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Slow cooking will always have its place, but sometimes you just want food to cook faster, and dinner to take less time. Luckily, there are lots of ways to make that happen.
Yes, there are times when you want to luxuriate in the beauty of a tough cut of meat tenderizing slowly and gently over many hours, and other times 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 then (unless you did it over the weekend, or started it in the morning and can enjoy it now. In that case, kudos!).
But when you’ve worked all day, you’re stressed, you’re tired, and you’re hungry (verging on hangry), you need to figure out dinner fast.
The Easy Way Out
Meal delivery services come in all varieties these days, from local restaurant deliveries via the likes of DoorDash, GrubHub, Postmates, and Caviar to full-on meal kit delivery services like Blue Apron and HelloFresh. The former capitalizes on our desire for great-tasting meals with little effort, and the latter does that too, but has really targeted our preference for fresh, healthy meals cooked at home — only with much less stress and more speed. In many respects, 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, delicious, filling meal — in 45 minutes or less, no meal kit required. You can! You just have to learn a few tricks, techniques, and strategies for shaving time off the process.
Related Reading: Amazingly Easy 3-Ingredient Recipes You Can Pull Off No Matter How Exhausted You Are
How to Cook Faster & Have Dinner Ready in Less Time
We hope the following tips and tricks help you get more quick and easy dinners on the table:
1. 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 with all the bells and whistles, 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.
Related Reading: 21 Cheap and Easy Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
2. 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.
Related Reading: The Best Meat Delivery Services to Try in 2020 | The Best Places to Buy Fresh Seafood Online
3. Embrace Big Batches
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. Check out these 5 Big-Batch Recipes, and 13 Make-Ahead Meals You Can Freeze for some specific ideas.
4. Repurpose Leftovers
Many people who want homemade meals on weeknights cook and plan on the weekends. Props to them. If you’d rather relax on your days off and don’t have room in your freezer to save batch-cooked meals anyway, 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.
Related Reading: 11 Ways to Serve Leftover Chili
Leftover rice? Make fried rice with fresh add-ins, or with other leftovers you have (like cooked veggies and protein); crack a couple eggs in the sauté pan too.
Related Reading: 7 Fried Rice Recipes Better Than Delivery
Or 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.) Use the carcass to make easy chicken stock.
Related Reading: 15 Things to Make with Leftover Chicken (Or a Rotisserie Chicken)
Slow cooker pulled pork and other heaping helpings of protein can also be distributed among several meals over the course of the week. See these 4 Large Format Cooking Projects & What to Make with the Leftovers for even more ideas.
5. Keep Your Pantry Stocked
You can whip up something on impulse if you have a well-stocked kitchen 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, flavorful pastes (like curry, harissa tomato, etc.) – and always keep garlic, onions, and potatoes around too. They last a long time in dark, cool, dry places like pantries.
Related Reading: Easy Pantry Dinner Recipes
Also, think of your freezer as an extension of your pantry. Store sauces, pesto, chopped herbs, broth, and stock in ice cube trays in there among the peas and carrots and frozen proteins. Pop out a cube or two and heat it up for a quick hit of flavor.
6. Make All-in-One Meals
Make recipes that have you cook the meat and sides all in one pot or roasting tray. Fewer dishes means less time spent on clean-up. Check out these Sheet Pan Dinner Recipes and more Easy One-Pot Meals for inspiration.
In the same wheelhouse, don’t underestimate the versatility of a parchment or foil pack. Fold up a protein — quick-cooking fish or shrimp are great options — plus vegetables and aromatics and harness the power of steam to cook your meal. This method makes for easy clean-up too. Try our Easy Fish Baked in Parchment recipe (add some asparagus spears in season).
7. Heat Things Up
If you’re using the oven, crank it up to the right temperature before you do anything else. If you’re making pasta, start boiling the water first thing (you can always top it off if you start lagging behind and it begins to reduce — if you have an electric kettle, boil some water and use that to top off the pot so it doesn’t lower the temperature). It always takes longer than you think for these things to actually heat up to the proper temp, so get them on their way right out of the gate. Then you won’t have to stop and wait after chopping, mixing sauces, and the like.
8. Don’t Go Whole Hog (Or Chicken Breast)
Cut your meat and vegetables into thin slices or bite-size chunks (or buy them that way to make things even quicker), instead of cooking and serving them whole. They’ll be done faster that way. You can quickly stir-fry them, or 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.
9. Spoil the Ending
Read the recipe the whole way through before cooking. The. Whole. Way. Through! 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.
Related Reading: 10 Kitchen Commandments to Memorize and Make Your Life Easier
10. Remember: 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 (also, if you’re roasting, crowding ingredients together will steam them instead of properly caramelizing them).
eleven. Sharpen Your Knife 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.
Related Reading: 8 Great Affordable Knives
12. Make Meatless Monday a Real Thing
Or do it on any other day — or more than one. 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 — and many vegetarian meals take less time to cook, and cost less to make too. See our primer on jackfruit, 5 rules for the best tofu you’ll ever eat, 14 vegetarian Instagram accounts to follow, and 12 easy ways to eat a more plant-based diet. And try these round-ups for a little inspiration:
13. 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 clean-up time after the meal and you can get to relaxing sooner rather than later.
14. Plan on It (And Possibly Prep for It Too)
And if there’s any way to prep some of those ingredients the weekend beforehand, go for it.
Related Reading: 7 Instant Pot Meal Prep Ideas to Help Streamline Your Week
15. Repeat Yourself
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.
16. Take Advantage of Technology
If you have an Instant Pot, use it more often. If you have a recipe that involves a ton of chopping, break out your food processor for the prep. Discover all the ways to use your stand mixer besides baking projects. Go ahead and microwave your eggs. Basically, you should use all the tools you have at your disposal.
17. Take Shortcuts Too
There’s no shame in smart shortcuts either. Store-bought pizza dough recipes range from ersatz gnocchi (shown above) to quick calzones. Gourmet pantry food staples can be combined into all sorts of easy meals, from fancy and filling cheese plates to simple pastas. Even doing something like buying pre-chopped meat or veggies (or even precooked frozen veggies — including cauliflower rice!) Can sometimes make the difference between dreading dinner and stir-frying it in literally 10 minutes flat. A lot of store-bought slow cooker sauces taste great (and can also be used in a pot on the stovetop). And, yes, there are always meal kits too.
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Header image by Chowhound.