Our Readers’ 8 Best Tips for Cooking Without Making a Huge Mess

published Jan 21, 2014
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One of the least rewarding aspects of cooking is cleaning up after the meal is done. A very long time ago, one of our readers asked, “How can I cook without making a huge mess?We got so many smart answers, we can’t stop thinking about theme all these years later. Here are the eight best tips from our readers for keeping messes manageable and your sanity intact when cooking every day.

1. Make a plan before you start cooking.

Review your intended cooking project and refine — maybe you can reduce a complicated plan to one dish requiring a lot of work and two dishes that can be made ahead or are very simple.

Look for ways to combine ingredients without using more bowls or pans. For instance, in some recipes some vegetables have to be added before others because they need to cook longer. Instead of chopping everything and separating them into two bowls, I add the first batch of vegetables and let them cook while I chop the next batch. They go into the same bowl that had the first batch of vegetables and I don’t need to pull out another one.

For anything you have to hand-wash, pick tools that are easy to clean. My chef’s knife is very easy to clean, but a garlic press is a PIA, so use the knife to prep garlic. My frying pan is easy to clean, but a Foreman grill, not so much.

(Image credit: Kentaroo Tryman/Getty Images)

2. Start with a clean kitchen.

Tidy before you start. That means no clean dishes on the drying rack or dishwasher (gives the items you are going to “clean as you go” somewhere to be). No dirty dishes/cups in the sink. No snack foods hanging out on the counter. This can be an especially useful habit if you live with others who don’t always return things to a put away state.

If you have a dishwasher, always put the clean dishes away before you start cooking! Rinsing and popping in the dishwasher-safe items takes even less time than washing them.

I find it dispiriting to have to clean and then cook, so my motto is “leave the kitchen ready to cook”. That means everything dried and put away, surfaces wiped, etc. Doesn’t have to happen right at the end of cooking, but does need to happen well before the next round.

3. Prep your ingredients and tools before you start.

Mise en place. Measure out ingredients, peel and chop veggies (maybe not onions if you’re not using them right away), crack eggs, etc. If they’re going into the main dish at once, then put them in one big bowl. This seems like it would add dishes to clean but many of these bowls will need little more than a quick rinse off.

Mise en place does not necessarily refer to the arranging of ingredients into tiny bowls. It means being in a state of preparedness in the kitchen….In general, it’s about cooking smart and in an organized manner. Preparing your ingredients and tools in advance can seriously mitigate your stress levels later on in the process.

The best thing I did for improving my kitchen efficiency was investing in a large cutting board. I prep most ingredients on the same cutting board; every ingredient in its own section of the board. I leave the chopped veggies on the board until needed.

(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

4. Clean as you go.

Anytime I’m waiting for a pot of water to boil (my electric cooktop takes FOREVER) or the oven to preheat, I’m prepping ingredients. Similarly, anytime I have something simmering on the stove or roasting in the oven, I’m cleaning the cutting boards, knives, graters, bowls etc. I used for food prep.

Once I’m done chopping an ingredient I put the unused portion away. Same goes for a sauce, condiment, or other ingredient; measure/use and put away.

Take a large bowl or dish tub, fill it with hot, soapy water, and leave it in your sink (or on your counter, next to the sink, if you can afford the space). As you dirty smaller items, toss them into the water to soak. If you’re putting things in the dishwasher later, you won’t have to rinse each item first, and if you’re hand-washing, you should have little to no scrubbing.

5. Use a garbage bowl to collect scraps.

For a garbage or compost bowl, I don’t even use a bowl. I use whatever plastic bag I put the vegetables in from the grocery store and all the scraps go in there. Tie up the opening and drop it into the trash.

Usually this is an extra Tupperware container. As you accumulate compost scraps (or scraps + garbage if you don’t compost), put them together and out of your way. Dumping the contents later on is much easier.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Photos)

6. Give the illusion of neatness.

Ten dirty dishes scattered everywhere looks terrible and overwhelming, but the same ten dishes stacked into a single stack is somehow immediately manageable and cope-with-able.

No matter how crazed it is, no matter how stressed you are, rinse each dish/measuring spoon when you’re done with it. It’s so much easier to face a dirty kitchen if all the dirty dishes are rinsed and stacked in nice, neat piles.

7. Make it fun!

Try to make cleaning fun — watch TV if you can, or listen to a podcast/audiobook/music. If you can create a set-up where cleaning actually gives you a little extra time to do something you enjoy, you will definitely mind it less.

I do the finishing-up while I listen to This American Life. My “dates with Ira” are always productive.

(Image credit: Lucy Hewett)

8. Ask for help.

This is the key to my system: I make my husband finish the clean up because he didn’t do the cooking. Voila. Mess solved.

First of all, and I think most importantly — if I’m cooking for other people, I ask them to help with cleanup. Least they can do, especially if they live with you. Insist. Really.

Do you have any other advice for cooking without making a huge mess?