Most people eat three meals a day, seven days a week. If meal prep takes an hour, that results in 21 hours a week spent in the kitchen not counting actual eating time and cleaning up afterward! Even if you love your kitchen, you may not want to spend quite that much time in it. It is possible to relieve the stress and be more efficient in the kitchen.
The absolute best way to save time, in every situation, is to be properly organized. No matter what you are doing, if your areas are organized, it will be easier to find what you need, and you will be able to be more efficient in whatever you are doing. The kitchen is no exception to this rule.
Arrange the items inside your cupboards so that the things you use are near the places where you use them. A drawer near the stove is a good place for potholders or cooking utensils, for instance. Spices should be near the stove, as well. Cups or glasses positioned near the refrigerator or sink (depending on where your drinking water is located) is efficient and convenient. Figure out what you are doing where and arrange your cupboards accordingly.
A food processor will add speed and efficiency to meal preparation, as well as preparing vegetables and other ingredients for future meals or recipes. Can you chop vegetables with a knife? Certainly! But a food processor can chop or slice more evenly and more quickly unless you are a professional chef.
A container near the stove to hold spatulas and wooden spoons will make it easy to grab one while working at the stove. A knife block on the counter holding your sharp knives will make it convenient to slice and chop at a moment’s notice. A semi-permanent cutting board that can live on the kitchen counter where you do most of your vegetable preparations saves the step of finding it in the cupboard. Making it easy to find and reach the utensils you use most often will add efficiency to meal prep.
When you get home from grocery shopping, take a few minutes to divide snacks into single-servings, either with zip-top baggies or airtight containers. This will make it easy to grab and go for yourself or your family, as well as adding portion control. It may surprise you how fast and easy it is to do this little bit of extra prep, and how much time it saves later!
A recipe stand that lives on your counter near your prep area makes it so you do not have to clear a space for it every time you need to use it. Whether you work from cookbooks or index cards, or just sheets of paper, a versatile recipe stand can make a difference in how efficiently you work.
Usable Work Area
Creating a dedicated prep area is a great idea, if you have the space for it. Line it with a cutting board, your knife block, a towel within reach, and preferably create it right by the sink so that rinsing or washing is also convenient.
Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” When you take some time to plan ahead, the whole situation is likely to go more smoothly, even if things end up changing the plan.
If you use boiled eggs as a protein source (they are a good one!) then it is useful to go ahead and boil a dozen or so ahead of time. They are great for adding to salads, making sandwiches, or just a quick snack. Boiling eggs while you do other meal prep takes almost no time and saves a lot of time later.
Prepare lunches ahead when possible. Some ways to do this include making enough for dinner to save a portion for the next day’s lunch, making a little extra during dinner prep to create lunch (such as a couple extra chicken breasts to make chicken salad for the next day’s sandwiches, for instance), or just making ahead a recipe to portion into lunch sized containers and freezing for later. This makes it easy at lunch time to just heat and eat.
Maybe you have some meals you are so good at cooking that the family is tired of them, and you want to add variety. Maybe you just like the idea of trying new things. Get with some other families and set up a meal exchange. Each family makes a meal and packages it up, and the families exchange meals. If you have three or four families participating, you can either do a rotation for exchange, or each can make enough so that everyone will end up with as many meals as there are families, which can be frozen. If enough families are involved, it could provide everyone with a week of freezer meals!
Arguably the biggest and most important way to save time in the kitchen is to make a menu plan. When you know exactly what is for supper (and lunch, and breakfast), it is must faster to prepare it. It definitely takes a lot more time to wander around the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer, trying to decide what to fix than it takes to look at the menu, grab the needed ingredients, and fix it. This also saves time in shopping, as well, as you can determine exactly what is needed before ever going to the grocery store.
Prep Fruits and Vegetables
Take some time once or twice a week to wash, chop, dice, and otherwise get your fruits and vegetables ready for eating or recipes. Most people are more likely to opt for a healthy snack if it is convenient, and mealtime preparations are much shorter when the vegetables are already washed and cut and ready to put into the recipe.
If you use meat with bones, you can boil down the bones to make stock. This can then be frozen either in ice cube trays or small containers to make a flavorful and healthy addition to recipes, or as a base for soup. This cuts down on waste as well as providing an inexpensive burst of protein and flavor.
Set the Table
Preparing the table ahead of time not only makes it easier at dinner time, it also helps to keep the table looking nice throughout the day. There are few things as homey looking as a table that is nicely set with place settings and decorations. If you need to do something in the kitchen that may cause a mess, a sheet or tablecloth can be tossed over top of the whole thing to protect it, and then be removed and washed, leaving the nicely appointed table ready for action.
It is obvious that one thing that will make food preparation easier and faster is having what is needed on hand. Have you ever started a recipe and reached for something, only to find you are out of it? When you make sure you are stocked up on things you use regularly, preparing meals is so much easier!
Herbs and Spices
If you prefer to use a mix of spices, you can pre-mix them to have them ready for your recipe. Either use an empty container (mark it, of course!) to hold your mix, or get individual zip-top bags to hold single-use quantities. Most spice blends are not only easy to make yourself, but also much more cost-effective. Also, if you make up your mixes before you have run out of the mix you made previously, you will know when you need more before you run out.
