In Defense of a 30 Minute Meal

Foodie. Hippie. Locavore. Food Douche. Call it what you will but we, like thousands of other families, have take great strides to improve what we eat. Make more homemade. Support local agriculture. Cook more.

There’s an article by fellow Clevelander, Michael Ruhlman, that’s been making the rounds for the last year and when first I read it I nodded along in agreement. Everyone has time to cook – just not everyone makes the choice to cook.

But as it’s resurfaced and I’ve read it again, this time through the lens of a working mother of 2 kids under 5, I get defensive.

I cook a lot. I make much of what we eat from scratch. But why should it have to take an hour or more for it to be considered real cooking? In reality, if it weren’t for the “fast and easy meal” recipes from people like Jamie Oliver and – my favorite source – America’s Test Kitchen, then I would probably not cook as much as I do today.

America’s Test Kitchen – my current favorite recipe magazine

Here is our evening: I pick up Matilda from preschool, drop the carpool kid off, and walk in the door between 5:15 and 5:30 . Mark and the Madman get home between 5:30 and 5:45. The Madman goes to bed at 7:00.  That leaves –  at the most – 90 minutes for dinner to be cooked and eaten, baths to be given and, hopefully, some playtime, reading and snuggles thrown in. I imagine that this scene is played out in countless homes of working parents throughout the country.

My solution is to seek out recipes and ideas with faster cooking times and things I can do ahead. The entire family loves this Korean Beef Rice Bowl. It’s a 30-minute meal that, with a little prep (I do all the chopping, cutting and marinating the night before), can be on the table in 10 minutes. Because of this recipe and others like it, on the nights Matilda has gymnastics we can still have a healthy, real-food dinner cooked by me. We all enjoy it, it’s healthy and it makes me feel good that I made it. A really crazy night might see scrambled eggs with spinach and herbs from our garden thrown on a plate. In the few minutes it takes to cook dinner Matilda can have the table set and when the boys walk in we all sit down for dinner. 

My goal every work-week is to make 3 home-cooked meals with enough leftovers to get us through 2 more dinners. I do what I can on the weekends to make this happen. Something I learned from the 30-minute-meal type shows is to prep all the veggies as soon as I get home from the market. On the weekends I’ll roast a chicken (or 2) to use during the week or make overnight stock if my freezer stash is getting low. I’ll clean and chop and measure out all my mise en place for the 3 meals on Sunday night. I store them in tupperware, labeled with blue tape. I’ll fill a huge bowl with torn lettuce for my lunch salads and will make a big batch of tuna salad. If I’m feeling wild and crazy I’ll make my own mayonnaise, butter or bread, too. 

Some weekends I’ll even get chicken breasts from the Plum Creek Farm stand at the farmers market and will spend an hour cutting them up to make chicken nuggets to stash in the freezer for nights I don’t feel like cooking. Or I’ll make a big batch of waffles on a Sunday morning and freeze the leftovers for out-the-door breakfasts (yes, I give my kids waffles that are still-frozen…they eat them in the car). But I also never feel guilty serving my kid a store-bought nugget or waffle when the homemade supply runs out.

Listen, I do love to cook – when I have time to enjoy it. Give me a weekend with nothing pressing and I’ll make chicken pot pie, braised short ribs or a luscious lasagna from scratch. But trying to shove the meal prep or long cooking (and/or oven-heating) time into my small window of weekday evening of time with my kids is not a high priority. That’s not even mentioning the stress of trying to cook while tripping over a one year old who is reaching for the burner knobs on the stove while the 4 year old whines that she’s hungry. That is not enjoyable for anyone.

I do think that Ruhlman’s overall point is very valid: everyone has time to cook, but not everyone chooses to do so. And while I’m happy that today he has time to enjoy “carnal exertions” with his lovely wife during the hour his dinner roasts in the oven, I’m sure he remembers a little bit of what life was like when his kids were knee-high rugrats clamoring for “food! food! now!”

