Let’s face it, there are some weeknights when even 30 minutes spent cooking feels like more than we can manage. To whittle prep, cook, and clean-up time, try these time-savers. We’ll start with five heavy hitters that will have the most impact on your time in the kitchen.
1. Read the recipe from start to finish. Before you make a move, get a clear understanding of the recipe steps. Important details can be tucked in there. You may read “add the onion” when the recipe asks you to add half the onion in one step and the remainder in another step. Also check out any chef tips or cooking options suggested in the recipe that offer ways to save time or even to prepare and serve the recipe in ways you may prefer.
2. Weekend prep. There’s no way around it — including more vegetables in your diet means cutting more vegetables. If weeknights are simply too crunched for time, set aside an hour on the weekend to prep ahead. Keep in mind though, not all vegetables hold up over the course of a week once they’re processed. Leafy greens or herbs wilt if prepped too far in advance, and some vegetables like potatoes will oxidize or discolor. Vegetables like carrots, bell peppers, sturdy squashes, broccoli, and cauliflower hold up well over a few days. When dicing aromatics like onion and garlic, be sure to store them in separate, reusable containers so their aromas stay to themselves.
3. Mise en place, mise en place, mise en place. This French term literally means “putting in place.” Some cooks prep ingredients as they go while others prep all at the beginning (think Food Network-style). Live and let live on prep style, but we do recommend having equipment and ingredients handy, even if you slice-and-dice on the fly. Fifteen trips to the pantry or fridge can make you feel scattered and ill-prepared. Make sure pots and pans are out or at least within arm’s reach.
4. Master your knife skills. Okay, “master” may be a bit of a stretch, but taking a weekend hour or so to check out some YouTube videos on basic knife skills will save time, reduce frustration and confusion, and believe it or not, often turn out a more appealing, Instagrammable product (don’t lie, we know you do it). This isn’t about carving radish roses (yes, it’s a thing) or russet potato swans (no, this isn’t a thing). We’re talking basics. Search “basic knife skills” on YouTube and get to practicing. It will both increase your confidence in the kitchen and save time.
5. Multitask at the stove. Reading a recipe from start to finish provides the chance to plan your timing. Water for a main course pasta dish can take a good 10-12 minutes to bring to a boil. Waiting on that boil before starting the sauce will extend total cook time significantly. You may feel overwhelmed keeping your eye on three pots simmering away at once, but it’s also part of the fun! Read through the recipe, see where tasks overlap or where there are 10-15 minutes of wait time, and see what other steps you can start.
Now for some quick hits:
6. Keep compost nearby. Thank you, Rachael Ray, for teaching avid Food Network watchers to keep their compost bucket, Tupperware container, or bowl next to the cutting board. You think you don’t take many trips to the garbage or compost during meal prep, but put that baby up there, and just see how much effort it saves.
7. Try a mandoline. This fun tool isn’t for every recipe, but if you are still working on knife skills and you’re making the main course salad or a recipe that calls for lots of thinly sliced vegetables, a mandoline will produce perfectly uniform and perfectly thin pieces with almost no effort. Just watch those knuckles!
8. Heat the broth. When a recipe calls for adding broth, adding it hot will decrease cooking time. Start the broth simmering in a separate saucepan and add the warm broth when the recipes call for it.
9. Slice meats before cooking. Also, recipe dependent, but if the final recipe, say a stir fry, includes strips of beef, pork, or chicken, slice the raw product before cooking rather than cooking the protein whole and then slicing.
10. Prep pans. To save time on clean-up prep your pans with parchment or foil, both recyclable. A more sustainable option is a Silpat, a silicon mat that can be added to a baking sheet or pan.
11. Be direct. This works only with a gas burner, but if you’re lucky enough to have one (they heat so much faster!), some things can be warmed or cooked directly on the burner. Warm tortillas or flatbreads by laying them directly on the burner, or “roast” bell peppers or jalapenos until they are blackened all over and peel back the char for a perfectly tender, smoky pepper. No pans to wash! Just keep a close eye on them and have tongs ready.
12. Pull meat from the fridge. If proteins are part of the recipe, pull them from the fridge before doing anything else. Room temperature meats not only cook faster, they also cook more evenly.
13. Smash the garlic. Want to see a parent rip their hair out while prepping dinner? Give them three garlic cloves to peel for a garlicky stir fry recipe. There’s just no need for all of that tediousness. Turn your chef’s knife on its side, lay it on top of the clove, give it a good smash, and the peel magically loosens. You’re welcome.
14. Stay shallow. When steaming or boiling, skip the 15 minutes it takes for several cups of water to heat. Get a saute pan that fits your ingredients, fill it with the 1-2 inches of water, add your ingredients and steam away. The shallow water will come to a boil in a fraction of the time. We’ve also found that it keeps vegetables from getting waterlogged.
15. Three cheers for passive cooking. Crock pots for beans, rice cookers for grains — get them. I’m not a big kitchen gadget person, but if you have the storage space, they can save tons of active cooking time.
16. Well-stocked toolkit. While you don’t have to break the bank, having a well-stocked kitchen will save time and frustration and it makes cooking more fun. Even a department store quality set of cookware can make all the difference. Pick one with various sizes of saucepans and two sizes of saute pans. If you are going to invest in good equipment and have to choose, spring for good knives. A mid-sized chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated knife is enough to get you started. And take good care of them. Believe it or not, a sharp knife is safer to use than a dull one. Sharpen your knives regularly for faster prep that takes less physical effort.
17. Raise the temperature. Almost every recipe that employs the oven calls for it to be set at 350. Be a rebel — make your standard preheat 425. Not when baking a cake, of course. Baking is precise. But if you want a roast chicken to look golden and delicious, it needs to cook at 425 degrees. Plus, higher temperature, less time.
18. Put a lid on it! Want anything in a pot to boil faster? Put a lid on it.
19. Combine ingredients. This tip isn’t necessarily for the novice cook. But if you have enough cooking experience to be familiar with the way ingredients cook and for how long, combining them in one step can save time. For example, if you are adding broccoli to a sausage and orzo recipe, toss the florets into the orzo the last few minutes of cooking. Cook and drain them at the same time. No extra pan, no extra time.
20. Clean as you go. The meal was a success. You and your fellow diners are satisfied and happy. Until of course, you see the pile of pots and pans in the sink waiting. There isn’t always time to clean as you go, but when there is, take advantage. At the very least, fill dirty pans with warm water so the gooey bits are easy to rinse free at clean-up.
Preparing home-cooked meals in today’s world can feel like a big commitment. It takes effort and time to peruse the farmers market, to scour labels in search of healthy options, to spend more on quality food and cooking equipment — never mind the time and effort spent cooking it all.
At the foundation of all this effort is a set of values. It may be that you want to eat healthier food, you want to support your local economy by buying from farmers and food producers in your area, and you know that all of these decisions, in the end, benefit the health and sustainability of the planet. Write the reasons you’ve made this commitment and hang them on the refrigerator as a reminder. Some nights you will need the motivation.
We can wax poetic all day about the value of preparing home-cooked meals, but there’s also the practical side of everyday American life. It’s busy. Too busy? That’s for each of us to determine. Whatever you decide, here’s hoping that these time-saver tips keep you in the kitchen. It’s worth it.