10 Simple Meal Prep Hacks to Minimize Dirty Dishes

updated Jul 20, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Save time (and stress!) during the waning hours of the day with a meal prep session that takes care of the week’s dinner decisions and prep all at once. While meal prep can save time midweek, it isn’t unusual to spend just as much time cleaning up from meal prep as it takes to plan and prepare the menu. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way! Here are 10 smart tips to streamline your weekly meal prep and minimize dirty dishes.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

1. Batch prep.

Batch prepping not only saves time, but it allows me to clean my cutting board only once during the entire process. Slice and chop produce in a way that makes sense. Start with items like carrots, celery, or bell peppers that won’t make much mess and won’t impart an aroma onto the cutting board. Then move onto cheeses, onions, and herbs. Finish cutting-board work with raw meats to avoid cross-contaminating foods that are eaten raw.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

2. Reuse pans and bowls.

You don’t need to scrub each pan after each use. Simply wipe it out (or not!) and keep cooking. This is especially useful if you are, say, sautéing onions for one recipe and the flavor of onion won’t fight with your next dish. Mixing bowls don’t always need to be cleaned, either; simply scrape them with a rubber spatula and add new ingredients.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

3. Don’t use new utensils for each task.

Instead of grabbing a new bowl, spoon, or spatula for each task, rinse and reuse. Reserve the thorough cleaning for the end of meal prep. Utensils and bowls don’t need more than a quick rinse between kitchen tasks, unless you are prepping raw meats or eggs. Keeping the counters and sink tidy can also help you work more efficiently and won’t leave you scrambling at the last minute for the right-size bowl or a specific measuring spoon.

Credit: Faith Durand

4. Keep a bowl of soapy water near the sink.

Before you begin meal prep, fill a large bowl or one half of a clean sink with warm, soapy water. A quick dip is the quickest way to clean sticky measuring spoons and other meal prep gear. Dunk dirty dishes into the bowl as you work, then when you need it simply give those items a quick rinse in clean water. The one caveat: Never place a sharp knife into the bowl, as you’re likely to nick yourself when you reach into the bubbles.

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5. Clean in small bursts.

There are a couple of ways to approach this idea: Set a timer for a quick 10-minute clean, or wash as many dishes as you can with one soapy sponge before moving on to a different task. If you find your energy running low immediately after meal prep or after a few scrubs, give yourself a break (and a pat on the back for all of the hard work), and come back to clean later on with renewed energy.

6. Plan one-pot meals.

One-pot meals are popular because they taste good and because they cut down on dishes. Whether that one pot is a sheet pan, skillet, or Dutch oven, if you start from the place of fewer dishes, you’ll inevitably spend less time standing at the sink. And don’t worry — there’s plenty of variety to be had.

Get a recipe: Our Favorite One-Pot Meals

Credit: Joe Lingeman

7. Mix foods in storage containers.

Instead of using a mixing bowl to assemble a meal, combine the ingredients in its storage container from the start. This is easy for salad dressings, grain bowls, salads, and marinades.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

8. Avoid the tiny glass bowl trap.

The dirty secret of TV cooking shows is that somebody (rarely the star chef) is offstage washing all of the tiny glass mise en place bowls. While organizing ingredients before you cook is a key to efficient cooking and a good kitchen habit to develop, you don’t have to dirty a dozen dishes to do it. If you are, say, making granola for the week, combine the ingredients that will be mixed in the same step in a single bowl rather than portioning them individually.

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9. Set up a cleaning and drying station before you start.

If the counters are cluttered with dirty dishes and meal prep containers, there’s little place to put clean dishes. Before you start scrubbing, brush food into the garbage disposal or trash can and organize dishes on the left side of the skin. Fill the sink with warm, soapy water and set up a drying rack or drying pad to the right of the sink. Start washing the smaller items (like utensils), and work your way up to the larger pots and pans. With a designated place for all of the dirty dishes to start and the clean, drying dishes to land, you can easily gauge your progress instead of feeling like you’ll never reach the bottom of the pile.

10. Invest in dish cleaning equipment.

Trying to save money with discount soap that doesn’t cut grease or flimsy towels that don’t absorb moisture makes the task of cleaning dishes more cumbersome than necessary. Instead use dish gloves to save your hands from the hot water and cuticle-drying dish soap. Try out new, powerful dish cleaning agents like the Dawn Powerwash that our Lifestyle Director, Lisa Freedman, loves.

What are your tips for making meal prep dishes go away?