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Clean as You Go: Managing the Meal-Prep Mess

Day One of cooking school introduced me to “clean as you go“: the practice of combining cooking and cleaning to help free up valuable work space, eliminate visual mess, and make for manageable post-cooking clean-up.

Since then, I have rigorously embraced the clean as you go motto for all cooking and baking, ensuring that I clean up after every task, no matter how minuscule, before moving on — thus eliminating the bomb-struck kitchen after dinner. This was a valuable lesson to learn, and one every home manager should embrace.

Although the extra effort of cleaning as you go may first seem like a drag, over time it becomes habit. And isn’t any habit that creates a more peaceful and tidy environment a good one?

My husband and I are in the process of selling our home, which means the place needs to be spic and span at all times. Apparently, 7 p.m. is prime time for scoping out real estate, and the heart of my home needs to sparkle. You can imagine the challenge this presents, as I have two little boys who need dinner regardless of visitors’ schedules; however by cleaning as I go, I can keep the kitchen in check and make sure everyone gets fed.

The motto is somewhat self-explanatory, but here are tips you to immerse yourself in the exercise of clean as you go while you prepare family meals.

Start With a Clean Kitchen

It’s hard to be motivated to cook when the work place is already chaotic; you will always feel like you are playing catch up. Whether you need to empty the dishwasher, sweep the floor, or put away the groceries, take the time to tidy your kitchen before you begin cooking.

Photo by scalespeeder

Be Ready for Waste

A place for everything, and everything in its place: yes, this even applies to kitchen trash. Do loose papers and fliers tend to build up at the end of the counter? Are there cans and bottles under the sink?

By allotting a proper space for various kitchen waste categories—compost, recycling, and garbage—you facilitate a quick and easy clean-up. If your kitchen set-up allows, keep these bins close to your main work area to encourage immediate sorting and disposal..

Set up your Workspace for C.A.Y.G.

• Place a “garbage bowl” or container for food scraps and peelings on your main workspace.

• If you have a double sink, run one side half full of hot soapy water for hand washing and dish rinsing, leaving the other free for washing vegetables or draining pastas.

• Keep a broom and dustpan handy for flour or sugar spills on the floor.

• Have a few clean dry towels on hand for countertop spills and drying dishes.

Restaurant tip: Place a jar of warm water on the counter and stash several soup spoons inside. Use them for sampling sauce sand various foods during the cooking time. This eliminates sticky spots on the counter where a spoon has been set down and also cuts back on dirty dishes created as spoons can be reused.

Execute C.A.Y.G.

• Wash your workspace. Frequently wipe counters during food preparation and tackle spills, leaks, and other messy issues as soon as they occur.

• Eliminate waste. Work on a tray when peeling or preparing vegetables and fruit. This keeps counters clean and makes for quick disposal into the compost or garbage. Don’t peel directly into the garbage, as you’re liable to drop the fruit in and waste valuable time searching for it. Rinse cans and jars after emptying, and place in the assigned recycling bin right away.

• Attack the dishes. Once you’ve finished with a dish, rinse it and place it in the dishwasher. Hand-wash bulky items that are to large for the dishwasher and place them back in their allotted spots. If you really don’t have time for hand washing, at least soak food-caked items in warm, soapy water.

• Keep order. Close packaging and return ingredients immediately to their storage space as soon as you’ve finished them. I keep my baking ingredients directly above my Kitchen-Aid and main workspace. This way, no time is wasted crossing the kitchen to retrieve or replace items, and items don’t linger long on the counter. Retire appliances back to their hideaways directly after using them — and don’t forget to give them a wipe-down first.

Remember, leave the kitchen the way you would like to find it, and you’ll always know it’s ready when you are.

I often hear people say “I love to cook, but I hate the clean-up,” and I understand completely. A huge drawback to cooking is the mess created during the process. Remember, the holidays are coming up. It is important to use C.A.Y.G. for those family holiday dinners, as the kitchen mess can quickly become overwhelming during an an elaborate menu’s execution.

