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5 (more) ways to save time in the kitchen

by Meagan Francis on November 17, 2011

Soup: the ultimate time-saving, simple, one-pot meal

If you asked a group of moms their #1 obstacle to getting dinner on the table, I’m guessing most of them would say “time.” If you’ve got little kids, you may literally have a toddler hanging off your leg – or a baby dangling from your bosom – as you try to cook. If your kids are older, after-school activities and homework can get in the way.

Last November I shared five of my favorite time-saving kitchen tips, which included shortcuts and “cheats” like never peeling a potato, poaching chicken breasts and steaming veggies. A year later, I’ve added more time-saving tips to my repertoire – some borrowed from the oh-so-helpful comments to my original piece! – and I thought I’d come back to share five more tips:

  1. Roast those veggies. After Amy and Olivia both sang the praises of roasted veggies in their comments, I gave it a shot…and I’m not sure I’ll ever eat a carrot cooked another way again. It really is the easiest thing in the world: toss on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sea salt, and stick in the oven until browned and caramelized. 350F is a good temp to work with as it seems to cook evenly and still get the veggies nice and caramelized, but the nice thing about roasting is that you can adjust the temp depending on how much time you’ve got. I’ve roasted at temps as high as 450F when in a real hurry (but you’ll have to watch closely at that heat!) Other than checking periodically, you won’t have to do much babysitting…and, they won’t take up any precious space on the range. Another reason I will forever sing the praises of the roasted veggie? Because my kids now love Brussels Sprouts…and actually fight over who gets the last carrot.
  2. Loving my new spice drawer organizers from IKEA

  3. Organize your kitchen logically. This is one of the things I obsessed over most in the midst of our kitchen reno, and I’m still moving items around the kitchen to get them in just the right spot…so I don’t have a perfect plan yet. But as a general rule, I’m trying to keep things near where I’ll use them, and readily at hand. For example, I keep all my most often-used utensils…particularly the ones I’ll often need to grab with one hand while holding a hot pot with another, like tongs, stirring spoons, and spatulas – in a pitcher to the right of my stove (not the left, because I always grab and stir with my right hand!) Spices are now in a drawer to the right of my stove, too, and pot holders are directly to the left. They’re little things, but can make a big difference when you’re trying to deal with a lot of moving parts.
  4. Set aside more time. What? This is supposed to about saving time, now I’m telling you to devote more time to cooking? Well, yes. One of the biggest revelations I’ve had over the past year is the realization that a family dinner – including all the prep and clean-up – will always feel like a rushed, slapped-together affair if I try to squeeze it in around everything else. Of course there are going to be days where there is simply too much going on to spend two hours in the kitchen, but I try to keep our schedules completely clear between 5:00 and 7:00 at least three weeknights per week. On those nights, the less I try to rush the whole dinner process feeling like there is something “more important” to do, the more relaxed I feel and the more we all enjoy it. Also, I’ve found that if I set aside a few nights a week where we are wholly devoted to a sit-down family dinner featuring a real meal, it feels like less of a failure on the nights when I’m too frazzled to do much more than punch numbers into the microwave. See also: The Kitchen Hour.
  5. Embrace repetition. If you watch too much Food Network, you can start to get the idea that a meal only counts as “homemade” if it’s been simmering for hours in a complicated sauce, or that you owe your kids the horizon-expanding experience of trying new vegetables, spices, and flavor combinations every day. But let’s face it: kids like familiar foods, and the more you make something, the better you get at it and the easier it becomes. There’s really nothing wrong with repeating the same 5-10 or so meals over and over again (sure beats hitting the drive-thru in frustration), and the more comfortable you get with preparing certain dishes, the more you can start to experiment and add to them without throwing the whole night into a tailspin. See also: The Six-Meal Shuffle.
  6. Master a few basic dishes. The less you have to think, plan, fret, consult recipes, or scour cookbooks at dinnertime, the faster and more easily you can get dinner on the table. My staples include black beans, whole roasted chicken (which up until a couple years ago I had NEVER made, and I have kicked myself ever since because it’s so easy and such a crowd-pleaser), chicken noodle soup (made with the carcass of the roasted chicken) and smashed red potatoes (with garlic and sour cream!). They’re things I am so familiar with I could make them in my sleep, and they didn’t take much cooking technique or talent (neither of which I am blessed with to an excessive degree) to learn. If you master a few staple dishes and then make sure to keep the necessary ingredients on hand, you’ll never find yourself staring in the fridge at 6 PM wondering what to make, because you’ll always have a backup plan.

