Because I cook every day, I’ve become efficient at making dinner each night. Like anything, cooking (and the preparation behind it) is a skill that has to be learned. Luckily for me, on both my mom and my dad’s side of the family, there are many great and efficient cooks. As I was growing up, my mom would often call me into the kitchen to help her prepare dinner for our family, appetizers for guests, dessert for a party we’d attend, etc. I cherished this one-on-one time with her and developed a deep-rooted love for making and serving delicious food as well as a valuable skill-set that I use daily.
I’ve found that many of my friends who “don’t like to cook” are simply overwhelmed. There really are a lot of steps: deciding on a recipe, gathering ingredients (which usually means a trip to the grocery store), prepping the ingredients, cooking the meal (and side dishes), and then cleaning everything up. I wish I could invite each person who “doesn’t like to cook” into my home and teach her how much fun and how fulfilling it can be to put a beautiful meal on the table! Since that’s out of the question, and Food Network has yet to give me my own show (yes, Ree Drummond, I’ll come out to the ranch and cook with you…you don’t have to beg!), I’m sharing my not-so-secret method for efficiently putting a meal on the table without leaving the kitchen in shambles.
Step 1 | Meal Plan
I fought meal planning for years. I thought it was “over-the-top,” “too much work,” and “a waste of time.” Then, one day, shortly after I got married, I was listening to a podcast in the late afternoon (as I was opening and closing the refrigerator and pantry trying to come up with something to make for dinner), and the podcaster began speaking specifically on how much time and mental energy meal planning can save. I decided, why not? I’ll give it a try.
That’s when I started using an online meal planning site called Plan To Eat, which I thoroughly outlined in this post. Now, I meal plan for my entire week all at once. It has taken the guesswork out of cooking, which saves me–yep, you guessed it–both significant time and mental energy.
So, the bottom line? You need to meal plan. You don’t have to use a fancy online platform (though I love mine), just a piece of paper will do.
Step 2 | Create a Grocery List
Plan To Eat automatically adds all of the ingredients that I need to a list and separates them by category, but you could just as easily categorize the ingredients from your pre-planned recipes yourself. Just make sure you are shopping off of a list. Trying to pull up recipes on your phone to figure out what you need to purchase while you’re standing in the grocery store? Yeah, that isn’t the best way.
Before I shop, I always double-check my list against what I already have at home so I don’t end up with six blocks of cheddar cheese or ten pounds of ground beef.
Step 3 | Pull Out Ingredients The Night Before/The Morning Of
Before I go to bed, and when I wake up, I always think what am I making for dinner and do I need to pull anything out of the freezer or fridge now? Sometimes, I’ll have to thaw meat. Other times, a recipe will call for room temperature eggs or milk. This has become a part of my routine, so I do it without thinking. If you’re just starting to meal plan and cook, it would be a great idea to put a bright Post-It note on your fridge to remind you! It’s no fun to try to cook chicken fajitas at 5:00pm only to realize that your chicken is completely frozen!
Another tip: I often set an alarm on my phone in the morning for the time I’ll need to start cooking that evening. Sometimes I’ll get so entrenched in whatever I’m working on that I’ll forget that I’m making a meal that needs to cook for an hour or a soup that has to simmer for 30 minutes. I generally add 15-20 minutes of prep time to the cook time and then subtract that from 6:00pm, when Riley gets home from work. For example, if I’m making a chicken bake that takes 45 minutes to cook + 15 minutes of prep, I set an alarm at 5:00pm on my phone with a note to “Start Dinner!”
Step 4 | Prepare Your Kitchen
Each evening, before I begin to cook dinner, I prepare my kitchen. It takes me just 90 seconds, but it makes all the difference. I take out my trash can (it lives under the sink), I empty the sink, I pull out a cutting board and knife, I turn on the light and fan above my stove, I put on my apron, and I turn on a podcast or some music. If I’m thirsty, I grab a glass of water as well.
As I said, this won’t take long. But it makes cooking joyful and relaxing as opposed to frustrating and annoying. You won’t be fighting the breakfast dishes to fill up your pot with water or fumbling with raw meat juice on your hands to turn on the light. Consider this “setting the stage.”
Step 5 | Pre-Read Your Recipe + Prepare Your Ingredients
Always read your recipe before you start cooking! Always read your recipe before you start cooking! Always read your recip–okay, you get it. So often I think I know what a recipe is going to say, and then I’ll read through it and realize that it’s completely different from what I expected. (Like, I’ll assume that all of the salt will go in the sauce at the beginning only to realize that some of it should be reserved for the topping at the end.)
Preparing your ingredients will, of course, vary by recipe. Sometimes, you’ll have to chop lots of veggies, while other times, you’ll only have to measure a couple of tablespoons of spices. No matter how simple the recipe is, however, I always prepare my ingredients. This means taking out every single item you’ll need and putting it in an easily accessible place. Then, you’ll want to measure out each ingredient (if the list is short), or just pull out the necessary measuring cups/spoons and measure as you go (if the list is long).
