When you're a single person, it's easy to rationalize a bowl of cereal or quick take-out for dinner. For a family of three, or four, or more, it makes a lot more sense to make your own meals--they're healthier, cheaper, and way more satisfying than something that shows up at your door in a plastic container.
While families with two working parents (or one parent who works out of the home and one who stays home and busts their butt taking care of the kids) can probably make a ton of arguments for why home-cooked weeknight meals are next to impossible, we beg to differ. You can get dinner on the table at reasonable hour after work if you get organized, shop smart, and have a serious plan for that precious action time between walking in the door and dishing up plates for everyone. We've zeroed in on 10 tips to help you get dinner on the table fast.
1. Get To Know Your Power Burner
Take a peek at your stove--if you have a burner with a larger plate than the other three, you're in a luck. You've got yourself a power boil burner, which means you can shave previous water-boiling minutes off your pasta prep time if you use that burner. Make sure you put a lid on your pot, too--the water will boil faster that way. And put the water on to boil first, before you prep your other ingredients to cook. That way when the water is boiling you'll be nearly ready to go.
2. Skip Peeling
You're losing fiber and nutrients--and wasting time--by peeling those potatoes. Whether you're mashing them, making fries, or roasting them up, they'll taste even more delicious with their skins on. Same goes for young, slim carrots, too--their skins will be really thin and tender, and are totally edible.
3. Organize Your Pantry and Your Countertop
Acting as a short-order cook after a long day at work is stressful enough--there's no need to be fumbling for ingredients in your own kitchen. The one minute you spend getting the salt out of the pantry and the two it takes to find the right vinegar for your salad dressing add three precious minutes to meal prep time. Use small vessels like egg cups and shot glasses, for salt and pepper and keep 'em in your work area at all times for easy seasoning. And condiments you frequently use--like fish sauce, oil and vinegar or crushed pepper--should be within an arms reach in a close cabinet or drawer. Less looking means faster cooking.
4. Rethink Frozen Foods
While fast, easy and fresh is generally the best way to a healthy dinner, there's a lot to be said for relying on frozen staples, too. Frozen ravioli dressed up with fresh sage and toasted breadcrumbs is a meal that comes together in literally the amount of time it takes to boil water. And a stir-fry can hit the table in less than 15 minutes if you have a stash of frozen mixed veggies on hand. Shop smart and be realistic about what frozen foods will really help your game-plan. If your kids love pizza, frozen dough will help pizza night along quickly if it's been defrosting in the fridge all day. If you allow for one part of your meal to be stashed in the freezer, you'll have less shopping, less chopping, and less thinking to do come mealtime.
5. Wrap It Up
While it sounds fancy, cooking en papillote simply means "in a paper wrapper." As in, fold a piece of salmon and some broccoli, or a tuna steak and some halved brussels sprouts into a folded parchment pouch, season with salt, pepper, and herbs, and get dinner, ALL of dinner, done in a snap. Head over to Martha Stewart for recipes.
6. Put the Kids to Work
Unless they're slammed with homework, there's no excuse for kids over the age of five not to help out at dinnertime. Younger kids can get napkins and silverware on the table, while older kids can tackle plates and glasses. Children old enough to use a knife safely can help prep, chop, or can be put in charge of the salad. With their help, you can shave off precious minutes of work during the dinner rush. And they'll probably feel so happy and proud to help!
7. Cook Big Batches
If you're loading up your slow cooker, toss in an extra bag of beans. Or if you're making rice, add an extra two cups to freeze. Having building blocks--pre-cooked and on hand--makes weeknight dinners come together quickly. Roasting a large batch of vegetables on Sunday can yield sides for at least two meals, plus lunches. Thinking big might mean scaling up a bit but in the long run it'll make the small day-to-day meal preps much easier.
8. Wash Those Greens
If you wash your spinach, lettuce, and carrots immediately upon returning from the market, the next time you take them out they'll be ready to use--no washing, no salad spinning, no drying. This time-saving step means you'll have to use your produce quickly, which is another incentive to do it. If you know you have to use it fast, it's less likely to go to waste.
9. Buy Prepped Vegetables
If time is seriously of the essence after work, then the extra money spent on pre-cut or washed vegetables is a luxury you might want to consider. And at times, it's actually a money-saver. Consider peppers, which are heavy whole but you discard most of that weight when you chop them. Chopped pepper strips usually wind up costing about the same as whole peppers, but you're left with zero work for that stir-fry or beef stew. Trimmed green beans and peeled garlic are also sneaky buys that save serious time, as are soup base veggies like chopped onions, celery and carrots.
10. Learn to Chop
One quick tutorial could save you more than five minutes at every meal you make for the rest of your life. Learn to chop correctly. This video tutorial from Weelicious shows just how to handle the knife to make expert slices and dices. Get that knife sharpened, too--sharper knives are more effecient (and safer) than dull ones.
Reprinted with permission from Elizabeth Street. Want more?