How to Master Last-Minute Meal Preparation

A reader recently emailed me an excellent question on making last minute meals:

Q: It's 2:45 PM and I have no clue what to make for dinner tonight. What do you do when you're in this situation?

A: I order a pizza.

Just kidding! Seriously, this is a common problem that at times strikes even the most experienced cooks, and it brings to mind that wonderful quote from former Gourmet Magazine editor Ruth Reichl about dinner planning: "if it's 4 o'clock and you're in your office and you haven't figured out what you're having for dinner tonight, the battle's half lost." The bottom line is you usually need to plan your dinners with at least a few days' lead time. There's just no way around it.

But most Casual Kitchen readers lead extremely busy lives, and inevitably there will be days when a pre-planned dinner just isn't possible. For those situations, we have a few solutions here at Casual Kitchen.

First, we always make double batches of whatever foods we cook. This way, we almost always have a stash of leftovers available in our fridge. There's no easier way to get a decent dinner on the table than to reheat something you've already made.

Second, try and keep a relatively well-stocked pantry, and focus your pantry supplies on food items that you can use to whip up a simple recipe at the last minute. Which recipes and which items, you ask? Well, start by perusing The 25 Best Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchen. Pick out the easiest recipes that appeal to you the most (I suggest starting with Black Beans and Rice, Chickpeas, Pasta and Tomato Salad, Red Lentils and Rice or Smoky Brazilian Black Bean Soup). Then, stock extra supplies of the key ingredients to those recipes in your pantry at all times.

This way, you'll always have an option or two for a simple meal, and you'll be able to get dinner on the table in half an hour or less--even on those days when you have absolutely no clue what to cook.

Readers, what ideas would you add?


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Related Posts:
If It's So Cheap to Cook at Home, Then Why is My Grocery Bill So Huge?
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23 comments:

Julia said...

Along the lines of your second tip, I have a handful of go-to recipes... that are easy and delicious. If I don't have all the ingredients in the fridge or freezer, it's just a short stop at the market.

Marcia said...

Three: Sandwiches, pasta, or fried rice.

For sandwiches, it could be grilled cheese, a frozen veg burger, or PB&J.

For pasta, I've been liking the "skillet pasta" where the pasta cooks in the sauce.

For fried rice, you have to cook the rice the night before for best results, but in a pinch, you can use couscous.

My Friday "emergency" dinner was couscous with the bits and pieces of veggies that we had left...onion, green garlic, broccoli, and kohlrabi.

I think the best thing to remember is that the more you cook, the easier it gets to whip something up.

Heather Solos said...

Breakfast for dinner, frittatas, burritos, and salads are some of our I don't feel like cooking dinners.
Great suggestions.

Liz Tee said...

2:45 is 'last minute'? Oops. Then walking in the front door at 5:45 without a clue, as I have been known to do, must be downright negligent. :)

We have a default pasta recipe that goes together quickly. When all else fails, I sometimes resort to (ahem) Blue Box with a generous cup of frozen peas added.

Tuna melts -- open-faced tuna salad sandwiches with cheese melted on top -- are a favorite too.

If I start thinking about it at 2:45, I consider that downright luxurious. We eat at 6:30 and 80% of my dinners can come together in way under 2 hours.

Amber said...

I try to avoid that "oh crap what's for dinner" syndrome at all costs. I sit down with cookbooks on Sunday morning and make the menu for the entire week, I'll try to make it pretty balanced, one day fish, one day vegetarian, one chicken, one day pitas or sandwiches, etc. Then I make my grocery list and make one shopping trip for the week. It saves on impulse purchases that way and I know I have everything I need for the whole week. Sometimes later in the week I'll go to the farmers market for fresh produce. Occasionally I deviate a bit from the menu, but at least I know I have all the ingredients for the meals. It's saved lots of money and even more headache. The hardest part is making myself come up with the weekly menu every Sunday.

Fern said...

I try to have things in the fridge or freezer or pantry that I can quickly make into a meal.

I always have canned beans, coconut milk and tomatoes in pantry. I try to keep couscous, bulgar wheat and red lentils around as well - they cook really quickly. In the freezer I keep green beans, peas, corn. I try to keep cooked brown rice and little packages of ground turkey or Italian sausage in the freezer. I try to keep a few potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, peppers, lemons, carrots, hummus, baby spinach, tortillas, tofu and cheese in the fridge. I can usually concoct something out of that pretty quickly. Standbys include bean salad, wraps with hummus/veggies/cheese/pickled hot peppers, quesadillas, stir-fries, and some kind of fried rice or pilaf sort of things.

I'm a good improvisational cook so I can take a look at what I have and usually think of something to do with it. It works better for me than planning - I'm just not a planner.

I suppose it's easier for me because I am just cooking for myself. If I was cooking for a family, things would be a little trickier, I imagine.

I get into trouble though, when I get close to the end of the groceries because I've been too disorganized to shop...

That's when I order a pizza or have cereal for supper.

Antony said...

