cooking tips

Tips for Getting Dinner on the Table Fast

One of the most common (if not the most common) barrier to folks cooking more meals at home is a lack of time, am I right? Many of us work long hours, try to squeeze in some exercise, then have to brave traffic and by the time we get home, cooking can be the least appealing thing to do.

I look forward to it because I'm a total cooking nerd (at least most nights), but I know not everyone feels the same way so I wanted to give some practical tips that might be helpful for getting dinner on the table FAST on a week night, and a healthyish dinner at that. 

Go Semi-Homemade

Does anyone else remember that show on The Food Network, Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee? I haven't seen it in years (I actually don't even know if it's on anymore) but I used to love it. Sandra Lee made all sorts of fun stuff using shortcuts like boxed baking mixes to make cooking quicker and easier. As much as I love cooking, I know there is a time and a place for convenience items and I definitely take advantage of them when necessary. My favorites:

  • Rotisserie chicken

  • Pre-chopped butternut squash (it's pretty much the worst thing ever to chop)

  • Angel hair slaw (versus buying the whole cabbage and shaving it myself)

  • Shredded cheese

  • Pizza dough

The trade-off is, these are usually a bit pricier than their "made-from-scratch" counterparts. Think about your week and what you'll have the time and energy to do.

Think Ahead & Be More Efficient  

Something that has dramatically helped me with week-night cooking is planning. I don't just mean weekend prep because while I realize that's helpful, I also appreciate that not everyone has the time or desire to do it. What I mean is, if you have to chop an onion on Monday and know you'll need another one on Wednesday, do both at the same time. Similarly, if you need a small amount of rice, double the batch because it won't take that much longer but saves you time later and rice is super versatile for other on-the-fly dishes later. If you take the time to rinse and chop some cilantro, chop the whole bunch even if you don't need it all in that moment. I know I'm a lot more likely to use it throughout the week if it's already chopped any way, which means less waste too so this one's a double win. 


Try Breakfast for Dinner

If there's ever a night when Jacob and I just aren't feeling what was on our menu, or really just can't imagine spending more than 15 minutes getting something cooked, breakfast for dinner it is. Some of our favorites are breakfast burritos with avocado, hot sauce and whatever else we have on hand, or Kodiak Cakes with nut butter and fruit. 

Nutrition Tip: Keep things balanced by including a source of carbohydrates/fiber, protein and heart-healthy fat. This way you won't be raiding the kitchen for something else an hour later.

Here are some other quick ideas:

  • Open-face, whole grain English muffin topped with cream cheese, fried eggs, sautéed spinach or kale and tomato slices (don't forget to season with salt + pepper)

  • Savory oatmeal: make per the usual directions but instead of adding fruit and sweetener, add shredded cheese, a poached egg and some chives/cilantro/green onions

  • Scrambled eggs with green chili, avocado and Sriracha + sides (pictured above)


Snack Boards for the Win

Like I mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of snack boards at any time of the day. They make great appetizers or party food, but you can also use them as a way to clean out the fridge on Friday night and make a super quick dinner that's perfect for movie-watching. Add whatever you like, but think about a variety of textures, temperatures and food groups to make it great. Click the link above to grab a snack board shopping list and how-to guide that I put together if you don't want to spend time coming up with your own (just scroll to the end!). 

Stock Some Helpful Tools

If you follow me on Instagram, you might already know that I recently bought an Instant Pot (<-- this is the one I have, and this is an affiliate link just fyi) and so far I am really impressed with how magical this thing is. You can cook things in minutes that typically take hours. For example, on Halloween I cooked a whole chicken in just 14 minutes! Now I will say that cook times are a little bit misleading because you also have to account for the time it takes for the IP to come up to pressure and then come back down before you can open the lid (15-20 minute each). However even with this time included, certain items that are usually only doable on weekends can easily turn into week night meals. This weekend I made black beans from scratch in an hour from start to finish (no soaking necessary). Not too bad considering that it's entirely hands-off once you get it going. 

In addition to the instant pot, I'm a fan of stocking some basic, inexpensive tools that save a lot of time, like a garlic press, and a few good quality knives (I say this a lot but... so important!). They make chopping quicker and easier and I promise, it's worth the investment. You might also grab some small sauce dishes to make getting your mise en place simple. 


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Mise en Place: What it Means and Why You Should Know

mise en place&nbsp;

Are you familiar with the term mise en place? I actually had to look-up the spelling because while I'm familiar with how to say it (it sounds fancy and impressive by the way), I have never actually had to type it out.

Mise en place (mees - en - plos) is a French phrase meaning "putting in place" or "everything in its place."

It refers to how you get things set up before cooking, or organizing and arranging all of your necessary ingredients. Essentially, you do all of your slicing and dicing, measure out all of your spices and get out all necessary tools, cutting boards, etc. so you are ready to rock and roll when you actually start cooking. 

If this sounds like wasted time, I think you should reconsider. It can actually save time because everything is organized and visible, just like on The Food Network (I swear, just like it). I can't even count how many times I have started heating up oil in a skillet only to realize that in addition to a diced onion, I need peeled and sliced ginger (this is the worst), a whole bunch of seasonings and a homemade sauce ready to go in about three minutes. Having to scramble around the kitchen and rush through a recipe with a sharp knife never turns out well. It's not safe, and usually leads to a forgotten step or even worse, burnt garlic.  