If the recipe isn’t too involved, I love to measure out each ingredient into little ramekins and bowls. I feel like such a chef just tossing the pre-measured ingredients into the skillet!
Step 6 | Prepare Meal + Put Your Ingredients Away As You Go
After you’ve measured each ingredient, and added it to the recipe (or put it in a ramekin to add later), put it away. Right then. This will save so much time! Plus, quickly returning a spice jar to its home or the milk to the fridge is mindless and simple; but putting away ten or more ingredients after dinner can feel overwhelming and annoying.
Step 7 | Rinse Dishes (And Put Them In The Dishwasher) As You Cook
If I use a measuring cup to scoop flour, then after I’ve done so, I immediately rinse the cup and put it on the drying rack. If I whisk salad dressing together, I immediately rinse the whisk and throw it in the dishwasher. If I scrape the edges of a bowl with a spatula, I wash it off and put it in the dishwasher. You see the pattern?
The only time that I don’t immediately put dishes in the dishwasher is if they’d benefit from soaking first. Sometimes sticky or stubborn food (think brownie batter and the like) comes off more easily if it’s soaked first. In that case, I sit the bowl in the sink, drizzle in a little dish soap, add some hot water, and continue cooking. Still, I address each dish as I use it as much as I can.
When I’m writing this out, it sounds like I’m constantly washing dishes while I’m trying to cook. That, however, is not the case. This literally takes seconds. It’s super fast! I just stir, rinse, throw it in the dishwasher, and move on to the next step. The beauty in doing this is that the dishes don’t pile up–averting the overwhelming factor once again.
Step 8 | Cook Or Bake Meal + Set Timers
If you’re cooking your meal on the stovetop, get to it! If it needs to bake in the oven, go ahead and get it cooking. Don’t forget to set a timer! I have an old-fashioned timer that I use most often, but I rely on my microwave timer or phone timer sometimes as well.
Step 9 | Finish Cleaning Kitchen + Set Table
While your food is cooking, rinse out any of the dishes that have been soaking, load them up in the dishwasher, and wipe down your kitchen. This way, by the time your food is ready, you’ll have a completely reset kitchen, and the only dishes you’ll have to manage will be the ones on the table. This usually takes me just five minutes.
Speaking of which, this is a great time to set your table. I always set my dinner table while dinner is cooking. For me, this includes place settings and pouring iced tea (with extra lemon, always) into two glasses as well, but if you’re cooking for a larger group, it may be easier for each person to get their own drink, or for everyone to have water. Items to put on the table if necessary: salad dressing, butter, toppings, spices, condiments, a pitcher of water/tea/whatever, and serving utensils. I always light a candle, too!
Step 10 | Prepare Side Dishes
When there’s about 10 minutes left of cook time on the main dish, I often steam a bag of broccoli, throw together a salad, or bake a couple of dinner rolls to accompany our meal. This way, everything is hot and ready at the same time! (I make a conscious effort to keep side dishes simple!)
Step 11 | Eat + Enjoy
I cherish dinnertime with Riley each night. We often turn on music (usually classical, or a “dinner party” station on Spotify or Apple Radio…during the holidays we listened to Christmas music), we put our phones away, the TV goes off, we sit at our table, and enjoy each other’s company. Dinner usually lasts about an hour, and this is when we really have the chance to reconnect with one another and discuss our days.
Step 12 | Put Away Leftovers + Quick Clean Up
Once we’re finished dinner, we usually switch our music to something more upbeat and clean up together. (Or, if it’s been a particularly involved meal, Riley will offer to clean up everything himself. #thankful) This typically only takes a few minutes since the kitchen is already tidy. We’re really just rinsing off dishes, putting them into the dishwasher, and then running it! Our dishwasher is always full by this point since it has breakfast dishes, lunch dishes, and dinner dishes in it!
We make sure to save two servings of our meal for lunch the next day and we date and freeze the rest of it for dinner another night (those are the fastest dinner nights…just thaw and reheat!). Sometimes, we’ll wipe down the counters one more time. Then, we’re happy, full, and finished for the evening.
A note on time: I realize that breaking this process out into 12 steps both simplifies and complicates it. Truly, cooking dinner takes very little mental energy from me on a day-to-day basis and usually only 30 minutes or so of active preparation and cooking. I do these 12 steps at least five days a week, so they’re a part of my routine, making them fast and thoughtless. If you start to cook this way, you may find that it takes you a couple of days or weeks to become accustomed to cleaning up as you go. I’m convinced, however, that in the long run, you’ll fall in love with this efficient way of preparing dinner!
// How do you cook dinner efficiently? What time-saving tricks do you use?
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