My time-saving kitchen tips

March 15, 2018 at 10:20 pm (Cooking tips, How to cook, Monthly menu plan)


There is never enough time. I thought life was busy before, but now that I have a toddler I really need all the extra time I can get. I’ve been striving to optimize our cooking routines, so that we spend less time planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. I’m still struggling, but here are a few strategies we’ve started using to save time in the kitchen. The vast majority of them involve the freezer, which is why we recently upgraded to a massive five-drawer freezer!

  1. Pre-chopping seasoning staples like garlic, ginger and olives and freezing them:
    1. About once a month Derek chops up a huge batch of garlic and freezes it in this silicon mini ice cube tray (the small size). I think he usually does about 4 heads of garlic at a time, but it depends on the size of the heads. He peels the garlic cloves by hand then chops them in our mini chopper. Each cube is about 1 teaspoon of chopped garlic, which is somewhere between 1 and 2 medium cloves of garlic.
    2. Also about once a month I chop up a bunch of ginger and freeze it in another silicon ice cube tray. I have a different ice cube tray I got for this purpose, but I don’t love it.
    3. Rather than pitting and chopping kalamata olives when we need them for a recipe, Derek will buy a large amount and pit them and chop them all at once, then we freeze them in glass jars in the right amount for pasta puttanesca or greek green beans. I’d love to just buy pre-pitted kalamata olives, but the pitted ones we can get have strange preservatives in them and taste pretty bad.
    4. I haven’t done it yet, but I’d love to figure out how to prep and freeze onions. Do I need to saute them first? Or should I freeze them raw? Apparently, unlike most vegetables, you don’t have to blanch onions before freezing them.  But will they taste the same? And how can I chop them in large quantities? The food processor just mangles them.
    5. Other ideas?
  2. Making sauces in large quantities and freezing them. Specifically:
    1. I now make Annie’s Goddess dressing in large batches (4 cups at once) and freeze it in small jars (about 1/2 cup per jar). A friend told me that I can just leave it in the fridge. Anyone know if this is safe if it has raw garlic and herbs in it? How long can I leave it in the fridge?
    2. We now make a quadrupled recipe of sesame noodle sauce and freeze the extra 3 servings in small glass jars.
    3. I got a ton of basil from my CSA this week and so I made a big batch of pesto and froze it in small jars. We’ll see how that works out, but it’s not such a win since so far Alma won’t eat it. Too flavorful I think.
    4. I’d really like to find a stir-fry sauce I could make in advance and freeze, but I don’t have one yet. Any suggestions?
    5. Also I’d love another toddler-friendly dressing recipe to go on salads or buddha bowls. Ideas?
  3. Freezing staples:
    1. Whenever I make beans or whole grains or porridge I make extra and freeze the extras in glass jars.
    2. Whenever organic red, orange, or yellow bell peppers are on sale I buy a ton (maybe 6 to 10?) and roast them in the oven, then peel them and freeze them in these “bombs“.
    3. This isn’t quite a “staple”, but whenever pomegranates are on sale I buy a few and open them all at once (often when watching TV). I freeze them in 1/2 cup glass jars. I can then easily pull one out and add it to a salad, add it to a wrap, use it for an Alma snack, or even give it to her for dessert. They defrost extremely fast and taste pretty much the same as fresh pomegranate.
    4. Other ideas for other veggies or fruit I could prep in advance and freeze? I do sometimes make pumpkin or squash or sweet potato puree and freeze the extras for pumpkin chia pudding, but that’s not so helpful.
  4. Freezing whole recipes or even meals when possible:
    1. When I make quinoa spinach croquettes I make a large batch and freeze them for quick weekday breakfasts.
    2. When I make beluga lentils and beets for dinner I freeze a container of sliced beets and lentils. Then to make a full dinner I just have to wash some salad greens and pull out a jar of Annie’s dressing from the freezer. If I have extra time I will toast some walnuts or pepitas to go with it.
    3. I’ve been making a really big batch of granola and then serving it for breakfast on rushed mornings (often mixed with muesli). I leave half out and freeze half, so that the nuts don’t go rancid.
    4. Other dishes I make big batches of and freeze: lentil soup, caulitots, banana pancakes, hummus, baked oatmeal, black bean and sweet potato burritos, my Mom’s tofu chili.
    5. When I make a smoothie and the blender is already dirty I make extra (either a really large batch or a second batch) and freeze the extra in glass bottles. Then when we have a rushed morning ahead of us I can pull them out the night before and leave them in the fridge, and give Alma a smoothie in the car on the way to daycare.
  5. Relying more on frozen veggies.
    1. So far I’ve been making greek green beans with frozen green beans, frozen dill, jarred tomatoes, and my frozen garlic and kalamata olives (see above). All I have to do is chop up an onion, so it’s pretty fast.
    2. Another mostly from the freezer recipe that I make is asparagus fava bean barley ragout. I use frozen fava beans and frozen green peas. I’m guessing you could also use frozen barley or another grain. If I have leftover whole wheat pasta in the fridge, then the whole meal can be done in about 20 minutes.
    3. I’d love more such ideas for fromfreezer-ingredients dinners, but that’s my only one so far.  Of course, I do make use of frozen veggies (like peas, corn, edamame and spinach) as well. But those aren’t really whole meals.