Imagine if you had prepped all of the ingredients ahead of time, and then could relax and even sip on a glass of wine along the way?

Mise en place. 

As an example, I made carnitas earlier this week and while the pork was cooking I got my fixings organized, which included warm tortillas, thinly sliced radishes, lime wedges, sliced avocado, and diced white onion mixed with cilantro. If I had waited to do all of this at the very end, the meat and tortillas would have most definitely been cold by the time we actually sat down to eat. Set yourself up for cooking success.

Another tip I love is putting ingredients away (or off to the side) as you use them, so you don't accidentally add them twice. My mom taught me this one and I still do it because it makes so much sense. I find it especially helpful when baking and if you have ever inadvertently forgotten to add salt to a baked good, you'll know why.   


Your Checklist

  • Read through the ingredients list and take everything out and set it out on your counter. This way if you thought you had something on hand that mysteriously disappeared over the last few days (does this happen to anyone else?) you will know before you get started. 
  • Take out any measuring cups and spoons you need, plus any other tools or appliances like knives, cutting boards, food processor, or skillets. 
  • At a minimum, do at least some of the chopping since this is usually the most time-intensive step
  • If you are feeling up to it and have small sauce dishes on hand, you can measure out your seasonings ahead of time
  • Lastly, put items away as you use them to avoid adding multiple times

Mise en place is a key skill to learn when you are just getting started with cooking to prevent overlooking a step or getting mixed up because of stress. I think cleaning while you go can also make the cooking experience way easier and less time-intensive, and this all kind of works in synergy. There are two types of home cooks in this world - those who mise en place, and those are more of the "free-for-all" type in the kitchen. Which one are you? 

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A Short-Cut Guide to Sunday Food Prep

chopped bok choy

The words 'food prep' have really become a bit of a buzz phrase on social media in recent years. Most people tend to equate prepping with extra time on Sunday that should be spent doing more important things like going to brunch, hanging out with family or doing yard work (#adulting). But I'm in the camp that food prep does not have to take hours, so I thought it might be helpful to break down my (much shorter) process. 

Even spending one solid hour organizing your grocery haul, then prepping some things for the week can have a huge benefit. One strategy you might try is to set a timer for 60 minutes and get as much as possible done in that amount of time. You would be surprised how much you can accomplish. 

Rest assured, we aren't talking about rows of chicken breast, broccoli and brown rice in perfectly lined up tupperware containers here. My strategy is to make enough grab and go breakfasts and snacks to keep things simple on weekday mornings, plus pre-chop some of the more time-intensive dinner components ahead of time to speed things up on the night of. It's a relatively small amount of time that pays back in a huge way during the busy work week.

Not sure where to start? Here is an example dinner plan with suggestions for food prep that you can do on Sunday. 

On the Menu

Monday - 20-Minute Shiitake Mushroom Ramen (meatless Monday!)

Tuesday - Zucchini Noodles with Peanut Sauce and Chicken

Wednesday - Spiced Chickpea and Kale Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Thursday - Simple Grilled Salmon, Rice, Vegetable

Friday - Vegged Out Game-Day Nachos

chopped carrots celery zucchini

Sunday to-do List:

  • Think about how to make breakfasts easier for the week: make a batch of hard-boiled eggs, prep overnight oats, and chop fruits/veggies for smoothie packs that you can keep in the freezer and then just add liquid when ready to blend

  • Cook a big batch of brown rice (time-intensive on a week night).

  • Slice peppers and onions for sautéing later

  • Wash and chop your vegetable that's planned for Thursday if it won't wilt or brown; wash fresh herbs, wrap in a paper towel and store in a large zip top bag

  • Make peanut sauce and store in a jar

  • Spiralize your zucchini for the Tuesday dish

  • Chop fresh veggies for easy snacking before dinner when you need something to munch on. I like carrots, celery and red bell pepper and keep them next to hummus in the fridge. These are perfect for pre-dinner snacking - just enough to tide your hunger without totally spoiling your appetite.

  • Wash and chop any fruit that needs to be prepped, like melon or strawberries. If you do this ahead of time and you can just grab and go, you'll be much more likely to reach for it.

  • Make homemade pizza dough if that's your thing (I usually buy it from the store)

Invest in some high-quality food storage containers because as silly as it sounds, stained and warped containers might make you shy away from packing your lunch as often as you might otherwise. I like these pyrex ones (affiliate link) and use them daily for leftovers and/or packing my food for the day. I love that they are microwave and dishwasher safe because hand-washing dishes is pretty much my least favorite chore - so now I don't have to do it!

spiralized zucchini

Taking time to do all of these food prep tasks when you already have cutting boards and knives out and dirtied is a huge time saver. Plus, sometimes it can be hard to find motivation to cook after a long day of work so the less steps your dinner involves, the more likely you are to actually make it. Always make the healthy choice the easy choice! By setting yourself up for success you'll be much more likely to stay on track with your plan.

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