Use these tips to keep cooking a relaxing and enjoyable experience.

Would you cook more often or more elaborately if clean-up wasn’t an issue? What are your quick tips for taking the fallout from “kitchen bombs”?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. Susan

    When I am cooking, I will fill my sink one third full of hot, soapy water. Larger items and really dirty can soak. It makes cleaning up a lot easier and quicker. It allows the water and detergent to do the bulk of the work.

  2. Samantha @ Mama Notes

    I would absolutely cook more if I had someone that would clean it perfectly every night! 🙂 I don’t mind vacuuming, doing laundry, etc but the kitchen is not my favorite place! 🙂
    .-= Samantha @ Mama Notes´s last blog ..Body After Baby: Week Three =-.

  3. Shannon @ AnchorMommy

    I am a BIG fan of clean-as-you-go cooking! In fact, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. My kitchen is not big, and letting the mess accumulate as I cook only slows me down. I keep a container for compost scraps on my kitchen counter, and although it takes up some of my food prep space, it saves me time because I can toss stuff in as I go!
    .-= Shannon @ AnchorMommy´s last blog ..All underwear, all the time =-.

    • Melissa

      Shannon I’m with ya! My grandfather was a chef in the navy during WWII and taught me to cook. The first lesson I ever learned was the C.A.Y.G. method. Maybe because its been totally ingrained in me, I always clean as I go and it really does make all the difference in a smaller space. Recently, a few friends and I have started cooking together and they’re learning the value of cleaning as they cook quickly =)

      Thanks for sharing these tips Aimee!

  4. Anitra

    How does “clean-as-you-go” work when you have a galley-style kitchen with no dishwasher?

    I’ve tried keeping the garbage can, etc. next to my kitchen counter, but then it becomes difficult to get in and out of the kitchen. The “best” place we’ve found is a good 5 steps past the edge of the kitchen. Same goes for broom/dustpan – that’s about as close as I can set them, too… which means constantly walking in and out of the kitchen space if something spills or anything needs to be thrown away.

    I did try the “garbage bowl” idea recently, and that certainly made for less trips in and out.

    • Aimee

      Sounds like a challenge indeed, Anitra. What do you keep under your sink? Is there a place for garbage? Since writing this post, I’ve seen a dual-purpose step garbage can, where the inside is divided into two compartments-one for garbage and one for recycling. It’s brilliant! It might work well for under your sink.
      .-= Aimee´s last blog ..Poppy-Seed Lemon Layer Cake =-.

  5. Angela Mills

    I am so bad at this. I am sad to admit my husband taught me this! He used to drive me crazy, one step behind me picking up…
    I’m getting better! I like all these specific ideas!
    .-= Angela Mills´s last blog ..100 Posts! Some of My Favorite Comments =-.

  6. Asha

    Thank you so much for these tips. I am still learning, and you have such wonderful tips.

  7. steadymom

    I have a lot to learn here! Cooking is not my forte and examining the mess afterward doesn’t help either – I think trying to integrate CAYG could help in my kitchen.

    Thanks, Aimee!

    .-= steadymom´s last blog ..Introducing: Moms’ 30-Minute Blog Challenge =-.

  8. Tabitha (From Single to Married)

    I’m a firm believer of cleaning as you go – I find that if I do that, there isn’t much left over and then my husband usually takes care of those dishes. When that’s the case, I don’t really mind cooking! 🙂
    .-= Tabitha (From Single to Married)´s last blog ..Pregnancy: Likes and Dislikes =-.

  9. Amy Reads Good Books

    I love the tip about spoons! I always seem to go through four or five tasting and stirring. Thanks for a great reminder about one simple way to make cooking easier!
    .-= Amy Reads Good Books´s last blog ..Teaser Tuesday =-.

