Step-Saving Cooking and Kitchen Tips

Since I have to cook a lot these days while recovering from a chronic illness, I measure every ounce of energy almost as much as every ingredient that goes into each special recipe.  Then again, most of my recipes are hybrid anyways so the “measuring” is with a pinch or scoop of this or that substituted for that or this!

Tis a good thing that I came into this time of illness as an occupational therapist.  I used to teach my patients about energy conservation and work simplification during activities of daily living.  Those terms translate to saving time and energy doing everyday activities.  So allow me to share a few tips that go beyond the Extreme Dietary Makeover Strategies documented earlier.  Those strategies related more to the recipes; these tips relate to the tasks of working in the kitchen including cooking.

Setting up the Kitchen

Keep seasonings that you use often in a cute container by the stove or main food prep area.  For me this contains white pepper, celtic sea salt, marjoram, onion & garlic powders, etc.  The rest are put away in the spice cabinet!

Keep small appliances, water filter devices, and main serving dishes setting out on the counter or within reach when possible.  For example, my favorite pottery bowl in which I eat most meals is on top of the microwave.  Inside the bowl is a matching small plate that I use to serve my supplements and keep them from rolling off the counter and table!  They were made by a favorite potter too, making things a little more special and pretty.

Everything is placed within the “work triangle” between the frig/stove/sink to save steps gathering items, cooking, and cleaning up the kitchen.  This area includes all of the fragrance-free cleaning products, paper towels, trash can, etc. needed in the kitchen.

I only have one dispenser on the kitchen sink and it contains dish soap.  This works well for cleaning hands and dishes when it’s a milder or fragrance-free soap.  This also saves time and money dealing with multiple kinds of soaps and dispensers.  I just refill the dispenser when needed from a larger, economy-sized bottle.

Use paper towels as napkins!  After I made the change, I saved time and money every week that I would have spent re-filling the napkin holder.  Pull out the paper napkins for entertaining.

Use a low-lint towel for drying fruit/veggies to save paper towels or the time spent cleaning a salad spinner.  Or, use paper towels to dry fruit/veggies and let them dry on the side of the sink.  The damp paper towel is then handy when reused for spills, spot cleaning.

The most often used items in a kitchen, from utensils to drinking glasses, should be in the easiest to reach shelves, cabinets, and drawers.  Does the junk drawer really need to be in your work triangle in place of the silverware drawer, eh?

Place heavier serving and cooking dishes in places that you can access without hurting yourself or your joints!  This might mean keeping your favorite cooking skillet that you might use most days, on the stove, ready for use.

My motto for organization is:  the more I can see, the less I have to dig for stuff.  So there are lots of wire shelves and organizer devices in our pantry and upright freezer.

Make sure that there is adequate task lighting over the area where you are using knives, measuring foods, reading labels, etc.  A simple battery-operated light fixture from your local hardware store that has a press-on switch can reduce fatigue, injuries, errors.  Industrial double-stick tape or Velcro adhesive will allow you to put it where you need it without special tools for installation.

Keep supplements and medications taken at mealtimes within reach and within view of the kitchen table where possible as a reminder and step-saver.  Using an attractive basket or tray for each family member keeps things tidy and organized.

If there’s not already a calendar, grocery list, list of emergency-and-commonly-used phone numbers posted in the work triangle, and home phone (or cell phone charging station) consider adding them.

When bringing frozen foods home from the grocery store, reserve a plastic grocery bag or two to help organize items before placing them in the freezer or refrigerator.  For example, bag up all of the packages of ground beef in one bag and loosely knot it with the plastic handles.  Be sure that you can read the package label through the bag or label it with a permanent marker.  When you are ready to use the ground beef it will all be in one place to find it easily in the freezer and of a quantity to provide plenty of leftovers.

Another tip for grocery day:  group all similar items together before putting them away to save steps and time.   You’ll likely store and organize more items efficiently when put away together than stuffing one item at a time into, say, the freezer.

Put a tray under the pet dish to catch some of the spills and drips if it’s in the kitchen area.  Bow wow.  Meow.

Meal Preparation

Use disposable plastic gloves like those that restaurant workers use for meat preparation and messier food items.  Simply turn them inside out as you take them off and throw them away to keep everything sanitary.  This saves time and avoids the risk of contamination when trying to wash your sticky gooey hands!  Here’s a cheap alternative:  wrap a sandwich baggie around your hand and use that hand to hold the meat while the other hand holds the knife.  The baggie-method also works well for greasing cooking pans.

