4 Ways You Can Find More Time to Cook

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Are you always “too busy” to cook? Here’s how you can be more efficient in the kitchen and find more time to cook.

Cheesy Potatoes green beans and dinner plate with fish

You may love to cook. (Sometimes?)

You may love to eat. (Who doesn’t?)

And you may love to spend time with family, pursue hobbies and interests, and work, of course, so you can keep the lights on. 

Sometimes these all converge into a happy cacophony of meals made and bills paid.

And sometimes, not.

Sometimes life gets so busy that something has to give.

Certainly, you’ve gotta eat. And let’s face it: getting the bills paid is a mandatory part of life. So the cooking? Well…

Sometimes the cooking part of life gets the short end of the stick.

Sometimes you’re too busy to cook.

That wouldn’t be so bad. There are plenty of restaurants in the world, but man cannot live on Big Macs alone. 

Not if he doesn’t want to have a heart attack or go broke, he doesn’t.

That’s why having an efficient kitchen is so important — and why we are doing the Efficient Kitchen Challenge this month.

chopped vegetables in stacked storage boxes

Time is Money.

If you can be more efficient in the kitchen you can save time, avoid waste, and enjoy fantastic meals — all while keeping the lights on and maybe even saving some money for other important financial goals.

Don’t get me wrong. I like takeout as well as the next guy, but I find that the most satisfying meals are the ones we eat at home.

An efficient kitchen is my answer.

What’s an efficient kitchen?

Efficient kitchen? Sounds like something out of The Jetsons, doesn’t it?

Check it out:

ef·fi·cient

adj \i-‘fi-sh?nt\

productive of desired effects; especially : productive without waste

four meal prep salads with raspberries and chicken

An efficient kitchen produces desired effects without waste.

Booyah! That’s what I want, don’t you?

And really, that’s the driving force behind Good Cheap Eats: great food without wasting time, money, or food.

And without leaving you feeling wasted.

The efficient kitchen is one in which these resources are not wasted, but instead work together to create tasty, nourishing food for you and those you love.

Without wearing you out.

So, how can you find more time to cook?

blank meal plan calendar for February on clipboard with pens

1. Meal Planning will give you more time to cook.

How much time do we waste staring into the depths of the fridge wondering what to cook for supper, or worse, driving to the store without an idea in our heads of what to buy?

Meal planning can save you time! Not only will it eliminate that evening scramble, but when you ramp up your meal planning, you can get more efficient in the kitchen. 

Here’s what I mean:

Plan meals you like.

Whether you plan for just a few days, a week, or even a month, determining your menu plan in advance can save you a lot of time, frustration, and money. You’ll know what to buy, what to cook, and what to serve.

Dinnertime prep will be like a walk in the park, especially if you plan meals you like. 

When you plan meals that everyone enjoys, you look forward to eating it and therefore prepping it, and leftovers aren’t a hassle to use up. 

Plan meals that build on one another.

There’s no law that says you need spend hours in the kitchen every day to serve a great meal. Plan meals that build on one another. Cook once, but enjoy multiple meals from that work.

Plan meals using time-saving systems.

Make-ahead meals, Instant Pot recipes, and 30-minute meals can all help you save time in the kitchen. Plan these kinds of meals so that you know you’ll be in and out of the kitchen lickety-split.

Remember there are kitchen gadgets that can help you make quick work in the kitchen, too!

An immersion blender can smooth a soup or sauce quicker than you can get the upright blender out of the cabinet. A bread machine can prep pizza dough while you tackle another job. A slow cooker can simmer a delicious stew while you go about your business away from home for the day.

meal prep dishes with burrito bowls

2. Meal Prep.

Whether you prepare entire meals or meal components, meal prep can help you save loads of time in the kitchen because you’ll be able to prep food when you have time so that it’s ready to go when you’re in a rush.

Meal prep can be as simple as a stash of Chicken Fajita Burritos that You Can Freeze. Having just a few things tucked away for quick meals will save you time prepping — standing in line at the taco place.

