Keep 2018 going strong with time-saving kitchen tips that will help you stay motivated and on top of it all year long.
With 2018 officially upon us, it’s the perfect time to find your motivation and make those cooking excuses a thing of the past. That said, we know that this is often easier said than done and that, between work, school activities, and day-to-day tasks, the last thing that anyone really has time for is hours spent on a meal.
We’ve already tackled quick-prep vegetables and quick-cooking ingredients in our Quick Cooking Series. Part 3 of this series is focused on time-saving tips in the kitchen that will make cooking a more manageable part of your busy schedule.
For us, of course, it all starts with planning and meal prep. While this may seem like an extra step on your to-do list, it will ultimately save you time and make your cooking more doable in the long run. Let’s get started!
1 // Shift Your Mindset
It all starts with a shift in your mindset. Think about the time you put towards cooking in the same way that you think about money and budgeting. When you’re budgeting, some months will be tight and you might save less, and some months you’ll be able to save more for a rainy day.
The same concept works for time spent cooking. During weeks that are less busy, think about ways you can plan, prep or cook ahead for those busier weeks.
We know – it’s tempting to just watch Netflix when you find yourself with some free time. But, just like you won’t regret having saved that rainy day fund, you definitely won’t regret organizing your kitchen habits and getting ahead on all of those cooking to-dos.
2 // Plan Ahead
Clearly, we’re biased – but the reality is that having a meal plan in place means that you don’t have to spend the time (and stress) thinking about what to make every single night. You can do it yourself or, of course, use a meal plan service like ours.
That said, it’s not just about having any plan, but rather about having one that sets you up for success throughout a busy week. Here are our favorite plan-ahead tips that will do just that:
1) Have 4 to 6 pantry recipes in your back pocket
Pantry recipes are meals that don’t involve a lot of prep, that don’t require a recipe, and that you can execute with the ingredients that you have on hand. Include at least 1 or 2 of these in your meal plan each week. A few of our favorites are Peanut Noodles, Black Bean & Leftover Rice Soup, and Broccoli & Sausage Orecchiette.
If you need some ideas on what items you should stock in your pantry, check out our Guide to Pantry Essentials. With this list, your pantry will be smartly stocked and you’ll be able to throw together pantry meals whenever you’re short on time.
2) Choose passive cooking techniques
Dishes that use the slow cooker, rice cooker, oven, Instant Pot or airfryer (my new favorite appliance!) are great because the machine does the work. You can just set it up and use that time to prep for the next meal (you won’t regret it) or even give yourself a break.
3) Select recipes that set you up for success
If you’re not that great with a knife, choose recipes with easy-to-chop or even no-chopping-needed ingredients. You can even opt for the pre-chopped veggies found in your local grocery store. They cost a bit more, but they will pay for themselves with all the time you save from not having to chop!
Nowadays, you can find all kinds of frozen, pre-chopped veggies – broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, butternut squash, okra – so choose recipes that contain these ingredients or swap the fresh veggies in those recipes for these frozen shortcuts.
For a full list of all these easy prep veggies, print out our infographic chart of Quick-Prep Veggies here:
4) Choose quick-cooking proteins & veggies
As we talked about in our last Quick Cooking Series post, denser veggies and tougher meats take longer to cook. Don’t be afraid to substitute ingredients in a recipe for ones that cook faster, such as thin-cut meats or any of the veggies, proteins or grains listed in this infographic:
Guide to Quick-Cooking Ingredients
Discover which vegetables, proteins, and grains to cook with when you need to get dinner on the table in under 15 minutes.
5) Don’t be afraid to veer from the recipe
Recipes are meant to be guidelines; they don’t need to be followed to a T. Substitute with what you have on hand or with what you can chop more quickly. For example, if you have a recipe for a stir-fry with bell peppers and carrots, but you only have celery and cabbage in the fridge, use what you have! You won’t be wasting time running to the grocery store, and the stir-fry will be just as tasty.
Remember, time – not the recipe – is your constraint. So use your time wisely and adjust recipes to make them work for you; not the other way around.
6) Have a few go-to leftover recipes
Leftover recipes are meals that are pretty much a dump of all the remaining things that you have in your fridge. The last meal of the week is perfect for repurposing all of these leftovers and leftover ingredients. If you need some simple ideas for what to do with a fridge full of leftovers, check out our Guide to Repurposing Leftovers here:
Repurposing Leftovers & Leftover Ingredients
Get more life out of your leftovers, so that you can reduce food waste and save more money.
7) plan for a full month ahead
On a less busy week, try planning your meals for a full month ahead. You can make this planning process even easier by designating specific days like “Taco Tuesdays,” “Fried Rice Fridays,” or “Leftover Sundays.”
To make it even easier, just create 4 meal plans that you can rotate through (or whatever the number is that will keep you from getting bored with the meals).