So please, Michael, stop making at-home 30-minute cooks feel like we are the enemy to good food. And please don’t discourage editors, publishers, producers and chefs from developing new fast meal ideas. I rely on them. In fact, I invite you over to see how I can have a rocking from-scratch meal on the table 20 minutes after I walk in the door.

10 thoughts on “In Defense of a 30 Minute Meal

  1. It gets more difficult when the children are older.

    Monday through Thursday we are home at 4pm and leave the house for activities at 4:15. We do not come back until 6:30 – in which I have 60 minutes to make dinner, eat, cram in thirty (always turns into at least 45) minutes of homework, bath, books and bed by 7:30 so the kids can wake up, eat breakfast and catch the bus at 7:30am.

    I try and cook as much as I can, especially on the weekends. But Mon-Thursday with three children and a crammed scheduled it’s nearly impossible to cook the way I want to cook.

  2. Wow, do I ever love this post. My husband and I try to cook as often as possible, but busy lives definitely get in the way. (I can’t even imagine what will happen when we add a kid to the mix.)I agree that you can make a pretty amazing meal in 30 minutes.

    I am very impressed that you chop/wash all your produce on the weekend. I’ve heard Rachael Ray tout that technique for years… But I never have the time or energy to do it all at once. I imagine it’s a HUGE time saver once done.

  3. Kelly says:

    Well said! Couldn’t agree more. I love to cook, but with a 6 month old at home sometimes it’s hard to find the time. I do the exact same as you – prepare as much ahead of time as I can and find fast, easy recipes for the week. On the weekends when I have more time and hands to help, I’ll make dishes that require more time and work. I don’t see anything wrong with these types of 30-minutes (or less!) meals.

  4. A-freaking-men! 30 minute meals aren’t the enemy, it is th crap you use to make the damn meals! You said it! I am a fan of from scratch cooking. It takes planning, and you are the best planner on the planet!

  5. I should add that we don’t do processed foods (nothing but boxed rice & pasta in our pantry) and my freezer is nearly empty except for the chicken nugget and ice cream – but on weekday nights I wish I had an extra 30 minutes. I just don’t.

    We eat a lot of stir fry, pastas, chicken and left overs. I tried the crock pot but always fail at it. Prepping at night is do-able but finding the 30 minutes to cook is difficult. Maybe when my kids are able to do homework on their own… I can re-claim those 30 minutes.

  6. I agree with this post and I don’t even have kids! But by the time CLEguy and I both get home, feed the dogs, and change clothes, I don’t have time to spend 2 hours making dinner.

    So, if I’m on thirty-minute meals now, I can’t imagine what will happen when the kids arrive.

    Point is, you’re still doing a ton of great home cooking, even if it’s not taking a ton of time. Kudos for that (and for this post)!

  7. JMH says:

    Yes, yes, yes!I do what I can when I can. I agree with OHMommy that it is even more difficult now that my kids are older and in more activities. Some nights they get PB & J with an apple because that is all we have time to manage. I try to make a “real” meal twice a week and we eat leftovers too, but some weeks are just c.r.a.z.y busy and it is impossible to even accomplish 2 meals! If anyone wants to judge me, take a walk in my shoes first 😉

  8. Liz says:

    I’ve been liking the “Six O’Clock Scramble” as a quick weeknight meal cookbook. I have probably 200 cookbooks and can make a basic meal without a recipe, but I’ve been liking that one for simplicity. It takes the thinking out of it, which means I’m more likely to make something after work. And it’s not like your typical “fast” cookbook that relies on processed junk to get through the recipe.

    I don’t follow the weekly menus – I just pick and choose what looks good. You can look at preview recipes on Amazon, which gives you a good idea of what’s in there.

  9. Agreed, I work 50 hours a week an hour away from home and have two small children. I pick up my daugther (2) at 5:15 ish and then my son (5) from elementary school. Rush home, start my son on homework. Cook while coaching homework and then have bathes, books and reading. I do cook at home 4 out of the 5 days a week but nothing ever over the top… !!

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