  10. Shannon

    I think this is a great idea in theory, but I always struggle with execution. We have a one year old and a three year old and a kitchen that is a part of a “great room” with the dining room and living room. So while I’m trying to prep meals they are running in and out of the kitchen, dining, living areas. Perhaps it is just that I am so scattered that I can never keep up with the C.A.Y.G. concept, or is it just this phase of life?
    .-= Shannon´s last blog ..Candida: The Unknown Epidemic? Finding Balance For Your Gut =-.

    • Aimee

      Shannon, I understand! Most of the time I feel like I am dog-paddling just to keep my head above the mess. My little ones open all the drawers and scatter stuff all over the kitchen, making it dangerous to walk! Hopefully, in both of our cases, they will soon be old enough to help with C.A.Y.G and load the dishwasher for us!
      .-= Aimee´s last blog ..Poppy-Seed Lemon Layer Cake =-.

  11. Jennie

    What a brilliant idea! Obvious-but brilliant. My kitchen always looks like a bomb went off when I’m done making dinner, which isn’t pleasant to look at while we eat. I’ve got to start this habit. Thanks Aimee!

  12. Tiffany

    I run a sink of hot, soapy water when I start cooking. That way I can quickly clean cutting boards, knives, bowls etc as I go. I also like to start with an empty or nearly empty dishwasher, but that doesn’t always happen. Recruiting a kid to dry the things in the dish drainer is also a help and gives me a few minutes with that child to talk of other things while we work together.
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..Wacky Cake =-.

    • LaToya

      Tiffany that’s a great idea having your child help to dry. I think this would be a good idea for my 3 year old that always wants to help momma.
      .-= LaToya´s last blog ..Bible Story Sundays-Joseph and Moses =-.

  13. Visible Voice

    I like this a lot! I’ve always needed to clean the kitchen to work in it (husband thought I was silly) and would clean while things cooked but this takes it up a notch! Love that!
    .-= Visible Voice´s last blog ..Finally my GIVE"R AWAY! =-.

  14. Visible Voice

    Oh and also the link to the author doesn’t work. (needs the www) This happened to me with my account with go daddy. So if you’re reading these comments Aimee , phone go daddy up they know how to fix it so that you don’t have to put in the www part! Hope that helps!
    .-= Visible Voice´s last blog ..Finally my GIVE"R AWAY! =-.

    • Tsh

      Should work now. Yep, had to add the ‘www.’

  15. Catie

    I really like the peeling veggies on a tray idea! Brilliant! I can’t tell you how many potatoes I’ve dropped in the trash!!! Thanks for the great tips!
    .-= Catie´s last blog ..Song Of The Week =-.

  16. Meg Evans

    These are good tips! Yesterday I made a pot roast and applesauce. I was in the kitchen for most of the afternoon just dirtying up bowl after bowl, it seemed! I did use a garbage bowl for the veggie and apple peels–it did make things easier. I like the idea about the sink-ful of water and the jar for spoons (I had a very sticky counter yesterday!). I’ll be putting those ideas into action in the future. And as for the next time I make applesauce, as I told my hubby last night, I’m making it a family affair–someone to wash, someone to peel, someone to chop, and mama to stir the pot!
    .-= Meg Evans´s last blog ..A Beautiful Fall Day =-.

    • Marta

      A hand-cranked apple peeling machine does all the work – peeling, coring and slicing (into a cool spiral!) really quickly, and it’s very easy to use, too. Even kids can do it – and it’s fun for everyone!

      They are not expensive. I think I got one for $10.


  17. se7en

    I am all for cleaning as you go – I just didn’t know it was such a science though!!! – I love it when all we have to do is drop the plates into the dishwasher and then we are done!
    .-= se7en´s last blog ..Se7en Survive A Sweet Newborn… =-.

  18. Meghan

    Aimee (or anyone else)–any thoughts on cleaning a cast-iron pan right away? Mine has been sitting on the stove, DIRTY, for over a week, I kid you not.
    .-= Meghan´s last blog ..1000 gifts (Blessing Permanence) =-.