What are your favorite time-saving kitchen tips?

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily @ Random Recycling November 17, 2011 at 9:45 pm

The Crock Pot! I find that I save the most time by prepping veggies the night before and then quickly through everything together the next morning. I love that there is little to do during the evening hours, and very minimal clean up. My favorite recipe book is the Not Your Mother’s Crockpot Recipes. They have a big mix of chili recipes that I am slowing testing!

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Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm November 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I heartily agree with roasting veggies! Things that I hated growing up — carrots, zucchini, asparagus — are all amazingly delicious when oven roasted.

My recent tip is trying to get as much of dinner as possible done during my daughter’s nap. (Chopping veggies, simmering sauces, or throwing stuff in a crock pot). Then when she gets up we go straight outside to enjoy the last precious minutes of daylight at the park, and come home. For about a week we kept eating dinner at 7 pm because of that, and she was tired and grumpy by food time, till I figured out to start cooking ahead during her nap!

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SusanP November 17, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Love these tips!

I have to second the crock pot. I’ve used mine more in the last 2 months than I have in the last 10 years! I’ve found a few great recipe web sites, mastered a few dishes, and embraced repetition :)

Some other tips I agree with —

Planning ahead! I always knew this but had a hard time executing it. Once I put my mind to it though, it’s a matter of creating habits. The six-meal shuffle is a great plan!! I’m so thankful for discovering it here. I also embraced not cooking it all at the same time. Prepping the crock pot the night before after the kids are in bed, browning the ground beef/turkey the night before, cooking my weekend soups at 2pm while my toddler is napping. Who cares if it’s done at 3… just keep it simmering until dinnertime. It beats scrambling at 5pm with kids hanging off me hungry and anxious for dinner to be ready.

I also double, sometimes triple recipes and then freeze the extra. So on the crazy busy night, it’s easy to raid the freezer (other tip is to have an extra freezer). I can have a healthy dinner on the table in about 20min doing this.

The last tip is to accept imperfection — know that there will be nights when you have to throw in the towel and do take out or the blue box or frozen pizza. Pair it up with something healthy like steamed veggies and or fruits to balance out the bad stuff.

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Meagan Francis November 18, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Love that Susan! A few years ago on a blog that’s now defunct, I blogged a photo of a dinner I’d made my kids, featuring a corn dog (from the freezer section) paired with steamed, organic broccoli from our backyard. :) I just wanted to show that it’s not inconsistent to pair “convenience” foods with healthy stuff. If anything, it balances it out!

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Tragic Sandwich November 18, 2011 at 9:11 am

Great suggestions! I try to have a cooking-intensive day on the weekends. Most of the time it doesn’t happen, but when it does, it works really well. I’ll make something like apple bread or pumpkin bread–multiple loaves, so I can freeze some for later. Then I put the stand mixer away and get out the crock pot so I can cook something all day. While that’s going on, I’ll try to make something on the stovetop. Sometimes this is a complete dish, sometimes it’s just browning ground beef for use later.

As for a go-to recipe, I like shepherd’s pie. Seasoned ground beef, vegetables, mashed potatoes–we all like it, and it’s easy to do in stages if needed (recently I was able to brown the beef one day and then assemble everything else for the oven a day or two later). You can use fresh or frozen veggies, depending on what you have on hand. And it’s a nice, hearty winter meal that works well as leftovers.