As you make your meal plan for the next few days, consider which items can be prepped in advance. Something as small as chopping onions and carrots can easily shave time off your dinner time cooking session.

open freezer half empty

3. Use what you have.

As last month’s Pantry Challenge proved to so many of us, we have a wealth of great meals right under our own roofs! In fact, some of you are carrying the challenge into February because your blessings are overflowing your cupboards.

It’s in our best interests — and that of our budgets — to make sure that we are using what we have.

Not only do we save money by not buying more than we need, but we also make sure that what we already have doesn’t go to waste.

You save time by not going shopping for more!

Using what you have includes leftovers. If you’ve got leftovers to eat up, don’t spend time making more food.

Some leftovers, like these Poblano Chile Enchiladas, are definitely worth fighting over. Simply reheat and enjoy. Others can be reworked in a number of ways to give them new life.

ALDI grocery cart pantry challenge

4. Grocery shop with intention.

There’ve been times when I just went aisle-by-aisle through the store, loading my cart with pantry staples that I knew we needed or even items that struck my fancy. Those grocery shopping trips are rare now as I realize that they take more time and cost more money.

Grocery shopping with a list in hand is a way to curb excess spending and to make sure you have the ingredients you need when you get around to cooking. Plus, you get in and out of the store more quickly!

Shop with intention so that you can use your time for cooking, and more importantly, eating!

What helps YOU find time to cook?

About Jessica Fisher

I believe anyone can prepare delicious meals—no matter their budget.

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Comments

  1. Kerry says

    Love efficiency! Cant wait to read everyone’s comments. Here is my most recent favorite kitchen tip:
    I have a plastic crate in the fridge that holds the thawing cut of meat or meal ingredient for the daily meal, plus leftovers to incorporate or eat for lunch (such as a small baggie of bacon, apple slices, half a pepper, some leftover spaghetti, etc). I just started this a few weeks ago, and wow, has it proved to really be effective. No small Leftovers getting lost and rotting. No hunting, either, for the half a pear I knew I had in there somewhere. And bonus – if by chance the thawing meat or meal leaks, I have containment and am not scrubbing walls and shelves of the fridge! waste has gone way down.

    • Jessica says

      @Kerry, I love the idea of consolidating leftovers. I typically have one shelf for that, but sometimes I get lazy. Great reminder.

    • Julie Smith says

      I love this idea!

  2. karen says

    RE Compost–our city provides awesome compost bins, you just have to call and ask! However, they don’t advertise the free bins. It’s worth a call to your city to find out if they are available in your area.

    • Jessica says

      @karen, that is a great point! Last time I checked (about a year ago) they did not, but that could have changed. Thanks for the tip!

  3. I still remember the day I learned that there are people who don’t actually eat their leftovers! Crazy…
    I try not to buy too many ‘just in case I suddenly feel inspired’ ingredients for my pantry unless I have a very specific recipe I am going to cook that week.

  4. Atsquared says

    I’ve been known to pull something out of the menu plan after I see that too many leftovers have accumulated in the fridge. Leftover buffet! I’ve gotten better recently, however, at portioning leftovers into lunch-sized portions and freezing right away if I know we have too much. Much better than the “this has been in the fridge for 5 days so I’ll put it in the freezer” method. 🙂

  5. Coleen says

    To be more green, I’ve stopped buying plastic containers. They melt and get tossed but not before leaching who knows what into our food. I have mostly all glass containers now and a lot of those are mason jars. I can see what is in them so food doesn’t get lost in the fridge, I can vacuum seal them with the food saver, put them in the freezer and they are reusable forever, or unless, they get broken first.

    • @Coleen, how do you vacuum seal the mason jars with the foodsaver? I’d love to be able to use my glass containers that way.

      • Jessica says

        I believe there is an attachment to the foodsaver. Not sure if you have to have special lids, though.

      • Alice E says

        There is a special attachment and when I got mine it was for wide mouth jars. I did use regular canning lids and bands for wide mouth jars.

  6. Harriet says

    I cook something in my crockpot on Sat and again on Sunday that I save for dinners on Monday and Tuesday. I work 9 hour days at the hospital and, at least for 2 days, meals are ready for when I get home. We only eat out once a week and we try to save that for the weekends. Meal planning is essential!

