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15 Tips for Fast Weeknight Meals

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Greenough, Montana (411)

This week’s Moveable Feast saddles up for a chuck wagon dinner in Greenough, Montana. Our host chef Pete Evans joins chef Ben Jones, of Paws Up, and grilling master Rory…

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15 Tips for Fast Weeknight Meals

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Need a few tricks for making the dinner hour feel less like rush hour? From simple things like prepping the night before to getting creative with leftovers to stocking your pantry with the right ingredients, our tips-and the recipes that put them into practice-will help you pull together satisfying dinners for the whole family in record time.

Plan Ahead

Got more time to cook on the weekend? Use it to make dishes that can be used in multiple recipes, whether it’s a big cut of meat (see Embrace the Leftover, page 2) or a small element that packs a lot of flavor-like the caramelized onions below that can be used a million different ways. What about when your weekend is just as packed as the weekdays? Take just 20 minutes or so to inventory your fridge and plan out your meals for the week-it lets you identify small do-ahead steps that you can knock out in advance, like making a marinade the night before so you can pop in a cut of meat in the morning, or prepping several days of salad greens at once.

Caramelized Onions Red Wine and Coffee Marinade Spicy Mexican Marinade
Caramelized Onions   Red Wine and Coffee Marinade   Spicy Mexican Marinade
Mixed Green Salad with Grilled Scallions, Mango, and Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette Mixed Green Salad with Olives, Serrano Ham, and Sherry Vinaigrette Mixed Green Salad with Nectarines and Gorgonzola
Mixed Green Salad with Grilled Scallions, Mango, and Cilantro-Lime Vinaigrette   Mixed Green Salad with Olives, Serrano Ham, and Sherry Vinaigrette   Mixed Green Salad with Nectarines and Gorgonzola
Think Thin. . .and Small

You can’t roast a chicken in 20 minutes, but you can sauté some chicken cutlets or grill small, skewered chunks of chicken. Look to recipes that have you cut your meat (and veggies) into small cubes or thin slices (or consider tweaking recipes that don’t), and save those thick bone-in cuts for the weekend. In a similar vein, author Domenica Marchetti’s fresh tomato sauce is ready for saucing your favorite pasta in as little as 30 minutes. The secret? Cherry tomatoes, which cook down much faster than Romas.

Quick-Roasted Winter Vegetables Fresh Tomato Sauce with Herbs & Olives Sautéed Chicken with Sherry & Olive Pan Sauce & Toasted Almonds
Quick-Roasted Winter Vegetables   Fresh Tomato Sauce with Herbs & Olives   Sautéed Chicken with Sherry & Olive Pan Sauce & Toasted Almonds

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Embrace the Leftover, but Totally Transform It

Leftovers get a bad rap, and when they’re just reheated in the microwave it’s easy to see why. But when they morph completely into another dish, then you look like a genius. Skip the predictable salads and soups for ragoûts, hashes, and easy savory tarts. Just keep the seasonings on the master recipe fairly neutral so it’s more versatile for leftovers. And remember, this trick isn’t reserved for a big hunk of meat-vegetable sides can transform just as well (see the Ratatouille below).

Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder with Carrots, Onions, and Garlic Pork and Potato Hash with Poached Eggs and Avocado Pork Ragout and Soft Polenta
Master Recipe: Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder with Carrots, Onions, and Garlic   Pork and Potato Hash with Poached Eggs and Avocado   Pork Ragout and Soft Polenta
Master Recipe: Grilled Flank Steak with Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce Open-Face Steak Sandwiches with Herbed Goat Cheese and Tomatoes Red Onions Stuffed with Grilled Steak, Spinach, and Feta
Master Recipe: Grilled Flank Steak with Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce   Open-Face Steak Sandwiches with Herbed Goat Cheese and Tomatoes   Red Onions Stuffed with Grilled Steak, Spinach, and Feta
Master Recipe: Sautéed Ratatouille Ratatouille White Bean Gratin Simple Provençal Vegetable Tart
Master Recipe: Sautéed Ratatouille   Ratatouille White Bean Gratin   Simple Provençal Vegetable Tart
Do Take-Out at Home

It’s easier-and faster-than you might think to recreate restaurant favorites at home. Considering that it takes the same amount of time for delivery or (gasp!) going out of your way to pull up to that drive-thru window, you’re better off utilizing that well-stocked pantry of yours (see page 5 for a list of pantry essentials) and making fajitas, burgers, and stir-fries that are exceedingly tastier than anything that comes in a cardboard container or paper wrapper.