3 // Meal Prep Ahead
Now, even the best plan will fail without proper execution. And after a long day of work or childcare, the last thing anyone wants to do is to start dinner completely from scratch.
On a particularly rough day, this is often the time that one decides that takeout is easier. However, this option is usually less healthy and more expensive – and it usually means that the groceries you bought for that meal are more likely to get spoiled.
If you’ve already started a bit of meal prep, you’re much more likely to go through with your meal plan and it’ll take you a lot less time to get dinner on the table.
The main concept here is mise en place, or “everything in place.” While this sounds fancy, the big idea is very straightforward – have everything organized and in its place before you start cooking, so that you can cook with ease.
Similarly, meal prepping isn’t just chopping vegetables – it’s everything from boiling noodles to making a sauce, marinating proteins, and even cooking ahead of time so that all you have to do when it comes to meal time is assemble and enjoy.
Don’t worry, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. But if you feel like you’ll end up forgetting something, check out our meal plan service – we include prep steps for all of our meals so that you always stay on top of it and know what needs to get done before cooking.
And if you want to get even more accomplished at one time, we also have our Weekend Prep Steps that will give you all the directions to be prepped, organized and ready for the whole week.
When to Meal Prep:
Meal Prep for the Week
Once again, if you’ve meal planned, you can meal prep for the entire week in one chunk. It’s much more efficient to chop all your veggies at once than to do it piecemeal each day.
Carve out however much time you can on a weekend or a random evening to do it and you’ll avoid so much stress later in the week. If you can’t dedicate one large chunk of time, any small pocket of time will help you get ahead and be a little bit more zen when dinnertime rolls around.
meal prep when the kids are asleep
If you’re a parent and your kids are not very independent, try to meal prep when the kids are not there or asleep. Lots of our members who are stay-at-home parents do their prep during their kiddos’ nap times.
If that’s not an option, meal prep after their bedtime (with a glass of wine by your side – you’ve earned it!). I know that those are precious hours, but you’ll be a lot more productive in the long run. If you want to include them in some kitchen work, save a few easy things that you can do together.
Alternatively, I know people who even hire a sitter to look after their kids for 2 hours so they can meal prep. This may seem like an extravagance, but 2 hours of a sitter probably ends up being a lot less expensive than a few meals of takeout that might result without that head start.
Once again, though, the goal is to simplify and save time. Once you’ve figured out when to do your prep, you can shift your focus to the how.
How to Meal Prep:
Time-Saving Meal Prep Tips:
- Get ahead from the second your groceries make it through the door.
- Batch your meal prep to-do’s by type of task. Chop all the veggies at once, make all sauces and marinades, then move on to prepping meats.
- Keep your knife sharp and learn how to use it. If you learn how to use a knife and keep it sharp, your prep will go much faster.
- Use time-saving tools. I use my food processor a ton for prepping – it slices and grates way faster than I can manually. Yes, it’s heavy but if I batch all the meal prep to-do’s that require it for the week (per tip above), I can get it out – and clean it – just once.
- Double up on your favorite ingredients. If you love chicken, cook up a few extra pieces – you can use what the recipe calls for in your first meal and throw the rest into things like lunches and salads for the rest of the week.
- Look for efficiencies. If you’re already boiling water for pasta, take the pasta out and boil something else like broccoli, cauliflower, or corn on the cob.
- Blanch veggies. When you blanch your veggies – cook them in boiling water for a short time and then plunge them into ice water or under cold running water – you can freeze them and then throw them into your saute or stir-fry later in the week without having them become overcooked or soggy.
- Chop ingredients more thinly. It’s just simple science, but the smaller or thinner you slice something, the faster it will cook. If your knife skills aren’t fantastic, it might not be worth the time to “small dice” a carrot (although you could just take it as a challenge to improve those chopping skills!) but halving something like a chicken breast is simple and will allow it to cook faster and be a lot less likely to dry out.
- Always double up – or more – on sauces. They freeze easily and are easy to scale up.
- Make a “master” sauce. This is a sauce that can be used on everything and that can serve multiple purposes: it can be a marinade, a dressing, a sauce for a grain bowl, etc.
- Shave off some prep time with healthy convenience products like canned beans or quick-cooking grains.
- Cook ahead. Use the slow cooker or cook every other day and double up on your serving sizes.
Shift your mindset, plan, prep, and be ready to cook! If you follow these steps consistently and focus on planning and meal prep, you will be able to save a ton of time in the kitchen and make cooking a manageable, enjoyable part of your schedule.
As always, we’re here to help you live your best life in the kitchen and provide delicious memories for you and your family. Join our cooking community by signing up for our newsletter below, and we’ll send you great cooking tips and resources that will help you raise your kitchen IQ and cook with confidence.
A little note: Some of the above links are Amazon affiliate links, which means we earn a small percentage from those sales. We use this affiliate revenue to support the continued growth of Cook Smarts. Thank you!