Photo Credit: James Ransom
Let's face it: A home-cooked midweek meal isn't happening if it requires an unscheduled trip to the grocery store, learning to use a new gadget or spending an hour chopping and measuring before you even light the stove. Getting dinner on the table in under an hour without fuss or frenzy takes planning, practice, and, sometimes, a healthy reality check. Here are our top time-trimming tactics for weeknight meals.
1. Pack Your Pantry
There's nothing like having every ingredient you need on hand, just waiting to be turned into dinner. Enter the pantry meal. Dishes like pasta with oil-packed tuna and canned tomatoes, paella with frozen artichokes and peas, creamy potato and bacon soup, falafel with hummus and pita or Spaghetti alla Foriana are surprisingly satisfying. Plus, pantry dinners are more about proportions than recipes, so there's no time wasted on recipe reading (or retrieval). Don't know how many canned garbanzos to add? Eyeball it. No one will know there wasn't a recipe guiding you.
2. The Freezer Is Your Friend
For weeknights that offer a little extra time, make a double batch of whatever's on the menu that night and freeze extras (in individual portions for easier defrosting) for nights later in the week when you won't have as much time to spend at the stove. Soups, pasta bakes, burgers, stir-fries and grain salads (without salad dressing) are some of the most freezer-friendly foods. (Avoid freezing dishes containing seafood, hard-cooked eggs or mayonnaise.) And remember: when freezing food, labeling is your friend. (Trust us, hummus and sugar cookie dough look eerily similar in their frozen states.)
One last note: freezer meals aren't worth anything if you don't remember to defrost them ahead of time. Set an alarm on your phone, stick a Post-It to the bathroom mirror -- do whatever help you remember to defrost dinner (safely, in the fridge) before you leave the house in the morning.
3. Do Advance Prep
Marinate quick-cooking proteins like chicken breasts, pork chops or flank steak ahead of time (either the night before, the morning before work or even as soon as you get home -- before you change or heat up the oven!) so all you need to do is drain and cook. Recipes aren't even necessary here -- just combine an acidic element (like vinegar), fresh or dried herbs and another liquid to balance it all out, like olive oil or wine (and don't forget the salt!). Try: fresh lemon juice, olive oil and thyme; red wine, fresh rosemary and balsamic vinegar; or pineapple juice, cilantro and low sodium soy sauce.
Serve with a salad (whose ingredients you've washed and chopped ahead of time) and a starch that can be made in the amount of time it takes the protein to cook (think: couscous, quinoa).
4. Hone Your Knife Skills
Improving your knife skills is as important for kitchen safety as it is for efficiency. No matter how quickly you toss together that stir fry, if it took you 45 minutes to chop the vegetables, mince the garlic and dice the chicken, it's still going to take an hour to get dinner on the table. An onion is one of the most common ingredients, yet it's also the least intuitive to chop correctly (yes, there’s a "right" way to do it!). Here's a step-by-step guide.
5. Be a Weekend Warrior
Designate a couple of hours on Saturday or Sunday as cooking time and prepare your meals for the week in one fell swoop. Just make sure everything reheats well (read: no fish). Alternatively, prepare some staples that can be reused throughout the week, like rice pilaf or roast chicken. Focus on elements that can be both served alone and used as building blocks to maximize their usefulness. Garlicky cooked kale, for example, can be served as a side or mixed into a quick, Portuguese-style soup with Andouille sausage and diced potatoes. Even if you don't have time to cook, at least get the week's grocery shopping done on the weekend, so a weeknight dinner isn't delayed by a last-minute grocery run.
6. Take Advantage of Mid-Cooking Tips
Sometimes it just isn't possible to prep the ingredients for dinner ahead of time. In those cases, pick a recipe that allows for mid-cooking shortcuts and little knife work. Look for recipes that call for ingredients that can be scooped, grated or added whole so you don't need to spend time at the cutting board. Mincing ginger takes time and attention away from the sauce simmering on the stovetop, but if you can grate ginger directly into the pan or smash a piece and toss it in, you've saved yourself a few minutes.
7. Tap Into Dish Brighteners
On those nights when you're rifling around in the fridge and pantry for a quick-fix meal, dish brighteners will be your saving grace. Ingredients like coarse mustard, capers, olives and lemon zest add flavor with almost no effort and marginal cost, and have the power to take a ho-hum pantry pasta to surprising new heights. Tired of pasta? Liven up a frittata with olives, roasted red peppers and diced ham; create a quick pan sauce for chicken cutlets with lemon, capers, fresh parsley and chicken stock; or toss shredded vegetables and rice noodles with a sauce made from peanut butter, lime juice, rice vinegar and soy sauce.
8. Get Acquainted With the Electric Kettle
When it comes to weeknight starches, pasta, rice and potatoes are the three kings, and they often require boiling water to cook. Enter the electric kettle, which can cut the time it takes to bring water to a boil by more than half. This is one kitchen appliance well worth the investment.
Get more cooking shortcuts from Food52:
4 Dish-Brighteners That You Should Keep on Call
3 Ways to Cook Pasta
How to Floret Broccoli and Cauliflower, the Un-Messy Way