12 Ways to Save Time While Making Dinner

Casey Slide is a stay-at-home mom and contributor for Money Crashers Personal Finance, where she writes about managing family finances, saving money at home, and more.

It’s been a long day. Your commute took forever because of heavy traffic, your meetings felt like they would never end, and your child was sent to the principal’s office. Now it’s time for you to slave away in the kitchen. It goes without saying that you’d much rather be relaxing and spending time with your family and friends. But, as always, duty calls.

Cooking dinner is a nightly chore, but it doesn’t have to consume your entire evening. With a few simple changes, you’ll be done in no time and able to relax. Here are 12 ways to save time making dinner:

1. Plan Your Menu
It’s an awful feeling to look in the cabinet and realize you’re missing an ingredient. You could waste 10 minutes asking your neighbor for it, or 30 minutes running to the store. To avoid this scenario, spend 30 minutes each week planning your family meals before you go to the grocery store – online meal planning sites such as eMeals can help you stay organized. As an added bonus, plan meals around what’s on sale to put a dent in your grocery bill.

2. Collect Ingredients
Collect all your ingredients and set them on the counter before you start cooking. This way, you only need to make one trip to the pantry, one trip to the spice cabinet, and one trip to the refrigerator. By the same logic, place all your ingredients together on the counter when you’re done using them so you can return them to the fridge and pantry in as few trips as possible.

3. Cook in Batches
The idea behind batch cooking is to cook as much as you can in the least amount of time and then freeze your meals. Once meals are precooked, it only takes a few minutes to reheat them for future dinners. Plus, you can cook in the evenings after the kids have gone to bed, or even on a rainy Sunday afternoon – whenever it suits your schedule.

Batch cooking isn’t limited to dinner either. Consider making breakfast items in a batch, such as pancakes and breakfast sandwiches, or even homemade baby food.

Instead of setting aside a few hours for batch cooking, double your recipe every night to either freeze or have as leftovers the following day.

4. Have the Right Tools
The more gadgets you have in your kitchen, the quicker meal preparation becomes. Some of the most effective tools include a standing mixer, a blender, a food processor, a crock-pot, and a garlic press. Take note of what prep work takes the most time in the kitchen, and then buy the tool that will resolve that issue. Check eBay and Craigslist to get bargains on gently used kitchen supplies, and don’t try to stock your kitchen with every available gadget – focus on the ones you’ll use and truly need.

5. Make Simple Recipes Using Few Ingredients
The more steps to your recipe, the longer it will take you to put it together. The same thing goes for a recipe that calls for a dozen ingredients. Try making recipes that call for five ingredients or less during the week, and save complicated recipes for the weekends.

6. Use a Crock-Pot
Not only are slow cooker recipes typically healthy and delicious, they tend to be time-savers. They give you the freedom to assemble meals on your watch, either the night before or the morning of the day you plan to eat them, and “meal assembly” simply consists of dumping all ingredients into the pot. Other benefits of using a crock-pot include easy cleanup, the large amount of food you can prepare, and the low cost of the meals – not to mention an inviting smell in your home.

7. Make Casseroles
I probably make casseroles more than any other meal. Why? Because I never have to make side dishes. All the major food groups are represented, and I am able to mix everything together, similar to assembling a meal in a crock-pot. If the casserole is not enough to feed the family, bake some rolls and serve with a salad. Additionally, one of the best things about making casseroles is that they are almost always winners at dinnertime, even with picky toddlers.

8. Stick to Staples
There is a reason that some meals have stuck around for centuries. You could argue that it is because they taste good, but the main reason might be because they are easy. For instance, spaghetti has been a dinnertime staple for generations. All you need to do is boil some noodles and pour on sauce. If you get bored with that, simply use a new sauce or a different type of noodle. Other staples include pot roast, rice and beans, and roasted chicken.

9. Share Kitchen Duties
Cooking is a lot of work, especially if you are responsible for dinner every night. To mix it up, share kitchen duties with members of your family. Perhaps your spouse could make dinner once or twice a week, or you can start cooking with kids and teach them the ropes by assisting you in the kitchen. If you don’t want your family to cook, ask them to set the table or clean the dishes.

10. Cheat Sometimes
I like to make most of my food from scratch because it is healthier and more cost-effective. But to give myself an occasional break, I buy pre-prepared sauces or frozen meatballs. Every now and then it’s extremely helpful.

11. Host a Meal-Swapping Part
The idea behind a meal-swapping party is that each attendee batch-cooks their favorite dish in order to give every other party attendee a meal. If 10 people are attending, you would make 9 meals to give, and would receive 9 different meals to take home. Do this once a month, and not only will you have plenty of meals to enjoy for several weeks, you’ll also have a fun outing to look forward to and enjoy regularly.

12. Enjoy Your Time in the Kitchen
Even if you can implement every tip above, you will still spend time in the kitchen. Therefore, make the best of it. Listen to music, the news, or a book on CD. Talk to your friends and family. The time doesn’t need to be mind-numbing or wasted.

Cooking is not the only kitchen activity that takes up your time. Cleaning up is just as time-consuming. To make cleaning go faster, do as much as you can while cooking. Make it your goal to use the least number of cooking utensils possible, and use items twice if you can. For example, do your mixing in the dish that an item will cook in. And don’t forget to line your pans with aluminum foil so you don’t have to wash off all the grease.

What other tips can you suggest to save time in the kitchen?

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