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What are some good tips to streamline the process of preparing food?

While i enjoy cooking and eating fresh, the whole thing takes up a lot of time.

What do you do to speed that up? Do you prepare food in advance and freeze it? How do you set up your kitchen for more efficiency?

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Outsource the task. Hire / marry someone to cook for you. – John Nov 6 '12 at 21:53
There seems to be a book about cooking by the guy who did "the 4 hour work week" i'm kind of tempted. – kioopi Nov 8 '12 at 14:03
buy a pot noodle. boil a kettle. pour in the water. eat. thats got to be the quickest way apart from eating hot dogs straight from the tin. – beardedtester Nov 9 '12 at 17:04
I typically cook a week worth of stew/curry, takes 2-3 hrs of prep and cook time but then I eat it for a week – amphibient Jan 10 '13 at 22:49
@john Lol at marry some to cook for you! :-) – AndrewJacksonZA Apr 4 '13 at 11:59

15 Answers 15

up vote 23 down vote accepted

If you enjoy your cooking but don't wish to compromise what you cook, here are some speed-ups:

  • Minimise washing up if no dishwasher. Re-use bowls, giving them an instant rinse if necessary. Use just-emptied cans to measure liquids instead of measuring cups. Reuse measuring spoons by measuring out dry ingredients first (so they don't stick to a wet spoon), better still learn how to estimate well so you don't need spoons. Use throwaway zip-lock bags instead of reusable plastic containers, foil roast pans instead of oven pans and Pansavers allow you even to cook stovetop without dirtying the saucepan.

  • If using a recipe, read it through first. Often recipes don't specify optimal multitasking.

  • Develop superfast knife skills and always have sharp knives.

  • Don't muck around getting last bits of food out of cans and bottles. Just chuck 'em.

  • Get all ingredients out at once and put back all together. I don't however prepare quantities up front (like TV shows do) as it creates too much washing up (except stir fries where there isn't the time)

  • Becoming knowledgeable as to which processes are truly quicker. Slicing 20 carrots might be quicker with a mandolin, but a few carrots quicker with a knife. Creaming butter with a stand-mixer might be quicker than with the food-processor.

  • Pull small cuts of meat out of fridge for 10-15 before cooking, larger pieces like a whole chicken even 30 minutes. They'll cook quicker and more even.

  • Apron you can wipe your hands on to save constant trips to the sink and tea-towel.

  • For things like noodles which are added to boiling water, start with hot water from the tap (assuming non-contaminating pipes) , or even kettle.

  • Have scissors handy so you don't spend minutes fighting with plastic packages opening them, then picking up everything that got flown across the room in the process.

  • Clear lots of bench space so you're not shuffling things around constantly.

  • Have salt, pepper and sugar containers suitable for pinching from living permanently close to the stove. Don't waste time grinding, especially not over a steaming pot--the steam will cause the grinding mechanism to clog plus you'll probably have to waste more time either cleaning your hands before grinding or cleaning your grinders after.

  • Rather than tediously trying to peel the skin from halved onions in prep for dicing, it's much, much quicker to remove the outermost 'white' layer. Either discard or you'll notice the skin just about falls off the removed outer layer so it can be chopped, especially if pressed inside out.

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Definitely kettle for boiling water - cuts at least 5 minutes out! – Rory Alsop Nov 7 '12 at 10:27
Some good answers here, kind of hard to pick one. This answer is really good and it is the one with the most different tips. – kioopi Nov 8 '12 at 9:19
A couple of the items here favour generating waste. Might be more efficient time-wise, but not helpful for the environment. – Burhan Ali Dec 26 '12 at 13:27
-1 for suggesting throwing away excess food. OP's speed should not be bought at the expense of waste which puts more burden on our environment. – einpoklum Jul 26 '15 at 10:41
If OP gives up cooking because of lack of time and buys prepackaged meals or take-out, OP will be doing far worse for the environment. In the time the OP saves, he/she might be doing something more than offsetting the extra burden caused. – jontyc Jul 27 '15 at 17:39

Here are some thoughts.

1) Learn how to use a microwave oven. Not all food that comes out of a microwave oven has to be fast food or taste bad. You can also use it to cook "real" food. Look for a cookbook that focuses on microwave cooking.

2) Precook fresh food in larger batches, keep it in the fridge, and heat it up when you're ready to eat. I have started steaming lots of veggies ahead of time. I buy baby carrots even though they are more expensive because then I don't have to chop them in order to steam them. I just dump them in the steamer and turn it on.

