Successful meal preparation is as much dependent on a good working environment and organization as on culinary skills. It is worth spending some time ensuring your kitchen is arranged and equipped for convenient and safe movement and access between all the key areas. Once it is arranged to your satisfaction, you will be able to undertake the daily tasks of planning and cooking in the minimum of time.
Decide how the various contents of your kitchen can be grouped and where they should be stored in relation to how you use them. Roasting and cake tins (pans), saucepans, cooking utensils, china and glassware, cutlery, fresh and packaged food all need to be sited nearest to where they will be used.
Make sure that equipment is always stored in its allotted place so that it is easily found whenever required. In cupboards (cabinets), plan shelving so that everything is accessible; don’t put items that are in daily use in difficult to reach corners. You may prefer to keep items that are used everyday readily accessible, either on racks, open shelves or standing in large pots. But remember, they will be on display and so may create cluttered look or get in the way. Where open shelving is used to display items such as jars and pots decoratively, it will attract dust and grease so increasing your cleaning load.
Work surfaces need to he kept as clear of clutter as possible so that you can work on them at any time without having to make space first. Wash utensils immediately after use and put them away. Clear and wipe work surfaces down after every activity to keep them spotless and ready for use.
Site large appliances such as the cooker (stove) and refrigerator in relation to the sink area and work surfaces to minimize time-consuming travel in the kitchen. Keep appliances clean and in good working order – wiping them down or washing them after each use and before storing them away.
Always read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for any kitchen appliance; misusing an appliance may lead to damage and may nullify any guarantees. Keep instruction booklets together with the phone numbers or addresses of service agents.
Good lighting is essential in any working environment and the kitchen, where sharp knives and scalding hot pans are handled, is no different. Shadow-free general lighting needs to be supplemented by focused lighting for areas of more intense activity , that is the sink, the cooker (stove), the refrigerator and all preparation surfaces.
Avoid a central fluorescent strip as it can be harsh and gives poor colour rendering (when preparing food it is important to be able to see that your ingredients are fresh). However, consider fixing concealed fluorescent strips on top of wall-mounted units (cabinets), against the wall at the back; these will cast light upwards which, if reflected by a white ceiling, can create a pleasing glow. Strip lights can also be fixed to the underside of a unit, behind a baffle, deflecting the light, to cast an even light on the work surface below.
Spotlights or down-lighters can be used to create pools of general light. Down-lighters are a useful solution to kitchen lighting because, being recessed they attract less dirt and grease and so require less cleaning. They can be placed to shed light in specific areas. Wall-mounted adjustable spotlights can be angled to shine light wherever you want.
A well-lit kitchen is essential. Natural lighting is always best, but wall mounted units can provide focused lighting in work areas.
Kitchen safety is paramount. Not only for the cook, but for anyone else visiting the kitchen, especially children and even pets, both of which should probably be discouraged from being there. Being closer to the ground, both could trip you up when you are carrying a pan of hot water or a knife.
The oven door gets hot when the oven is on and so can burn the unwary visitors. Pan handles protruding over the edge of the hob (burner) can tempt small hands with disastrous results. Adults, too, can knock into them, so always get into the habit of turning handles inwards.
Install a fire blanket, available in neat packs and designed for kitchen use, next to the hob (burner). In case of a far fire, this can be released and thrown over the flames to put them out. A kitchen fire extinguisher is also a good idea.
Kitchen knives need to be kept sharp if they are to be of any use in the kitchen, so store them carefully. This will help to preserve their edges and to avoid the risk of getting cut. Either keep them in a knife block or use a magnetic holder; never leave them loose in a drawer.
A regular programme of cleaning and disinfecting will ensure that all the work surfaces and sink are kept clear of germs. Wash up as soon as you have used items; not only do piles of dirty dishes look unsightly but the warm atmosphere of a kitchen encourages germs to breed.
The refrigerator is probably one of the most overlooked areas when it comes to kitchen hygiene. Check all the contents regularly so that you can discard food that is past its best and before it starts to rot or go mouldy. Wipe down all the surfaces with a clean cloth. If you disinfect, wipe the surfaces with clean water to remove the smell. For more information on how to store fresh foods in the refrigerator, see Getting the Most From Fresh Ingredients.
Planning a meal
Successful meal preparation is as much dependent on organization as on culinary skills. Try to include a good range of flavours, colours and textures, as well as a balance in protein, fat, fibre and other healthy considerations. Consider what you can prepare ahead, and what remains to be done at the last minute so that all is ready together.
Clean, uncluttered work surfaces not only are more hygienic, they are also pleasing to the eye.
The first step is to read all the recipes before making a final choice. The main dish, with simple accompaniments such as a salad and bread, is a good starting point. Serve that with a cold starter (if there is to be one) and a cold dessert that can he made ahead of time. This way you can concentrate your efforts.
If you do choose two or more hot dishes, consider their cooking times and oven temperatures. If you have only one oven, and the temperatures required for the two dishes are different, this will present difficulties.
Next, make a shopping list and check that you have all the equipment you require. Read each recipe through again so you know what lies ahead, and try to estimate how long each preparation stage will take. Review techniques in the preparation that are unfamiliar. Set the time you want to serve the meal, and work back from there so you know when to start the preparation.
If you are serving a starter, you’ll need to plan what can be cooked unattended while you are at the table. If your chosen dessert is frozen, it may need some time out of the freezer before serving, so decide when to do that.
Remember to allow time for the final draining of vegetables, or carving of meat, or seasoning of a sauce. It is usually the case that all of these need to be done at the same time — but you only have one pair of hands. So decide what can wait and what will keep hot.
If any recipe requires the oven to be preheated or tins to be prepared, do this first. Pots of boiling salted water for cooking vegetables or pasta can be brought to the boil while you are doing the chopping and slicing. Set out all the ingredients required and prepare them as specified in the recipe. If more than one dish calls for the same ingredients, say chopped onion, you can prepare the total amount at the same time.