  19. Shelly!

    I love clean-as-you-go! It was one of the best lessons I learned from cooking lessons with my Grandma. For me, a good homemade dinner is made more complete when I don’t see stacks of dishes or dirty counters from the table.

  20. Tiffany

    I 100% agree with you about cleaning the kitchen BEFORE you start cooking. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it really helps out!
    .-= Tiffany´s last blog ..A Great Bulk Purchase: Kirkland Baby Wipes =-.

  21. kitchengirl

    Not sure about the health codes in Canada, but in the US the spoons in warm water is a definite health code violation in a restaurant. Would you want to eat food that had been dipped into with a spoon that had been in some random cook’s mouth?

  22. Erin

    Good tips! I will forward this to my boyfriend because he does the majority of the cooking in our house.
    .-= Erin´s last blog ..Organization Sensation =-.

  23. Tashia @ The Household Planner

    I was not originally a CAYG girl, but since starting my family I have learned that is it much easier and quicker to clean as I go. Now if I could just get my hubby and teenager to clean as they go, we would be set!
    .-= Tashia @ The Household Planner´s last blog ..How to Make a Household Planner =-.

  24. LaToya

    This is great advice and really comes in handy when doing once a month cooking. I have very little counter space and often use the dinning room table to prep and cook on. Maybe if I did a little more cleaning I’d find more space.
    .-= LaToya´s last blog ..Bible Story Sundays-Joseph and Moses =-.

  25. Melissa

    I always clean as I go! Learned the importance of it in culinary school as well. Now with a 13 month old toddling around the kitchen, I am not as successful as I used to be but it still helps nonetheless!

    We also practice ICYC…I Cook You Clean. So after dinner, my hubby will finish cleaning the items that I didn’t get around to cleaning during the cooking process. Helpful Hubbies are great in the kitchen!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Longing for Autumn-Sticky Buns =-.

    • Aimee

      Awesome! We actually practice this all the time, but ICYC has a nice ring to it!
      .-= Aimee´s last blog ..Poppy-Seed Lemon Layer Cake =-.

  26. Jessalyn

    Great Post! I love these tips. Most them I know already, but am less than faithful to do them every time. It just gets so overwhelming when you have a mess on your hands!!!!!! I love the warm jar of water tip- I always go through tons of spoons and knives while I cook; this should really help.
    .-= Jessalyn´s last blog ..Romantic Notions =-.

  27. marissa

    Thank you, thank you! I’ve been trying to adopt this habit, but these tips were really helpful. Starting with the sink half full of soapy water is genius!

  28. Cara

    I certainly love to cook and hate to clean up my messes. I KNOW that cleaning as I go would really help me out, but I’ve had trouble so far implementing that plan. You’ve got lots of great tips to help me get going!
    .-= Cara´s last blog ..The Pickiest of Picky =-.

  29. Alissa

    I’m not a big fan of a pile of dishes, so I tend to quickly rinse and re-use cutting boards and mixing bowls rather than grab a new one for the next task. Of course, this is also why nearly all our family meals have become “one pot wonders.” I can’t remember the last time I made a legitimate side dish (aka not raw fruit or veggies).
    .-= Alissa´s last blog ..Baby Progress Report =-.

  30. Debbie

    I love this motto! I grew up with it and taught it to my girls who are all now grown and gone from home. We used to say, “Clean as you go so your mess doesn’t show.” It’s so fun when they come home for a gathering and we are all in the kitchen together, one or more of us will repeat the motto and we all get a kick out of it. Of course that spurs us on to clean as we go!
    Thanks for your post!

  31. Rana

    Great ideas! When my mom was teaching me how to cook that was one of her best tips for me always clean as you go. Then you will have less mess at the end and quick clean up.
    .-= Rana´s last blog ..What’s it like homeschooling with twins? =-.

  32. Hairstyles For Girls

    I’m a huge believer in cleaning up as you go as well. I’m also a believer in keeping the initial messes to a minumum to begin with. (Everything going into the microwave must be covered, no eating outside of the kitchen, leaving an empty plate by the stove to rest dirty spoons on, ect.)

