Kitchen Economics: Saving Time and Money

Research shows that by age 45, most of us have spent 50,000 hours in the kitchen. That figures up to 3124 days of our waking hours, feeding and cleaning up after those we love! No wonder it seems like we’re always in the kitchen. Let’s consider some ways to economize on both time and money in this room where we spend so much of our lives.

Eat at Home

We don’t need statistics to prove that it’s both cheaper and more nutritious to eat at home. If you have to wash, potty, dress, and seatbelt everyone just to go get fast food, it takes longer than cooking at home. Stay home: your family will eat better and your budget will breathe a sigh of relief, as well.

Stocking Up

  • Collect economical recipes. When our five sons were at home, I learned to stretch 1½ lb of meat by serving it with pasta (spaghetti, lasagna, etc.), potatoes, or bread (pizza, cabbage pockets, etc.). 
  • Between meals quench thirst with water instead of milk, fruit juice, or sodas.
  • How often do we enter the store for three items and exit with twenty? A quick trip to the store is costly and tiring. Shop weekly or less.
  • Train your family to write down items as they use the last one; posting your shopping list on the fridge makes it easy for them to “do the right thing.”
  • Certain canned foods are seasonally cheaper: think cranberries and olives at Thanksgiving or baked beans, mustard, and ketchup at the 4th of July. Estimate how many of each item you will use until the next holiday sale for that item and buy accordingly.
  • If your family likes all cuts of meat, buy beef, pork or other meats by the quarter or half to fill your freezer. Otherwise, buy quantities of cuts you like on sale.
  • The largest size package isn’t necessarily the cheapest per pound. Take a calculator and let your children learn some practical math skills while you shop.
  • Use coupons wisely. Often they are for convenience foods that are expensive even with the coupon.
  • Remember that the store brands are usually cheaper and often the quality compares to name brand

Store It Where You Use It  

How often does someone in your family ask, “Mom where is the ___?” Establishing a place for each item not only saves time (and aggravation), it saves money spent driving to the store and purchasing duplicates.

  • Take stock. Study the contents of each cupboard and ask yourself: Is this the best place for this item? Is there anything in this cupboard that I don’t need or don’t use? Should a seldom-used appliance or serving bowl be consigned to storage someplace besides the kitchen? Or maybe I don’t need it at all? The usual suspects are small appliances that only do one thing such as hot dog cookers or used-only-once
    cleaning supplies that are creating rust rings in the cupboard beneath your sink. If an item doesn’t earn its right to take up space in your home, get rid of it.
  • Place glasses and cups in the cupboard above the dishwasher or near the sink if you hand wash dishes. You can stack and carry plates and bowls across the room, but most glasses don’t stack well, so store them where it’s convenient to put them away each time.
  • Keep knives that you use for preparing fresh produce next to the sink. Keep potholders, large spoons, spatulas, pancake turners, tongs, and the like close to the stove.Store baking supplies together.
  • Keep a small fire extinguisher handy, but not too close to the stove—you may not be able to reach it if you have a stovetop fire.
  • Deep drawers are a great place to store pots, pans, and lids.
  • Deep drawers also work well for leftover containers: it is easy to pull out just one and they don’t tip over easily. Treat yourself to a new set of leftover containers that all use the same size lid. You will save time trying to match lids as you clean up after dinner. Note: This was seldom an issue when all five boys were at home—leftovers were unknown.
  • Reduce counter clutter. The smaller your kitchen, the less you should have sitting out. Every item must earn the right to sit on your countertop or reside in your cupboard. Function before frills. Use walls and windowsills to display your kitchen décor leaving the countertop available for your work.

Transform the Junk Drawer into a Management Drawer

Admit it: every kitchen has a junk drawer. This is the drawer where you’ll find pliers, rubber bands, used up marking pens, Legos™, diaper rash ointment, and keys and appliance parts you can’t identify. Someday, when you’re feeling particularly brave, tackle The Drawer. Decide what really needs to be in your Management Drawer and find homes for the rest. Put all of the unknowns in a jar for Hubby to check through. Only keep what you actually use in the kitchen.