  7. I followed your link to the post on homemade baking mixes and it gave me some ideas for how to make that work better for me. I have recipes that I prefer to the baking mix recipes I’ve used in the past, so I had stopped doing it, and it was good to be reminded that I can just adapt my own recipes in the same way. I liked the idea of using the freezer to store them so I don’t have to worry about them going stale or rancid or losing leavening power. I also decided it would be faster and easier to print out the instructions and slide them into the baggies rather than write them out by hand on each one. I did a trial run of my favorite pancakes last night and threw together the first batch this morning. It was much more weekday friendly, and I think I’ll enjoy having my own mixes around. I’m going to do some for breadmaker whole wheat bread next. I’ll just have to reserve a bin in the freezer for mixes.

    • Jessica says

      So glad you found something to work for you!

  8. I have a plastic bin in the fridge and one on the counter. As I go through the day I add things one by one to the bins for that day’s dinner — cold things in the fridge, with “drys” like spices, pasta or potatoes/onions in the counter. It’s all contained and easily found when I start cooking around 4. If I get a chance to prep, I toss chopped veggies or measured stuff into a baggie and it goes in the proper bin. With a toddler on my heels and 2 other small ones, this makes even tiny bits of time useful, and it all adds up over the day! Sometimes at night I’ll start a bin going for the next day.

    I also keep a list on the fridge of what’s in the fridge and freezer, with amounts. It makes meal planning so much easier!

    • Carol says

      Boy, that sounds really smart. I think I’ll try it!

  9. Stacy says

    I do most of the things you mentioned, except meal planning. I know I should, but I don’t. I just try to make good use of the foods we have, and not waste them but figure out a way to use them instead. If I can’t, I freeze. As for leftovers, I usually make them into work day lunches for my husband and I. I feel great seeing lots of lunches already frozen and ready to be packed whenever. I have been thinking of going to glass, but it’s hard to give up plastic when it comes to freezing and lunches. I’m not sure I’m ready to put glass into a lunch bag, and ziplocs aren’t usually practical either with stews and such. If anyone has a lunch bag solution that is greener and allows for microwaving leftovers, I’d love to hear it.

  10. This is great! I try to run an efficient kitchen as well. I would be lost without meal planning and I love my pyrex glass containers for storage. My most recent change in the kitchen is I keep all of my onion, celery, and carrot pieces that don’t get used in a container. Once it is full I make veggie stock. Thanks for the great post..I am going to have to pass it on!

    • Jessica says

      Veggie stock is a fabulous idea. Would be good to add celery leaves, too.

  11. Sharon says

    I completely understand about the recycling issue. When we lived in apartment that did not offer a recycling option, I didn’t recycle at all – and I took some heat for it from family. But, I explained that for me to recycle would mean driving 9 miles it to the dump every week. The two of us didn’t have much to recycle. I figured the more environmentally friendly option was not to recycle! 🙂

  12. Emily @ Random Recycling says

    Never thought about the bread maker like that before. Maybe it will go on my wish list for next year.
    I also find the pressure cooker to be efficient and a huge time saver in the kitchen, like the slow cooker just in reverse!

    • Jodi says

      I have thought about this, too. I am reluctant to add another appliance to the kitchen. So I am thinking about picking up a bread machine at a thrift store (I always see a lot of them at goodwill) and seeing if it is something I will really use before investing more dollars. You can also proof dough in an instant pot or other similar pressure cooker so I plan to try that method for pizza Friday this week.

  13. Sarah says

    My favorite efficiency tip is to have a pre-printed shopping list with our frequently purchased items. It’s easy for husband or me to check something off when it runs low. I keep about 10 copies in my recipe binder plus a bunch more in a magnetic clip on the side of the fridge.

  14. Stacey says

    Thursday nights are designed as “Leftover or BFD [breakfast for dinner] Night.” I also make soup every week. We have big bowls of it on the first night, then a small side-dish portion of soup with dinner the second. I serve 5 or 6 different fruits and vegetables each night at dinner and just cook (or slice raw) whatever I happen to have that day. If I have meat, it is served as a side dish not as the main course. Since I use so little, I can afford to buy the highest quality (and most humanely acquired) meat, fish or poultry. I strictly adhere to Michael Pollan’s philosophy: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This is both a healthy way to live and easy to plan.