I learned from the Rachel Ray Show to keep a trash/scrap bowl (or one of the food wrappers) on the counter to collect all of the scraps; throw everything away at the end of your meal preparation, EXCEPT meat wrappings.  Julie tip:  for meat wrappings and containers, cut them open after placing the whole package inside a grocery store plastic bag.  The bag catches the juices and makes for an instant disposal container after the meat is removed.  This also reduces smell after it is in the trash can  so you don’t have to empty it as often.

Keep the kitchen trash can accessible during meal preparation to eliminate time/hassle opening a cabinet or pantry door repeatedly.  Heck, pull out the trash can and put it next to you until you are done generating trash then return it to the cabinet or pantry!  This also saves steps walking across the room and possibly outside of your “work triangle.”

Pile up all of the recyclable containers from meal preparation off to the side of your work triangle.  Take everything to the recycling bin at one time after you are done preparing the meal and pouring refreshments.  A similar strategy goes for composting fresh fruit and vegetable scraps; pile them up on one of the damp paper towels and throw the whole thang into the compost pile at the end of each day.  (I use plain white paper towels by the way.)

Try to minimize the number of spoons, spatulas etc. used on the stove during cooking.  Who says the spoon used to stir the sauce can’t stir the gluten-free noodles boiling in water?  Saves having to wash and handle extra utensils.

Use one sharp knife for meat and another one for everything else during food preparation at a given meal.  Simply toss the meat knife into the dishwasher after use.

Similarly, use one pan for successive cooking tasks where possible.  For example, the meat drippings on the foil lining the roasting pan from the chicken can make great flavoring for oven-roasted vegetables!  Another example:  re-use the pan in which you boiled the gluten-free pasta to steam the vegetables or make the gravy.  You probably don’t even need to wash it after draining the noodles!

Wash the dishes as you go or load them directly into the dishwasher to save clean-up time and stress after the meal.

Leaning against a chair, placing one foot on a stool or the bottom shelf of an open cabinet, or sitting on a step stool can all reduce fatigue and back strain during meal preparation.

Mealtime

Serve prepared foods buffet style, serving them in their cooking pots and pans on the stove and counter.  This keeps everything inside the “work triangle” and prevents having to wash extra serving dishes and transport items to/from the kitchen table.  This also makes it easier to manage different dietary needs and preferences of various family members.  For example, I can open the pouch of shredded cheese for those wanting a cheese topping on a salad and keep mine diary-free because I serve the salad without cheese in one main bowl.  Alternative:  make the salads in individual bowls and save washing a large serving bowl altogether.

Put specific items directly on the plate of the person headed through the “work triangle” buffet instead of in a separate dish.  For example, my husband likes tomatoes on his salad but I cannot have them at this time.  So I put the tomatoes on his plate or in his salad bowl and he serves himself from there.  The dishes are on the counter, by the way, as part of the buffet saving effort from having to “set the table.”

Ask a family member to take drink orders and pre-pour drinks before the meal where possible to reduce clutter and clean-up tasks.

Leftovers

Sometimes I put the whole, covered and slightly cooled saucepan or casserole dish in the frig after dinner, on a heat-proof silicone hot pad.  The next day it’s ready for re-heating.

Sometimes I pull out the lunch-sized storage containers before or after dinner and make my hubby’s lunch right away before storing the leftovers.

Often I’ve made extra servings of each dish to freeze individual portions in plastic containers or baggies after the meal.  The items can be stored as complete meals or separately in sandwich bags; the sandwich bags are then placed into 1-gallon freezer bags marked Meat, Veggies, Breads, or Fruit.  Talk about healthy fast food!

Storing meat portions has become a versatile helper in preparing future meals, especially when diets vary among family members.  I might even store meat-and-cheese burgers separately from meat burgers in respective gallon freezer bags labeled for each family member.  Love freezer bags!  This will save time in the future when you simply do not have the time to make enough food to meet everyone’s needs.  For example, on the night I am writing this, I’m glad I had a half of a cooked baked potato frozen that I could add to my husband’s meal:  I have been unable to grocery shop this past week and he needed more than the veggie and meat entrees that comprise my meal plan.

Summary

From meal preparation, mealtime, clean-up, and storing leftovers, you can see that I am all about saving time, energy, and moolaberries!  I do re-use the freezer bags most of the time by the way as long as they do not get soiled from the items stored in them!  If you would like some tips for managing special diets, head to an earlier blog post and I hope you’ll find something useful for you:  Extreme Diet Survival Strategies

Please feel free to share with me your tips and tricks, especially within the context of helping the homemaker with chronic illness.  Take care,  :J

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