A Private Chef’s Top Tips for Turning Your Favorite Recipes into One-Pot Meals (Which Makes Clean Up Way Easier)

chicken and vegetables steamed in a pot

Published on January 14, 2022

Last updated January 17, 2022

By Ariane Resnick, CNC

It’s a truism we live by: If we want to be well, the most straightforward way is to eat well. And if we want to eat well, making our own food is essential. Cooking meals for ourselves and our families allows us to control everything from ingredient quality to the quantities of added sugar, salt, and fats. But… ugh. Sometimes cooking just feels like too freaking much.

Read next: 7 Whole Meals You Can Make Entirely in a Rice Cooker

As a private chef who spent years crafting plated meals for clients in homes where there was always a housekeeper or three on hand to clean up after me, I had a long period of time where I got to forget all about what an extreme pain doing the dishes is. When I shifted to home-based work a few years ago, it was a real eye-opener. Dishes are frankly exhausting. They’re time-consuming manual labor — even if you have a dishwasher — and they can drain the fun out of cooking.

I want to eat whole, healthy meals and not live on prepared foods, and while I’m no less skilled a chef now than I was in years past, I’ve become a more tired and less motivated one. What to do? Adapt every meal I can into a one-pot wonder, of course! I’ve developed great techniques to cut down on dishes for my favorite meals. Read on to learn how you can also eat what you love most — with far less time spent cleaning up.

1. One-bowl prep

If you’ve spent much time cooking, you likely understand that your recipes will be most successful if your mise en place is fully handled before any fire is lit. However, that doesn’t mean you need a bazillion little bowls full of different ingredients: In order to cut down on dishes before even getting to the actual cooking, layer your cut vegetables into a single large mixing bowl based on the order you’ll be adding them to your recipe. For example, onions are typically sauteed first, so you want those on top — meaning you’ll chop them last. The lightest, quickest-cooking vegetables, such as baby spinach, goes into the bowl first, so that they can be added to the pot last.

2. Stew about it

Now that you’re ready to turn on the heat, the most painless option to turn your meal into a one-pot dish is to make it into a stew. This works for basically any dish that can stand up to a bit of water or broth. For example, it was once unheard of to cook pasta together with other ingredients in a single pot, but that’s become a mainstay for countless home cooks. Swap the pasta cooking water for a low sodium stock or broth, and you don’t have to worry about the right amount left once the pasta is cooked, because it will be even more delicious if there’s extra liquid. Another bonus of this is that when you boil vegetables in water, lots of nutrients are lost in that water. This way, you’re not losing any vitamins or minerals into the cooking liquid, because you’re eating that, too.

3. Loaf around

Ok, this one is admittedly a little strange, but it’s my tried-and-true favorite as a person who strives to minimize clean-up as much as humanly possible. Sheet pan dinners are great, but loaf pan meals are the perfect answer to cooking for one or two. You can eat directly out of them, too, eliminating even more dishes. As a bonus, many nowadays are sold in sets with lids. That means you can either prep an extra loaf pan for later, or you can put your leftovers away with no extra effort. I love taking a dish like a meat or vegetable loaf and dividing the raw mixture among a few loaf pans. Add a big handful of large-cut, seasoned vegetables next to it, and bake according to the instructions for the loaf. Cutting vegetables in a big chop here is important so that they don’t overcook while your protein finishes.

4. Layers of love

If you’re a fan of grains, protein, and vegetables together, you might assume that you have to cook them all separately, then assemble them on a plate. That’s not always the case, though. For instance, amaranth takes about twenty minutes to cook once boiling, so when you’re ten minutes in, open the lid and toss some seasoned, cut-up protein — such as sliced chicken breast — directly on top of the rice when you turn it down to medium-low heat. Five minutes later, open the pot back up quickly and throw in cut and seasoned vegetables like carrots, broccoli, or cauliflower, then close it again ASAP. When it’s time for the amaranth to be fluffed, you can toss the whole shebang together, and it will have taken on the flavors of the other ingredients because they steamed on top of it and dripped their juices down into the grain. 

5. Add fresh herbs

For some reason, many home cooks think of fresh herbs as a daunting ingredient group. But the truth is, they’re easy to use and inexpensive, and fresh herbs are often the “je ne sais quoi” in restaurant food that you love. Take time to learn about which to add early on in a recipe (think rosemary, sage, and thyme), and which to save for the end (looking at you, basil, parsley, dill, and cilantro). Try different herbs like tarragon, savory, or chives to see what they can add to your dishes; you may be surprised at how impactful a few pennies’ worth can be. While this isn’t exactly a one-pot meal tip, it’s a one-pot-meal enhancer: your recipes will be made brighter and more vibrant in taste, so anything lost due to changing cooking methods is less likely to be noticeable. 

6. Give in to the pressure…

Sometime in the last decade, home-cooked meals became synonymous with “Instant Pot.” As an avid maker of bone broth, pressure cookers are one of my absolute favorite kitchen tools. I prefer the stovetop type, but countertop models are particularly safe and foolproof, so I’ve loved to see the growth in popularity for this piece of equipment. Whatever dish you love, chances are there’s a recipe for an Instant Pot version of it. From soups to stews to dishes that have no liquid left at the end — like enchiladas and bread pudding — you can do practically anything in one of these guys. You can do it pretty quickly, too, thanks to the way they cook food in a pressurized environment. 

Read next: These Easy & Healthy Instant Pot Soups, Stews, and Chilis Are *So* Satisfying

7. … And take it slow

On the opposite side of the spectrum from pressure cooking is a slow cooker. These are also pretty foolproof, and you can make countless recipes in them. Dishes made with beans, such as chili, take on excellent flavor due to the long and slow cooking process, and unlike a pressure cooker, you can adjust seasoning if needed as you go. Because it’s so easy to open the lid and add or remove items, you can slow cook protein like a whole fish or chicken, and add vegetables later so they don’t get mushy. You can even add a grain and its cooking liquid directly in with other ingredients near the end, so that they take on the flavor of whatever else you’re cooking.

Quick recap

Cooking fresh meals is a gift for our wellness and our taste buds that we can give ourselves on a daily basis. Because dishes can get in the way of the pleasure of cooking, minimizing them can help make for a more motivated and pleasant cooking experience. With the above tips, you can reimagine your favorite recipes so that they’re easier to make, and easier to clean up. And what’s a better motivator to make dinner than that?

Read next: 4 Healthy, Super-Tasty Instant Pot Meals to Make Right Now

Good food brings people together.
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Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.

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one-pot tips

Good food brings people together.
So do good emails.