Have you ever read the book Cheaper by the Dozen? Though the dad in that book is a little extreme, I have always secretly identified with his eternal quest for greater efficiency in the home. I am always on the lookout for ways to save time, and thought it might be fun to share some of the ways I save time in the kitchen. I’d love it if you add your own ideas in comments, below. Who can’t use a few good time-saving strategies?
1. I double-batch whole meals at least a couple times a week. It only takes a few extra minutes to measure out more ingredients or chop more veggies or meat while the kitchen’s already a mess. Leftovers can go into the fridge to serve at lunch later in the week or in the freezer for a different week entirely. Common examples include big pots of soup or chili, or pans of enchiladas to stash in the freezer. Time savings per meal: at least 30 minutes per meal, especially when you consider there’ll be much less mess when serving that second meal.
2. You don’t have to double batch a whole meal to save time, however. Even doubling one portion of the meal can save prep work a different day. For example, when I am cooking meat for a meal like tacos, fajitas, or Molly’s chicken, I will often cook more meat than I need for that meal, setting aside the extra to use a different day in a soup or a stir fry. (Remember to set that extra meat aside before the meal, however, so your family doesn’t just gobble up the extra.) Other examples of this tip include making extra pizza dough one day so kids can easily make their own pizza another day, or making extra rice and setting it aside for fried rice another day. If your rice AND your meat is already cooked, it’s perfectly possible to get a meal of fried rice onto the table in 20 minutes flat. Time savings: 20 minutes per meal
3. When I am beginning dinner, I always think about which part of the meal will take longest to cook and start there. Since I have lots of meals that take less than 30 minutes to get to the table, that often means starting rice or pasta cooking. On spaghetti nights I get pasta water heating first, then cook ground beef and simmer sauce while noodles cook. If the meal is a stir-fry, I’ll get the rice going in the rice cooker, then chop/cook the chicken, then work on the veggies while the chicken (and rice) chicken cook. I love having multiple pots going at the same time– it feels so efficient. Time savings: at least 10 minutes per meal.
4. Especially when meals are labor-intensive, I get help! The other day I had 10 pounds of potatoes to peel– we were bringing mashed potatoes to a potluck. I started by putting the water on to boil, then asked 5 kids to peel three potatoes each. (We have lots of peelers!) It was a tiny bit of work for each of them, but getting their help made the job at least 20 minutes shorter than if I’d worked alone. Even tiny kids can peel carrots or garlic. Elementary age kids can set them table and pour drinks. Bigger kids, with training, can do almost any part of cooking that I can. And whatever you do, always say yes to a kid who wants to make cookies. When they’re little, it feels like more mess than it’s worth, but they get efficient quickly, and there’s not much in the world that’s nicer than fresh-baked cookies that you didn’t have to bake yourself. Time savings: probably at least 5 minutes/child/meal, but this varies by your child’s age.
5. If you need a quick side dish to fill out a meal on a busy day, crank your oven t0 475 and chop whatever fresh veggies you happen to have into bite size pieces. Almost any veggies are wonderful roasted; I’ve roasted carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, whole peeled garlic cloves, Brussels sprouts, green beans, asparagus, and broccoli. Toss your choice of veggies (cut into similar sizes) in a couple tablespoons of olive oil on a cookie sheet. Then spread them out evenly across the pan, top with a few grinds of salt and pepper, and roast for 10-15 minutes, or until veggies are getting browned bits and are cooked to your liking. Yum! You may even convert a veggie hater in your house– this is the only way my husband will eat Brussels sprouts. Time savings: depends on what you would’ve made instead. This recipe takes about 10 minutes of prep time.
6. One last tip for frazzled mommas: often I’ll decide at the last minute that I want baked potatoes for dinner. Problem is, they take an hour to bake, and they’re just not the same when cooked in the microwave. But there’s a way to shave half an hour off that cooking time. Just preheat the oven to 425. (convection is best, if you have that feature) Then wash and poke potatoes, then zap them in the microwave 2 or 3 potatoes at a time for about 3 minutes. By the time the oven is hot, the potatoes have already begun the cooking process in the microwave, which means they’ll only need another 25-30 minutes in the regular oven. But they’ll end up cooked as nicely as if their whole cooking time had been in the regular oven. Time savings: 30 minutes per meal.
OK– your turn! What are your best quick kitchen tricks?
For more affordable and quick recipes, check out my cookbook: Family Feasts for $75 a Week