For the vast majority of us, the day begins and ends with the kitchen. Yet, for the vast majority of us, the kitchen is categorized as a chore. Something to get through with so we won’t feel hungry, tired (just watching the dishes pile up) or guilty (throwing that burrito that’s become sentient in the back of your fridge). It’s time to turn this space into a sanctuary. A laboratory for your experiments with workflow design, productivity and creativity.
When it comes to work at the office, people are keenly aware of the need to be productive and efficient. Mountains of research, often initiated by large corporations, study the role of cognitive functions, impact of workplace layout, time and motion, design and even the minutiae like the role of color in productivity and of course, caffeine.
However there is another workspace, where you spend at least 3 to 4 hours in a day, which doesn’t doesn’t receive nearly as much love as it deserves. The kitchen. Often relegated to casually parsing over interesting kitchen hacks on Pinterest or drooling over celebrity kitchens. That changes today.
The current state of Kitchens
The kitchen can be many things. When treated properly and approached with the right attitude, it can be a source of joy and your window of zen. When treated as an afterthought, well… Starting from the morning coffee, the kitchen sees a cameo appearance from you many times during the day. Especially for the rapidly growing WFH crowd.
Life happens between a hastily assembled breakfast-before-meeting, low-noise lunch-making during an all-hands zoom call down to the Netflix and chill dinner. These are punctuated by random visits to snack and sometimes load the dishwasher.
While we pay some attention to nutrition to keep with our fitness goals, we’re more focused on the output (calories, nutrients etc) and not the process
Signs of inefficiency lurk everywhere,
- in the middle of processing a recipe you figure out a missing key ingredient (and you rush to google an alternative)
- you open the same drawer a second time looking for the missing silicone spatula
- after patting yourself on the back for a “masterchef moment” plating that freshly made fettucine alfredo you remember that there is a bowl of lasagna hiding under clingwrap at the back of your fridge
- you’ve just made roasted vegetables and warmed up some pita to go with it but mysteriously there are 5 dishes, 2 trays and 4 spoons to wash (you cooked for 2 people!)
Comment below if you have more examples. But you get the point. So how do we break out of this rut?
As with everything, we summon our brains into the mix. The kitchen is the perfect platform to hone your workflow design skills. Restaurants thrive on the efficiency of this space for putting out creative dishes at a steady pace while keeping costs in check. This involves taking a look at each element of the workflow and optimizing it. Let’s do just that
Before we delve into how we optimize the workflow, it is important to set the logic of how we go about it. The exercise will be governed by the twin principles of Efficiency at each step of the way along with a keen eye on Sustainability to ensure mindfulness about our impact on the planet’s resources.
Efficiency in the context of the kitchen is the heart of this article. The key test to apply to each element of the kitchen workflow are selected from this list. You will see that many of these are applicable to more aspects of our life than just the kitchen
Place for everything and everything in its place: Enough said
Prioritize Visibility & Access: Saves you from a ton of frustration and makes time spent in the kitchen a dance and not a fight
Time Saving: Avoid duplication, Batch processing
Natural workflow: Design in a habit forming manner. Club common workflow tools into own bins. Joshua Weissman made an entertaining video giving useful tips about efficient workflow, here
Compatible layout: Part of a bigger upcoming post. How the kitchen layout regulates your movement through prep, cook, serve and store strongly influences your efficiency and attitude towards that space
Calorie efficiency: Through Power Foods that are efficient delivery mechanisms for both macro and micro nutrients like Lentils, Eggs, Seeds etc
The food industry is plagued with wasteful habits leading to unequal distribution across the world. Within it, the meat industry has also been labelled as one of the highest contributors of pollution. Setting aside the personal factors of taste and lifestyle, meat is just an inefficient way to feed humans. It takes anywhere between 25 to 30 calories of vegetarian feed to create 1 calorie of meat.
So how can we organize our kitchen workflow to be more sustainable? Here are some of the simple things you should consider
Limit Waste: Learn to reuse parts of food that are usually discarded because of how they look or because making them usable involved extra work on our part. This is dealt with later in this article.
Source Locally and Responsibly: The concept of food miles is discussed to often measure the carbon footprint of our exotic and often unseasonal demands on food. Fortunately your local farmer’s market would be happy to inform you of the produce in season and the sustainable ways in which it is cultivated.
Encourage Organic: Understanding Organic Foods and knowing when to choose them is not as easy as you think. The core idea is to encourage sustainable farming practices until our demand forces large corporations to adopt these practices at scale.
Explore Efficient Alternatives: Consider the growing meat replacement products such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods movement. See if it can find a place in your diet
Elements of the Kitchen workflow
Our focus is to build a consciously crafted environment that encourages us to cook more and cook better.
