Lack of kitchen efficiency is one of the most common complaints I hear - I certainly empathise with that, considering the time it takes to prepare healthy food, not to mention the planning and washing up involved. Having said that, unless a client has the budget to have most meals prepared for them, there will almost always be a requirement to spend more time in the kitchen when improved health is the goal. It’s just the way things work.
It’s also important to remember that time and money spent in the kitchen is the best investment you can make for yourself and your family. It’s a cliché because it happens to be true. There are ways to make it more fun – explore new foods, listen to a podcast or favourite music while cooking, cook with a friend or partner and catch up at the same time.
With that important introduction done, let’s get cooking! Here are my favourite ways to be more efficient in the kitchen without losing your sanity. Some of these methods will be known to you already, and some will be new. My intention writing this article is to have all of the methods explained in one place. Some of the methods can also be combined, if you really want to supercharge your kitchen efficiency.
I’ve included pro’s and con’s for each method along with details of any special equipment required and further resources. I've also listed complementary methods if you want to combine more than one technique to supercharge your kitchen efficiency! Feel free to use the links below to skip to relevant sections if you prefer that to reading the whole article.
Meal Planning involves spending time - usually each week - deciding what meals will be prepared, either for an individual, couple or family. At the same time as the meals are decided on, a shopping list is also devised.
Meals for each day are written down either freeform or in a special template. Most templates will also have room for the shopping list. Mastering a few key meals that you know are popular in your house is key to making this work.
This method can be done as a standalone method where meals are cooked at the time of eating, or it can be combined with the Meal Prep method – see below. Of course, it can also generate leftovers which is another efficiency method.
Pros: Can keep individuals and families on track; cuts down on waste; can help with budget; minimises meal time stress; helpful when restrictive diets are required (eg. low histamine, gluten free, fat loss); this method works whatever cooking equipment you have.
Cons: May feel repetitive or lack spontaneity; takes time to get the hang of it
Special equipment: Pen and paper, printer for meal planning templates
Goes well with: Meal Prep, Freezer Meals, Leftovers
Recommended Resources: Free supermarket magazines, DIY meal planning templates (free online), ready made meal plans such as this range from The Kitchn; recipe-inspiration websites such as Food52, Serious Eats, goodfood.com.au
Meal Planning service Plan to Eat
Meal Planning 101 from Bake your Day
This efficiency method is often favoured by those who follow IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) – a form of “flexible dieting” that uses calculations based on current weight, goal weight, height, body measurements and activity level. This information determines the percentage breakdown of the different macronutrients that the person is given to follow – protein, carbohydrate and fat. The Meal Prep method can also be used by anyone, even if macro dieting isn’t used.
IIFYM is a very individual way of approaching dieting and is best combined with a wholefoods approach since micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients) are just as important as macronutrients. There are those out there who aren’t so concerned with micronutrients however, and may even recommend junk food as long as it fits in with the prescribed macronutrient percentages. I definitely don’t recommend the junk food approach, though I think it’s important to find a balance between pleasure and good nutrition when it comes to eating.
There are two main ways to do Meal Prep. One involves spending a few hours - usually twice per week - cooking up separate meal components (eg. different types of protein and carbs with some added dressings and fruit to mix and match). I’ve detailed this method further in Batch Cooking Mix n’ Match. The second way involves cooking entire dishes, rather than a mix and match approach. Examples include dishes such as beef stew, lentil dhal, Bolognese, Japanese curry – the list goes on really.
Snacks are often organised at the same time as the meal prep, particularly for people following an IIFYM approach.
This preparation time helps to keep the individual on track because once that is done, it’s as simple as reaching in to the fridge at the time of each meal or snack. No thinking is needed at the time of each meal or snack and it’s easier to stick to the diet.
A “cheat meal” is often factored in to allow for spontaneity and to avoid feelings of deprivation which often derail best laid plans. Others include a small amount of pleasure foods every day instead of the cheat meal approach.
Pros: Easier to stay on track; high level of variety as long as macro’s are followed
Cons: Need to find time twice per week to prep; may feel restrictive or boredom may set in; the measuring may be too much of a trigger for those predisposed to disordered eating; requires plenty of fridge or freezer space
Special equipment: Digital kitchen scales, access to online macro calculator (eg. My Fitness Pal) pen and paper, storage containers, plenty of space in fridge or freezer
Pro-Tip: Use different cooking methods/gadgets simultaneously to save time – eg. use the oven at the same time as the slow cooker, pressure cooker and the stove.
Goes well with: Leftovers, Freezer Cooking
The advent of refrigeration decades ago and, more recently, popular kitchen gadgets like slow cookers and pressure cookers has revolutionised the way people prepare and consume food, with leftover meals now a staple of most home cooks.
This method goes hand in hand with meal planning and can also be used for takeaway meals.
