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10 "cheater" ways to get dinner on the table in under 30 minutes

By Matthew Thompson, September 6, 2012 - 11:39am

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Recently, my life has taken a turn for the bananas: among many other things, my wife and I are in the process of moving into a new place—so our living room has been colonized by boxes, our weekends taken up by trips to Goodwill and our kitchen half-dismantled as we decide which appliances deserve to make the trip with us. But for all the busyness—and there’s been plenty, believe me—we still find time to cook a healthy dinner every night. How do we do it? Well, if you must know: we cheat.

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The fact is, dinner becomes much easier to achieve on a nightly basis if you don’t let it become a full-scale production. Instead, cut a few corners each night to keep the process manageable. Maybe one night limit yourself to a super-stripped-down list of ingredients. Another, use pre-prepped veggies. Another night, opt for a recipe that requires no cooking. By the end of the week, you’ll discover that you cooked a whole range of tasty meals and barely broke a sweat doing it.

Here are 10 cheater ways to get dinner on the table in under 30 minutes:

1. Limit Yourself to 5 Ingredients. Keep things cheap and simple by sticking to recipes with only 5 ingredients (not including the bare essentials like oil, salt and pepper). That way, you can use the express aisle at the grocery store! Of course, when you’re making a meal with just a handful of components, each one needs to pull its weight.

2. Target Your Recipe to Your Time Frame. This may seem obvious, but it bears mentioning: Want an easy way to make sure you can cook dinner in under 20 minutes? Find a 20-minute recipe. By tailoring your meal to your time frame, you can make the most of a limited schedule. It’s important to note the difference between active time and total time in a recipe. In the EatingWell Test Kitchen, “active time” means the period when you’re actually working (or need to be near the stove) while “total time” is, well, the total time. If you want to guarantee that a recipe will fit into the 20 free minutes you have to cook, than make sure you’ve got one whose total time, not active time, is 20 minutes or less.

Recipes to Try: 20-Minute 5-Ingredient Recipes

3. Keep a Well-Stocked Pantry. The best way to ensure you have everything you need to prepare delicious meals is to keep a well-stocked pantry. If your pantry is loaded up with all the staples you regularly use, it offers you a lot more options when it’s time to cook dinner. And more options, of course, means more quick options—a lot more recipes come into play when you have a broad base of essentials to make them with. Perhaps the biggest timesaver of all, however, is that you won’t have to run out in the middle of making dinner because you realized you don’t have that one essential ingredient. Get EatingWell's Ultimate Shopping List for Stocking a Healthy Kitchen.

4. Make a No-Cook Dinner. Want to get dinner on the table quick? Remove cooking from the equation altogether. A no-cook meal can be made in the time it takes to chop ingredients and toss them in a bowl. You can make a tasty wrap or sandwich in just a few minutes or even whip up a quick, healthy spread to dunk veggies and bread in. All you need is a sharp knife and a good attitude. Since fresh vegetables are practically begging to be part of your meals at this time of year, you know it’ll taste great too.

Recipes to Try: 17 Easy No-Cook Dinner Ideas

5. Prep Your Ingredients. If you’ve ever watched line cooks in a restaurant then you know that the secret to how they churn out all those plates of food so quickly is that their ingredients are prepared, organized and ready to go when they get an order. Chefs call this idea of having all the ingredients ready mise en place. Translated literally, it means “everything in place.” This is a great way to approach cooking at home, too—once you’ve read your recipe, head to the refrigerator and cupboards, pull out all the ingredients you’ll need and set them up next to your work space. If it’s going to take you a little while to chop and prep, then leave your meat in the refrigerator until closer to when you’re ready to put it in a pan. As you prepare ingredients, if you don’t have enough room to keep them organized in little piles on your cutting board, transfer them to small bowls.

6. Make a Stir-Fry. Homemade stir-fries can be whipped up in minutes. By focusing on fresh veggies and a few staple spices and sauces, stir-fries are a simple way to pack your meal with bright, zingy flavors and essential nutrients. You can make them from whatever’s in your kitchen, too: onions, frozen peas and chicken breasts? Sounds great! Celery, cherry tomatoes and green peppers? Delish! The combinations are literally endless. Best of all: when you’re done, you’ve only got one cooking pot to clean!

7. Use Quick “Cheater” Ingredients. If you’re in a hurry, don’t hesitate to reach for “cheater” versions of foods. These items might not be the optimal, garden-fresh thing that you’d buy in a perfect world, but they sure are quick, cheap and easy. For instance, dried beans are economical, delicious and incredibly healthy, but they also take forever to cook. Instead, opt for canned. Reach for bags or boxes of vegetables that have already been washed, chopped, sliced or cooked. Look for bags of broccoli florets (you’ll save time chopping them from the whole head) or a shredded carrot-and-cabbage mix for a throw-together slaw. Opt for baby spinach over adult spinach. You can easily find it prewashed and you don’t have to remove any of those pesky tough stems.

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8. Use Your Microwave. Your microwave isn’t just for reheating a cup of coffee. It’s a tool for cooking, and it can be pretty efficient. For example, one of my favorite easy dinners is stuffed baked potatoes. In my oven, potatoes take 45 minutes to 1 hour to cook, but in the microwave they take only about 20 minutes. Not everything is suitable for the microwave, but vegetables in particular lend themselves well to being nuked. So next time you need to pull together a vegetable side dish, or a stuffed potato, consider saving time by using your microwave instead of your stove or oven.

9. Use Small Cuts of Meat. It’s simple: smaller chunks of meat cook faster. So reach for chicken tenders rather than big bone-in breasts. Or steak tips instead of a big 12-ounce steak. If you’ve got a big piece of meat, consider dicing it before sautéing. As with any meat, be sure to check a few cooked pieces with a thermometer before serving.

10. Use a Dutch Oven. Simply put, the Dutch oven is the workhorse of the one-pot meal. You can use them for soups, stews, pasta dishes and braises. They conduct heat evenly, go from stovetop to oven with ease and many have an enameled surface, making them a breeze to clean. The classic Dutch oven is cast iron—which makes it an excellent conductor of heat. Of course, if you’re looking to save some money, you can pick up a more budget-friendly stainless-steel one too. Try one of these easy Dutch oven recipes for a simple and delicious dinner.

What's your favorite way to save time when cooking dinner? Tell us what you think below.

TAGS: Matthew Thompson, Healthy Cooking Blog, Budget meals, Cooking tips, Dinner, Family meals, Quick meals

Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson is a former associate food editor for EatingWell Magazine.

Matthew asks: What's your favorite way to save time when cooking dinner?

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