Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Spend less time in the kitchen

By Ramona Creel

Food PREPARATION can take up a tremendous chunk of your life -- if you let it. Between grocery shopping, planning meals, preparing ingredients, cooking the actual meal, and cleaning up, there’s no time left for anything else! But here are some quick tips for reducing the amount of time you spend in the KITCHEN:

If you know what meals you are going to make for the upcoming week, you will spend less time in the kitchen than if you stand in front of the refrigerator each evening saying, “Hmm…I wonder what we should have for dinner.” Spend a few minutes on Saturday or Sunday before you go grocery shopping picking out your recipes for the week. Decide which dishes you want to make before you make your GROCERY LIST, and you won’t have to run out at the last minute because you are all out of beans for chili.

You can do all of your shopping once a week, instead of making three or four trips throughout the week. You can also plan ahead to make dishes that can easily be combined after the meal is over to form a new LEFTOVER dish. My mother’s favorite was to serve corn and lima beans as side dishes at two meals during the week, then combine any leftovers to make goulash. Nowadays, I just throw anything leftover in a pan for stir fry later in the week.

We are often seduced by the colorful pictures and tempting-sounding RECIPES we find in magazines and newspapers. However, the truth of the matter is that most people make no more than 10 or 20 different dishes regularly. Take a few minutes to gather up your FAVORITES and store them together in a notebook or card file (depending on how you keep your recipes). Aim for dishes that the whole family loves, are easy to make, take very little time, and use fairly basic ingredients. You can still keep the recipes for Truffle Souffle with Grand Marnier and Lobster Thermidor – just store those separately from your everyday dishes.

You might also consider setting up a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly SCHEDULE for cooking your favorites. One of my clients with three busy children has decided that Monday is always pasta night, Tuesday is a casserole, Wednesday is grilling out, Thursday is soup, and Friday is pizza. It saves her time and energy, and she never has to deal with the question, “What’s for dinner?”

One of the best time-management decisions I ever made was to do the majority of my cooking all on ONE DAY of the week. I usually go grocery shopping on Sunday mornings (less crowded than Saturday), and I’ll spend about 2 hours in the kitchen cooking for the entire week. I make about 3 or 4 “one-dish” meals that my husband and I can each for lunches and quick dinners – usually including a casserole, a soup, and a pasta dish. These get stored in our fridge in MEAL-SIZED containers, ready to be taken to work or reheated at home. I also cut up veggies for salad and stir-fry and store them in Tupperware containers, make a big jug of green tea for the week, and put together a couple of quick desserts.

Then, for the rest of the week, we don’t have to do much of anything to eat a healthy meal. We might throw together a salad, or make a stir-fry and grill some fish, or eat one of my pre-prepared dishes. And we save MONEY because we don’t end up eating out as much when we’ve got plenty of good food in the house. It’s a complete win-win situation!

Whenever you are cooking, you get into a groove. As you do a lot of one activity, it gets easier and quicker. So when you first start chopping onions, the going is slow. But by the time you are on your 5th onion, you are breezing through it. So take a few minutes as you are preparing ingredients to do more than you need for that particular recipe. Chop an entire bag of onions, grate a whole block of cheese, make a huge pot of tomato sauce rather than just enough for one meal. You can freeze or refrigerate the extras and save yourself a little time the next time you get ready to cook.

One of the biggest kitchen challenges my clients with kids face is getting those SCHOOL LUNCHES ready. Not only does preparing a lunch (or 4 lunches, depending on the number of kids) each morning take a tremendous amount of time, it’s not a very efficient way to get your kids ready. So on grocery shopping day when you come home with the ingredients for your kids’ lunches, have your children help put their meals together for the week.

Store INDIVIDUAL-SIZED portions of chips, pretzels, cookies, and other snacks in Ziploc bags. Set up 5 brown paper bags for each child, complete with a snack, a drink box, pudding cup, fruit roll-up, etc. in each. Then mark the bags with the child’s name and day of the week and line them up on a shelf in the pantry. When that day rolls around, all you have to do is add a sandwich or soup! You will save time each morning, and it will keep your kids from eating all of their school snacks before the school day arrives.

How many times has this happened to you – you are making dinner, need some (garlic, mustard, milk, basil, whatever), and you pull out an EMPTY container. Someone used the last of your precious ingredient and didn’t bother to let you know that you needed more. This is particularly annoying when you do it to yourself! The best way to prevent this kind of crisis is to follow the 3/4 RULE. Whenever you find that something is three-fourths empty, put it on the grocery list and buy more. Keep a notepad on the front of the refrigerator so that family members can add to the list as they notice items running low.

Another good trick is to buy in BULK whenever money and space allows. This is particularly important for those non-perishable items you use all the time -- tuna fish, rice, peanut butter, juice boxes, etc. -- your STAPLES. Keep enough of these foods on hand so that you won’t find yourself running out at a crucial moment. Shopping at a wholesale club like Sam’s or Costco can also save you a ton of money over the long-run.

Cooking scares a lot of people -- not because they dread the act of preparing a meal, but because they dread facing the MESS that’s left when they are done! But if you will take the time to CLEAN as you go -- put those dirty utensils in the dishwasher, wipe up that spill before it becomes a stain, and take out the trash from your food preparation before it piles up mile-high -- cooking is more enjoyable, less stressful, and incredibly less time-consuming. Not to mention the fact that your kitchen smells a whole lot better!

Ramona Creel is a Professional Organizer and the founder of -- offering "a world of organizing solutions!" Visit for organizing products, free tips, a speakers bureau -- and even get a referral for a Professional Organizer near you. And if you are interested in becoming a Professional Organizer, we have all the tools you need to succeed. If you would like to reprint this article, you may do so as long as you include this full resource box. (Copyright Ramona Creel)

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