I have weeded my former junk drawer down to a roll of masking tape and a marker for identifying leftovers; fuses for my oven which has an insatiable appetite for them; matches to light birthday candles; a small flashlight for power outages; and a packet of floral food to make my garden bouquets last longer (I fill the vases in the kitchen). All of this fits into two skinny plastic drawer dividers. The rest of the drawer holds zip-close plastic bags, foil, and plastic wrap.

Develop Efficient Ways of Doing Things

  • Make double or triple batches of recipes that freeze well.
  • Think through meals you prepare often to discover efficient ways of preparing them. Figure out what step takes the longest and start with that.
  • If you use the Homemade Convenience Foods system of pre-cooking your meats, you can have a meal on the table in 10-15 minutes. Let’s say I want to make goulash for dinner; here is my sequence of actions:
    • Turn on the electric burner, pick up the kettle, and fill it with hot water to cut down on heating time.
    • While the water for the noodles heats, pop a box of pre-cooked ground beef into the microwave to thaw, along with pre-chopped onions. While they’re thawing, pull out spices, noodles, cans of tomato sauce, and measuring spoons.
    • By now the water is boiling, so add the noodles and set the timer.
    • Pour the meat, some of the onions, spices, and tomato sauce into a serving bowl, stir, and heat in the microwave.
    • While the meat sauce simmers and the noodles finish cooking, set the table, pour the beverages, and put a salad on the table.
    • After draining the noodles, add them to the meat sauce, and serve.
    • Total prep time: 12 minutes.
  • If you have a bread maker, make your own bread mixes for bread, homemade pizza, or cinnamon rolls. You will cut the cost by 75% over buying commercial mixes, and you’ll save time since you’ll only have to get out all the ingredients once to fill a dozen or more bags. Place the dry ingredients in zipper-style plastic bags and store in an airtight container. I use a five-gallon popcorn tin.
  • Measure dry ingredients first; you’ll save time washing and drying utensils.
  • Cake, pancake, and muffin mixes are generally cheaper than making these foods from scratch. I use a muffin mix that calls for ¼ cup of milk; whether making one or four boxes, I measure with the ¼ cup device. I use that same measuring cup to place the batter in the muffin cups; it holds just the right amount and I only have one measuring cup to wash. Use a rubber spatula to get last bit of batter from the mixing bowl.
  • Orange juice concentrate is cheaper than OJ in a jug; there is less weight for the producer to ship. Thaw a new can as the old one is used.
  • Use a quality kitchen shears to cut up meat, chicken, or veggies for fajitas or stir-fry recipes. You’ll save time and knife-sharpening.
  • Don’t multitask when you are cooking eggs or pancakes—you will regret the results!
  • Use non-consumables whenever you can. Use paper towels sparingly.
  • Use a fresh dishcloth each day to cut down on food-borne germs.

Use Available Staff

  • The kitchen can be a lonely place. Make it the heart of the home, not a solitary confinement cell. Use kitchen time for one-on-one time with your children. Confidences will be shared along with the chopping and dicing. Have fun in the kitchen and you’ll always have company.
  • Teach your children to clear their own place settings plus four more items after a meal. Have them place dishes where they will be processed: place settings near the sink or dishwasher and serving dishes near the leftover containers for repackaging.

Spend some time thinking about how you work in your kitchen and how it works for you. Create an economical kitchen by making changes that will make efficient use of your budget and your time. Enjoy your kitchen and those 50,000 hours will fly by.

(c) 2011 by Marcia K. Washburn. For more great ideas for saving time and money in the kitchen, see Homemade Convenience Foods here.


Wish you could have dinner on the table in 15 minutes or less? Check out Homemade Convenience Foods here.