Other than the freezer ideas, I don’t have too many tips, but here are a few things I’m trying:

  1. Going simpler. I’m trying to make simpler dinners (especially since it makes Alma happy), but it goes against my nature. It’s very much a work in progress. Specific suggestions are welcome.
  2. Setting things up in my instant pot in the morning so that they are done when we walk in the door in the evening. I haven’t really managed to use my instant pot to make recipes (mostly because Alma doesn’t yet like most “mixed” dishes). But I have used it to have lentils ready when we get home, or sweet potatoes, beets, or brown rice. Or I’ll set up oatmeal in the instant pot the night before, so it’s ready in the morning when we get up.
  3. Using a queueing approach to menu planning. I’m trying to reduce time spent menu planning by using a new strategy of keeping track of what I make in a queue. Then when we’re menu planning I can just start at the top of the queue (with the oldest items) and pull off anything that looks good or uses the veggies I have on hand.
  4. Use the weekend to get ahead, but don’t try to do everything on one day. I plan one day, shop another day, and prep on yet a third day. I usually pick up our CSA veggies on Friday afternoon. Then after we put Alma to bed on Friday we do our meal planning and decide what we’re going to make for the next few days (usually Saturday through Tuesday or Wednesday), and what we need to get to supplement our CSA produce. Saturday is our biggest shopping day. I often end up needing to go to the farmer’s market, the Asian store, the Turkish store, and the supermarket. Or perhaps the organic shop or the Sri Lankan grocery. I rarely manage to get everything in just one or two stops. Between shopping and taking Alma to the park and making dinner I don’t have much energy left. So if I’m going to do any extra meal prep work, I do it on Sundays, when the stores are closed in Germany and there’s usually not much going on. That’s often the day I’ll make a big batch of hummus or granola or Annie’s dressing…
  5. I made a custom shopping list template that I can print out each week. I’ve tried various apps but I just haven’t found one that’s as easy for me as pencil and paper. So I made a custom shopping list. At the top of the page is actually not my shopping list but various sections for what I currently have in the fridge and freezer. At the bottom is my ongoing shopping list, organized by food type and store. Whenever I run low on something, I add it to my shopping list. On the right side I number the recipes I’m planning on making, so I can see which ingredient I need for which recipe. I’ll post the template with more commentary later. I no longer bring my shopping list with me to the store, since I’ve forgotten/lost it too many times. Now I just take a photo of it on my phone before leaving the house.
  6. Do fewer dishes! We use one water glass per person until it’s dirty. (For Alma this is usually one or two days, for Derek or I we can go longer.) This one seems totally obvious to me but apparently it’s not obvious to all of my guests, as some of them take a new glass every time they want a drink of water! We just leave our water glasses out on the kitchen table. When it’s just the three of us at home, we each pick a different looking glass, so we always know whose glass is whose. If we have family staying with us we will use these wine glass markers to write names on people’s glasses.
  7. Use weights not volume measures. For recipes that I make often I try to write down the weights of various ingredients (especially sticky ones like tahini or miso) so that I don’t have to get cup measures dirty. I can just measure the ingredient right into the mixing bowl.
  8. Peel less. Here in Germany many acquaintances peel cucumbers and apples before they give them to their kids. I have no idea why. And so many recipes say to peel potatoes. Fools! I try to peel vegetables as little as possible. When I make sweet potato oven fries I even leave the skin on, unless they looks really mangled.
  9. Be strategic about help. Derek is willing to help in the kitchen, but it’s best to have him make one of a few recipes he knows well or do one of a small set of tasks he does often, rather than asking him to do something he’s not very comfortable with. So I have him halve and gut winter squash (which is hard for me) or prep a big batch of garlic (which I find boring and stinky), or make a batch of pasta puttanesca. Alma’s “help” is usually more time-consuming than not having her help (she’s only 3!), but there are a few tasks she can do that do actually save me time, like washing and spinning lettuce or sorting produce. She’s even starting to be able to cut veggies like zucchini independently.