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Steph November 18, 2011 at 10:49 am

I find that roasting a chicken early in the week makes for many easy options all week long. We de-bone the chicken and add it to pasta alfredo, sliced on a salad or in lunch sandwiches, and finally boil it up for homemade broth and chicken noodle soup. Having lots of raw veggies chopped helps, too, for snacking and throwing into meals.

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Candy November 18, 2011 at 11:48 am

I agree with roasting the chicken. It makes 3 meals for us easily. I learned recently about plopping the whole bird in the crock pot and viola! Tender cooked chicken and a good start to broth, just dump the bones back in fill with water and simmer overnight. Can’t get any easier.

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Alexandria November 18, 2011 at 12:15 pm

So true!

(I’ve never understood why peel potatoes – I never waste my time peeling!!)

We make time for dinner – it’s a priority in our house. We focus on easy dishes most of the time. (Few ingredients, crockpot, etc.).

I suppose everyone is different, but I never understood the “cooking all weekend so I don’t have to cook during the week” thing. I know it works for many, and that is fine, but I just don’t see what the big deal is taking an hour every day to cook dinner and clean up afterwards. When you “make the time” you realize it isn’t that time consuming?

Now that my kids are 6 and 8, they can also help in the kitchen more. Sure, it’s much harder to cook with a baby underfoot, but few people these days seem to think about having their kids help in the kitchen and realizing that dinner can be a great family/bonding time. My 8yo LOVES helping, so we let him help.

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SusanP November 18, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Everyone IS different. We have four kids ages 7, 5, newly 3, and 18 months. I work full time outside of the home (husband stays home/ works from home). For the last 3 years, cooking & freezing on the weekend is what got us by and I don’t see the harm in it. Any freetime my husband has in the daytime he focused on his work. I understand and am ok with that. When I walk in at 5pm, I have four little ones vying for my attention all.at.the.same.time. My husband heads to his home office within moments of my arrival so dinner prep & clean up is on me. Defrosting a previously made meal was a lifesaver on so many levels. Paired with fresh fruits and steamed veggies which take <10min, they were always healthy & good meals. I did not want to spend an hour or more after a long day at work slaving in the kitchen – I needed to be quick and simple to maximize time with my kids.

Now that our youngest is 18mo and the 3yo is potty trained, I am finding more time to actually think ahead, plan ahead, work ahead and cook more things during the week.

I have always involved my kids in cooking, even if it was mostly on the weekends. They know all about tsp, TBS, cups, whisks, etc. They all pull up a chair to help. Even the 18mo now will push a chair over, climb up, and see what's going on. Up until recently it's just not something I wanted to make time for every weeknight. Maybe I'm lazy or selfish… But, to me the end result was the same – all of us around the table eating a healthy meal.

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Meagan Francis November 18, 2011 at 2:37 pm

I don’t see what could be considered lazy or selfish about doing the cooking all in one day? As for myself, I like to to spread out tasks a little every day instead of doing them all at once (which is also why I try to do one load of laundry a day instead of a laundry-a-thon on the weekend) but I totally get this is a personal preference and ALSO doable for me because I work from home and just have more time to prep, meal plan, etc while taking a break from the computer or after putting the toddler down for her nap or whatever. But either way, to me the end result – dinner on the table with the family sitting together eating it – is something to celebrate, regardless of how it came about.

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Tragic Sandwich November 18, 2011 at 2:25 pm

This is a great example of how everyone is different. I work full-time away from the house and have a long commute. The result is that I have at most three hours with my daughter between when I get home and she goes to bed, and that’s if she’s staying up later than she ought to. Which happens a lot. So I really don’t want to spend a third of the time I have with her prepping, cooking, and cleaning. If that’s how you choose to spend your time, that’s fine, but it’s not the choice I make given my circumstances. Your way works for you, my way works for me. Hopefully you didn’t mean to make your comment as judgmental as it sounds.

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Olivia November 18, 2011 at 12:48 pm

My husband is the “cook giant batches and freeze it” person, so about half the week we just need to cook rice or pasta and a veg to go with what he’s prepared. Or nothing at all if it’s a stew. I’ve got the several meals down pat so I don’t have to turn to a recipe thing.