Chicken Fajitas with Red Pepper, Onion and Lime recipe Bison Burgers with Thousand Island Barbecue Dressing recipe Kung Pao Chicken recipe
Chicken Fajitas with Red Pepper, Onion and Lime   Bison Burgers with Thousand Island Barbecue Dressing   Kung Pao Chicken
The Forgotten Appliance

Pop quiz: what lightning-fast appliance is already in your kitchen but you’re probably not using? Your oven broiler. This underrated appliance can give chicken or meat a glorious, charred crust in less than 10 minutes, and heats up in almost no time. Just be sure you’re using it on small cuts that will cook through before they burn on the surface.

Broiled Chicken Thighs with Chipotle Sauce Broiled Flounder with Parmesan Caesar Glaze Lamb Chops Crusted with Fennel and Black Pepper
Broiled Chicken Thighs with Chipotle Sauce   Broiled Flounder with Parmesan Caesar Glaze   Lamb Chops Crusted with Fennel and Black Pepper
All-in-Ones Make Clean-Up a Breeze

What’s even better than shaving 10 minutes off your cooking time? Shaving 10 minutes off your clean-up time. Whole-meal recipes that cook all in one pot or all on one baking sheet (often under the broiler) are a godsend in this department; not only do they save you the time of preparing a main dish and two sides, you have far fewer dishes to wash at the end.

Five-Spice-Glazed Salmon with Sesame Green Beans Sear-Roasted Rosemary Steak and Potatoes Stovetop Clambake
Five-Spice-Glazed Salmon with Sesame Green Beans   Sear-Roasted Rosemary Steak and Potatoes   Stovetop Clambake
Cook in Season

Produce that’s at its seasonal peak requires a lot less manipulation to deliver great flavor. And late summer early fall also happens to be the time when the seasonal produce is especially quick to prepare. If you’ve got a few fresh veggies plus a well-stocked pantry, you have all you need for a quick meal.

Slideshow: Fresh Corn Fast Slideshow: 10 Minute Tomato Recipes A Dozen + Ways with Squash
Fresh Corn Fast   10-Minute Tomato Recipes   A Dozen + Ways with Squash
Make Breakfast for Dinner

The great thing about eggs? Besides being a perfect protein source, they have no business being subjected to long cooking times. So they’re the backbone of many a quick meal. Plus, you’re probably well-stocked on them already, making them perfect for those nights when you come home from work with no idea what to make for dinner. Dress them up in a more dinner-y guise (like a frittata), or go full-breakfast mode, with omelets and scrambles.

Corn, Green Pepper, Ham, and Cheese Omelet Leek and Goat Cheese Frittata Mascarpone Scrambled Eggs with Garlic Toasts
Corn, Green Pepper, Ham, and Cheese Omelet   Leek and Goat Cheese Frittata   Mascarpone Scrambled Eggs with Garlic Toasts
Invest in a Pressure Cooker

It’s been a generation since pressure cookers were the sputtering, spewing monsters of the kitchen. Today’s models are nearly foolproof. These clever pots trap steam, which in turn builds pressure, creating higher cooking temperatures and reducing cooking time. You can use them for almost any recipe that’s based on moist heat, like a braise or a soup. A pot roast is ready in 35 minutes, dried beans in 20 minutes or less.

Corn and Amaranth Griddlecakes with Spicy Black Beans Risotto Under Pressure A Cook's Guide to Pressure Cookers
Corn and Amaranth Griddlecakes with Spicy Black Beans   Risotto Under Pressure   A Cook’s Guide to Pressure Cookers
Use What You Have

Nothing quashes a quick meal faster than a last-minute supermarket run. That’s why the true secret to weeknight cooking is learning the art of Use What You Have. Don’t have kale for the Cannellini and Kale Soup but there’s a bunch of Swiss chard lounging in the fridge? Swap it in-it won’t taste exactly the same but it’ll still be damn tasty. Better yet, the more you cook the more you can begin to think in terms of methods, rather than exact recipes. With an arsenal of methods under your belt, improvising a quick dinner is easier than ever. Not quite there yet? Our Recipe Makers can help you along. These three are especially good for quick dinners.

