Five to 10 minutes might not sound like much, but when you’re racing to get dinner on the table, that can be the difference between a relaxing family meal and one gobbled down with hardly a “How was your day?”
When Consumer Reports surveyed 3,435 of its subscribers about their experiences cooking weeknight meals, almost half said they wished the task took less time.
Consumer Reports offers these keys to preparing faster, tastier meals:
• Design for efficiency. If you’re remodeling the kitchen, follow the design basics, but tailor them to your family’s needs and routines. For example, the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s guidelines call for kitchen walkways to be at least 36 inches wide.
“But for a busy family, that passage needs to be 42 or even 48 inches wide for people to move freely,” says Paula Kennedy, a certified master kitchen and bath designer in Seattle.
Similarly, the work triangle – connecting the sink, fridge and cooktop – is still the baseline for maximum efficiency. But in two-cook kitchens, it often makes sense to have a second triangle, maybe designed around an island counter with a prep sink.
Storage is another customizable design element. If you frequently buy in bulk, you’ll need a walk-in pantry or an oversized wall cabinet that’s at least 36 inches wide and 24 inches deep. Pantry needs will be less for everyday market shoppers, who will also get by with a smaller refrigerator.
• Think ahead. One of the top cooking gripes in Consumer Reports’ survey was that it takes too much planning. Making double batches of recipes means one less meal to think about. Stews work for dinner, and pancakes can be frozen and reheated for breakfast.
A slow cooker is handy for make-ahead meals. Simply stir ingredients together in the morning, and by night, you’ll have a hot, ready-to-serve meal.
• Minimize maintenance. Some materials and finishes are harder to care for than others. Quartz countertops are rivaling granite in part because they don’t require periodic sealing. Stainless steel appliances remain popular, but if fingerprints are a concern, you might consider a new smudge-resistant finish, such as GE’s Slate.
As for flooring, vinyl held up best in Consumer Reports’ tests against scratches and dents, plus the latest designs mimic natural materials. If you want real wood, opt for a factory finish, which tends to last the longest.
• Contain the clutter. Precious minutes are lost looking for misplaced items and uncluttering countertops so that they can be used for meal prep.
In the kitchen, try to put things close at hand, says Jennifer Lava of Austin, Texas, a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers. For example, dishes and flatware should be kept in a cabinet next to the dishwasher; cutting boards and sharp knives belong near the food prep counter.
Creating a separate landing spot, ideally just off the kitchen or along its perimeter, for mail, school papers and the like will help keep counters clear. It’s a good idea to keep a paper shredder nearby for documents that contain vital personal information.
• Make it a family affair. Look for ways to enlist other members of the household. If kids are present, you might designate a lower cabinet for everyday dishes or flatware, allowing young ones to help set the table. Or look for age-appropriate food prep tasks, such as washing vegetables.
As for the meal itself, don’t underestimate the importance of sit-down family dinners. In one study, just an additional 3.5 minutes at mealtime was enough to mitigate the risks of child obesity.