  15. I find five recipes a week, so to save on money and ingredients, I look through my pantry and fridge to see if I have any leftover ingredients that I can use. If I see that I have half a jar of marinara left, I find recipes that have that ingredient in it. Allrecipes has a nice search feature where you can search by ingredient, so that helps!

    We also eat leftovers and pack our lunches for the next day.

  16. Stephanie M. says

    I make a weekly meal plan from Sunday to Saturday and it helps me to use what I have and also I always know ahead of time what I’m having the next day and what I need to defrost. I don’t always have to cook every day due to leftovers which get built into my meal plan. I also pack my husband’s lunch each morning.

  17. Julie Smith says

    I do a couple of prep sessions throughout the week, do a weekly meal plan at a time (or, a list of meals that I know that can come together quickly on a dry erase board, and erase them as I go if I don’t want to be too strict about it) and freezer cook-especially if it’s bulk batches of things I can use multiple ways.

  18. I have started 30 days of meal planning . I write it on the calendar and then mark it out when I make it (youngest daughter’s tip) We like a lot of variety so I make sure my pantry has the ingredients to do that.I have a half shelf for leftovers, anything that is only one serving and can be froze is frozen for time it’s just one of us for a meal. Dinner can be served at Bfast and bfast for dinner.Hubby worked 3rd for 30 plus years so supper was his bfast. I thaw my meat in an old pan. I put the canned fruit for the week in the frig. Still need to work at getting better about using the fresh stuff up

  19. Carol says

    I have some easy recipes that my husband can and will make to help out. I like to cook, but sometimes you need a helper. I also like to make sure I stop and think– what do I need to thaw for tomorrow , or if it’s a big chunk of protein, get it in the frig to thaw safely a day or two ahead.

  20. Lynn from NC Outer Banks says

    Using what I have on hand, I list possible meals with potential sides-usually 10-12 options. I then decide the day before which meal I’ll fix, depending upon what is happening in my life that day. I also try to do several things at once in the kitchen for increased efficiency. For instance today, my husband had requested meat balls for the Super Bowl. While they were baking in the oven I also baked a pound of bacon (which I store in the freezer) and used the remaining ground beef to assemble a meat loaf, which I put in the freezer for a future meal. While in the kitchen I also put together the party platter for the game. Jessica, I used your tips to section citrus fruit and make it pretty 🙂

  21. Karen J says

    I try to always keep some dinner starters in the freezer. Chopped onions and peppers, cooked bacon, cooked rice, and quart sized ziplocks of mixed chopped carrots, onions, and celery for soup starters.
    Sunday is refrigerator clean/reorganizing day which encourages me to use what I have and to see what I need.
    On my phone I keep a list of our favorite Costco and Trader Joe food items as I only get to those stores once a month or so.
    I play a game by setting the timer and seeing if I can unload the dishwasher and wipe the counters in five minutes. Then if I’m successful I say “Good job” to myself. Weird, I know.

  22. lisa s says

    My goal is to work on meal prep esp for sides and just the middle steps of recipes such as chopping all the produce in advance. I think that’s what slows me down the most and keeps me unmotivated to cook for my family. My meal prep usually looks like just doubling a recipe such as beans/ham, chili, lasagna and freezing the second meal for later. Or this week I made a Stromboli w/ham and spinach but didn’t use them all, so I threw the rest in an egg bake w/cheese that we will have for dinner tonight. But I would like to eat more fruits and veggies as a family, so having those prepped in my glass containers would help me achieve that.

  23. Tasty says

    I think what I do is similar to Lynn.

    Thursday is when the new store sale ads come out here so on a Thursday morning I take the time to go thru the fridge (and over the fridge freezer) and see what is there to work with. I keep a paper list on the side of the fridge, showing what I have and “possibles” for breakfasts(not really needed because we invariably have the same thing),lunches and suppers. I like to use what’s upstairs already. Then I can think about what else I want to use,whether that’s from my freezers or the store. I’ll usually have more than 7 options for supper (I don’t want to be tied down to meatless Mondays,taco Tuesdays etc. I like to be able to make what we feel like eating. Quite often, I’ll give hubby the choice of 2 or 3 different things (from my options) and let him choose. He rarely requests something special – I’m lucky in that he is not picky!!