Recipe Maker: Thai Curry Recipe Maker: Pasta Salad Recipe Maker: Stir-Fry
Recipe Maker: Thai Curry   Recipe Maker: Pasta Salad   Recipe Maker: Stir-Fry
Create a Pantry Arsenal

With a well-stocked pantry, you’ll always have tomorrow’s meal in the making. Here’s a list of pantry must-haves and some recipes that put the items to good use: artichoke hearts (canned or frozen); beans (canned); bouillon cubes; broth or stock; chipotles (canned in adobo sauce); couscous; dried chiles, fruits, and mushrooms; garlic; hoisin and soy sauce; oils: olive, canola, vegetable, peanut, toasted sesame; olives; onions; pasta; potatoes; rice; roasted red peppers; salsa; shallots; spices and dried herbs; sun-dried and canned tomatoes; tuna, vinegars: balsamic, sherry, rice, and white and red-wine. (See the whole list, page 3).

Hoisin Chicken Stir-Fry Smoky Black Bean and Cheddar Burrito with Baby Spinach Spiced Couscous with Fennel and Roasted Red Peppers
Hoisin Chicken Stir-Fry   Smoky Black Bean and Cheddar Burrito with Baby Spinach   Spiced Couscous with Fennel and Roasted Red Peppers
Think Seafood

Like eggs, most shellfish (and fish, for that matter) really shouldn’t get long cooking times. Big, meaty sea scallops are seared to perfection in about 5 minutes; sautéed shrimp take only 2 to 4. Even with more gentle cooking methods, you’re still usually clocking in well below the 30-minute mark.

Seared Scallops with Warm Radicchio and Pancetta Quick Shrimp Tacos Steamed Mussels with Chorizo, Smoked Paprika and Garlicky Croutons
Seared Scallops with Warm Radicchio and Pancetta   Quick Shrimp Tacos   Steamed Mussels with Chorizo, Smoked Paprika and Garlicky Croutons
Freezer Favorites

As a last resort, stock your freezer with a few dishes that freeze and defrost easily, so that all you have to do on the most hectic nights is reheat (which isn’t always quick, but is usually totally hands-off). Lasagnes, soups and stews, and bean dishes (like chilis) all fit the bill. To stretch your work and save even more time, freeze your make-aheads in small containers (for instance, make three smaller lasagnes instead of one big one) so that you’re only heating what you’ll eat on a given night.

Four Cheese and Tomato Lasagne Spice Roasted Chicken & Cranberry Bean Chili Chicken Soup with Barley, Mushrooms and Greens
Four Cheese and Tomato Lasagne   Spice Roasted Chicken & Cranberry Bean Chili   Chicken Soup with Barley, Mushrooms and Greens
Go Raw

Who said you actually have to cook dinner every night of the week? Make “Meatless Monday” your night to chop, not cook, and incorporate raw foods into your meal, be it as a salad, a side, or the main course.

Broccoli Stalk, Celery, and Radish Salad Zucchini and Squash Ribbons with Daikon, Oregano and Basil Raw Fresh Tomato Sauce
Broccoli Stalk, Celery, and Radish Salad   Zucchini and Squash Ribbons with Daikon, Oregano and Basil   Raw Fresh Tomato Sauce
Microwave. . .Within Reason

Any foodie who lived through the 80s probably has enough bad memories of “microwave dinners” to shun this appliance for anything more than melting butter or thawing frozen food. But it can be much more useful, as long as you think of it as a prep tool rather than a cooking tool. Here are just a few tricks it can do to speed your cooking:

Toast nuts: put about a cup of nuts or shredded coconut in a glass pie plate, and microwave on high for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring every minute or so for even cooking, until they’re as brown as you like them.

Soften butter or cream cheese: cut the bar of cream cheese or stick of butter into small pieces, and microwave on lower power or defrost in 15-second increments, checking the texture, until they are as soft as you need. Check frequently, because the butter will melt with just a few seconds too many.

Sweat aromatic vegetables: you can “saute” chopped vegetables like onions, celery and carrot in a little oil in a glass pie plate on high for four to five minutes. They won’t brown but they’ll soften and become translucent-the perfect stage for adding to soups or braises. Similarly, try prepping corn on the cob by microwaving the whole ear (husk and all) on high for 2 minutes. The silks slide right off, and the corn is crisp-tender.

Photos by Scott Phillips

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Season 4 Extras

Durham, North Carolina (412)

From rooftop to rain in North Carolina, Moveable Feast host Pete Evans is joined by the Lantern restaurant co-founders and siblings Andrea & Brendan Reusing to create an amazing local…

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