Last night, my fiancé (btw – I got engaged!) was at my place, and we were starving. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to waste, and he had to head back home soon, so I offered to whip up a quick dinner. He sat at the table with a glass of wine, I chopped and stirred, and we chatted. And in less than a half hour we were sitting down to supper.
“Wow, that was quick!” he exclaimed, “It would have taken me so much longer to read the recipe, chop and prep all the ingredients, and wait for everything to cook”.
He went on to explain that when he’s in this situation himself – hungry, short on time - he just grabs a bowl of cereal, or goes out to eat.
I thought maybe there were others like him out there – people who want to eat healthy home-cooked meals every night, but are constrained by time, and just don’t know how to whip up a quick delicious dinner on the fly. If you’re one of those people, I think you’ll be surprised by how easy it is once you know how to do it.
I’ve listed 5 tricks below that will get you started, as well as 3 quick recipes to illustrate how these tips work in real life.
1. Get Stocked
Not having the ingredients you need on hand will definitely cut into your dinner-making time, so don’t get stuck with an empty kitchen.
My pantry is always stocked with brown and white rice, quinoa, lentils, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, sliced almonds, and pasta, as well a can of tomatoes and one of coconut milk. In the fridge is a mix of vegetables (kale, broccoli, bell pepper, carrot and avocado right now), soy sauce, vinegars, some nut butters, hot sauce. I also keep garlic, onion, ginger, and a few herb and spice blends around to add flavor.
Make a grocery run once a week and make sure to keep stocked in whatever it is your family likes to eat.
The other side to this is to make extra of things that you go through quickly, like a sauce or a pot of brown rice. Then you’ll have leftover rice for fried rice tomorrow, or some sesame sauce to drizzle over veggies when you run out of ideas.
I realize the real chefs in the room are cringing as I say this, but if you want to save time in the kitchen, you need to multi-task. Prepping all the ingredients before you ever start cooking is a surefire way to waste 20 minutes.
So I get the rice started, heat some oil in a pan, then start chopping veggies. As soon a vegetable is chopped, it goes into the pan, sprinkle with salt, stir, and get onto the next thing that needs cut up. Time it so that whatever needs to cook the longest gets chopped first (carrots, mushrooms, sweet potato, etc.) then later you can add the quick cooking guys (greens, peas…).
If you’re making a pasta dish, save time by throwing veggies into the pasta water while it’s boiling, then straining everything at the same time. And wait until everything that needs to cook is on the heat before starting with the sauce and garnishes.
If you’re baking, or trying to perfect a recipe, you’re going to want to measure all the ingredients. Whipping up a quick dinner is not one of these times. Pour salt and spices into your hand, eyeball it, then throw them in the pot. You can always taste and add more later. Add pasta and veggies by the handful, keeping in mind that vegetables shrink when cooking and grains grow. When adding liquid, you’ll get to know how full to fill your pots and pans to feed everyone at the table.
There are 2 exceptions to this rule, whole grains and salt. I have found that ¼ tsp. of salt per person I’m cooking for fits our tastes, so I measure that out. And when cooking whole grains, I measure grains and water, so that I don’t have to strain them later.
4. Add Flavor
If what you’re cooking is tasty and meets the approval of whomever you’re feeding, that’s reward enough to keep going. So when improvising in the kitchen, never forget to add flavor. Some of my favorites are curry powder or paste, fresh herbs, garlic and lemon, a grating of cheddar or parmesan cheese, or toasted seeds or nuts.
5. Keep Practicing
The first few times you do anything new, it involves lots of brain power, and everything goes a little slower. So the first week or 2 it might take 40 minutes to get dinner on the table. But don’t give up! As you improve, everything speeds up. You find little tricks of your own, you go on auto-pilot.
Also, be creative. Once you learn a few basic recipes, adaptations are endless. You can take a handful of recipes, change up the flavorings, or vegetables, or herbs, or meats, and have a whole new meal.
To give you a little sneak peak at how I cut corners at home, I’ve included a few recipes. These techniques can be used and abused to your liking.
Quick Avocado Pasta
(makes 1 – can easily double or quadruple)
A few handfuls of any pasta shape you like
2-3 kale leaves (or other greens)
a garlic clove
½ a small avocado (or ¼ or a large one
a pad of butter or glug of olive oil
a few pinches each: paprika, dried thyme, cumin, sea salt
a few large pinches of pumpkin seeds
some cheddar cheese
Fill a pot with water and place on high heat. While you’re waiting for it to boil, start finely chopping your kale and garlic. When you see that the water is boiling, throw in the pasta, stir, and set the timer.
While the pasta is cooking, cube the avocado, and finish any kale and garlic that still needs chopped up.
Once the pasta is done, strain it, and put the pot back on the burner, which you have turned down to medium low. Heat your oil or butter in the pot, and throw in the spices and the pumpkin seeds. Stir them around and cook them until you hear a seed pop, then tip in the kale and garlic. Saute for a minute or two, then take off the heat. Stir in the drained pasta and avocado, and grate a little cheddar right over the pot. Dinner is done.
Speedy Fried Rice
(serves 1 – also can be doubled or quadrupled easily)
A few glugs of sesame oil, divided (I use toasted)
A garlic clove and small piece of ginger
A few pinches of salt
A few stir-fry veggies you like (bell pepper, carrot, broccoli, snow peas, it’s endless)
Soy sauce, hot sauce, fish sauce (or rice vinegar, or lemon juice)
Place a skillet over medium heat, and add a small handful of sunflower seeds to the dry pan. While they brown, peel and mince the garlic and ginger, and maybe start with chopping some of the vegetables.
When the seeds are fragrant and toasty, remove them from the pan and add some sesame oil. Stir in the garlic, ginger and a little salt. As you get veggies prepped, move them into the skillet, stirring and chopping, until they’ve all found their way to the heat (remember to chop the longest cooking ones first).
Once all the vegetables are in, give the whole thing a good stir, and keep sautéing until it’s as cooked as you like it. Move the contents of the pan to one side, and on the other side pour a tad more oil, add a pinch of salt – and crack an egg into it. As soon as it hits the pan, scramble it up. Once the egg has cooked through, add a big chunk of leftover rice to the skillet. Eyeball some soy sauce, hot sauce, and whatever else you want to add, and give it all a good stir. Once the rice is hot, take the whole thing off the heat, top with the sunflower seeds, and devour.
Shaken Sesame Sauce
A few spoonfuls of tahini (sesame seed paste)
Toasted sesame oil
The juice of a lemon
Chili powder (optional)
Place some of everything(except the water) into a jar with a lid. Pour over a little water, tighten the lid, and shake. When it is all the same consistency, taste it. It should be very salty and flavorful, with the lemon cutting through the richness of the sesame. If you need more of something, add it and shake again. When you’re done, you should have something the consistency of melted ice cream. Make sure to add enough water (but not too much) because it will thicken as it sits.
This is a great sauce for drizzling on meat, fish, veggies, grains, you name it. I especially like it on roasted cauliflower. Make plenty, you’ll be able to use the leftovers tomorrow or the next day.
How do you get dinner on the table in a half hour? Got any tips to add?
Elizabeth Allen is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of AcuMed Spa, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.