Sort groceries before you get home. At the market, ask the bagger to put all the perishables in one bag, the snacks in another, the canned goods in a third. You can help the process along by loading like foods together on the conveyor belt. At home, unloading will go far more quickly and be easier to delegate.
Prep meat and fish. The few minutes it takes to trim or pound meat can be sandwiched in between the flipping of the breakfast pancakes or afternoon calls to doctors and plumbers. Come suppertime, just pull your pan-ready fillets from the plastic bag and cook.
Meat can sit in an oil-based marinade for about 24 hours in the refrigerator, so you can set up the next day's dinner before hitting the sack; fish, with its more delicate flesh, should sit for no more than 4 to 6 hours, so this is something you might do at lunchtime. Place the meat or fish and the marinade in a resealable plastic bag, pop it into the refrigerator, and flip the bag once or twice during the day if you can; the food will be ready when you are. When you use a marinade made with an acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar, which actually begins cooking the food, pre-prep may or may not work for you, since meat should sit for less than 2 hours, fish for only 30 minutes or so.
Chop vegetables. "Onions, peppers, broccoli, zucchini, squash―they can all be chopped ahead," says caterer Peter Callahan of Callahan Catering, in New York City. "Just cover them with a damp paper towel to keep the cut ends from drying out, then refrigerate." If you won't need the vegetables for up to 12 hours, pop them, towel and all, into a plastic bag. (Onions and other frequently used vegetables can be chopped, then frozen in plastic for 3 weeks.)
Vegetables and fruits that brown when cut can be stored in the refrigerator in a bowl of ice water with a squeeze of lemon―"overnight for meaty vegetables, like potatoes and fennel; a few hours for soft fruits, like pears and apples," says Kurt Beadell, the creative director of the Portland, Oregon, restaurant-caterer Salvador Mollys.
Parboil vegetables. If you are using several vegetables for a stir-fry or will be serving them with a hot sauce, parboil them early in the day so you'll only be warming them up at dinner. Boil vegetables until they're almost tender, "shock" them in a bowl of ice water, drain, and refrigerate in plastic. You can do the same with vegetables you don't want quite raw on a crudité platter or in a salad, such as broccoli, carrots, and asparagus. The brief cooking preserves the bright colors, keeping the vegetables looking pretty.
Measure up. Holding a jangling set of measuring spoons over a boiling pot as you add spices isn't ideal (especially when the cayenne overflows and you get 3 teaspoons instead of one). Measure ahead of time, combining all the spices you need for a dish in a plastic bag or a small bowl. This gives you a head start and helps keep you from forgetting a spice or a garnish when you're rushing to put the meal together. "When you're ready to cook, you just dump, dump, dump," says chef Jennifer Bushman, author of Kitchen Coach: Family Meals (Wiley, $20, amazon.com).
Roast the bird. Many dishes reheat well, but poultry is especially prone to drying out. To avoid that problem, roast a chicken or a turkey if you have time during the day, then carve it and store the slices in the refrigerator in a shallow bath of chicken broth. "The meat gets more moist in the broth," says Bushman. "When you reheat it, covered, in the oven (for about 15 minutes at 350° F or until the meat reaches 165° F), you are essentially braising it."
Roast vegetables. Roasting vegetables is another good do-ahead task. It takes only a few minutes of prep (a little trimming, a drizzle of olive oil) and 30 to 45 minutes at 375° F―enough time for you to get in your morning shower and blow-dry. Dinner prep time is shorter, and roasted vegetables taste great at room temperature.
Make vinaigrette (lots of it). Whip up one good batch of this staple (in its versatility, the "little black dress" of the kitchen) and it will be ready to use―and make you look gourmet-cook good―for up to 3 months. Use it to marinate meat, give a salad a homemade finish, dress up a side dish of vegetables, or add an instant blast of flavor to a cooked burger.
Start with this basic recipe: In a medium-size bowl, place 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper to taste; then whisk in 2/3 cup olive oil (don't add garlic or the vinaigrette won't keep). Store in the refrigerator in a shakable container so you can reincorporate the separated oil before serving. (The olive oil will solidify, so be sure to set the dressing out at room temperature about an hour before you want to serve it.) Then "add garlic, curry, basil, dill, lemon, or even puréed olives at the last minute to tailor it to the meal," says Beadell.
Precook pasta. Pasta water takes forever to boil. Who hasn't watched a pot, foot tapping, while other dishes grew cold? One idea: Precook pasta early in the day and you can deduct that time from the dinner hour. Set the water to boil when you're busy doing something else, like packing lunches (remember what they say about a watched pot). Cook the pasta until it's al dente, drain, cover with plastic, and refrigerate. It will reheat (and unstick) quickly when added to the pan with the hot sauce. Another idea: Set the pot of water on the stove in the morning as a reminder to get it fired up on time.
Enlist help. Many children like to help in the kitchen. Just assign them quick jobs so that they can move on when their attention wanes without leaving a crucial task unfinished. "Young kids love anything with water," says Callahan. "Give them a stool and a vegetable brush and set them up washing vegetables." Bonus: "Kids will try 90 percent of the things they help make," says Bushman.
Her tip for inspiring participation is to buy kitchen tools made specifically for children, such as plastic knives, or color-coded tools, such as cutting boards and spatulas―red for Katie, blue for John. "They'll enjoy their new toys and be excited to use them," says Bushman. She also encourages children to come up with their own secret recipes, for a salad dressing, say, which the family gets to try at dinner.
Assign tasks at will, or write them on slips of paper, put them in a bag or a bowl, and let everyone choose his or her job for the night. Here's to being the lucky one who draws "You're off the hook!"