The 10 Keys to Actual, Honest-to-God, 30-Minute Meals

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

A truly 30-minute meal can feel like a mythical unicorn. Many recipes that promise dinner in a hurry don’t include the time it takes to peel, chop, or mince the ingredients and actually take closer to 45 minutes. They’re a trick, a gimmick, a piece of clickbait that leaps beyond Facebook and trolls you in real life.

But the 30-minute meal is real, and when armed with a few authentic tools, it can be accomplished on the busiest weeknight.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

1. Keep it simple.

A weeknight with 30 minutes to go from work to dinner isn’t the occasion to make something elaborate. I’d also argue that you want to avoid cooking any recipe that is entirely new to you. Familiar recipes with a twist, yes, but recipes with a new technique or a new ingredient as a main component should be saved for an evening when you have more time.

One-pot meals, sheet pan suppers — these are winners because they’re simple. Add this to a set of ingredients you’re comfortable with and dinner is possible in record time.

2. Do some weekend work for your future self.

This is one of my favorite life rules that can positively affect your weeknight cooking. When you’re finished putting away your groceries, take 30 minutes to chop an onion, wash lettuce, or make a vinaigrette. This might also include marinating meats for cooking later in the week. This small time investment on the weekend will save you loads of time later in the week.

3. Learn how to buy and use instant flavor boosters.

Lean on pantry items that already pack flavor in. Condiments like pesto, harissa, chili-garlic sauce, and Dijon mustard deliver lots of flavor with almost no effort on your part. This goes back to rule one of keeping things simple. Flavoring food with things you have on hand is as simple as it gets.

Make your pantry work for you: The 30-Minute Meal Pantry

4. Start the oven before you start your prep work.

Before you start grabbing ingredients or equipment, make sure you preheat the oven or bring a pot of water to a boil, as needed for your dinner. Both of these take a good length of time and you don’t want to finish slicing and dicing only to realize the oven isn’t ready for roasting or water isn’t ready for pasta.

5. Choose quick-cooking proteins.

Proteins are often the longest cooking component of dinner, so by choosing ones that are quick-cooking, you can cut down on dinner prep time. Ground meat is incredibly quick-cooking and a staple of 30-minute meals. Shrimp, some cuts of chicken, mussels, bacon, tofu, and eggs are also great sources of protein that cook quickly.

6. Gather all your ingredients and equipment at once.

When bouncing from the fridge to the pantry gathering ingredients and equipment, use a 13×9 pan to corral everything rather than a baking sheet. Since it is deeper, it does a better job of holding jarred ingredients and prevents a kitchen catastrophe. Plus you know where everything you need for a recipe is. No hunting for the tomato paste while the skillet is getting overheated.

7. Don’t mise en place — instead, master the “meanwhile.”

The concept of mise en place, or getting everything ready before you start cooking, is excellent for cooking projects and trying new recipes, but for 30-minute meals? Not so much. Instead, master the “meanwhile.”

This concept refers to a cue that recipes often use, as in “meanwhile, make the sauce.” It implies that while something else is cooking, you can carry on with work on the rest of the dish. While your water boils, chop the onion. While the onion sautés, season the shrimp. This one takes some practice, but will greatly improve your dinner speed.

See how a pro does it: Sara Moulton’s Kitchen Shortcuts

8. Embrace shortcuts.

Shortcuts can be as simple as frozen vegetable, chopped and ready for adding to dishes, or as elaborate as frozen potstickers, ready and waiting to be dunked into a weeknight soup. Prepared doughs, baking mixes, and self-rising flour can get your dinner done faster.

9. Use a trash bowl.

Minimize trips across the kitchen and keep your cutting board clear of clutter by keeping a bowl for trash nearby. While this isn’t a revolutionary new tip, you’d be surprised how much time it saves while cooking.

10. Fill the sink with warm soapy water before you start.

A dark secret of 30-minute meals and embracing the “meanwhile” is that you may need to dirty more than one pot or pan. You don’t want to spend more time doing cleanup than you spent cooking dinner, so do your after-dinner self a favor and prepare the sink for cleanup before you start.

Let’s get serious: How Real Is the 30-Minute Meal?

These are 10 of the little things that can turn 30-minute meals from fantasy to reality. Do you have others to share? Or recipes that really, truly, honest-to-God belong in this camp of 30-minute unicorns? We’d love to hear all about them!