This article isn’t going to delve into details of the widely discussed subject of meal prep or cooking tips and tricks. We will cover them in future topics. I will, however, highlight the principles & benefits of practicing it. I’ll also point you to a few sources to get you inspired.
Inventory is the aspect of the kitchen that often ties everything together. Everything starts by deciding what you want to eat, depending on what you have in your storage. It is also the way the loop is closed. Once the cooking is done, unused foods and leftovers are put back where they can be used again.
It has to be seen in 2 parts: Consumables and Hardware. Consumables are the whole foods and groceries. The Hardware comprises of the utensils and gadgets that help you take raw foods to their finished state.
Excel warriors and Notion junkies can build Kitchen Inventory Managers that will become part of their Life OS. For the rest of us, who just want a convenient way to know what we have and what we’re running out of, there’s an app for that.
For iOS Only: https://cozzo.app/
For Multi-platform: https://www.outofmilk.com/
Tracking consumables is largely helped by ensuring that food is stored between a pantry and a refrigerator. Once the food is consumed, excess is stored and waste is disposed; the next thing to do, is restock.
Schedule a consumables audit on a monthly basis. Keep track of duplicate items and expiry schedule of food items.
Reduce your mental overhead by identifying the basket of goods that are consumed in predictable cycles and convert it into subscriptions. You will save time and money.
Buy experimental items responsibly. I’m looking at the jar of imported wasabi rotting in the kitchen from before TikTok was trending
Though the inventory discussion is largely focused on the consumables, hardware is something that needs an annual audit and record. You don’t want to end up impulse-buying the second Microplane or Thermomix
The average adult daily caloric intake is approximately: 50% Carbs/ 30% Protein/ 20% Fats. People with special dietary needs should follow instructions of their doctor/nutritionist.
As a weekly meal prep project, it means making 5 Sources of Protein, 5 Carbs and 5 Fats to be combined into 9 unique meals.
Decide on a weekly menu. Segregate it into things that store well and can be made in batches vs things that should be made fresh in small quantities. I prefer Sundays for Batch prep for the week ahead.
Remember that along with primary carbs/proteins, sauces and dressings can be prepared ahead in large batches. They refrigerate well and, when planned smartly, can be paired creatively to bring variety to your bento box
Saturday night should be for passive prep; for things that need to be marinated, soaked overnight, fermented, seasoned etc.
When choosing to make in large quantities, be aware of tools that can help you save time. For example a mandoline slicer, particularly one with a V-blade (like this one) can make short work of prep for vegetarian lasagna, ratatouille and mountains of sweet potato fries.
If you’re one of the last holdouts to the instant pot revolution, pick one up here and learn how to use the pressure cooker function for the fastest way to cook rice, lentils and meat.
Benefits of Batch Processing Meals
- Reduces load of dirty dishes across the week
- Allows you to plan weekly grocery shopping in accurate quantities as you gain more experience
Visualize the cooking process beforehand and keep an eye on the number of dishes needed to do a task. Be aware of the various workstations you have in your kitchen (Cutting station, Cooktop, Oven, Dough-making, Blending etc). Now think ahead on the various vessels a dish transfers into during the cooking and plating process. This allows you to choose the right kind of dishes to start with.
Pair batch-prepped components with fresh prep (the less time consuming kind) to make meal combos during the week. Keep an eye on meeting your micro nutrient quota through seeds, green leaves and whole-grain
Keep an empty container to assemble all tools essential for the chosen cooking session. All tools come out of and go back into this box until the cooking session is done. They then return to their permanent storage spaces. Consider interlocking trays like these to assemble an on-the-fly toolkit for any session
Consider using multi-purpose vessels which can handle microwave, convection, refrigeration (where appropriate for the dish). Here’s a handy guide:
When you are eating, especially with friends and family, it is important to pay attention to table-setting.
I don’t mean Downton abbey, I mean to keep logical aids at hand and look at how the interaction would flow across the table (or your backyard in case of a barbecue)
If people need to constantly rely on others handing them stuff across the table, over a bunch of open vessels, you’re setting up for a sequel of Final Destination.
If people at your barbecue need to come back into your home for paper towels (or cloth towels) and maybe refill their drink, it’ll soon split up the group.
Make friends with a lazy-susan (a name that’s aged poorly). Especially one with a sturdy base, large usable area and smooth rotation like this one to keep things accessible across the dining table
Embrace eating with your hands. It’s a great way to improve your relationship with food and it dramatically brings down the cutlery usage. There’s a few other benefits as well, if you’d like to know more look here and here.
