Wednesday, March 2, 2011

15 Time-Saving Food Prep Tips

A few weeks ago, we posted Cheap Healthy Good and the Triangle of Compromise, in which I proposed that there was a reasonable cooking arrangement in which money, nutrition, and taste would receive equal attention. One thing I omitted, which would have made the triangle into a square, was time. Readers called out the oversight, and justifiably so. Without a doubt, when it comes to whipping up the edibles, time can be our greatest asset, or our worst handicap.

So, here are ten tips to speed up the process. Applied, they should cut a few minutes from every meal prep. Some were mentioned in 10 Cheap Shortcuts to Making Cooking Oh-So-Much-Easier, but many more were not. Readers, if you can add to this, I’d love to hear your tips. (Please note, these tricks don't consider slow cookers, which are very helpful in reducing time spent slaving at a stove.)


Make a meal plan.
Not only will it eliminate the "What are we gonna eat tonight?" question everyone asks at 6:32pm, but it ensures you have everything on hand, and there are no crazy-expensive, last-minute shopping trips. Here's how.

Organize your kitchen logically.
Keep your most-used ingredients and equipment in easy-to-reach places. This Lifehacker post and accompanying 60-second video is a good beginner's tutorial.

Concentrate on recipes with specific time limits.
Buy a 30-minute cookbook - or a 20-minute cookbook, even. Don't forget to read reviews, to ensure that the timings aren't exaggerated. These tips should help.

Figure out what pre-chopped/prepared items are worth the splurge.
Though I’m a fierce (in the Christian Siriano way) advocate of buying foods whole and then doing the chopping/mincing/whatever myself, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. If having to small dice a carrot is going to keep you from making a certain recipe, go ahead and purchase it pre-diced. Ideally, as you become a better cook, you’ll increasingly prep foods yourself, anyway.


Preheat and defrost when you get home from work.
If you know something is going into the oven for dinner, get that thing going a.s.a.p. It doesn’t matter if the temperature is right on, since an oven will reach 400°F from 350°F much faster than it does from 0°F. (Of course, don’t let it preheat for too long. You don’t want to create safety hazards.) Same goes for defrosting - if you know you’re having meat, but it’s still a block of ice, start it running under cool water OR stick it in the microwave right after you walk in the door.

Read through the recipe at least twice.
The reasons for this are twofold: 1) No "Dang! I didn't know this had to marinate for 30 minutes!" surprises, and 2) You can figure out how to best use your time. (See the ABDMTAO tip below).

Place the recipe where you can see it.
Having the visual ability of 140-year-old dead person stuck in a coal mine, this one is important for me. It keeps me from wasting time hunched over a cookbook and squinting at size-8 type font. I used to stick recipes to my oven hood with a magnet. On the fridge, in a cookbook holder, or taped to a cabinet are also good options.

Set out all needed ingredients and equipment.
This simple action takes about two minutes, but reduces the time spent scrambling down the line. Plus, you can make sure you have everything the dish requires, or can make appropriate substitutes.

Designate a garbage bowl.
Rachael Ray is right on about this one. Having a receptacle to place your peelings, shavings, and end bits will save you about 40,000 trips to the trash can.

Drain and rinse.
If you use a lot of canned or fresh ingredients, you know that the draining/rinsing/drying process can take a coupla minutes. It’s no biggie if you have the time, but can suck up precious prep minutes if you don’t. So, before you start cooking, empty beans, herbs, and other washables into a colander, hit the faucet, and shake the moisture out.

Decide what to cook first.
Roasted veggies take a lot longer to cook than a seared chicken tender. Long-grain brown rice could cook for 40 minutes, while its accompanying stir fry takes only ten. A braise will … wait, why are you braising on a Wednesday? Anyway, designating a logical order will get dishes to the table at the same time, which is nice. Granted, it's a little tough at first, but you’ll get better at the timing as you cook more.

Need to boil water? Cover the pot.
I know some of you are like, "A-duh," but I didn't know until about two years ago that a covered pot comes to boil much faster than an uncovered one.

With apologies to Alec Baldwin:
DMTAO (Doing Multiple Things At Once)
You don't need additional hands for this one, I promise. Just think of it as making the best use of your time, (instead of standing there, twiddling your thumbs, waiting for something to cook). For example, if you're preparing a simple pan-seared chicken: While the poultry is cooking, combine the deglazing liquids. While the deglazing liquids reduce, chop the herbs. While the herbs are cooking, take your side dishes out of the oven. It will become more intuitive as you practice.

Combine recipe steps. Carefully, though.
This one may be for advanced home cooks only. But if you see that, for example, the deglazing ingredients (wine, broth, juice, etc.) can be combined in advance while your meat is cooking, why not do so?

As dinner cooks, do the dishes, set the table, prep tomorrow’s lunch, etc.

Your soup take 20 minutes to simmer? Your potatoes won’t be ready for another half-hour? An easier way to say this might be “clean as you go." It chops off clean-up time at the end of dinner, which your dish-doin' family members will no doubt appreciate.

