From Melissa Joulwan, Author of “Well Fed Weeknights: Complete Paleo Meals in 45 Minutes or Less” (Available on November 1st) and founder of MelJoulwan.com.
True fact: If you want to be optimally healthy, you’re going to need to cook a lot of meals at home. Sure, you can find healthy food in restaurants if you’re a menu detective, but the best food—the tastiest, the healthiest, the just-the-way-you-like-it-est—is the food you prepare yourself.
As much as I enjoy rattling the pots and pans, I don’t want to spend all my free time in front of the stove. So I’ve learned some tricks that speed up prep time so I can eat fantastic food without feeling like a full-time short-order cook.
Cook when you’re not hungry.
Just as it’s not a good idea to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry—you don’t do that, right?!—it’s a bad idea to wait until you’re hungry to start cooking. To stave off meal-time emergencies, I recommend what I call a mini-cookup: Once a week you set aside an hour to make some meal building blocks, then you can use those food Legos to build great meals all week long.
- Turn 2-3 pounds of zucchini into noodles with a spiralizer
- Grate 1-2 heads of cauliflower into “rice”
- Hard-boil a dozen eggs
- Whip up a batch of homemade mayo
- Roast chicken thighs or breasts (Season with salt and pepper, 425F oven for 25-30 minutes.)
- Blend a jar of salad dressing
With all these goodies stored in the refrigerator, you’re that much closer to a delicious meal when hunger strikes. Use the chicken and cauliflower rice to make fried rice—or slice the chicken and toss with zucchini noodles and your favorite tomato sauce. Build a salad with chicken, hard-boiled eggs, and your homemade dressing. There are literally dozens of tasty ways to put these ingredients together.
Manage your groceries.
A beautiful head of lettuce or a leafy bunch of kale are practically useless to you if you’re hangry and they’re unwashed. Yes, it will add a little more time to your grocery run, but I recommend you wash and prep some of your produce before you store your haul in the fridge. Wash and spin salad greens so they’re ready to go. Wash and trim carrots and celery; store in an airtight container with a little water. Peel and cut cucumbers and store in a ziplock baggie. If you have veggies at the ready, you’re more likely to reach for them when it’s time to eat.
Choose fast-cooking proteins.
Sure, a slow-braised pork shoulder is one of the sexiest hunks on the planet—but weeknights are not the time to be messing around with slow and low. Getting dinner on the table fast requires proteins that cook quickly, so when you’re not in the mood for a “project” recipe, rely on chicken breasts and thighs, pork loin, thin steaks, shrimp, and ground meats. They’re all loaded with flavor, very versatile, and transform from raw to done in a flash.
Put the right tools in the right place.
Unless you practice your knife skills like Julia Child in that memorable scene from Julie & Julia, there’s no way you can julienne or mince as quickly as a gadget can. I recommend that you invest in a few essential tools if you’re serious about getting meals on the table as quickly as possible. A stick blender and pint-size Mason jar are essential for making sauces and salad dressings, and a mandoline or a food processor with a slicing blade will save you precious minutes.
If you can give up a corner of counter space to your food processor and stick blender, you will be so much happier. Cooking is far more pleasant when the tools you need are right there, instead of tucked away in a drawer or cabinet. On weeknights, you are essentially a head chef, and you deserve a kitchen that’s as efficient as possible.
Clean up later.
I get antsy when my kitchen is disorganized, and I usually clean up along the way as I cook. But sometimes, I let that slide. To be clear, I’m not advocating that you cook in the midst of mayhem, but to get dinner on the table fast, just aside used equipment to be cleaned later—or recruit an assistant to wash while you cook! Meals that finish with a simmer or in the oven provide an excellent opportunity to restore order to the kitchen—and a side bonus of salad for dinner is that you can assemble the salad and set it aside while you tidy up. Then you can relax and enjoy dinner, with just the salad bowls to wash when you’re finished.