Okay, you’ve got good recipes and ingredients (a given or you wouldn’t be cooking). What next? Space and time.
Plan Your Time
There are two benefits to figuring out when to start meal prep. First, chances are good the meal will be ready in time for your family/group (or you if you live alone) to eat it. Nothing destroys motivation faster than when you have another half an hour until the food’s done and you see people filling up on snacks. Second, it often gives you a chance to create food in a less stressful environment which, in turn, gives you a chance to really focus on what you’re doing and this means fewer mistakes.
Look at your family’s schedule and (keeping in mind your family’s circumstances) set a hard time as your goal. The point is not to beat yourself up if the meal isn’t served at that specific time or get upset if anything happens to push the meal back. The point is to have an exact time so that you can count backward to find when you need to start the meal. I’ve noticed if I have a general time when food must be done, I take my time and end up rushing myself during prep. Rushing does not improve cooking. Efficiency does, but efficiency is not rushing.
Once you have hard times for your meals, look at your recipe and find the latest you can start that meal and still be on time. Write it out if time is an area you struggle in. I learned this when I had to coordinate several dishes for Thanksgiving and I found it really helps in daily cooking as well. Now, take that time and add whatever cushion you need to make sure you won’t feel rushed. For me, that’s a half hour to an hour since I’ve found I tend to underestimate how long a project (or recipe) will take (breakfast is the one exception to this rule and my weakness). If I start at least a half hour before I “need” to start, any interruptions or unforeseen events don’t throw me too far off track.
By the way, this applies to crock-pot cooking as well. Plan out when you need to get everything in the crock-pot, how long it will take to assemble everything, chop vegetables, etc.
Freezer meals must be planned this way if you want to get them done in a decent amount of time.
While you’re planning, figure out how to do clean-up. My kids aren’t old enough yet to help with the pots and pans so for big meals, I’ve found it’s helpful to wash the dishes as I go. I fill up the sink with hot, soapy water and throw the dishes in. When I get to a point where I don’t need to stir, mix, or actively watch anything, I’ll wash them and put them in the drying rack while I clean the counters and throw away any trash I didn’t throw away before. Whatever you decide to do, plan it out beforehand so you aren’t up at 10:30 p.m. or later washing dishes.
Plan Your Space
Talking of dishes, I’ve found it helps to have every dish you need, or tool you need, washed and ready to go beforehand. That’s a very easy thing to say. I know what it’s like when you can’t get to the dishes and you leave the big pot dirty until the next morning and I know the slump a person gets in their shoulders when they have to make oatmeal and realize they have to wash the pot first. I know.
The best thing to do is to get all the pots and pans cleaned before the meal starts, preferably at the end of the last meal. That way, the only dishes you’ll have to worry about are the ones everyone’s used for eating. And those go by very fast if everyone helps.
Also, make sure you have enough counter space for whatever you’ve planned on making. Some recipes, like stir-fry, take up a lot of space with bowls and containers. Wherever you make your food, make sure it’s close enough to your ingredients that you can easily grab what you need as you work. If you have kids and are making something that’s too delicate for their assistance, make sure it’s in a space where they can’t easily grab things. Awareness of space becomes crucial in freezer cooking where efficiency really helps. Space is also another reason why I don’t do marathon cooking sessions anymore.
Next time, I’ll write a short post about the importance of timers and staying focused while cooking.