Work Smarter, Not Harder: Setting Yourself Up for Food Prepping Success

While working as a pastry chef in a fine dining restaurant in Cincinnati, I was responsible for a number of courses coming out of the kitchen. Between the amuse bouche, cheese courses, and desserts, I would make dozens of dishes within a three hour window.  Like any other restaurant, it wasn't unusual for us to have regulars.  "Jeff" was a regular who would often walk in unannounced.  That would not ordinarily be a problem as we would have people come in all the time without reservations.  However, Jeff lived for dessert, and he was also a diabetic. This became my problem to solve. "Just make him something with Splenda, Tall Girl," Chef would say to me.  As anyone who has ever tried baking with artificial sweeteners will tell you, this is an unsuitable plan.  Splenda, and its calorie deficient brethren--Equal, Sweet n’ Low, stevia, etc.--not only lack the deliciously simple carbohydrates of sugar, they also don’t contribute the wonderful caramelizing, shortening, or whipping properties of sugar either.  Without getting further bogged down in the chemistry, suffice it to say this is an unrealistic approach.  I chose to take a different route.  

As a quick aside, my brother is a type 1 diabetic, so all of the medical details to follow are things I've picked up watching him adjust meals and insulin levels for 25 years. Knowing that the average type 1 diabetic should shoot for 45-60 grams of carbs per meal, and knowing that Jeff's dinner would sit in the neighborhood of 30 grams of carbohydrates, I was left with <30 grams of sugar (~7 teaspoons) to work with, which is not much. For reference, a can of Coke contains over nine teaspoons of sugar, and a standard two ounce piece of vanilla cake sans frosting has over 25 grams of sugar.

So week after week I was committed to making Jeff an elaborate, restaurant quality dessert in under two hours with relatively little sugar. This required creative thinking along the lines of ingredient limitations as well as the techniques required to take advantage of the limited sugar that he had left in his meal. Knowing that it is next to impossible to bake a cake, mixing bowl to plate in under two hours even using the proper amount of sugar, it became obvious pretty quickly that I was going to have to explore other avenues.  Luckily, I had recently developed an awesome cheesecake recipe that I knew how to heavily limit the sugar in.

Fun facts about cheesecake:

  1. It doesn't rely on sugar for shortening, leavening, or moisture retention.

  2. It can be mixed in under 10 minutes.

  3. It can be baked in a small, spring form pan and chilled rapidly for service.

  4. It is prized for its tartness and richness, so sugar is nonessential.

  5. It can be simply plated with low sugar garnishes like 70% cacao sauce, balsamic gastrique, caramelized peaches, or raspberry coulis (peaches and raspberries, both being fruits with low relative sugar content).


This is the type of thought process that I would have to go through any time Jeff came in, in the throes of dinner service. I didn't have the luxury of planning ahead because, since Jeff's visits were sporadic, and tossing unused ingredients is a cardinal sin in restaurants, I was relegated to using whatever ingredients were on hand when he walked through our door. This is how, as the person in the kitchen who makes what are arguably the most unhealthy items on the menu, I accidentally learned to make food that is delicious, satisfying, and accidentally fits into a highly regimented diet.


Obviously, my career has changed since the days of putting my blood, sweat and tears (Ew. Not literally.) into needlessly complex dishes that most people only eat on their anniversaries.  I now spend my workdays helping my clients to reach their health goals. These goals can include recovering from injuries, increasing strength/mobility, gaining/maintaining a competitive edge in their sport, etc.  But one aspect remains: I work a lot and don’t have the time or desire to spend a ton of time in my kitchen. Luckily, I spent about ten years learning how to prep for everything from 500 cover lunches to elaborate, six course wine dinners.  I can handle busting out a week’s worth of meals that are quick, flavorful and nutritious, with no problem.  And in this ongoing series, I'm going to teach you how to do it too.  

The first step to cooking anything well is to acquire all of the right tools for the job. Keep in mind that the right tool should do the following:

  1. Take up little kitchen real estate, relative to it's usefulness.  Things that can be hung are great space savers, things that take up counter space should be considered carefully as they not only prevent anything else from occupying that space, they eliminate prep space.

  2. Should perform more than one task or perform one task so perfectly that its single use status is justified.


The following is a pretty exhaustive list of what every kitchen needs in order to function efficiently. I have assembled and groomed this list based on experience working in a variety of kitchens. From fine dining to catering to hotels to casual, every kitchen makes heavy use of the items on this list. Keep in mind that you can get by without almost anything on this list. But in the interest of being able to prep as efficiently as possible, these items are your heavy hitters.

Just like in the gym, you can’t plan your workout until you know what equipment you have available. If you want to squat, but you don’t have a rack, well things are going to get a bit tricky.  You may still be able to pull it off, but it’s going to be more difficult. Food prepping is the same: If you don’t have the right equipment for the job, you may need to rethink your plan.

