You worked all day. You’re stressed, tired, and hungry. Now you’ve got to figure out dinner. Fast. You have others to think of too.
When it comes to slow cooking, there’s the beauty of a tough cut of meat tenderizing slowly and gently over many hours, and then there’s the ticking clock and a hungry spouse and/or children on a harried weeknight after a long day that might’ve started before dawn. Slow cooking is not an option (unless you did it over the weekend, or started it in the morning and can enjoy it now. Kudos!).
Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and other meal-kit delivery services have targeted our need for fresh, healthy meals cooked at home but with less stress and more speed. It’s better than dining out, takeout, or delivery food, true. But you can learn to look in your fridge and pantry at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday with no idea what to make, and somehow whip up a bean-cheese-pepper quesadilla and salad — or some such well-balanced, tasty, filling meal — in 45 minutes or less. You can. Also try these 13 pasta recipes that take less than 30 minutes.
We hope the following tips and tricks help you.
- Manage your expectations: Do one thing well, not everything well, in the meal. If you make great baked honey-mustard chicken, then don’t stress about your ho-hum steamed broccoli and mashed potato sides. Accept that some meals won’t be the best, and that’s OK. You cooked your dinner at home instead of eating out or doing takeout, so if it’s at least edible, count it as a success. Weeknight dinner doesn’t have to be perfect or wow-worthy. It’s a freakin’ Tuesday. Give yourself a break.
- Divide and conquer: You can buy meat in bulk — it’s cheaper that way too — and then divide the meat (or poultry or seafood) into individual portions. Add your favorite spices or a marinade, and freeze. Then on a Thursday morning, you can simply pull out that meat to defrost in the fridge, and when you return home that evening, bake it, sauté it, broil it, or grill it.
- Conscious coupling: In a similar vein, make extra of whatever you’re cooking, a bunch extra, and freeze it in single-serving portions for later. Cook in batches. This works especially well with tomato sauce, stock, soups, casseroles, breads, and stews.
- Repurpose leftovers:
Many people who want homemade meals on weeknights cook and plan on the weekends. Props. You can make a big pot of chili and use it a few times in the coming week in different ways, such as with crackers or cornbread on the side one night, and over pasta or rice another night. Leftover rice? Make refried rice by cracking a couple eggs in the sauté pan as you reheat the rice. Throw in a new vegetable and some tofu or cut kielbasa. Did you roast a chicken on Monday? Use that leftover meat for taco filling on Tuesday. (Then post a picture on social media so you can hashtag #tacotuesday.)
- Stock your pantry: You can whip up something on impulse if you have a stocked pantry of basics, plus your favorite ingredients, such as: beans, broth, pasta, rice, dried fruits, nuts, oils, vinegars, tuna, canned tomatoes, dried spices and herbs, pastes, and always keep garlic, onions, and potatoes around too. They last a long time in dark, cool, dry places like pantries.
- The art of Cubism: Freeze sauces, pesto, chopped herbs, broth, and stock in ice cube trays. Pop out a cube or two and heat it up for a quick hit of flavor.
Make recipes that have you cook the meat and sides all in one pot or roasting tray. Fewer dishes means less time spent on cleanup. Try our One-Pot Beef Stroganoff with Egg Noodles recipe or our One Pot Chicken and Vegetables recipe.
- Mini meat (and vegetables): Buy or cut your meat and vegetables into thin slices or bite-size chunks instead of cooking and serving them whole. It will cook faster that way. You can even broil the food in your oven, which will cook it faster than baking or roasting, providing a nice crust on top. If it’s thin, the heat will cook the meat or vegetable all the way through in less time.
- Spoil the ending: Read the recipe the whole way through before cooking. So many times, some of us (ahem, note to self) gather and prep the ingredients and start on the instructions before realizing midway through the recipe that something we created needs to chill or marinate for an hour. Ugh. If you had read through the recipe, you would know to do the first couple steps in the morning, possibly, and leave it in the fridge to finish when you get home.
- Size matters: Instead of using small saucepans and roasting pans, try pans with a larger surface area, so the food is spread out and not on top of each other. Your food will be able to receive more direct heat and will cook faster.
Sharpen your skills:
Honing your knife skills can take time, but it’s worth it. Chopping, dicing, mincing, and slicing can be the part that takes the longest, and unlike cooking time, it’s something you can speed up by getting better at it. First, make sure your knives are sharp. Either get a sharpener or take them to a place that sharpens knives for you. That will make cutting so much easier and safer. Then, take a knife skills class at your local cooking school or kitchen store, or just look it up on YouTube. We also have quick video lessons on how to hold a knife the right way, dicing (the most common cut), mincing, chopping, bias cut, chiffonade, and troubleshooting.
- Make Meatless Monday a real thing: Or on any day. Omnivores, you don’t have to eat animal flesh (every evening) in order for it to be a complete meal. You can be full and satisfied without meat. Now, now, we’re not trying to convert you into a vegetarian, just save you some time and money.
- Clean as you go: Does something need to boil for 10 minutes or bake for 30? Use that time to wash the dishes you used, put ingredients away, and clean the countertop. That’ll save cleanup time after the meal.
- Plan on it: Some of you may love being spontaneous and creative when you cook, but save yourself some stress. Plan your meals for the coming week. Write it down. It will save you the time it takes to decide each evening what you want to do. And you will know to take the stock or the meat out of the freezer and put it in the refrigerator to defrost the morning before you want to use it for dinner. No waiting to defrost. You can plan grocery store trips more efficiently. And if there’s any way to prep some of those ingredients the weekend beforehand, go for it.
- Repeat: Did that one taco meal work out really well, and you found it to be easy? Do it again. And again. Tweak it. Gather an arsenal of a few meals that you can fire away without much thought. Eventually, it will become so mindless, you can transfer your refined skill of those processes to other dishes. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every night.
— Head Photo: Getty/Magrig.