How to Apply the 80/20 Rule to Cooking

Applying 80/20 thinking to cooking can help you get far more enjoyment out of your culinary efforts, and it will ensure that you don’t get bogged down by the drudgery that can often make cooking a chore rather than a pleasure. Put these tips to use in your kitchen to get better results for much less work.

For those of you unfamiliar with the 80/20 rule, it says that the bulk of the output of a system typically comes from a very small number of inputs. Usually people think of this concept in business examples, like how 75% of sales come from 25% of a company's clients (so you should either spend more time on those clients, or find more clients like them), or 90% of defects in a manufacturing plant might come from a very small number of causes (thus you only need to fix a few critical problems to reduce your defect count substantially).

In its most basic sense, the 80/20 rule suggests that for every situation, there are a few critical inputs (the "critical few") that you should pay a lot of attention to, and many unimportant inputs (the "trivial many") that you can ignore.

My goal today is to help you get thinking in 80/20 terms when you cook. I’ll go over several ways you can apply this powerful rule and accomplish a lot more in your kitchen--even if you have limited time and resources. With any luck, this post will stimulate you to think of even more 80/20 applications unique to your own cooking habits.

1) Cookbooks
If you take a hard look at your cookbook use, you'll find a clear manifestation of the 80/20 rule: Most of the recipes you cook will come from just a few of your cookbooks, and most of the rest of your cookbooks will sit on your shelf, underused. This conclusion actually has some surprising implications.

First, you don’t really need that many cookbooks. You just need a few really good ones.

Second, when you are considering buying a new cookbook, you should ask yourself, “will this cookbook be a part of my ‘critical few’ or will it be part of my ‘trivial many?’” Asking that simple question should go a long way toward helping you decide if a cookbook is worth buying. In the next couple of weeks I hope to use the collective expertise of some of my favorite blogging colleagues in compiling just such a list of really good "critical few" cookbooks.

Third, take your best cookbooks--the ones you really use heavily--and exploit them for everything they have. Chances are the recipes you've overlooked will be exceptional too.

But if you happen to be a cookbook packrat, fear not: 80/20 thinking doesn't say that you can only own a few cookbooks! In this blog I'm often encouraging my readers to experiment with new cuisines and new recipes, and it's going to be tough to do that if you're stuck with three cookbooks that you've already fully exploited. So by all means rotate new cookbooks into your collection, but consider donating some of your lesser-used cookbooks to Bookmooch, or your local library or charity. Perhaps they can become part of somebody else's critical few.

2) Kitchen Tools and Equipment
Yep, you guessed it, roughly 80% of your cooking will be done with 20% of your kitchen items.

Therefore, spend some time thinking about how your kitchen is organized. Are the high-frequency-of-use items always close at hand? You can bury the bundt pan and the funnel cake pans deep in your cupboard, but keep your favorite knife and cutting board within easy reach. Spending a few minutes organizing your kitchen around 80/20 thinking should save you untold hours from a time-and-motion standpoint.

Furthermore, just as with cookbooks, you can ask the "will this be part of my critical few?" question when considering the purchase of any new kitchen gadgets. Will you actually use that gleaming new garlic press, or will it sit unused and forgotten in a drawer--next to the fondue forks you use once every three years? Asking these types of questions before you get to the checkout counter could save you a lot of time, money and kitchen space.

3) Recipes
I can already hear you thinking, “okay, OKAY!! 80% of my meals will be cooked from 20% of my recipes. Leave me alone!”

Don't worry, I'll leave you alone after this post is over.

But here's my point: What kinds of recipes are in your critical 20%? Are they healthy? Are they easy to make? Do you truly enjoy making them and does your family truly enjoy eating them?

Ask yourself these questions and you'll arrive at a more subtle 80/20 conclusion: with the enormous universe of great recipes out there you should seek out new recipes that are not in your critical few, but should be. By finding just a few new critical few recipes, you could dramatically improve the results and quality of your cooking output.

So keep your eyes and mind open for new recipes, and use my Five Easy Questions test to help you read them more critically so you can filter out high-workload recipes without actually having to make them. For a great list of easy yet delicious recipes to consider, take a look over at CheapHealthyGood under the label 15 minutes or less.

4) Use Heavy Rotation
Once you've found a group of hit recipes that satisfies your 80/20 standards, start working them into your weekly or monthly dinner rotations on a regular basis. I call this the concept of heavy rotation, borrowing the term from the horrendous local radio stations I grew up with as a kid.

In our home, we have a list of 10 or so house favorite recipes that are on heavy rotation, and we cook 1-2 times per week from that list. With leftovers heated up for lunches or a second dinner, we can easily make more than a third of our meals this way.

Of course, nobody wants to hear Stairway to Heaven five times a day for three weeks straight. So be sure to strike a balance between making these dishes often enough that you capture the 80/20 benefits, but not so often that you get sick of the recipe.

But when you find the right balance, you'll be surprised how much faster and more efficient you will be at making these heavy rotation recipes with regular practice. It will get to a point where you can practically make them blindfolded. This is how you can really exploit a solid list of critical few recipes.

5) Make Double (or Even Triple) Batches
Close readers of this blog have heard me remark before about how when you double or triple many recipes, an amazing thing happens: You will get 2x or even 3x the food for something like 1.2x the extra work.

To put this into 80/20 terms, the extra 0.2 units of incremental work drives an enormous increase in cooking output. In fact, when you make a triple batch, you actually get ten times the productivity out of that incremental 0.2 units of work (to explain: the first unit of work makes 1 batch, but the next 0.2 units of work makes two full batches--batches two and three). That’s powerful stuff, and it’s a classic application of 80/20 thinking.

Thus if you want to maximize your time and effort in the kitchen, look for recipes that are highly scalable, and focus your cooking around them. Several recipes featured in this blog, including my Chicken Mole or Lentil Soup, fit that bill perfectly.

Closing thoughts
For those of you who want to go deeper on 80/20 concepts, I highly recommend Richard Koch's book, The 80/20 Principle.* I read it closely a couple of years ago and it helped me radically rethink how I handle many aspects of my life.

How do you apply 80/20 thinking in your kitchen? I'd love to hear reader feedback on this! Feel free to leave a comment below on any 80/20 innovations that you'd like to share.

Related Posts:
More Applications of the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking
Ten Tips on How to Cut Your Food Budget Using the 80/20 Rule
Seven Rules to Get Faster at Cooking
Cookbook Exploitation Month is Here Again!

Related Links:
The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Success by Achieving More with Less by Richard Koch
What is the 80/20 Principle?
Top 4 Misapplications of the 80/20 Rule

* Note: if you purchase this book via the amazon links provided in this blog, I will receive a small affiliate fee.


darla said...

I love this post. I've been trying to think this way about food and cooking for years but haven't articulated it nearly this well. Thank you!

Joy Juicer said...

What wonderful ideas. I really can put your ideas to good use.

sarah s said...

I'd love to read a post, or an ongoing series on what is currently in your heavy rotation:)

Daniel said...

Sarah, that's a great, great question and an excellent post idea. Thank you!