(Disclaimer: I’m not advocating or advertising any particular brand for any item on this list.)

-A Sharp Knife: Indispensable. A good sharp knife can get through a pile of veggies or cube up a roast for stew in seconds flat. I recommend German steel as it tends to be more durable and hold an edge longer, requiring less frequent sharpening. I also recommend an 8 inch blade. Anything bigger is just showing off.

-Paring Knife: Same song, second verse. Listen, there is virtually nothing a chef's knife can't do, but there are enough jobs that require a more dexterous hand that a smaller, second knife is warranted.

-Half Sheet Pans: Cast off your warped, sad, no longer non-stick cookie sheets! They are covered in Teflon which is a carcinogen, and they haven't lay flat since the first time you put them in the oven. These stainless steel pans come in various sizes.  A ‘half’ is the largest size that fits into the average home oven.  They are not non-stick, but are easily cleaned with a scrubbie and last years.

-Quarter Pans: Same as a half pan only, you know, half of that.

-SilPats: These are silicon mats that line the bottom of sheet pans. They are non-stick and allow for more even cooking of items in the oven. They are much better than non-stick cookie sheets. They’re heat safe up to 700 degrees and are dishwasher safe.

-Dutch Oven: A heavy, cast iron, enameled Dutch oven is great for anything from sauces to stews to chili and more. I recommend a model that is enameled on all surfaces because cast iron can oxidize, which makes it harder to clean and unfriendly to water and acidic foods (such as tomatoes). You won't get as much of that classic cast iron crust on sears, but the time saved and easier maintenance is worth it.

-Crock Pot: Because sometimes things need to cook for 6 hours (roasts, pulled pork, etc.) and having your oven on for that long is impractical. You can also leave it on while you’re out and about, which I don't recommend doing with your oven.

-Ten Inch Stainless Steel Saute Pan: Great for searing or sautéing just about everything. Don't use non-stick as your all-purpose pan. It doesn't sear correctly, and if you use any kind of fat in it, it sticks and forms a residue that is gross and impossible to remove without scratching the surface.  Thus, rendering the stupid thing worthless. Use stainless, and thank me later. (Can also be used as a meat tenderizer)

-Non-stick pan: Use this for fish and eggs ONLY! Do not use any abrasive sponges to clean it.  Wipe it out with a paper towel or washcloth as soon as it's cooled and it will last you years. There are now inexpensive ceramic models available that don't use teflon.

-Silicone (not rubber) Spatulas: I have a dozen and on a busy prep day, I might use eight of them in an afternoon. Great for scraping sticky sauces, batters and the like out of bowls and pots and for flipping pancakes and meats in a pinch.

-Wooden Spoons: Wooden spoons are great for getting all of the tasty bits off the bottom of a pot/pan after you've seared something. They're also great for making sure that sauces aren't sticking to the bottom of pots. Don't use a metal spoon for this task as it can scrape metal or finish off of cooking surfaces and into your food, which is not good.

-Tongs: You can't use your hands to handle hot foods that need to be flipped, turned or rearranged, so tongs are your next best option. They are also great for transporting raw meat and for serving (one or the other please). I use metal tongs with silicone ends because they can handle much higher temperatures than plastic, which means I can use them on the grill.

-Tupperware: Get multiple sizes, at least eight of each: Under 4 oz (for sauces and pre-chopped garlic/jalapenos/etc. mostly) 16 oz, and 64 oz. This should cover you for most things you'll want to prep, unless you like to make huge quantities or have a really big family. You can find a bunch of different sizes here. Having all of the same brand isn't a requirement, but it does make stacking (full or empty) easier.

-Pyrex: Use these for portioning your meals to go. They last forever, seal tightly and are dishwasher and microwave safe (your tupperware have these attributes as well, but glass eliminates the possibility of chemicals seeping into your food during reheating).

-Cutting Mats: At least three. This way, you have one for chopping veggies, one for raw meat, and one for cutting/chopping/portioning your finished product.

-Immersion Blender (Stick Mixer): Better than a food processor or blender for a couple of reasons:

  1     Typically cheaper than either of those alternatives

  2     Adaptable to more projects (sauce blending, soups, etc.)

  3     You can use it in the container (pot, Crock Pot, bowl) that you're already using which allows you to use fewer dishes and waste less time by not having to transfer containers for blending

-Wax Paper

-Plastic Wrap


-Freezer Bags

That’s it. You may have noticed that there is next to no super-specialized equipment on this list. That isn’t by accident. Frankly, my line didn’t have room to accommodate ineffectual tools (looking at you, garlic press). And your kitchen doesn’t have to either. This list gives you everything you need to make anything from stews to stir fry to fajitas to cheescake for a diabetic. Once you have all of your hardware, we can talk about the software: Next time, stocking your pantry.

Oh hey. Here's a Google checklist that you can use to keep track of what you've got and what you need. Isn't that nifty:  Kitchen Hardware Checklist