Note: Steaming on the stove top (not the microwave) doesn't take that long, and I like the results better than trying to steam food in the microwave.

I'm sure there are other ideas here too.

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Any recommendations for microwave cookbooks? I find it hard to get balanced heating on microwaved food. – Muz Nov 6 '12 at 17:01
I have no specific recommendations for books. My MW oven has a turntable in the middle to help get even heating, but I still have problems sometimes. – Chris Quenelle Nov 7 '12 at 17:15

There are a lot of sites devoted to "Once a Month Cooking" which can really save a lot of time. You might not want to prepare a month at a time, but it's easily adapted to a week or two. Here are some sites with methods, recipes, etc:

etc. The best thing I glean from these sites are some particular recipes that I can use for batch cooking...

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This is something I hadn't previously heard about. I've been meaning to do "once a week" cooking where I just make an insanely huge amount of something on the weekend to eat the rest of the week but this seems like a whole new level. I will be experimenting. – Tortilaman Jan 18 '13 at 6:03

You will increase the efficiency of your kitchen and greatly increase the quality of your food if you do all your food prep ahead of time.

  1. Be in possession of two or three medium sized bowls and half a dozen little monkey bowls and 2 or 3 SHARP, good quality knives.

  2. Get all your ingredients together in one place before you start.

  3. Chop all your veg and meat before you start the cooking process, and have them ready in bowls. Things that go into the pan at the same time get chopped into the same bowl.

  4. Chop veg before you chop meat. This cuts down on the amount of intermediate washing up you need to do.

  5. Learn how to handle your knife, and learn how to chop an onion properly. This saves huge amounts of time.

  6. Keep a well stocked pantry so you always have something to cook without making a run to the grocery store. If you have noodles and rice, eggs, wine, carrots, onions and a can of tomatoes, you'll never starve. Explore tofu. It keeps in the fridge much longer than meat.

  7. Plan large cooking events ahead of time and spread the work out over a few days.

  8. Enslave your dinner guests.

  9. Get a copy of the Joy of Cooking.

  10. Learn to cook well. When you can make a stew without looking at a cookbook, when you see a vegetable in the market and you automatically know what you need to buy in order to turn it into food, then cooking will stop being a personal productivity problem and become a natural part of life.

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If your methodology is anything like mine, it goes along the lines of:

  1. Ask spouse/family what to eat today. Often it's along the lines of "what we didn't eat yesterday" (which is why batch cooking doesn't work for me).
  2. Decide to look inside fridge for inspiration, finding a lot of expired meat or lots of that thing we ate yesterday.
  3. Drive out and find parking at the local supermarket, spending at least an hour parking and queuing up at the crowded weekend counter. Spend around another hour shopping for something that looks tasty. Spend more hours if it's not at that supermarket (my record was once going out at 1 PM, going back at 6, looking for lamb shoulders).
  4. Drive back, cook for at another hour.
  5. Decide to eat out next time. Realize that outside food is not only expensive, but disappointingly bad, so go back to 1.

The bottlenecks here are in shopping for ingredients and deciding what to eat. If you want to try something new, there's a lot of time spent Googling those meals.

So, the solution is to simply decide what to eat in advance. My wife and I take about an hour of our weekend planning our meals for the week. This saves us time from having to decide what we (don't) have. And we can do all our Googling for meals at once. Decision goes a lot faster the more we do it.

We list down ingredients we need, and grab them on the way home from work, saving us half the transit time. Since we know everything we have and need for the week, we don't buy more than we need, so it doesn't go stale. There's a night/farmer's market in my city twice a week, and by bulk shopping there, we get high quality, fresh ingredients and save a lot of time on parking.

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One option not yet mentioned is selecting food types which require very little active time.

  • Stir frys are quite rapid from start to finish. These are my go-to if I am in a rush
  • Dishes like pasta bakes can be very effective: a short amount of prep time, then bung in the oven and go and do something else for the 30 or 40 minutes it will take to cook.
  • Soups, stews, chillis and the like are also low effort - just throw the ingredients in a pot and simmer. Even better, you can cook a large pot and eat over the course of a few days
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My primary "tricks":

  1. Cook for more than one day at once. Heat the extra in a microwave the next day (or two).
  2. Think which parts of cooking depend on previous ones, and try to minimize idle time - prepare something while waiting for another
  3. Use multiple pans at once, if needed. Don't cook one item at a time.
  4. Clean up when done, and prepare the tools for the next time

I often ready up everything the night before, so while half asleep in the morning, the items are already prepared for use. Then I just turn on the stove and take foods from the fridge (in one tray).

