Dr. Erin Nitschke by Dr. Erin Nitschke

Life is busy and the days are filled from start to finish with various commitments. Obligations such as work, sports, school, family time, personal time and mealtime compete for our attention, making it a challenge to create that coveted work-life balance while juggling multiple responsibilities. Half the battle is acknowledging that this challenge exists; the other half is recognizing what we can influence. While we may not be able to control work or school/sports schedules, meal preparation is something we can influence and manipulate in ways that directly benefit a crucial element of life—our time. Here are eight great ways to reduce your time in the kitchen. 

Containerize. Investing in reusable containers is critical to meal-prep success. Purchase a variety of sizes to accommodate different meals and side dishes. Choose easily packed containers (such as an all-in-one option) that allows you to pack lunches and snacks for work and/or school. It’s also helpful to have freezable containers for soups and leftovers.

Menu Plan. It happens every week—less-than-enthusiastic trips to the grocery store to hunt for inspired dinner ideas. Prior to grocery day, sketch out a menu plan for dinners for the week. This can be a fun activity for the whole family. If you have kids, encourage them to provide input and suggestions (keeping in mind healthy options). Planning ahead for dinners (and even lunches) automatically results in the creation of more than half the grocery list. This way, you go to the market with a solid plan. This also helps the budget as well by avoiding needless or random purchases that ultimately go to waste.

Produce Prep Magic. Select one day a week that is devoted to produce prep. Grocery day is ideal because the produce is fresh and your focus is on meal prep. Much of meal preparation is spent chopping or peeling veggies. Do this work ahead of time and store in individual containers or plastic baggies. Label each container according to a “use by” or “processed on” date so you know which items to use first.

Pre-cook Grains. Once you have outlined your weekly menu, you will know which grains you will need to balance the meals you have selected. Instead of waiting until that dinner is scheduled, precook the grains earlier in the week. It’s simple to make quinoa, brown rice and whole-grain pasta in advance and store in the fridge for easy access. Grains such as quinoa and rice also are great cold and can be served as part of a salad.

Cook Once, Eat Twice. Leveraging leftovers is a super simple way to reduce time in the kitchen. If you make tacos one night, transform the leftovers into taco salads the next night. A grilled chicken breast with a side of baked sweet potatoes and green beans makes an excellent lunch for the following day. Consider making extra servings of two weekly dinners and you will have dinner for two extra nights (depending on the number of people in your home).

Semi-homemade is O.K. A meal doesn’t have to be 100% “made from scratch” to be healthy. Markets have excellent healthy options to supplement a meal without creating an extra hassle. Making zucchini noodle (zoodle) spaghetti and don’t have time to prepare a homemade tomato sauce? Look for wholesome premade sauces at the store that are made with simple ingredients and zero added sugar. Other semi-homemade ingredients include frozen cauliflower pizza crust, prepared avocados, frozen riced cauliflower and sweet potato mix, microwavable rice or other grain options, canned fruit (in its own juice), and ready-to-eat pomegranate arils.

Freeze. Let the freezer be your best friend. Just as you can leverage leftovers, you can make large pots of homemade chili, soups and stews that freeze beautifully and allow you to stockpile meals for busier weeks and colder winter days.

One-pot Meals. Instapots, crock pots and other slow cookers offer opportunities to “fix it and forget it.” If you prepare veggies ahead of time, you can add these to the slow cooker with your choice of lean protein and low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth and let it cook throughout the day (usually on a low setting). You will come home to a hot and ready meal. The clean-up is minimal and the leftovers are fantastic.

Mealtime should not be trampled by endless meal preparation steps and hours in the kitchen each day. Instead, it should be an opportunity to connect with family and friends and process the events of the day. These tactics can reduce time in the kitchen and add valuable minutes back to your week.