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 we surveyed 3,435 Consumer Reports subscribers about their experiences cooking weeknight meals, almost half said they wished the task took less time. The average difference between actual time spent and what they desired: 8 minutes.
With that goal in mind, we set out to create the ultimate time-saving kitchen, one that uses the latest innovations, design trends, and lifestyle advice. That involved testing a slew of appliances and paying close attention to those that tout special time savings (such as steam ovens and induction cooktops). We also gleaned wisdom from chefs, designers, organizers, psychologists, and others. And we tested steamable prepared meals to see whether they improve on the usual frozen fare.
Below you'll find our keys to saving 8 minutes (or more) during your daily effort to get meals to the table fast, and tips for a quick cleanup.
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.
Estimated minutes saved daily: 3
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 newer smudge-resistant finish, such as the GE Slate finish.
As for flooring, vinyl held up best in our 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. And don’t forget about the furnishings. “I did all my kitchen chair cushions in outdoor fabric so that spills roll off instead of collecting and staining,” says Amy Ellen Clark, founder of the blog MomAdvice.com.
Estimated minutes saved daily: 4
Precious minutes are lost looking for misplaced items and uncluttering countertops so that they can be used for meal prep. Remember the adage: a place for everything, and everything in its place. 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. In our latest tests, we liked the Staples SPL-TXC122A wastepaper basket shredder, $120, which worked faster than other models, with fewer paper jams and less frequent emptying.
Estimated minutes saved daily: 2
One of the top cooking gripes in our 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. “I also love making a lot of something that can be used in different ways throughout the week, like roasted chicken, which might become enchiladas or part of a pasta dish,” says Katie Workman, author of “The Mom 100 Cookbook” (Workman Publishing, 2012).
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. The $250 All-Clad 99005 slow cooker turned out tasty spareribs in our tests, and its nonstick interior helps with cleanup.
Estimated minutes saved daily: 5
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. “It adds up over time,” says Barbara Fiese, director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-author of the study. “A few extra minutes each day turns into 15 minutes each week, and you can learn a lot about the emotional life of your kids in 15 minutes. Plus it’s an opportunity to model good behaviors and manners.” That includes turning off the television and electronic devices. Remember, with your kitchen running at maximum efficiency, you’ll have that much more time for both once dinner is done.
When we asked readers about their top cooking gripes, cleaning was high on the list, cited by 39 percent of them. Here are some ways to make the process less laborious:
Choose a speedy dishwasher. The downside of more water- and energy-efficient machines is a cycle time that can approach 3 hours. Some models are quicker, such as the $700 Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR7UC, which took a relatively brisk 95 minutes in our tests; a 30-minute cycle works for lighter loads.
Skip the prerinsing. Most modern dishwashers don’t need it. You’ll save time, and you could reduce your household’s annual water consumption by up to 6,500 gallons.
Let all-purpose cleaners settle in. Manufacturers of those products often make “spray and wipe” claims. But based on our tests, letting them sit for a few minutes results in better cleaning power, which could save you time in the long run. Our top-rated spray cleaner was Seventh Generation Natural All Purpose Cleaner.
Clean smoothtops quickly. Cleanup is easy with smoothtop cooktops. But food that contains sugar, such as tomato sauce, can bond with the glass if you let it cool. For routine care, use a cleaner made especially for smoothtops. Cerama Bryte and Cooktop Magic combined value and performance in our tests.
Consider a robotic vacuum. They can’t deliver the deep carpet cleaning of a regular vacuum, but they’re perfect for collecting cereal, crumbs, and other surface debris from the kitchen floor. Tops in our tests was the Roomba 760, $450 (shown).
Clean as you go. Put ingredients away once you’re finished with them—or enlist someone else to do so, including a child who’s old enough. Keep a bowl or receptacle on your work surface for food scraps, preferably running them out to a compost heap once meal prep is complete.
Time refrigerator cleanings. Wait until it’s almost empty, then push any remaining items to one side. Clean shelves with a sponge and a solution of dish detergent and warm water. Rotate the items and repeat until the entire refrigerator is clean.
This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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