Japanese noodles and all sorts of stock and soup options. A few multipurpose veges like zucchini, onions, garlic, tinned tomatoes. And pasta always pasta as emergency dinner. I think about food oh, 95% of the time but dinner is never finally organized until I'm standing at the open fridge. I guess I need the pressure.

Joanne said...

I try to keep certain things on hand that can always make for a quick meal...eggs, oatmeal, all the ingredients needed to make pancakes (flour, eggs, butter), some form of fruit or vegetable, and dried pasta. These are all pretty basic and if I have these, then I KNOW I can whip something up. I'm a sucker for a good sunny side up egg.

GrowingRaw said...

Stir fry is also a good last minute meal - you can scrape out the dregs of your fridge's veggie drawer for this one and throw in some instant noodles or rice.

Eggs are always handy for last minute meals too. Grated veggies tossed into a fritter mix or omelette make a meal that's tasty and nutritious. If you want a quick snack kind of meal that will fill you up, eggs on toast with a spread of tahini instead of butter is the go.

MikeV @ DadCooksDinner said...

I would add: Learn a few basic techniques! I see this theme in the earlier comments; some go with pasta, some with a stir fry, some with sandwiches. I use all of those, and would add saute with pan sauce and steamed vegetables. With a basic technique under your belt (say, a stir fry is 3/4 to 1 lb protein and 1 to 2 lbs vegetables, cut thin, cooked in a very hot pan with garlic, ginger and soy sauce), then you can fit whatever you have into the basic technique.

Daniel said...

These are excellent insights.

Julia, Marcia Heather and Liz, I like your ideas for reliable and easy recipes that can stand in at the last minute.

And I have to say, following Joanne's and GrowingRaw's comments, I'm also a huge sucker for an egg or two for any meal in a pinch.

And Mike, thanks for tying it all together by outlining a few basic techniques that really come in handy in a last minute meal situation!

What are other suggestions people would like to add?

DK

Gabriel said...

I often experience this situation but thanks to my easy to make and delicious recipes. I usually go for salads, sandwiches or pastas. At the end of that emergency meals, they will still be impressed.

little les said...

I am the QUEEN of emergency meals for five! Omelets, rice, couscous, pasta, chef salad, etc., and a very big freezer full of peas, broccoli, corn, etc...and if all else fails, a trip to Tutka Thai does the job!

little les said...

and also, I agree with Liz Tee that it's not a true emergency until at least 6:00pm. :)

Daniel said...

Thanks Gabriel, these are good ideas. Pasta is a big stopgap meal here at CK too.

Little Les, thanks for the good vibes and for the great suggestions! Couscous is an exceptional idea in particular. And the logistics of a last-second meal for five is quite a different thing than a meal for one or two. Great ideas.

DK

chacha1 said...

I am sadly deficient in last-minute cooking creativity compared to most of these commenters. My default, when what to "cook" is a stumper, is throwing a piece of meat on the broiler. Talk about a short stop at the market! :-)

Daniel said...

Chacha, I'd say you're less deficient than you think you are. Your idea of a quick steak or piece of meat is actually a really creative idea. Simple, quick and easy.

Sure, meat might be more expensive than other foods, but I can't think of an easier meal. Thanks for sharing.

DK

Natalie said...

I try to stock up on pantry items I consider essentials - garlic, onions, rice, potatoes, pasta, couscous, tinned chickpeas, kidney beans, butter beans, tomatoes and coconut milk and I always try to have a variety of veg in the fridge.

We buy our meat at the supermarket when it's just about to expire (and is thereby reduced by about 50%) and throw it in the freezer. Right now we've got a giant hock of ham, beef, trout, salmon, turkey, chicken breast and pork and beef mince.

Dinners for us usually consist of pulling some type of meat out and letting it defrost and then throwing something together with whatever pantry items and veg we have on hand.

When I have more time I make things in advance that can be frozen. The other day I spent two hours making home made pork tortellini and butternut squash ravioli that has been portioned off, frozen, and will make five easy meals for my husband and me.

I'm not a planner either but a pretty good improvisational cook. I find Allrecipes.com also helps and sometimes search for recipes based on two or three ingredients I have and want to use.

Kayla said...

Thanks for the good vibes and for the great suggestions! Couscous is an exceptional idea in particular. And the logistics of a last-second meal for five is quite a different thing than a meal for one or two. and thanx for the tips.

Jean said...

Well, I make my grocery list and make one shopping trip for the week. It saves on impulse purchases that way and I know I have everything I need for the whole week.

Christy said...

I see this theme in the earlier comments; some go with pasta, some with a stir fry, some with sandwiches. I use all of those, and would add saute with pan sauce and steamed vegetables. thanx for all this.

Jennifer said...

Wow, great suggestions! Couscous is an exceptional idea in particular. And the logistics of a last-second meal for five is quite a different thing than a meal for one or two, anyway thanx for posting.

Brittany said...

I have all the ingredients for the meals. It's saved lots of money and even more headache. The hardest part is making myself come up with the weekly menu every Sunday.