Often the subject of friction at home. Our attitude towards cleaning up is one of the items that reveals our character.
But when we are looking at the fundamentals of an organized kitchen, this is both a bottleneck and an opportunity. In the shadow of a pandemic, having a clean up routine can no longer be an afterthought
The process of cleaning up begins before we start cooking. Selecting the right tools ensures that clean up later is a breeze. For example, silicone spatulas beat wooden or steel ones for stirring sticky foods. Their flexible heads leave little to no scraps at the bottom to wrestle with later
Choosing just enough utensils for the job ensures that the wash load is reduced for later. Are your prep bowl, cooking bowl and serving bowl, 3 different bowls each time? Along with “tv chef” style small bowls for each ingredient? Then, stop.
Clean up as you go. If an item takes no more than a minute to clean (small bowls, cutlery, coffee mugs) then do not put it off for later. It can be tempting to just toss it into the pile of dirty dishes but the next time you want another bowl remember that you’re compounding the misery, not addressing it.
Many dishes clean better when they’re still hot from the cooking process. As food scraps cool the starch and proteins bond stubbornly with the surface taking more effort to clean them
“Cleanability” should be an important factor while buying kitchenware. Here are some of the things to look for
- brushed metal, mostly steel
- smooth surfaces without intricate designs for food-scraps to hide in
- choose utensils made of a single material over a chimera of metal, nylon, plastic and silicone
- exposed rivets and tight spaces between a handle and the pan traps food and becomes hard to reach for dishwashers
Storage is a balance between improving the shelf life of food and designing quick discovery of its whereabouts.
This understanding goes a long way in reducing duplication of efforts and also wastage of food
Prioritize visibility and ease of access when choosing storage options. It’s always frustrating to have the twilight zone at the back of your kitchen cupboards. Fortunately there are tiered storage options, swiveling holders and a plethora of new solutions to upgrade the accessibility of your existing shelf space
Have a responsible collection of low footprint storage, both hard shell (stackable with nested lids) and soft shell (silicone with zip top).
Due to complementary usage properties, see the table above, a combination of plastic (look for triton, BPA free for high visibility and resilience) and glass containers may be needed to suit various requirements. Here’s a suggestion for each, Plastic and Glass plus here’s one for reusable, self standing Silicone sandwich bags that are microwave and freezer safe
Choose wisely between the refrigerator and pantry. Different food items gain and lose shelf life at room temperature before or after cooking. Knowing the difference helps you give it the best chance of staying edible longer. It also ensures that you use each space optimally without having to pile in foods wherever space appears randomly. The USDA addresses it indirectly here, as do third party sources here and here
Consider air circulation in the fridge for optimal cooling. Overloading a fridge or even storing food in oversized vessels reduce it’s effectiveness. However, a reasonably tightly packed freezer (with no obstruction at the vents) is actually not too bad. The frozen items keep each other cold and prevent collection of warm air.
Whether it is at the kitchen or a restaurant, food waste is inevitable. The true test of a kitchen’s efficiency is incomplete without factoring reduced wastage and responsible disposal.
The restaurant industry now equates that to a direct addition to it’s profits. They are now relying on software powered by AI to manage that. But what can we do at home?
While choosing the recipe, plan ahead on what part of the food scrap can be reused/ repurposed before choosing to dispose. The internet is full of inspiration on this subject. Here’s something to start you off: Link 1 and Link 2
Setup a small bin to collect compostable waste where you usually process the produce and ensure that all members of the household know about it
A backyard vegetable garden builds a positive loop for the organic waste. It also makes you more self sufficient
The kitchen is meant to be place of joy, creativity and togetherness. It is also a place of learning. There’s more practical science and discipline in this space than anywhere else in the home.
It’s an opportunity for working parents to inculcate whole life productivity lessons to their children by demonstrating how they play with their toys (and keep them away when done).
Let me know if this article helped you, in the comments below, and if you need me to expand on any other aspect of organizing your kitchen workflow
- Right utensils for the job ( Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash )
- Limit Utensils ( Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash )
- Messy Kitchen ( Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash )
- Refrigerator ( Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash )
- Organized Kitchen ( Photo by Jean van der Meulen from Pexels )
- Inventory ( Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash )
- Meal Prep ( Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash )
- Consume ( Photo by Stefan Vladimirov on Unsplash )
- Store ( Photo by Taryn Elliott from Pexels )
- Food Waste ( By OpenIDUser2 – http://trashwiki.org/en/File:Luxembourg_dumpster.jpeg, GFDL, Link )
- Composting ( By Diego Grez at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Liftarn using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, Link)
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