Who DOESN'T want to be cooking fast and spending less time in the kitchen?
We all know that life is busy and hectic. Whether you've been wrangling kids all day or dealing with frustrating adults at the office, the end of the day comes around and the last thing you have the time or energy for is to make a dinner that takes all evening. I know that more times that I care to admit, I would come home to make something that I put on our meal plan and I took for granted that the recipe says it only takes half an hour. Before having my son the extra time was annoying, but not a huge deal. After all, my husband and I can wait a little longer for dinner, this would happen all the time anyhow when one of us works late- cooking fast wasn't really a necessity. Once my son was in the picture though, throwing off our normal time schedule for dinner would throw off the rest of the evening, which as you may also have experience with, results in some pretty epic meltdowns. Because of those experiences I decided I was going to figure out how to stop that from happening, and this guide is a summary of what I've learned that actually works.
What is Cooking Fast?
First, lets clear up what fast cooking isn't.
- Fast cooking isn't a "30 minute meals" cookbook that you hope to get through in a real life thirty minutes.
- It isn't a ton of highly processed foods (unless you want it to be- no judgement!)
- Cooking fast doesn't have to involve buying expensive convenience foods like those pre-chopped veggies in the produce section.
- Easy and quick family meals are not exclusively made in crock pots or instant pots (though they ARE handy tools if you have them).
To me, a meal as "fast" if it takes a normal person, a very non-professional cook, under an hour including the prep time. In other words, from chopping the very first thing to putting food on a plate. I don't have my ingredients already cut up into tiny glass bowls ready to go, and I'm assuming you don't either.
"I don't have my ingredients already cut up into tiny glass bowls ready to go, and I'm assuming you don't either."
There are loads of recipes that claim to be "30 minutes or less", and some of them are pretty close, or at least under the hour threshold. Many aren't, because chopping everything up takes time, and I count ALL the time you spend in the kitchen making a meal. Therefore, on this site you'll find under one hour recipes tagged as "fast" and under 30 minute (real time 30 minutes) recipes tagged as "super fast".
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How to get started with Fast Cooking
To get started, make sure you have your kitchen basics. If you're used to having takeout 5 nights a week and using your oven as storage, you may need to pick up a few things. You'll need to have some basic kitchen tools, pantry staples, and of course, some tried and true fast and easy recipes.
Basic Cooking Tools
- Cookie sheet or sheet pan (make sure it has a lip, no one wants to clean sauce off the bottom of the oven!)
- Deeper pan like a pyrex
- Stock pot or spaghetti pot
- Sauce pot
- Large frying pan
- Large crock pot
- Mixer (hand or stand)
- Food thermometer
- At least two cutting boards
- Decent knives
- Wooden spoons
- Colander (that thing you strain spaghetti in)
- Measuring cups and spoons
Spices and Pantry Staples
- Italian seasoning
- Bay Leaves
- Pizza Yeast
- Jarred spaghetti sauce (or canned tomato sauce if you prefer to spice your own)
- Boxed spaghetti
- Boxed short pasta (rotini, fusili, bowtie, whatever style you like)
- Rice (dry in a bag- some brands offer resealable, otherwise be sure to get a container to keep it in)
- Chicken broth
- Soy sauce
- Brown sugar
- Peanut butter
- White/regular sugar
- Olive oil
- Balsamic Vinegar
Easy and Fast Cooking Recipes
- Spaghetti and Meat Sauce
- Pizza Chicken (my husband calls this chicken parm despite the lack of breading or Parmesan)
- Homemade Pizza
- Easy Baked Salmon
- Honey Pecan Pork Chops
- Mustard Cream Pork Chops
- Chicken Marsala
- Balsamic Chicken with Mushrooms
- Roasted Chicken Tenders and Veggies
- Thai Peanut Chicken
- Slow Cooker Pulled Pork
Tips for Success in Cooking Fast
The most critical thing to your success is to make sure you set yourself up for it, so that you don't get overwhelmed. Take it one step at a time, for instance don't try 5 new recipes in one week. Know that there will be some days you are tapped out and serve your family frozen pizza instead. It's OK. Give yourself some grace, you deserve it!
Tips for Time Management
- Meal plan before you go to the grocery store. Actually, meal plan before you make your grocery list, and make the list based on what you need for each recipe you've chosen. Stopping by the store extra times (especially with kid(s) in tow) is a huge time suck.
- Make a mental plan of what you are making and what takes the longest. Start with the longest task, and don't be afraid to set a timer to remind you to start the next one or the last one. I set one when I am using a frozen veggie- the ones I like take about 7 minutes to cook in the microwave, but sometimes I can use a little help to remember to actually put them in the microwave before I finish the entree.
- When you are trying a new recipe, do it on a day that's easiest or most flexible for you. For me that is the weekend when my husband is home so I can stay focused in the kitchen.
- Set a timer when you put anything in the oven. The oven timer, the timer function on your phone, any timer works as long as you set it. Burning food after putting all the work in to make it sucks, and I don't want that to happen to you!