    One thing I did realise last month was that I need to pick a few items from the pantry to use each week too, as well as the freezer! Making sure too that leftovers get incorporated into meals before it’s time to throw them out.

  24. Roberta says

    One thing I’ve learned by doing the Pantry Challenges is to write down what proteins I already have on hand and then make a list of possible meals that use those proteins. I generally have more possibilities than days in the month, especially since we frequently get two days out of each meal. Then, each Sunday afternoon I try to plan the dinners for the upcoming week, taking into account our schedules and the weather (’cause nobody’s going to want soup on a hot day). I only plan for dinners because we tend to eat the same things for breakfasts, and the guys’ lunches are always packed during the week (and pretty much the same basic “menu”). My lunches are generally leftovers or something super quick like PB toast and fruit.

    I also try to fix something that I know will cover two meals if our schedules are extra busy/require us to be out in the evening. Soups, casseroles, and big batches of pasta are good for this. I’ll save stir frys and fish dishes for “one meal only” days.

    Finally, I prep lunches the night before and stash the things that need to stay cold in the fridge. In the morning Hubs tosses everything into his and Son’s lunchboxes along with a blue ice packet. I’d like to add more variety to my guys’ lunches, but neither one has access (or even time to use!) a fridge or microwave, so PBJs or cheese sandwiches are their regular fare (with the occasional LO slice of pizza), along with a variety of “sides” such as yogurt w/ granola, salad, fruit and veggie slices/sticks, pretzels, muffins, string cheese, etc. Hubs is a high school assistant principal, and Son is a sophomore in HS; both are continuously on the go until they get home. Any ideas for additional healthy, homemade, packable lunch items are welcome. (Does anyone know if tuna salad or home-roasted turkey sandwiches would be safe to pack? I tend to save those kinds of things for weekends when I know they’ll be eaten right after they’re prepared; I’ve been uber hesitant to pack them. Also, does anyone know if soups stay hot if packed in thermos-type containers?)

    • Sarah says

      Roberta – I survived 12 years of eating a room temp turkey sandwich every day with no ill effects. Sometimes we had a frozen juice box that kept things cold then it was drinkable by lunch, but sometimes not. Having a lined lunchbox helps vs the paper bag.

      For a thermos, boil water in a small saucepan and fill up the thermos and put the lid on. Leave the water in the thermos until your soup is heated through and almost boiling. Dump out the water and your thermos should be hot which will help the soup stay hot when you pack it. It’s also one of those items where spending a little more on quality goes a longer way.

      Some of the favorite lunches around here are: cold pancakes or French toast sticks with breakfast sausage, fruit, and a small container of syrup. I buy the little to-go condiment cups from amazon so no one has to wash a sticky syrup container. Premade breakfast sandwiches with the bread packed separately are good cold, too. Bacon/ham/sausage, egg and cheese with tomato slices and some avocado on a bagel.

      It’s too much food for me personally, but my hubby is a big dude so I know the struggle.

      Another is pasta salad with cut up string cheese, tomatoes, basil, bell pepper, chicken and balsamic dressing. I don’t usually send mayo based things. The Greek version with olives and feta and cucumber is a hit too. You can send some pita, too.

      • Roberta says

        Thanks for the info and suggestions!

  25. Kathy C says

    One thing I like to say is “Make your appliances work for you”. I have so many small appliances, they should really be going more than they are. Something should always be going in the crockpot for a future meal since it is so easy, whether it is beans, rice, oatmeal, etc. I am now spoiled by my instant pot. I look at recipes and say that’s too much work and look for an IP recipe! I also have a food dehydrator. Why am I not constantly drying fruit and vegetables? I have a bread machine, keep it going!!! I have a vitamix….make soups and peanut butter…easy! Dust off your workhorses! 🙂

  26. kim says

    do you have links to those nice looking lunch salads pictured in your post?

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