I was duped again last night. I had precisely half an hour to get dinner on the table for my boys to have enough time to eat before their late sports practice. I tried a new recipe that promised a 30-minute preparation time. I am not a slow cook, nor unfamiliar in the kitchen, yet the recipe took 45 minutes to prepare. My boys scarfed down an inadequate number of forkfuls and arrived to practice hungry and late. Nobody was pleased — kids, coaches or me.
Many cookbooks offer the allure of quick weeknight meals. Rachael Ray helped popularize the 30-minute-meal trend, and many other chefs and cookbook authors followed. Many “30-minute” recipes will get you to the table in under that time, but others get you there that swiftly only if you have a staff of sous-chefs by your side. It seems the time it takes to peel, chop or mince isn’t included in certain 30-minute estimates. For most tired parents, whose cooking may be interrupted by a homework question, complicated, time-consuming recipes are not an option. They leave everyone starving and late for practice or bed and position takeout as the most appealing option.
Here are some tips to help get a well-balanced dinner on the table, fast:
1. Stick to simple and familiar recipes. Embrace what you know on a hectic Monday night; save the new recipes for an evening when you have a bit more time and your hungry kids aren’t hovering.
2. Read over the recipe once before beginning to cook to familiarize yourself with what lies ahead.
3. Make sure you have the right tools. The sheet pan, the slow cooker, the Dutch oven, the muffin tin and the pressure cooker all facilitate speedy weeknight cooking.
4. Keep your pantry stocked. Include instant flavor boosters such as pre-minced ginger and garlic, pesto, harissa, sriracha, miso, gomasio, sesame oil, fish sauce, kimchi, anchovy paste and chutney.
5. Make a plan. Knowing that sheet-pan salmon and asparagus is on the menu when you arrive home from work makes for a more efficient evening than if you had to reacquaint yourself with what lives in the fridge. Having a plan also allows you to chop a vegetable while feeding kids breakfast, so there is less to do at night.
6. Prep over the weekend. Wash lettuce, chop vegetables, boil a batch of brown rice, toss a vinaigrette or marinate meat. You will thank yourself later.
7. Your first step when cooking should always be to preheat the oven or start boiling the water. Always.
8. Gather all of your ingredients and equipment before you begin so you don’t find out 10 minutes into prep that you are out of those chickpeas you thought were in the pantry.
9. Employ shortcuts such as frozen vegetables, pre-chopped vegetables and prepared broth. These are not cheats. They are efficient ways to save time.
10. Bring the trash can to your chopping and cooking station so you can clean up as you go.
11. Meal delivery kits cost extra but can cut down on grocery shopping and prep time.
12. When you have the time, cook extras and freeze. Defrosting or reheating a meal usually takes a lot less time than 30 minutes.
13. Enlist your kids to be your sous-chefs.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, April 13, 2017.