That’s it so far. Anyone else have other suggestions for me on how to save time in the kitchen?

Tips I’ve tried that haven’t worked so well for us:

  • Prep veggies in advance. Many different kitchen hack lists suggest prepping veggies all at once / chopping up vegetables in bulk at the beginning of the week. I don’t get it though. They seem to get old tasting very quickly, and sometimes even start to rot before I use them. I don’t understand why other people say this works well for them. I saw one lady say to put each prepped ingredient in small ziplock bags and then the small ziplock bags for the recipe in one large ziplock bag. Maybe that does help the ingredients stay fresh longer. But then do you have to wash out and dry all those bags? And I try not to store food in plastic if I can help it.
  • Make lots of one-pot suppers. This would work fine for Derek and me, but 3-year-old Alma is (most of the time) vehemently opposed to such meals. They’re… drumroll …. mixed (gasp) and usually contain spices (scream!) and herbs (death rattle ensues). Sheet pan suppers sound appealing, but they’re rarely vegetarian. Plus, they don’t seem like they’d make enough to have any leftovers, which is a bummer. Although this recipe for sheet pan cauliflower nachos does look delicious.
  • Make two-for-one meals. I keep seeing sites that say to roast a chicken, eat it for dinner, then eat the leftovers in a salad one day, and in a quesadilla the next day. I haven’t figured out how to apply this idea to my vegetarian diet though.
  • Just double or triple recipes and make more food, so we have more leftovers. My friend Katrina says I should get 3 meals out each time I cook. But other than the freezable meals I mentioned above, this hasn’t worked out so well. I often have trouble scaling recipes sufficiently. I often make vegetable dishes in my 12-inch skillet, and there’s simply not room to double the recipe. Or I do make extra big portions and then everyone gets sick of it and no one wants to eat the leftovers. For example, lots of sites say when you’re roasting veggies you should roast an extra tray of vegetables. But no one likes the leftover roasted veggies as much as the fresh ones. And if I cut them up in advance… (see the prep point above). Alma in particular is not a big fan of leftovers. Most often I only get 1 dinner and 1 lunch out of a recipe. I think probably the solution is just for us to eat smaller portions!
  • Make DIY dinners.  I like this idea, and I think Alma would like it, but I haven’t actually make it work yet. The idea is to plan dinners like a do-it-yourself taco bar,  buddha bowl, or ramen soup. You just set out / quickly cook whatever you have in the fridge (especially leftovers!) and let people assemble their own meal. It sounds nice, but I’m wondering if it will actually save time. Whenever I’ve tried it, I felt like I was actually cooking way more than normal!
  • Eat salad for dinner several times a week. My friend Katrina suggested this one, and I really don’t get it. She said her husband can throw together a dinner salad in 5 minutes. Whaaat? How? It actually takes me quite a long time to make a dinner salad. Between washing, spinning and tearing up the salad greens, washing and chopping the all the veggies, toasting some nuts, perhaps cooking some veggies or tofu—it takes just as long if not longer as a non-salad meal. Plus, even if the salad is really yummy, none of us really want salad for dinner several times a week!
  • Save and reuse weekly menus. I don’t know how people do this. Each week is different. Different veggies from our CSA box, different items look fresh in the store, different sales, different time-constraints due to different activities…

Also a few bonus tips that don’t necessarily save time but do reduce waste:

  • I save many of my veggie scraps to make my own vegetable broth.
  • I recently learned that if I’m not going to eat a whole avocado in one setting I should cut it in half the short way rather than the long way. It stays fresh much better! Less brown bits to scrape off.
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2 Comments

  1. 2hours20people said,

    They sell frozen diced onions, so you should be able to freeze them yourself.

    Do you have any blue apples? They will help keep your cut up veggies (and non cut up veggies) fresher.

    We’ve been working out menu planning too. I have a google spreadsheet for the month with a slot for breakfast and dinner for each day (on Keto I only eat two meals a day). Once a month I fill in the calendar with what I want to eat. Then I have a tab for each recipe. Each tab also has the ingredients needed for the recipe separated out. Once a week I make a list that has all of the ingredients needed for the week together, and we shop from that list. In the past we’ve created a list that has everything we buy by where it is in our path through the store, but it’s been awhile since we’ve used that strategy.

    I used to be able to buy and eat frozen dinners, but I have yet to find one I can eat on my diet.

  2. austingardener said,

    When I open a can of coconut milk I use maybe 1/4 of the can and freeze the rest in ice cube trays.

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