads) later in the day.
• Crock-pot plot: We either load up the crock pot first thing in the morning and allow our meal to cook all day, or we prep the meal ahead of time and simply place it in the crock pot to warm up a few hours before dinner. (I got that last tip from the Crock On! ebook by Stacy Myers, who provides links to various sources touting the energy savings of using a crock pot versus an electric oven — as much as 75 percent, according to one!)
• Batch cooking: If I’m going to heat up the oven — during off-peak hours, of course — I’ll double a recipe when possible to get two meals for the same energy cost as one.
• Once-a-week cooking: I’ve only managed this a few times, as it is quite the undertaking. But if I’ve got a weekend without any distractions (which happens almost never), I can prep and cook a week’s worth of meals on a Saturday and/or Sunday, when the cost per kilowatt hour is lower.
• Back-to-back baking: If I can’t manage a whole week’s worth of meals, I might still try to tackle a few staples to help tide us over for a few days. If I plan well, I can prepare several recipes at once that can be baked at the same time or one right after another. I recently accomplished the feat one weekend morning of baking two dishes of enchiladas, two pans of mini-muffins and two dozen sourdough biscuits in less than an hour and a half of oven time. The same morning, I also used my stove-top griddle to cook three dozen pancakes, following immediately by a stack of sourdough English muffins.
• Grill drill: It’s a sweaty job during the summer months, but grilling keeps the heat outdoors — and propane and charcoal are both less expensive than electricity. In addition to typical meat entrees, I’ve learned to cook pizza on a baking stone on the grill — a tricky proposition, but possible if you have an oven thermometer and keep an eye on the temperature. And with a cast-iron skillet set above a burner over low flame, the grill nicely mimics a stove top for browning ground beef or sauteing veggies.
The key to all of these energy-saving efforts is, of course, thinking ahead. Traditional food preparation already requires some advance planning, but avoiding peak energy hours certainly adds another wrinkle. Sometimes I hit a good groove with that, and we go along smoothly for awhile. But sometimes I’m juggling too many things and we hit a snag, starting a meal at 6 p.m. that doesn’t make it to the table until 7 — or later.
I continue to look for creative ways to both cook healthfully and cut energy costs. I’d love to hear how you accomplish that, too!