Pros: very easy to double recipes; convenient; can reduce stress around meal times
Cons: Potential boredom; small risk of food poisoning if food is left too long; may be difficult for those with histamine intolerance; some recipes aren’t always suitable for freezing; depending on quantity, may require plenty of space in fridge or freezer
Special equipment: Some spare space in fridge or freezer; storage containers
Goes well with: Meal Planning, Meal Prep, Freezer Meals
Recommended Resources: Food Safety 101 from TheKitchn
Freezer cooking has become quite popular in the last few years, especially since the rise in popularity of slow cookers and pressure cookers which allow for large amounts of a meal to be cooked at once.
Freezer cooking simply involves setting aside time once a week or once a month to cook a large amount of freezer-suitable meals that can simply be picked out from the freezer and reheated when needed.
Pros: High level of convenience; variety of pre-prepared meals.
Cons: Large amount of freezer space needed; a large chunk of time needs to be set aside for cooking day; some types of ingredients and meals are not suitable for freezing
Special Equipment: plenty of freezer space needed, containers, printer and labels (or marker pen)
Pro-tip: Ziploc bags are re-usable, they can be washed and re-used, a la Sarah Wilson from I Quit Sugar
This is actually my preferred way of cooking as I find it saves me time, but doesn’t require a large amount of fridge and freezer space or formal meal planning.
What I do is cook bits and pieces of different types of protein and carbohydrates that I can then mix and match to prepare each meal at the time of eating (or slightly in advance). Variety comes with the use of favourite condiments like salad dressings or hot sauce, and pre-washed salad greens. Ready to eat components such as tinned or smoked fish work really well here too and add to the convenience.
So, for protein, it may be chicken breast, roasted meatballs (pre-made meatballs even better), fishcakes or smoked salmon. These can be cooked using any preferred method, though I do recommend oven baking as it is very hands-off, and a large amount may be done at once - just remember to set a timer!). I like to batch cook ready-made meatballs in the oven –I just buy the packets of meatballs already made from the supermarket, put them in the oven and hey, presto! – protein at the ready. Chicken breast can also be done very quickly in the pressure cooker and then shredded to mix and match later on.
For carbohydrates, I like to roast a big batch of regular or sweet potatoes plus other vegetables like brussell sprouts, carrots and beetroot, or I might make a batch of rice. Rice can be frozen and reheated in the microwave with a splash of water. A dish on high rotation at the moment that combines carbohydrates with plant protein is Refried Black Beans – so delicious and this can be frozen in silicon muffin trays for later use.
Pros: Large amount of fridge/freezer space not required; variety is easy to achieve; reduces stress; reduces boredom.
Cons: Not quite as organised as the Meal Planning or Meal Prep methods
Goes well with: Leftovers
Special Equipment: Standard kitchen equipment, containers for storage, some fridge or freezer space
Preparing part of a meal in advance
This is probably quite an obvious one to those in the know, but I’ve included it here for completeness.
This method can be used for many different types of meals, such as stir fries (chop vegetables in advance for example) and also for baking - dry ingredients can be mixed together the night before baking a cake for a daytime party for example. It’s also possible to pre-chop vegetables for 2-3 days of different meals in advance. Another popular idea is making a batch of smoothie packs that can be prepared in bulk and put in the freezer in ziploc bags.
Breakfast is often the hardest meal of the day for many people simply due to the realities of rushing to get to work and juggling kids. So, for this meal, it’s possible to prepare chia pudding, bircher muesli or omelette ingredients the night before. “Salad in a jar” can also be prepared the night before, for lunch the next day.
I love to use this method for baking. I often mix up the dry ingredients the night before I plan to bake, so that in the morning all I need to do is organise the wet ingredients, then mix everything together before putting it all in the oven. You can also batch this process if you happen to cook the same bread recipe regularly for example, so that you may make up enough for 6 loaves of bread instead of just one. In that case, you can then just grab that pre-mix of ingredients when the urge to bake strikes.
Pros: Flexibility with time (ie. can do some of the preparation when some spare time comes up)
Cons: Not quite as organised as Meal Prep or Meal Planning
Special Equipment Needed: Storage containers, some fridge or freezer space
Who doesn’t want to feel like a Master Chef at home, while cutting back on the time required to source the recipe and the ingredients?
The meal kit option has seen many services spring up over the last few years, spurred on in part by the need for convenience but also by the desire to still be able to cook a meal fresh right before serving.
This service is usually subscription based and you are sent recipe cards along with the ingredients to cook the recipe/s.
Pros: Convenience; different diets are catered to; many different meal options are given, reducing the likelihood of boredom
Cons: More expensive than the other options (though cheaper than ready-cooked meal delivery), not all dietary choices are covered in many cases.
Special Equipment: None
Now, I'd love to hear from you - how do you achieve kitchen efficiency at your place? Sound off in the comments below!