- Make a meal plan, but be flexible. You can know you're making tacos, pizza chicken, honey pecan pork chops, and salmon this week without being totally committed on which days are which.
Tips for Defrosting
- If your meat is frozen pull it out of the freezer and put it in the fridge the night before to defrost.
- Should you forget to pull meat from the freezer the night before, or if it is thick and didn't defrost fully, put it in cold water in the sink (fully submerge it with a plate or non-cast iron pan for speedier results).
- If you routinely forget to pull meat from the freezer the night before (hello, me!), try setting an alarm on your phone for the morning or lunch to double check the fridge for it and start defrosting it in water if not.
Tips for Reducing Dirty Dishes and Cleanup Time
- Line pans with aluminum foil for easy clean up.
- Clean as you go, for example taking a minute to clean the cutting board while you wait to flip chicken.
- When using pre-cut meat (either cut by the store or at home in advance), season in the container or pan to save a dish.
- When making a marinade, pour the ingredients into a large measuring cup one by one rather than into a bunch of small measuring cups and then combining them together, which reduces the amount of dishes.
- You can always use paper plates. While I don't like these for day to day (because of both cost and environmental impact) if you were doing a lot of takeout, paper plates are still less wasteful than Styrofoam containers and can help with the transition to cooking. Plus frankly there are times in life (like with a newborn and no sleep) where you're in survival mode and need to save every bit of stress you can.
- Delegate what you can. If your kids are old enough to help with the dishes, let them! If they're old enough to rinse their own plate and place it in the dishwasher, that's a great start.
Tips for Reducing Food Waste
- For less waste, date leftovers by putting a piece of masking tape on them and writing down when you made it. I recommend doing this for both fridge and freezer bound leftovers.
- If you date your store bought goods such as chicken broth, soups, and pasta sauces with a sharpie when you open them, then you'll always know how old they are when determining if something is still OK to use.
- Re-purpose leftovers- fajitas or tacos become nacho toppings or quesadilla fillings, and roasted meat becomes sandwich meat.
- If your family hates leftovers, only cut up what you need for the meal and freeze leftover ingredients for future cooking. Alternatively, play mind games and avoid calling them leftovers, around here we have "Encore Night".
- Meal plan and only buy what is on your list, especially if it is perishable. Now if there is a great sale you want to stock up on great, but make sure you have the freezer space you need available.
Tips for Reality
- Frozen vegetables are both budget friendly and convenient. Take advantage of them!
- Keep a frozen pizza or two on hand at all times. It's both faster and cheaper than takeout. Skillet meals from the freezer aisle are also great to keep around.
- Try having a place for recipes you've tried and liked. It might be a gmail folder, or it might be a physical binder. Either way, having them all stored somewhere together helps reduce your mental load of remembering each one. I initially started doing this to make meal planning easier, and it has been great for our household.
- Make double batches and freeze half for meals that lend themselves to freezing well. Taco meat, meatballs, pulled pork, chili, and meat sauces are great candidates that take only marginally more time to double than cook a single batch. Having these on hand to serve on busy evenings is SO nice.
Common Questions/FAQ About Cooking Fast
I've never cooked before- what should I start with?
This depends on your level of never- if you have never boiled pasta before, I would start there, and add store bought sauce and some Parmesan. If you've made many a pot of macaroni and cheese, I would start with tacos or meat sauce. From there I would move to baked salmon or marinated chicken, then pizza chicken or honey pecan pork chops.
My kids are picky eaters, how can I get them to eat the same meal as us?
Honestly, you might not at first, and that's OK. I have served my son many a hot dog when he refuses what we are eating. I recommend having a backup food that requires as little work as possible for you (if they're young, if they're old enough you can have them make something easy themselves).
Is making frozen pizza really cooking?
Scientifically, YES! A chemical reaction occurs in the oven to irreversibly change the pizza from uncooked to cooked. Frozen meals may skip the prep, but you cooked it!
Aren't frozen vegetables a cop out?
Not at all! While I love fresh veggies when they are in season, frozen are picked at their peak and then flash frozen to preserve the nutrients, so they can actually be more nutritious than some of what you get fresh. They're also very affordable and don't spoil on your counters or in your fridge when your plans change. I always keep a few bags in the freezer.
Crock pots aren't cooking fast- they take hours! Why do you use crock pot recipes?
Well, you've got me there, they do take hours to cook. However, they are very hands-off, and it's the time you have to spend in the kitchen that I want to cut down. That said, if they're not your style for whatever reason, that's fine!
The Last Thing You Need to Know about Cooking Fast
You can do it!
Start by looking through some easy, fast recipes. Pick one or two you think your family will like, and go for it! Once you feel confident in a few recipes you know you can put together quickly, it is easier to add in something new once a week or two and before you know it you'll have a dozen or more go-to weeknight meals that work for you and your family. And hey, that's the goal!
Have another tip I didn't cover? Please let me know below!