Readers, any more tips? Share 'em in the comments section.


If you dug this, you will most definitely dig:

Meal Planning - An Experiment and Conversion
Relax, Frugal Eater: A Measured Approach to Lifestyle Changes
Weekly Menu Planning for Singles, Couples, and Working People

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Autumn said...

I'm just realizing how much practice matters.

Since we bought our house 6 years ago, The Fiancée/husband hasn't cooked at all until the past 2 weeks. Before that he cooked for himself all the time cause I was living 300 miles away. I'm pretty sure he lived off of chicken breasts and lipton noodles and sauce for dinner, but he did it himself. Fast forward and how I'm having evening sickness (whoever called it morning sickness?) keeping me out of the kitchen, and The Husband has finally had enough of leftover manwich/spagetti/ ravioli that he is trying to cook again.

What I could make in 15 minutes takes him 30, but he's trying. He's also learning where everything goes in the kitchen, which is also pretty nice. It's also pretty funny watching him look for stuff that he put away in the wrong place from the last time (a year ago, seriously, my kitchen as ugly as it is, is my castle) he unloaded the dishwasher.

mollyjade said...

Learning the right way to chop whatever vegetables you use most often will save you a lot of time in the long run. Onions, especially. You don't have to be super skilled, but just knowing the most efficient way to chop things makes life so much easier. There are lots of videos on YouTube.

Also, a pair of kitchen shears or clean scissors to cut the tops off of hard-to-open bags.

Rachel B. said...

In addition to putting all ingredients out before starting, I like to measure out all necessary ingredients, too. (The French call this mise en place.)

Some people find this annoying, esp. since it means using more dishes, but I find it helpful, particularly when baking.

Many's the time, before adopting the mise en place method, that I accidentally added baking soda twice, or not at all, or lost count of how many cups of flour I had put it. Having stuff pre-measured means you never (or nearly never) make those mistakes.

Abbey said...

One of the first things I was taught in multiple high school chemistry and physics classes is that the same amount of water boils faster with the lid off than on due to evaporation and there being less water to heat.. what complete crap!

I have no idea what perpetuated this myth (or perhaps this is true at an industrial scale?), but I would say a good few hours of my life were lost over the years waiting for water to boil because of this.

Adrienne said...

I would say read the recipe back when you're doing the menu planning bit, so you're aware ahead of time if something needs to marinate or whatever. And defrost by sticking things in the fridge the night before.

Other than that... I am a big fan of mise en place! Even if you don't measure out every ingredient ahead of time, at least get out all the containers and put them on the counter... then put it away after you do measure it so you know that step is done.

Laurie said...

I think pulling out your meat to thaw as soon as you get home is actually a time waster. By the time it's thawed out completely, you could have already been cooking it if you have anything other than a thin slice of protein.

It's also not the tastiest way to cook food. Far easier and more sanitary would be to pull it out the night or two before and put it in a small pan/container/bowl of some sort, still wrapped, to slow thaw under refrigeration.

I also generally thow my meat in the oven as soon as it is ready, not if the oven is ready. It may take them a bit longer to cook, but they are nice and juicy and it's the same amount of overall time (cooking time plus reheating time). In the meantime, I am busy getting all the side dishes together and doing other evening chores.

Clean as you go; make every minute count as you said. Even if you have to wait one minute for something, put dishes away or in the washer or wipe a counter or measure a spice.

Laurie said...

It's better to thaw your meats out a night or two prior than under running water. Waiting for my meat to thaw before cooking dinner isn't really a timesaver in our house.

Hannah @Cooking Manager said...

Absolutely agree that defrosting after work wastes time and money (hot water, microwave, etc). the night before means moving foods from the freezer to the fridge. Freezing in shallow containers cuts defrosting time. Large pieces of meat will require defrosting longer than over night.
Defrosting in the fridge is also the safest way, and preserves the quality of your food.
-Hannah @ Cooking Manager

Dee Seiffer said...

I shop my freezer for three days' meals at a time and pull out everything I'll need to defrost in the frig. I look over my recipes to see if I need to acquire any other ingredients.

I'm a big believer in mise en place, too.

ElizaVan said...

I like to prep my veggies as soon as I get home from shopping.

Peel and chop carrots and keep them in a container with water in the fridge.

Cut off broccoli stalks, mince into small bits with "Slap Chop" device.

I pre-measure my bread making butter into tablespoons so I don't have to try and measure hard butter.

I also put leftovers into lunch portions as I put them away. (enough meat, rice and veggies for one lunch all in one container, as opposed to meat in one, veggies in another and grains in a third).

This also helps to make sure there is enough for for lunch the next day, or if I need to make a quick salad to go with it. Not a decision I always have time to consider during the morning rush.

Anonymous said...

Glengarry Glen Ross reference FTW! :)

Amber said...

You couldn't have said it better! I often come home and try to figure out what I'm going to make for supper, and over the years you learn to plan ahead, and multitask while cooking. It takes practice but it will improve your time later on.