8 Smart Tips for Keeping the Kitchen Clean While You Cook, According to Food Truck Owners

published May 7, 2022
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person in a food truck
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I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a terrible cook. But I am great at cleaning. When I’m cooking, I tend to focus too much on cleaning and putting things away that I often forget to turn the heat off the rice (true story!). While my husband and I have a strict agreement that he always cooks and I always clean, we’ve both learned that cleaning as you’re cooking is definitely a plus.

I figured food truck owners know that lesson better than any chef. Their limited work space means keeping a consistently tidy area for prepping, cooking, and serving. So I chatted them up and I came up with eight simple-yet-useful tips for cleaning your kitchen as you’re cooking. Here’s what they had to say.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

1. Consolidate as much as possible.

Before you can even think about cleaning, it’s important to make sure your cabinets, fridge, pantry, and any other storage areas are organized enough so that you can access what you need while cooking. “If there’s a jar of sauce in the fridge that’s taking up a ton of space on the door, but only has a few tablespoons of sauce in it, put that in a smaller container,” says chef, pitmaster, and co-owner Evan LeRoy of the Austin-based truck LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue. Consolidating certain items will mean your stuff takes up less kitchen real estate, and it makes your job easier. 

Credit: Sarah Crowley

2. Make sure everything has a home.

Jordan Rubin, chef and owner of Mr. Tuna sushi truck in Portland, Maine, says that staying organized in the kitchen should be the number-one priority and the best way to set yourself up for success. 

“Being organized is the first step to keeping our truck clean and running efficiently,” says Rubin. “We always make sure that the truck is fully stocked with cleaning supplies and everything has a designated space so that things are easy to find, yet out of the way.” Having assigned spots around your kitchen for cleaning and food supplies can help inspire a sense of tidiness and order, ultimately avoiding clutter and further cleanup once you’ve completed cooking. 

3. Have a trash bin out and ready. 

Many of us keep our trash cans and recycling bins underneath the sink behind a cabinet door, or neatly hidden in a corner or nook of the kitchen. When cleaning as you are cooking, taking the bin out to avoid opening and closing the cabinet door will save time and prevent possible spills. Pull it out and keep the lid open (if your can has one).

“Having a bin right below our main counter is really helpful so we don’t have to turn around or look for the bin to throw something away,” says LeRoy. “We simply wipe off the counters and scraps land right in the bin.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

4. Use your downtime.

Rubin suggests keeping your ABCs in mind: “We like to practice the philosophy of ABC, or always be cleaning, which means any opportunity in between orders should be used to wipe down all surfaces, sweep the floor, organize dirty dishes, and restock the station.” In a home kitchen, this can mean loading dishes while a sauce simmers on the stove, or wiping down the counters while a roast is in the oven. 

Credit: Summer Rylander

5. Make sure you mise en place.

The practice of mise en place can make cleaning as you’re cooking a completely effortless task. This French culinary phrase means “gather” or “putting place,” referring to the preparation of ingredients organized into separate bowls before cooking. Felesha and Donell Todd of Cousins Maine Lobster trucks in Memphis and Oklahoma City mise en place as much as posisble to create a quick and efficient system. At home, you can prep all your ingredients, clean, and then get cooking. When you’re done, you’ll realize that you’ve got minimal mess left to deal with.

6. Always keep a towel or cloth handy.

Wiping off counters is an essential part of keeping a food truck clean while also creating space to prepare incoming orders. As a sushi business, both as a truck and as a brick-and-mortar, Rubin understands the importance of having a towel or cloth ready to go and wipe off any messes. 

“We have extremely high standards for organization and cleanliness, so we’re definitely in the habit of constantly wiping down all surfaces,” he says. A dish towel draped over your shoulder or looped in an apron pocket or strap will ensure that you’re always ready to quickly wipe up spills or sweep up crumbs.

7. Use disposables — every now and then.

When it comes to certain meals, at times the work that goes into cleaning seems hardly worth it. To overcome this, LeRoy says that sometimes disposables are the way to go.  “Anything that lessens the amount of dishes to do or creates less work is the best option,” he says. “Disinfectant wipes, aluminum foil, paper plates, and parchment or butcher paper can easily be tossed in the trash or recycle bin.” 

If you’re worried about the negative environmental impact of disposables, LeRoy recommends using them only for particularly messy dishes and minimizing the use of products like vinyl or latex gloves. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn

8. Give yourself a break. 

If you’re lucky enough to have help in the kitchen, taking a break or delegating tasks may come naturally. For those cooking and cleaning alone, husband-and-wife franchisee owners Felesha and Donell Todd, offer simple advice: “Hydrate, catch your breath, and get back to it.”

This is the philosophy their truck staff follows, with some employees even using these little breaks to quickly clear off their stations. For home cooks, this advice can be altered depending on what’s cooking. Are you planning on pasta? Take a moment as the water boils, and sip a glass of wine. Making tacos? Turn on a podcast as you wait to flip your tortillas. 

How do you clean while you cook? Tell us in the comments below.