I’ll admit it: I envy people who have time to make full meals during the week. Every day, my inbox is filled with recipes and meal plans and great ideas to feed my family. As I look at complicated ingredient lists and photos of artful garnishes, I wonder if I’m doing something wrong.
Because, during the week, I don’t have the luxury of meals that take forever to prepare. My menus are filled with fast, efficient meals. Any artful garnishes that hit the plate are pure luck!
Sure, I make stuff ahead of time, sure I freeze meals, sure I keep a well-stocked pantry. All of these contribute to making sure I get something on the table in, oh forty-five minutes or less. This can be a challenge, but it’s an important goal since that means we’re having dinner before 8:30 at night.
Which has me thinking about my go-to meal categories when I’m in a hurry. What I love about all these categories is they offer so many options for variety. You can take ingredients you already have on hand to customize your meal on the fly.
- Burgers: I do love burgers, with buns or on a bed of lightly dressed greens. Beef, turkey, chicken, even beans make great burgers. Add some grilled veggies or pull out some jarred roasted red peppers from your fridge. Cheese? Whatever makes you happy! Mustard, ketchup, or mayo? Of course, but may I suggest pesto, chimichurri, or salsa? And don’t forget a fried egg for extra flavor!
- Pasta: Of all the gluten-free specialty foods you can invest in, pasta is the one pantry essential I recommend. You’ll get great flavor, great versatility, and, yep, a great meal in a short amount of time. Red sauce, green sauce, white sauce…or just plain olive oil and garlic. Serve pasta hot or cold in a salad.
- Chicken: For fast meals, I turn to boneless chicken thighs during the week. They’re tastier, faster to cook, and, generally, cheaper than boneless, skinless chicken breasts. If you do go with breasts, slice them in half horizontally to get them to cook faster (for a funny take on this, listen to or read NPR’s Rachel Martin’s interview with Mark Bittman about his new book “How to Cook Everything Faster”…Bittman takes Martin to task for not following the recipe.).
- Rotisserie Chicken: Giving rotisserie chicken a special section because, hey!, it’s already cooked. I love buying a chicken and breaking it down for quick meals during the week. And, of course, I use the carcass to make stock for quick soups and other uses.
- Salads: Try a steak salad, making the dressing while the steak grills; build the salad while the steak rests. Or a take on a Nicoise salad using quick seared ahi steak. Grilling season? Make a traditional Caesar salad.
- Pizza: This one relies on something from your freezer: pre-made pizza crusts. After that, your imagination is your guide. Though, in all honesty, after a few years of exploring wild and crazy pizza combos, we’re back to old standards like pepperoni and salami.
- Tacos: Tacos are a great, fast weeknight meal. Corn tortillas are almost always gluten free (read the labels as some manufacturers are sneaking wheat flour into the dough), and as with most of these fast-eating options, tacos are endlessly customizable. Heat in the tortillas in a tightly-wrapped foil packet in the oven while you’re making the rest of the ingredients.
- Fish: Of course, fish tacos immediately come to mind, but fish is a fast protein for quick meals. I love grilling a light, flaky white fish with a bit of lemon, onion, and cilantro. Of course, I love grilling salmon. Or baking either one.
- Eggs: I’m pretty sure there’s an old saying that goes, “When in a time crunch, make an omelette.” Or maybe it’s “make a frittata.” One of those. Egg-based dishes are easy, fast, and so healthy. If you’re feeling wild, mix up a few things here and make a quick gluten-free loco moco, the delicious Hawaiian breakfast: leftover rice, a burger patty, fried egg, and gluten-free gravy (if you don’t have leftover gravy, you can build it from the pan drippings when you make the burgers!)
- Crockpot Braises: I used to spend a lot of time on preparing my crockpot meals, mostly on browning meats before I threw it in the crockpot. No more. Long, slow braises like pulled pork don’t, in my opinion, get much benefit from the browning process. Instead, I concentrate on building flavor, and am rewarded with a house that smells like heaven when I get home…and a meal that tastes amazing, too!
What are your favorite fast meals?
Tip of the Week
The key to getting food on the table fast is to have key ingredients on hand. This is slightly different for every kitchen, so make a list of those items you use most often and keep them in stock. For me, this means things like fish sauce, soy sauce, mustard, pasta, pesto, paprika, rice, and frozen spinach and mixed veggies.
Menu of the Week
Huevos Rancheros incorporate lots of great, fast ingredients, and like many of the categories above, are customizable to suit your pantry. They suit vegetarians and meat eaters alike. There are no rules: prefer scrambled eggs? Add them. Bacon? Everything does better with bacon. Want to pile the ingredients on a burger instead of a tortilla? That’s just fine.
I love that this food can be interpreted according to the chef’s whim. A local joint serves its Huevos Rancheros on sliced twice-baked potatoes — a fun take that incorporates leftovers.
- Huevos Rancheros
- Pan-Fried Potatoes