Have you ever professed admiration for your friend’s seven-layer dessert concoction only to have her reply, “Oh, but it’s SO easy!” Hmph, you think, maybe for you.
That’s because when it comes to culinary prowess, we all have wildly varying ideas of what constitutes “easy.” Take, for instance, spaghetti and meatballs. To some, this is a 1 or 2 on the simple scale; to others, it’s a nonstarter 11. This is the very reason we automatically distrust any recipe that claims it can be made in 10 minutes or less.
Think of this as the antidote to false recipe promises. This list of five strategies you can implement in the kitchen and the grocery store make it possible to be eating a warm meal within an hour* of arriving home. So don’t let “I didn’t have time” be an excuse.
1. Customize your components
Not every meal needs to be Insta-worthy. What it does need are three basic components: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Memorize this formula and you’ll have a filling, nutritious meal every time. For instance, a quick bowl of penne pasta, grilled chicken, spinach and parmesan covers all the bases. Pasta not your thing? (Who are you?) Try a rice or quinoa bowl with steak, tofu or chickpeas and whatever veggies and dressings you have on hand.
The executions are endless, but the idea is simple: Pick your favorite component from each category and put those ingredients on regular rotation in your grocery cart. Bonus points if those items are pantry staples. Add in a few fresh veggies and spices and voilà, dinner!
2. Plan ahead
If the phrase “meal prep” sends you running, please hear us out. We’re not suggesting you slave in the kitchen each Sunday to produce all your meals for the week. We’ve actually noticed this can lead to food waste and boredom if you don’t adhere to your plan perfectly. Instead, it’s about being strategic with your work-ahead items. One big pot of rice or oats, for example, can be the base for breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the week while still offering variety and flexibility. Cooking a whole chicken or big batch of ground beef follows the same principle. Pro tip: Go light on the seasonings at first. That way, you can tailor the spices and sauces to each unique dish when you go to use that ingredient later in the week. No meal monotony here!
3. Buy a few shortcuts
Remember that whole chicken we just mentioned? Yeah, you could buy a rotisserie chicken too for about the same price and save yourself the hassle. Veggies come pre-washed and pre-chopped. Heck, meal plan delivery services like Blue Apron or Hello Fresh do all the work for you! But that convenience comes at a price. Do a quick analysis and see if this extra investment is worth it to you and your family. A few extra dollars at the store may add to your grocery bill, but save you money in the long run.
4. Brinner is a winner
When in doubt, breakfast for dinner. ’Nough said. If you run out of ideas, we have some here, here, here and here.
5. Double the amount, half the effort
Let’s not avoid the subject any longer: Leftovers are a game changer, but they’re polarizing — you either love ’em or you hate ’em. We have a a few tips for that, too.
- If you’re making a big batch, pick foods that taste better the next day. Foods like chili, soups and baked casseroles actually get better with age (within reason) as the flavors have time to mingle.
- Don’t just rely on the microwave. Sometimes the method of heating is just as important as the food itself. And don’t be afraid to use two different heating methods for one meal. I.e., Leftover pizza: Step 1. Microwave for 30 seconds. Step 2: Warm a totally dry (no cooking spray or oil) skillet on the stove while the pizza is heating. Step 3: Crisp the bottom of the crust on the skillet for another 30 seconds. The result: An evenly warm slice that’s gooey on the top and crispy on the bottom.
- Reinvent your meal from the night before by using all the same ingredients in a new way. A classic sheet pan dinner of roasted salmon, potatoes and veggies can easily become a salad for night #2 with some lettuce and a zesty dressing. Or throw any protein and extra veggies into a stir fry. Add sriracha or Szechuan oil to kick things up a notch.
Why? For your health
Studies show that people who cook at home often are more likely to have an overall healthier diet than those who don't. According to the study's author — Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington — that’s because “cooking at home is a great way to get more nutrients and fewer empty calories at a low cost, and you have much more control over where the food comes from.”
So before you fall back on the old “I don’t have the time” excuse when it comes to making healthful, home-cooked meals, try these simple strategies first and let us know what you think.
*Depending on your commute, of course.