7 Time-Saving Kitchen Tips From an Insider

by Ashley Watson on 23 June 2011 11 comments

I'm always surprised when people tell me that they do not like to cook. Admittedly, this is coming from someone who has worked in several professional kitchens over the years (I actually take pleasure in chopping an onion). The fact is that most people are intimidated by cooking. Believe me, I've heard some creative excuses for avoiding the kitchen:

  • "I can't make toast without burning it."
  • "You're good at it, you do it."
  • "I have a crush on the delivery guy."
  • "Grocery shopping is boring."
  • "I'm contributing to the struggling economy by eating out."

Of all the excuses, I would say that the number one reason people don't cook more often is that there isn't enough time. True, having a full-time job, a family, or both doesn't leave much time at the end of the day to prepare a home-cooked meal.

Not to worry. There are many ways to cut corners in the kitchen and save time. In my experience, knowing how to save time in the kitchen usually helps people feel less overwhelmed by the thought of preparing a wholesome meal. Cooking shouldn't be a painful experience for anyone.

Here are seven painless time-saving tips from the industry that are effective ways to encourage more home cooking and less eating out. (See also: Save Time, Money, and Energy; and Eat Great)

1. Prepare Vegetables Ahead of Time

This is commonly done in restaurant kitchens to save time, but it also keeps the veggies fresh much longer than storing them whole. Plus, you're more likely to use them before they wilt or rot if they are already prepped. When I buy a head of lettuce, for example, I prep it as soon as I get home and store it in an airtight container. Half of my work is done when I want to make a salad, and chopped lettuce usually lasts up to a week if stored properly. If you choose to do this with any leafy green, be sure to let it dry before storing it in the fridge; keeping wet greens in plastic bags or anything that holds moisture will turn them into mush in just a few days.

You can prep most vegetables ahead of time, except for things like avocados or anything that browns quickly after it is cut. I like to dice onions, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to use for salads, stir-fries, sauces, omelets — basically any main or side dish that I know will take at least 20 minutes of prep work. Try grating carrots instead of slicing them; grated ones tend to last longer and can be more versatile and fun to use. Although you are investing a good chunk of time in prepping all the vegetables that you might use throughout the week, it will save you anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes when you start pulling out the ingredients for your meal. Not to mention the satisfaction of knowing that you are less likely to send the bulk of your veggies to the compost.

2. Preheat the Oven

This is the part of the recipe people love to skip. Even I used to think preheating the oven was a waste of time, until I realized that it truly serves a function. If you put something in the oven before it reaches the recommended temperature for your dish, it will cook unevenly and need more time. This is particularly the case with meat dishes. Turn on the oven as soon as you are ready to start cooking. While you are waiting on it to heat up, you can finish any of the prep work you need to do. It's also helpful to know how long it takes your oven to preheat. If there isn't a setting that lets you know when it's ready, set a timer the next time you preheat it so that you have a better estimate of how much time the entire meal will take. While it may seem insignificant, preheating the oven will save you time and stress.

3. Plan Your Meals

For most people, planning all the meals for the week may feel a little too ambitious, but it will probably save you more time than any of these suggestions. Think about how long it takes to decide what you want to eat after a long day at work when you are already tired and hungry. Then, if you're anything like me, by the time you've decided, you are so hungry that you end up ordering a pizza. You don't have to sit down and write a detailed menu that includes the wine and dessert for every night of the week, but it's a good idea to have a general sense of which meals you are going to prepare. If you are trying a new recipe, give yourself more time than usual. Make it on the weekend or on a night you know you will have some extra time in the kitchen. Meal planning isn't just a time saver; it also encourages healthier choices and better budgeting.

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4. Prepare Meals in Advance

The trick to this is being creative. Lasagna does get old, even if it is easy to prepare the night before and stick in the oven when you get home. You can find tons of recipes for casseroles, stews, and quiches online. Try making variations of your favorite pasta sauces, or if you are feeling especially creative, make up new dishes by combining some of your old recipes. Soups are an easy one to try this with, and most dishes can be frozen, or at least stored in the refrigerator for a few days to cook whenever you are ready to eat them.

5. Make Large Quantities

Even if you live alone, making larger portions can save time since leftovers are guaranteed. However, you have to actually eat the leftovers to make this one worth the effort. I had a roommate in college who would make a casserole to have throughout the week, but she hated leftovers. Aside from the lack of logic in preparing a meal specifically for the leftovers only to throw away two-thirds of it, she didn't save any time in the end since she had to make more food. If you are one of those people who gets bored, there are many ways to recreate your leftovers. You can always combine leftovers to make an entirely new dish. You don't have to be a professional chef to go "off recipe" and make your own creation.

6. Get Others Involved

Unless you live alone or prefer to prepare the meals yourself, there isn't any reason you can't let other members of the house help you cook. Get the kids involved too; it's a great way to spend time with them and teach them valuable skills. If they are too young to use knives, let them wash the vegetables or put the salad together. Don't be afraid to delegate!