  33. Exchange For Green

    I clean as I cook. I definitely hate dirty kitchen, but it is impossible to keep it spotless all the time. So I clean while I’m waiting for the food on the stove. I clean as much as I can, because dirty dishes will be there forever unless I ask my husband to take care of them seriously.

  34. Heather Ledeboer

    Great tips! I do this for the most part but found some great ideas to take my C.A.Y.G. to the next level!

  35. Laura

    This is a good reminder. I am actually pretty good at cleaning as I go during dinner, which is a somewhat more controlled blast of kitchen energy… The real problem in my house is the dishes that are generated by breakfast/lunch/snacks. I am home all day with the kids and there’s a lot of activity in the kitchen, and I feel like I do nothing but wipe off the table and rinse out sippy cups alllllll dayyyyyy loooooong. But it is *so* important to start cooking dinner with a clean kitchen — I know I am so much more inspired to cook something interesting when I have a neat and clean space to start with.
    .-= Laura´s last blog ..Apple Harvest =-.

  36. KC

    Great post! I am a fan of the CYAG method. It certainly makes life a lot easier if you don’t have a huge mess at the end of the cooking session. I have a dishwasher and have always loaded the dishes as I went but bulky stuff sat on the bench. I am not sure why I hadn’t thought of filling the sink with hot soapy water to wash those things as I went. But now that you’ve suggested that I will make sure I do that in the future too.


  37. KC

    Great post! I am a fan of the CAYG method. It certainly makes life a lot easier if you don’t have a huge mess at the end of the cooking session. I have a dishwasher and have always loaded the dishes as I went but bulky stuff sat on the bench. I am not sure why I hadn’t thought of filling the sink with hot soapy water to wash those things as I went. But now that you’ve suggested that I will make sure I do that in the future too.


  38. Megan

    I always try to do CAYG. It’s just second nature to me to put away ingredients after adding them, toss out eggshells or containers on my way to the stove, or wash a couple bowls while waiting for the onions to finish sauteeing. My husband doesn’t do it and it drives me crazy to see a huge mess in the kitchen after dinner! ICYC doesn’t work in this house because I cook most of the time, and leaving the dishes to my husband means pots or mixing bowls with 3-day-old crud in them. But we’re working on it 🙂
    .-= Megan´s last blog ..Pho =-.

  39. billie

    man, dishes and cleaning the bathroom are my Achilles heel of my cleaning routine. So not a fan! I need to take this advice…
    .-= billie´s last blog ..Willkommen! =-.

  40. Kelly

    My husband has been trying to teach me CAYG for as long as we’ve been married! My favorite suggestion, the collection spot for recycling! I upgraded our countertop compost collector to a covered container (no more fruit flies!), and the garbage is already close… but the recycling sits on the counter -mental clutter- Maybe I’ll put a little box under my sink!
    .-= Kelly´s last blog ..Renee’s first haircut and pierced ears! =-.

  41. supreme

    Love this post! I have always CAYG but I did learn a few new tips here (scrap bowl, anyone??) My mom does not CAYG and it drove me nuts when I lived at home! She would make a mess cooking but then want someone else to clean up… I always that it was easier to clean as you go..
    .-= supreme´s last blog ..London Drugs =-.

  42. MsJoanie

    My mom taught me to cook this way so I can barely cook any other way… it drives my husband crazy. He’s the total opposite, he can blow up a kitchen just making coffee. Seriously. I’m always walking around behind him closing cabinets, putting away ingredients and cleaning up, which I admit is irksome for both of us, so it’s best to just stay away sometimes.

    I do find there are some recipes that don’t allow for total clean as you go, like scrambled eggs. They need immediate attention once in the pan but I can usually reach far enough to put the mixer bowl into the sink. Oddly enough, this is the only time my husband will ask, “why can’t you just put this into the dishwasher?” since it doesn’t need hand washing. Sigh. Some things he’ll just never understand.

