Have you noticed that dinnertime is relentless? Every night, here it is again. What’s it gonna be this time? And the timing of it — showing up at that moment when you’re completely exhausted from all the other tasks you carried out today. I’m forever asking people how they handle this universal trial, and my ears perk up whenever a cooking pro tackles the subject.
Over the years, I’ve learned to incorporate several tips to make quicker work of dinner prep. I haven’t achieved my ultimate goal — homemade dinner on the table in five minutes. But I’m working on it! Here’s what I’ve learned so far about the best ways to create easy, speedy dinners.
1. Use Shortcut Ingredients
I love to begin a recipe halfway through, and I’ve found that most supermarkets are happy to help by offering ingredient shortcuts. You can get pre-cooked, shredded or sliced chicken for the same price as uncooked chicken breasts, and use them in whatever chicken recipes you like. You can also buy pre-cooked shredded pork (for one of these leftover pork recipes from The Pioneer Woman) or sliced steak.
Or, get pre-sliced veggies and grains — my favorite is Trader Joe’s Garden Vegetable Hash (which is diced cauliflower, zucchini, bell peppers, corn, celery and yellow onion). I divide the container’s contents into three Ziploc bags and freeze them. I also love to buy frozen rice, which I zap in the microwave for three minutes. And you know what else freezes beautifully and defrosts on the counter in 20 minutes? Bread.
2. Get Speedy Appliances
The way you cook your meal really does make a difference. I love my microwave and use it constantly, but you can also use other items to speed up cooking. For example, this trick from Jamie Oliver can cut that time in half: heat your water in an electric kettle, turning it on right as you begin cooking, and you’ll have it boiling water within four minutes. Genius.
Rarely has a kitchen appliance changed my life, but this air fryer honestly has. I used to make pot stickers in an actual pot — and stick they did. I had to stand over the stovetop, constantly nudging them around the pot so they wouldn’t attach themselves to the bottom. Not anymore! Now I spritz them with a bit of cooking spray, place them in the air fryer basket and press a button. Twelve minutes later, they are done — perfectly crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Make roasted broccoli in 10 minutes, roast potatoes in 20, and try some of the new recipes food sites are always coming up with.
If you’re more the set-it-and-forget-it type, you’ll want a slow cooker or an Instant Pot. For me, the Instant Pot is all about easy chili. I dump all the ingredients inside and let the magic happen while I go do something else. Of course, there are lots of other meals you can make in one of these or in a slow cooker, so if you’re so inclined, why not try a new Instant Pot recipe?
3. Create Dinner Themes
Having a general plan for the week saves stress and gives you a framework to build your meals. Even if you’re not a planner, give yourself a general dinner theme for at least three nights of the week. It could be Mexican night, chicken night or grain bowl night. Here are 30 theme ideas from Project Meal Plan to get you thinking.
This way, when dinner rolls around, you have somewhere to start. For example — it’s Tuesday? That’s Baked Potato Bar night! All I have to do is throw some russets in the oven at 400 degrees and then pull together the toppings bar! Dinner themes also allow you to do some planning ahead of time when you have more energy for it. You could even plan themes so that the leftovers from one night (roasted chicken) end up being used the following evening (taco night!).
4. Use Mise en Place for Quicker Prep
If you have a sous chef, bless you. But for the rest of us, all that chopping is time-consuming. I’m often tempted to just dive into the recipe and get the chopping done as it comes up. But cooking experts overwhelmingly prefer to use the “mise en place” technique (which is French for “putting in place”), and you should, too.
When you practice mise en place in your kitchen, you have everything ready to go before you start cooking: You’ve gathered the utensils and kitchen gadgets you’ll need, cut, diced and measured out all your ingredients and placed everything in bowls in the order that you will need them. The recipe-following process will go much more smoothly, and you’ll have what you need when you need it. That leads to faster cooking.
5. Marinate Before You Freeze
For years (and sometimes still) I just put the meat in the freezer. The better way? On returning from the supermarket, take it out of the package, add it to a Ziploc bag with some marinade and then freeze it. Later, as you defrost the meat, the marinade will seep in, rendering it ready for cooking. No prep is required — just a hot saucepan.
Freezing your meat stops the marinating process, but when you thaw the meat out, it’s good to go — forget those extra few hours you would have needed to spend marinating your cut. You just have to make sure you cook it within 24 hours of it being completely thawed.
6. Clean As You Go
Line your baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking sheets, so you don’t have to scrub the trays later. Do the same for slow cookers, air fryers and other items where you can. Cast off your mixing utensils and measuring cups in a sink with hot, soapy water, so they are pre-soaked and ready for the dishwasher.
Collect food scraps in one bowl and dump it all out at the end of the cooking process. Have a towel nearby and wipe up spills as they happen. Clean while you are working on dinner, and you won’t be faced with as big a mess when you’re done.
Is it dinner time yet? If not, it will be soon!