It seems these days everyone is busier than ever. Between juggling work, school, family and whatever other responsibilities people may have, it’s no wonder that so many people don’t sit down to a home-cooked meal at dinner. Too many of us pick up prepared food on the way home, hit the drive-thru, or nuke a frozen meal but come on, we all deserve better than that. Eating like that is not good for our health or our budget. If you think you don’t have time to prepare a real dinner when you get home, I’m here to tell you that you do. Believe me, I know the pressure. I work all day and by the time I get home, it’s hitting 8:00 at night. I’m tired but I’m also hungry and since I live in a town that has no take-out food or delivery at all (yes, feel sorry for me), I have to cook dinner for my family every night. The silver lining is that because I have to do this, I have learned how to make a real dinner in half an hour or less. Not only do I eat a healthy and delicious dinner that is way better than any take-out or frozen food but I sit down with my family to enjoy it and it saves a lot of money. Let me give you a few of the tips I have learned to help you make yourself a real food dinner in 30 minutes or less…because you deserve it.
1. Plan a Menu
Planning the week’s menu goes against my usual behavior but when you want to start cooking within minutes of walking in the door, it’s necessary. Eight o’clock at night is not the time to start staring in the fridge wondering what to eat. Sit down and make a list of the dishes you would like to have for dinner on the days you have to work. Set yourself up for success by choosing dishes that are possible to get done in a short time. A Wednesday night after a long, hard day in the middle of a long, hard week is not the time to try making elaborate dishes that take hours to prep and cook. Instead, choose nutritious, delicious meals that are also easy to make. Good dishes include mac and cheese, tofu scrambles, pasta dishes, stir-fries, vegan omelets, tacos, and burritos.
2. Keep the Pantry and Fridge Well-Stocked
Once you know which dishes you want to cook during the week, make a list of the ingredients you will need to make that happen. On whatever day you do the grocery shopping, buy the ingredients you need for your weekday meals. Since I’m being totally honest, I will admit that I don’t always make the exact list of the week’s dinners and even if I do, I often don’t stick to it. That’s because I often don’t know what I want to eat until it’s time to cook and then I think about what I feel like having. My opposition to eating from a pre-planned menu makes it even more important that I have a well-stocked fridge and pantry.
Of course, it would be too expensive to have every single ingredient I might need on hand but there are many items that every fridge and pantry should have. I always make sure I have dry pasta, canned diced tomatoes and beans, brown rice, quinoa, and flour. My go-to bottled ingredients include oils, vinegars, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, peanut butter, and hot sauce. Spices and herbs are my most-valued cooking tools so I keep my spice cabinet stocked with all my favorite spices have non-dairy milk, hummus, greens, tomatoes, and all types of fresh fruit and vegetables. Check out The 10 Most Versatile Foods Everyone Should Have in their Kitchen (and How to Use Them) and 12 Must-Have Items for Your Vegan Pantry.
3. Prep in Advance
There are some foods that just cannot be prepared in 30 minutes or less but they can be prepared in advance. For instance, I only use brown rice and that takes 40 minutes to cook. Rather than not have brown rice to go with my General Tso’s Tofu, I cook up a few cups of brown rice on my day off and keep it in the fridge. When I need it, it takes only a few minutes to heat it up. Rice can also be frozen in plastic storage bags if you aren’t going to use it right away. Other foods that take too long for busy weeknight cooking but can definitely be made ahead and then heated up are soups, stews, lasagnas and baked ziti, vegan cutlets, paellas, and baked potatoes.
4. Set the Mood
This is one of my best cooking tips: make cooking fun. When I get home from work, I am usually tired and there is a slight chance that I may be cranky (I’m usually a ray of sunshine) and the last thing I want to do is more work in the kitchen. It helps to change my mood and my mindset so making dinner doesn’t feel like work. The best way I have to do this is to put on upbeat music. I crank it up and sing along while I’m cooking. Sometimes I even dance, though not while I’m chopping anything! The music lifts my mood and it makes the time go faster (this is also effective when I’m impatiently waiting for water to boil).
All of the previous tips are helpful but in my opinion, the most important tip that will help you get dinner on the table quickly is to choreograph the entire dinner-making process. That means using each of the thirty minutes in an effective and efficient way. Unless you are making a stir-fry which requires having all your ingredients ready to go, I find it’s better to not do all the prep work first. You can use the time that a vegetable is sautéing to chop something another ingredient or do something else. If you will need water boiled for pasta or if you are making white rice, do that first and by the time that’s ready, you will have finished making the rest of your meal.
Here is an example: I come home and I want to make Spicy Alfredo with Greens and Sauteed Garlicky Broccoli for dinner. The very first thing I do is fill a large pot with water and turn the heat on so it can come to a boil. That takes a long time but that time gets filled in with other preparation. It takes no time at all to make the sauce so instead, I cook the veggies. Heat a large saute pan with oil over medium heat. While the oil is heating, cut the head of broccoli into florets and cut the stalk into bite-sized pieces as well. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and a pinch of red pepper flakes to the oil and then add the broccoli stalk to the pan. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook the stalks for 2 minutes and then add the florets. Saute the broccoli for 6 minutes until it is bright green and tender-crisp. Season with salt and pepper to taste and transfer the broccoli to a serving bowl.
By the time the broccoli is done, the water should be at a rapid boil. Add kosher salt to the water and drop in your pasta. Stir the pasta and let it cook until it is just shy of al dente. That cooking time is when you will make the sauce. Set up a colander to drain the pasta and put a measuring cup in the colander to remind you to save some pasta water before draining. Wipe out the pan where you cooked the broccoli and heat 2 Tbs. oil or vegan butter over medium heat. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Mix in 2 cups of coconut milk. Loosen up the sauce with some of the reserved starchy pasta cooking water, about ¼ cup at a time, until the sauce is thick but pourable. Add in ¼ cup vegan grated parmesan or nutritional yeast. Stir in a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Lower the heat to medium and let the sauce cook for 2 minutes.
By now, the pasta should be ready so drain it and add it to the pan, tossing the pasta to coat it with sauce. Let the pasta sit in the sauce for a minute or two so it absorbs the flavors of the sauce. While that’s happening, stem and chop a bunch of your favorite greens – kale, chard, collards or spinach – and mix them into the pasta. They will wilt in just a minute or two and then shut the heat. Grate the zest of one lemon over the pasta. Add a squeeze of the lemon juice, if desired. Serve the pasta in bowls with fresh basil for garnish and extra vegan grated parmesan, if desired. Set out extra lemon wedges for the broccoli or the pasta.
That’s it. Dinner is done and you have a real satisfying meal, an entrée and side dish, in less time than it would take to wait for delivery. The more you cook, the faster you get at preparing meals. When you have a set plan, a stocked kitchen and the right mood, it’s easy and fun to prepare real food dinners for you and your family, even on your busiest nights.
Image Sources: Rhea Parsons