By Laurie Herr

These secrets from home cooks can take the hassle out of meal prep.

Let's be honest. Cooking can be stressful, even for the most honed cooks. Menu planning, grocery shopping, onion chopping — not to mention picky eaters to please and stacks of dishes to wash. Some days, it's enough to make anyone want to order takeout.

Help is on the way! We asked home cooks to share their secrets for taking the hassle out of cooking. See how well their tips work for you — and relax.

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1. Simplify your menus.

"I like to cook by the vehicle method," says Larr Kelly of Leesburg, Virginia. Choose a base like pasta or rice, leafy greens, or a baked potato. That's your vehicle for the toppings of your choice. "I might do pesto and pasta one night, or a grilled salmon fillet over a salad on another," he says. Stock up on a variety of vehicles and toppings, and boom! Dinner planning for the week is done, no stress required.

2. Make a list, and check it twice.

Planning a big meal? Once you've figured out your menu, check your grocery list twice (don't assume you still have almond flavoring in the back of the spice rack. Check.). Same goes for recipes: Read them twice — out loud if you need to. "Sometimes even if I think I've read it, I find out mid-recipe I've skimmed over important steps I'm not prepared for,'" says Emma Herr of Birmingham, Alabama.

3. Give yourself enough time.

Feeling rushed ups stress and the chance to make mistakes. Work ahead as much as you can: Chop veggies the night before, and store them in the fridge. Set the table early — or better yet, ask someone else to. If a recipe has lots of new steps, double the prep time. And don't forget to build in a few minutes to relax before guests arrive.

4. Gather your tools and ingredients.

The French have a name for it: mise en place, or everything in its place. You don't want to waste time digging through drawers for the immersion blender right when you need it.

5. Clean as you go.

By far, this was our cooks' top tip. Keeping up with the dishes frees up work space and saves you from feeling overwhelmed later. Start with a clean sink and an empty dishwasher. Then do a quick clean-up between recipe steps. Put the cookies in the oven, then wipe down sticky counters. Scrub a pot while you wait for the pasta water to boil. Your goal is to take care of most of the prep dishes so all that's left is what's on the table. Oven pans get to soak overnight.

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6. Ask for help. (Or don't.)

For some cooks, the more helpers, the better. For others, not so much. "I find that if my kitchen is clean and I'm by myself, I don't stress," says Joan Farmer of Westford, Vermont. Know what works for you, and stick to it.

7. Learn to cook mindfully.

Slow down. Cooking gives you a chance to set aside the day's worries and enjoy the moment. Indulge your senses and your creativity — the smell of freshly chopped rosemary, the sizzle of butter melting in a pan, a perfect swirl of chocolate frosting on a cupcake. Who's feeling stressed now?

8. Have a backup plan.

Give yourself the space to let things go wrong. "When I tried making soft tortilla shells with my new tortilla press, it totally didn't work," says Tina Shoup of Burlington, Vermont. "Good thing my husband had picked up some store-bought shells!" Afraid your flan might flop? Keep a carton of good-quality ice cream on hand for a last-minute dessert.

9. Don't take it too seriously.

"Unless you're baking, try not to stress too much over measuring," says Brenda Mondelli of Franklin, Tennessee. Most goofs can be corrected fairly easily. Even when they can't be fixed, learn to laugh over fails. They happen to everyone. Really.

10. Make it fun.

Think of cooking as me-time. Light some candles, put on some music, and get cranking. Or call a friend, put them on speaker, and catch up while you prep the salad. Make your kitchen your happy place and enjoy the process. "My mom always sang when she cooked — really loud, like an opera singer!" says Pam DeLuca of Cedar Grove, New Jersey. "She'd dance by the stove, spatula in hand. For her, it made cooking joyous."

Related: How to Do Weeknight Dinners Without Totally Stressing

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