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I'm using steamer. I allow You to prepare healthy food, and all cooking time is basically preparation time - after You put everything inside You don't need to do anything. Safe, healthy and You can do anything during steam cooking cause there is no fire and no need to observe process.

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  • Jars of sauce save a lot of time preparing. I will buy jars of curry sauce, sweet and sour, chilli con carne etc and then I just need to cook some chicken or mince and chuck the sauce in.
  • Get a good wok - you can cook almost anything in it.
  • Rice needs almost no preparation and goes with anything - microwave rice is even better, but can be very expensive compared to dried.
  • For days when you really don't want to cook, stock the freezer with chips, frozen chicken, etc that you can just put on a baking tray and oven cook for 15 minutes.
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I do more and more multitasking while cooking:

  • hear my podcasts or watch youtube watch later vids
  • checking emails, a samll tablet you can hang up while cutting vegetables is good here.
  • there are some apps and also more and more websites offer to read aloud the text.

Otherwise I would probably fall back to microwave and fast food.

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you might want to try something like this Panasonic Microcomputer Controlled Fuzzy Logic Rice Cooker

despite the name, it's good not for rice cooking only; there are lots of recipes (soups, cakes, meats etc). It might be tricky to get started, but it's a real timesaver.

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There are cookbooks that specialize in meals that havea speedy prep time. Go look for some.

My real go to when I don't have lots of time though is what I refer to as canned soup. I take some broth (Usually chicekn or vegatable) or a can of soup like mushroom soup or tomato basil soup. Then I throw in ingredients from other canned or frozen vegatbles such as fire-roasted tomatoes, chickpeas, corn, green beans, onions(you can buy thee chopped up and frozen), peas, etc.

I can also put a sandwich and a salad together in less than five minutes especially if I buy the prechopped veggies at the store.

And preplanning helps. Make a chicken or turkey or ham or roast beef on the weekend. Then use the leftovers on Monday and throw together a casserole. Then on Tuesday make a soup from the left overs, etc.

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For cooking frozen meat,

When you buy meat to put in the freezer, take each piece out (for chicken/pork/steak) and wrap individually -- I use ziplock bags. Freeze them. It will be much easier when you want to cook X portions of meat!

To build on that,

If you're having frozen meat for dinner tonight or tomorrow, pull it out of the freezer and put it into the fridge in the morning. Meat is much easier to cook when it is thawed!

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So far this week we have had Cholent, beef bourguignon, Chicken Gumbo and Chicken Hotpot all done in a slow cooker. It takes about 10-20 mins to prepare either last thing at night or first thing in the morning. For more complicated dishes like Lasagne or Mousaka we prepare them at the weekend put them in the fridge and stick them oven on a timer for when we come home from work.

Most cooking doesn't take that long with planned preparation, you wouldn't sit in a restaurant for and hour or so waiting for your minute stake. The chef from experience knows how long it will take him to prepare and dish up.

Invest in good cookbooks that tell you preparation time.

We plan our weekly meals at the weekend and do an on-line shop accordingly. It does take the spontaneity out of it a bit and from time to time you come home and think to yourself "I really don't fancy what's in the slow cooker/oven" but, then my wife and children do and so I just join in.

A note on veggies, most veggies (except for spuds and other root vegetables- but they go in the slow cooker) should not be cooked longer than 10 mins or so. So if you've chopped up a cabbage the nigh before just drop it in a pot of boiling water and there you have it. You could get a steamer and pre-fill it and put it on a timer.

Just to give a bit of context we are a working family of four. Myself and my Wife both work 9 to 6ish sometimes later. Our children are 5&7 and both at school. Every evening at 7ish we sit down for a family meal. We are a nuclear family with only after school child-minding from 5:30 until we get home.

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There are two things I have found that have helped me:

a. Spend less time cooking, and

b. Eat better food

The first is picking a day of the week (usually Sunday) to do as much food prep as I can. Honestly, I don't like doing it so I generally say I am committing 30 minutes to it. I put on a show or podcast to listen to in the kitchen and cut up lettuce, get meat ready, etc. etc. Putting a time limit on it is critical for me, otherwise I don't even want to start.

The second is reading the Tim Ferriss book the 4-Hour Chef. I am not a cook by any means - and this book is huge, which is daunting. But if you skip the recipes and only glance at the sections where he recommends products - the things he teaches about how to efficiently cook things has changed my life forever. Some of what I used to hate doing the most is now the most fun.

Hope that helps!

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