Because canned goods last much longer than fresh, and in the case of beans are much faster than starting from dried, they are an excellent way to add a bit of streamlining to your pantry. While you can stock up on dried beans, it is also wise to have a few cans of the same type for times when you simply do not have time to wait for beans to soak and boil. Canned vegetables are quick and easy to heat or add to recipes. Make sure that you pay attention to the dates and rotate your stock, using the oldest first for best results.
If you find yourself with extra summer vegetables, blanch and freeze them for a summer-fresh flavor even in the winter. Freezing extra meals will allow for a heat-and-eat occasionally, when life gets crazy and there simply is not time to cook. Using the freezer definitely provides a way to make your kitchen time shorter. Some people cook once a month and fill the freezer with supper meals for the whole four weeks, which takes a bit of time on the cooking day but makes the rest of the month so much faster.
Sometimes there are things about the meal preparation itself that can be done just a little differently to shave minutes off the prep time either at the time or for a future meal.
Do Not Peel
Root vegetables do not require peeling before cooking. Some, like potatoes and carrots, have peels that are nutritious, making them best to eat unpeeled, and others, such as beets, will peel more easily after cooking. Remember to wash thoroughly before cooking when you are going to be eating the entire vegetable.
Since you are in the kitchen preparing a meal anyway, it is usually very easy to simply double the meal and put half of it in the freezer for another mealtime. Double up the entire meal, or just components of it that you have in another recipe later in the week. If the recipe just calls for a small amount of diced onion, for instance, go ahead and dice the whole onion, and save the remainder in the freezer for the next time you need diced onion. It is generally not double the work at the time, but it is definitely double the results.
Consider doing all the vegetable preparation on shopping day or the day after. Wash, dice, slice, chop, and whatever else needs to be done to your vegetables, and store them as appropriate so they will be all ready to toss into the recipe, or the pot, when you make the meal for which you prepared them. A few minutes to an hour in one day can save much longer on subsequent days. If you do not want to take the time to chop vegetables, many can be purchased pre-cut in the grocery store.
If you have a variety of ingredients in the pantry that you need to use but do not know what you want to use them for, hit the internet! Search for the word “recipe” and add a few of the ingredients in the search bar, as well, and you will be presented with a selection of recipes that use those ingredients. You might discover your new favorite meal that way.
One of the best ideas for quick meal prep, one pot meals combine everything and cook it all at once. This saves time in prep as well as in cleanup, since you will only have one pot and one utensil to wash from the cooking process. There are a lot of recipes available for easy and tasty one-pot meals.
Things cook faster when the pot or pan is already nice and hot. When you get ready to make a meal, turn on the heat under the empty pot, or place it into a warm oven, to let it heat before you add the food to it. You will find that cuts down your cooking time by several minutes.
Even if you do not add a bunch of meals to your freezer, you can plan ahead some quick meals for those times when it is just time to eat and you do not have time to do what was preplanned. Having some pasta and sauce in the pantry or some quinoa and frozen mixed vegetables can make it simple to toss together a quick meal.
The slow cooker is one of the best modern inventions. Toss in your ingredients during breakfast preparation and at dinner time, supper is ready! It is much simpler overall, and a good way to have good meals without having to spend a lot of time in the kitchen every afternoon.
“Cook for 60 minutes at 350ºF” is a common instruction in ingredients. It is possible, with many recipes, to cook for 45 minutes at 375, or 30 minutes at 400. Unless the recipe has something that would prevent a higher temperature (baked goods usually require a specific time and temperature), it is probably going to work fine to cook at a higher temperature for a shorter time.
One thing that always takes time is cleaning up after a meal. Streamlining this process is one of the best ways to cut down the time you spend in the kitchen.
As You Go
Add hot water and dish soap to one side of your sink – or a dishpan – when you begin your meal preparation. This will allow you to quickly clean up as you go along. Because things clean more easily when the mess is fresh, the time spent cleaning will be significantly chopped, just by this one step. Make it a habit to wipe down counters and table after using them.
If you have a dishwasher, make sure it is empty before you begin meal prep. In the process of emptying it, you can set the table, if it is not already set. You can then drop in the dirty dishes as you use them, and the meal dishes can be added immediately following the meal and washed immediately.
If you do not have a dishwasher, continue with the cleaning as you go from above and wash in between and while the items are cooking. You can either wash quickly or drop dishes in to soak while finishing the prep and wash when you finish – they will wash more easily due to having been soaked. Half of the dishes will already be clean before you even set the meal on the table and cleaning up afterward will be quick and easy.
Have a compost bag at the sink to put vegetable peels, ends, and such in. Have the trash can handy so that you can toss stuff in as you go, or if you cannot have it close by, have one side of the sink or a container by the sink for trash and empty the trash and take the compost out immediately after finishing.
Keeping the kitchen clean and organized is one of the best ways to make the time you spend in the kitchen enjoyable, and also to lessen the time needed to complete the kitchen tasks.