7. Use Knives Properly

This one may sound like an odd addition to the list. But I cannot tell you how many times I've watched someone use a knife improperly, or use one that is too small or dull and then wonder why it took them 20 minutes to cut a tomato into wedges. You can save a lot of time by simply knowing how to use a knife and which one is best for the job. The common rule for any kitchen is "use the right tool for the right job," meaning you wouldn't use a paring knife to cut meat or a large squash. You don't need a dozen different sizes, but you do need at least one all-purpose chef's knife.

Always use a sharp knife, since it will allow you to chop or slice more quickly. More importantly, using a dull knife is dangerous since there's a greater chance of the knife slipping. And a cut from a dull knife takes longer to heal and increases your chances of getting an infection. However, knowing how to use a chef's knife is as important as keeping it sharp. In case you've never been taught how to use a good kitchen knife, I've picked out a short YouTube clip to help demonstrate my point. Ultimately, if you are struggling with your knife, you are using more time and energy and increasing your chances of injury. It takes practice, but anyone can learn how to use a knife like a professional.

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Guest's picture
Justine

Great list. Another benefit of prepping veggies once a week, making meals in advance and making large quantities is the fact you don't have to clean the kitchen as many times in a week. It will also cut down on dishes washed.

Ashley Watson's picture

So true! Something I didn't add to the list is, "Clean as you go." I start with a clean kitchen and empty dish rack, and I wash everything as I use it. Then when I'm finished, I only have the dinner plates to wash. Of course, having a dishwasher helps, or if you don't, look at it as another opportunity to employ others in the kitchen.

Annie Mueller's picture

Great list! I need to work on prepping vegetables ahead of time. I tend to just stick them in the fridge and forget about at least half because they get buried behind other stuff. I've also made the same error in logic as your roommate -- I really don't like leftovers that much! Okay for lunches, but I don't like eating the same thing over and over for dinner. Fortunately my husband brown bags, so between his lunch and me and the kids eating lunch at home, we usually work our way through the leftovers. I've also started putting leftover cooked meat into the freezer to use for soups & casseroles later.

Ashley Watson's picture

I love recreating frozen leftovers, especially since I tend to forget to label items that I freeze. I look at it as a nice surprise when I have no idea what I just pulled out.

Guest's picture

Hi - I love ways to make cooking/eating at home more accessible. It's a lot of work to be a chef in your own home everyday of the week.

I find planning one of the biggest helpers. Just look at your list and go. I also like to keep a list of easy/quick cook stuff for extra busy times of the week.

We love leftovers - just reheat and your eating in minutes! What could be better?!

I have been meaning to cook larger portions and start doing some freezing. I'd also really like to start freezing cooked beans instead of resorting to canned.

Thanks for the list! Inspiring!

:) Jennifer

Ashley Watson's picture

Yes, canning is a lot of work. Fortunately, many veggies can be blanched and then frozen. Glad it was inspiring!

Guest's picture
nanny snowflake

great list!

Guest's picture
Lesley

Thanks for the advice. I tend to throw out a lot of veggies so I am going to try your prep idea. Can you tell me how to prep a head of lettuce though? I find lettuce so hard to keep fresh so I must be doing something wrong.
thanks!

Ashley Watson's picture

Hi Lesley,
I guess it depends on what kind of lettuce you are buying. I tend to go for the heartier greens, such as Romaine. I chop it as you would to make a Caesar salad, in larger pieces, and I wash it and make sure it's dry before storing whatever I don't use immediately. I have a salad spinner-an item that I used to think was worthless until someone gave me one as a gift. Now I'm not sure how I got along without it. You can find them at thrift stores fairly cheaply. But even after using it, I let the lettuce sit out for an hour or so to make sure it is dry (a very small amount of moisture is okay, so don't make yourself crazy wiping it down with paper towels).

If you are prepping more delicate lettuce, such as Red or Green Boston, those tend to wilt a little more quickly. Using an airtight container is also important. Baby lettuce and other pre-packaged greens always wilt quickly because they've already had a lot of traveling to do-I also worked in the Produce Department at the local co-op where I learned these little tips. If you can, only buy fresh lettuce, and local if possible. It's also less expensive than buying packaged lettuce.

I hope this helps!

Guest's picture
bogart

Besides Ashley's tips, I put my washed/spun lettuce on a linen dishtowel, wrap it up in that, and then put it in the fridge (usually after tucking the lettuce in a plastic bag, but I usually buy red leaf lettuce and don't, in fact, find it necessary to keep the stuff in an airtight container, as long as it's in a towel in the fridge). This seems to work well (it's what my mom does); I think the towel helps soak up excess moisture and the linen isn't fuzzy, so it doesn't stick to the lettuce.

Guest's picture
athas

We actually bought some of those tupperware that are designed to keep vegetables fresh for a longer period of time. They actually work. We've kept avocados for two to three weeks without them going bad. And it works well for greens, as long as they are dry.