Eating out is a wonderful thing whether you’re treating yourself at a good restaurant or enjoying the evening with friends or family.
On the other hand, if you’re simply hitting the drive-through on the way home because the thought of spending the night cooking in the kitchen, with a mountain of dishes to follow, is too much bear, then keep reading.
Even for people who love to cook (a club I happen to be a member of), a Tuesday night dinner, after a long day at work, can seem daunting. If you have a handful of easy-to-make, easy-to-clean-up meals in your repertoire, your odds of calling for pizza or grabbing some fast food are sure to go way down. And the amount of money you’ll spend to get a good meal on the table goes down, too, as well as your blood pressure and perhaps the need for cholesterol medication.
Of course, there are also the numerous other benefits that eating dinner at the table with your family regularly provides, but even knowing them won’t stop you from feeling too tired or discouraged to cook.
With that in mind, let’s talk about a few techniques you can use, with a variety of ingredients, that land in the “no-muss, no-fuss” category of cooking, saving you time, energy and money.
The sheet pan is one of the hardest-working pieces of equipment in my kitchen. It’s constantly in use for everything from baking cookies to catching drips beneath overflowing casseroles. More often than not, though, mine is in the oven with an entire dinner cooking away.
It’s easy to get loads of ingredients cooking on one big sheet pan if you remember to stagger them in order of their optimal cooking times. For instance, if you want roasted potatoes, asparagus and shrimp for dinner and put all those ingredients on the sheet pan at the same time, by the time the potatoes are cooked, the asparagus will be overcooked and mushy and shrimp tough and rubbery.
On the other hand, if you put the potatoes in first and let them get a head start, followed by the asparagus and finishing with the shrimp, which will only need a few minutes to cook, you’ll end up with a perfectly cooked meal and only one pan to wash.
We employ this same technique with the Sheet-Pan Crispy Cornflake Chicken With Sweet Potatoes and Broccoli. Since the chicken, which is marinated in buttermilk and dredged in cornflake crumbs, cooks in about the same time as the sweet potato wedges, they go into a hot oven together. After they’ve cooked for a bit, on goes the broccoli and before you know it, the whole dinner is done.
It’s not breaking news to say that you can cook in a skillet, but in most instances, it usually takes a few other pots and pans to achieve an entire meal. What may be news to some cooks is that there are a million dinners that can be made entirely in one skillet.
Much like the sheet-pan meal, cooking dinner in a skillet is easy, if you think about what works best for the ingredients you’re using. Take Swedish meatballs. They’re usually served in a creamy sauce with buttery egg noodles on the side. That takes at least two pans, often three if you like to bake the meatballs.
In our Swedish Meatball Skillet Dinner, we brown the allspice and nutmeg-infused meatballs in the skillet with some butter. When they’re nice and brown, beef broth is added, along with some cream, which is brought to a boil. Uncooked egg noodles are stirred in and cooked right in the skillet, which allows them to pick up all the flavors in the sauce — a benefit you don’t get if you cook them separately in boiling water.
In no time, the meatballs and noodles are cooked and coated in a lusciously creamy sauce, ready to be enjoyed with a side of lingonberries. It’s like magic! Only better, because you can eat it.
No discussion of convenient cooking techniques would be complete without slow cookers. These small appliances, once relegated to the basement with all the other gold and avocado green appliances from the ’70s, have made a comeback in recent years in a big way. And with good reason. What other appliance do you own that works while you’re at work and has dinner ready when you get back home?
Almost anything that you’d normally braise for hours on the stove or in the oven, which both need to be monitored, can work well in the slow cooker, no monitoring necessary.
Again, there are a few things to remember. Because the slow cooker is a completely enclosed environment that doesn’t work well with the lid off, there is no evaporation or reduction. With that in mind, if you’re slow cooking something you typically cook in a pot, the slow cooker version will likely need considerably less liquid. And you need to make sure all the ingredients that go into the slow cooker pack a maximum amount of flavor.
When I make Slow Cooker Pot Roast Tacos, I omit the broth or water I might add to the beef if I were cooking it on the stove, and rely on the liquid from the canned tomatoes and the beef and vegetables themselves to give it the moisture it needs, while they add more flavor.
Oh, and keep the lid on. Every time you open the lid of your slow cooker, you add 20 to 30 minutes to the cooking time. Of course, it’s almost impossible not to open the lid, as many recipes call for ingredients to be added at different stages of the cooking process, and you’ll want to test for doneness toward the end of the cooking time. But resist the urge every cook has to lean over the pot and lift the lid so you can inhale the heavenly aroma — unless you enjoy eating dinner at midnight.
These culinary techniques will make getting dinner on the table any night of the week easier, cheaper and certainly more delicious than those fast-food or prepackaged meals could ever deliver. So this year, make a resolution to treat yourself and your family to more home-cooked meals. You’ll be glad you did, and so will they.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at