  43. Megan at Simple Kids

    I love this, Aimee! My MIL taught me a CAYG system when I was a new bride and it makes a tremendous difference. Wanna hear my confession though? It’s the starting with a clean kitchen part that trips me up these days! Our kitchen is a HUB of all kinds of paperwork, activity, projects, and just STUFF. When I clean, it stays that way for maybe 30 minutes. ARGH. Anyway, these tips are so simple yet so powerful. Thanks for sharing!
    .-= Megan at Simple Kids´s last blog ..What We’re Reading: Sam McBratney’s You’re All My Favorites (and more!) =-.

  44. Melissa D

    I took the “peel over a tray” hint and measured out cake ingredients over a plastic cutting board, with far less mess!

    Also, if you try to chop veggies or measure ingredients for more than one meal, you’ll have less mess overall. I measured for 3 cakes and put one in my mixer, and 2 in ziploc bags for easy/fast cake next time.

    Another hint: if you’re right-handed, put all your ingredients to the left, measure into your bowl/pan, and transfer them to the right. You won’t forget what you’ve put in, and if you have a helper, they’ll know what to put away for you.

  45. Lisa

    I’ve been using the CAYG method for as long as I can remember. I probably learned it from my mom (they’re full of great wisdom, aren’t they?). It just makes everything so much more manageable, and there isn’t that overwhelming feeling of having another hours worth of work to do at the end of dinner.
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..renovation nation – part 4? =-.

  46. Laura

    This is such a timely post for me to read because I have recently started cooking a LOT more, mostly from scratch. Yay! And it’s fun! But the cleaning up part…not so good. I need to be more disciplined at CAYG, because the kitchen looks like a tornado went through it after I’m done with all of my prepping/baking/etc. It’s fun to cook, not so much to clean!

  47. Susan @ Heart Pondering

    This post is perfectly timed for me (as, frankly, is my introduction to your website). I have just posted on my realization that managing my home and overseeing meals – etc – is my full-time job and something I must give myself to…
    Funny that it took me 3 kids to realize this entirely.
    I have long realized that I make a huge mess of the kitchen when I cook (which I dislike) and that There Must Be a Better Way… but I’ve not put focus into finding and implementing the better way. I have just made a start, however, and this post encourages me.

  48. Michael Firstman@ Mig Welder

    My partner is a great cook who loves ‘slaving away’ in the kitchen for hours. She gets all her ideas online and is ready to experiment any time. What she can’t stand is cleaning up afterwards especially in regards to doing the dishes as her hands don’t react well to any detergent we’ve tried. Fortunately washing dishes is the only chore I can stand so in return for the scrumptious meals I gladly ‘slave away’ cleaning up after her 🙂

  49. Rachel

    I’m almost obsessive about cleaning as I go depending on what I’m making. I always have bowls around for dirty items like measuring cups and spoon – to keep the counter cleaner. Usually I have another bowl for trash. And if i’m lucky, the dishwasher is empty so anything I don’t need again will get tossed in there immediately after I’m done with it – decluttering immediately.

  50. Karen @MacKidJcksnvill

    I always try to CAYG. Just wish I could teach my husband! He’s a great cook and the Grillin’ King, but if I don’t follow behind him every cupboard door and drawer will be open and every container will be out on the counter, also open. Not sure why this is, but it makes me crazy! : – )

  51. Debbie

    lots of great ideas here!!! Rather than peeling onto a tray I use newspaper, when done wrap up and toss into the garbage or the compost 🙂

  52. RumRiverMan

    I loved this article. I cook and bake as a hobby, and feel that if you can’t do this consistently you need to stay away from the kitchen, unless you have a significant other who is willing to do this while you’re creating your messes or can avoid the kitchen area until after you get the opportunity to get around to it. I find that C.Y.A.G actually invites other to learn how much easier and how much faster it gets us all on way to do other stuff.

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