By Debra Caffrey
Sitting down to a great family meal is awesome, but preparing it and cleaning up after it can be a drag, am I right? Cooking is my biggest passion, but even I don’t want to spend all evening standing at the countertop chopping vegetables for hours and scrubbing pots at the sink until dark! Luckily, time efficiency is also a huge passion of mine, and over the years, I’ve cultivated a lot of tricks to speed up the process of preparing meals and cleaning up after them, and keeping myself focused in the kitchen. Here are some of my best tips for culinary time management:
Start the day off right
Use a few minutes every morning when it’s convenient for you to “set the stage” for evening success. Take out that package of meat to defrost. Inventory the veggies you plan on using to make sure they haven’t gone bad. Unload the dishwasher so it’s ready for dirty stuff later on. Little actions like these go a long way.
Make use of mise en place
I cannot stress enough how important it is to employ the concept of mise en place, French for “everything in its place” in your home kitchen. Professional kitchens would be lost without this necessary set up. To begin this crucial habit, just remember that you are getting everything you need ready before you cook. This goes beyond just putting the veggies onto the countertop. For me, the most time-saving part of mise en place is making sure I have all my pots, pans, knives, bowls, and gadgets out and ready to go. Place things strategically based on how and where you’ll need them. Then, you can prep your ingredients by chopping produce, grating cheeses and trimming meats.
Get ready for that garbage
Do you walk back and forth a lot to throw things out during cooking prep and cleanup time? Eliminate this and save time by either dragging your garbage can over to be directly near you at all times, or using a large bowl designated just for garbage scraps you can throw out later. I spend half my cooking time tossing things into my garbage can; if I didn’t have it right near me it’d be taking me twice as long to do everything!
Read the entire recipe before you start cooking, including how long each step or process is approximated to take. You don’t want to be scrambling at the last minute with surprises you didn’t prepare for.
Take advantage of cooking “downtime”
Are you waiting around for pasta water to boil or veggies to finish roasting in the oven? Use those little moments of time to your advantage. Slice some fruit for the next day’s afternoon snack. Take a few moments to tidy up the fridge and freezer. Jot down a few dinner ideas for next week’s meal plan. Squirt some dish soap in the sticky skillet and let it pre-soak.
Use pint-sized help
Don’t go at it alone! Children of all ages can and should be great at being your little helpers in the kitchen. Not only will it save you some time, it also helps kids cultivate essential life skills and realize that dinner doesn’t just magically appear on the plate. Young children can set the table, clear dishes after a meal, bring cans and plastics into the recycling bin, mix and mash ingredients, and measure simple items. Older children and tweens can dry dishes, take the garbage out, dump things into the compost, load and empty the dishwasher, help chop veggies, boil pasta and be your sous chef in many other ways. Better yet giving tweens and teens a night where they are in charge of cooking dinner gives them a huge sense of confidence, boosts their autonomy, trains them for real life and lets you get the night off!
Finally, remember that as much as you may want to get the cooking and cleaning over with, don’t rush the actual meal! I know it can be so tiring to get dinner on the table, sometimes it’s easy to slip into a routine of eating quickly as well out of mindlessness or even because you want to get the clean-up portion over with. But remember why you’re feeding your family to begin with, and try to slow down and savor the food, company and discussion without worrying about the time. Sometimes those dirty dishes can wait until later!