The number one time saver for us is remembering to pull something out of the freezer in the morning. So, I’m the one who gets our daughter ready for the day and takes her to daycare. When husband asked if there was anything he could do to make my morning easier, that was it. Take something, anything, out of the freezer (we buy our meat in bulk and freeze; also a time saver because it helps with meal planning) and I will make it work when I get home.

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Meagan Francis November 18, 2011 at 2:40 pm

Olivia, I think the reason once-a-month/once-a-week cooking never worked for me is that I was constantly forgetting to take anything out of the freezer! I know it’s just a matter of developing the habit/mindset, like anything else, but that system never did click for me. I may give it a shot again someday, especially as my biggest boys get older and get more involved in outside-the-home activities. I can see a time when evenings may not be quite as leisurely as they are now.

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Laura November 18, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Leftovers! Forget freezing them…have them tomorrow night! I cook about 3-4 meals per week and the rest are leftovers from the previous night. I love the nights when I know I just need to reheat what’s in the fridge. I shudder at the thought of planning and cooking seven different meals for one week.

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Amy Suardi @ Frugal Mama November 18, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Hi Meagan,

So glad you are a roasted veggie convert! I’m all over it, and my kids love it too. They even love roasted eggplant rounds — and the more burnt the better. Go figure.

I can whip up some really quick pasta sauces and have dinner on the table in less than a half hour. My favorite quick ones are:

Tomato and butter sauce: heat one large can of crushed tomatoes with 5 TB of butter, some salt, and a halved onion, which you remove before eating,

and

Tuna pasta: literally crack open a couple cans of tuna packed in olive oil (Cento is good) onto a pot of cooked pasta and voila! We love capers too, but they’re optional.

This goes in with the master a few dishes thing. I don’t cook with recipes these days. I just fall back on things I know, as well as cooking things simply — like sauteeing meat, and oven roasting veggies.

Have a good weekend!
Amy

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Meagan Francis November 18, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Amy – at first I thought this said 5 *LB* of butter! Now that’s the kind of sauce I can get behind.

Thanks for the ideas, can’t wait to try ‘em!

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Amy Suardi @ Frugal Mama November 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Ha, that’s funny, Meagan! Some people would still probably think that 5 tablespoons of butter is too much, but I really don’t worry about fat when I cook. Low-fat or fat-free foods are not satisfying to me, and I end up bingeing on chocolate chip cookies later to make up for it.

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Hannah @Cooking Manager November 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Hi Meagan!
I agree that everyone is different. I prefer to plan meals from day to day, based on what I have, but for others OAMC or weekly menus work better.
Here are my favorite tips.
1. Spread tasks out throughout the day.
2. Prep vegetables in batches
3. Keep ingredients in the fridge or freezer like cooked rice, soups or cooked beans that can be the basis of a quick meal.
4. Use a timer generously, both to check on the food and to remind you of the next step. Essential with small children!
PS Your commentluv isn’t working.

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Sarah K November 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I am new to full-time paid employment and this has really forced me to do meal planning better. I like to cook large amounts too, but I don’t like freezing leftovers because it seems unappetizing to me somehow. I just keep them in the fridge or take them to work for lunch there (and my co-workers get jealous!) We just had an all leftovers-dinner tonight, perfect after a long day spent at a church activity!
I like to pop 4 salmon or trout filets in the oven- even frozen, they don’t take more than 20 or 30 minutes. I cover them with butter and lemon juice. I boil potatoes cut into smaller pieces, so they cook faster, then I mash them with liberal amounts of butter and milk. I think my best cooking tip is to use butter- I just love the taste. :)
And a lot of times, my kids just eat their vegetables while I am prepping dinner, which is fine. Raw carrots, red peppers or cucumbers in slices seem to be popular.
I have also found the rice cooker to be a really good investment. We probably use it once a week, and then you can just put the rice in with the water and leave it. No “babysitting” required!

On nights when we are really rushed, grilled cheese that the kids can dip in ketchup always seems to work too. :)

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