Yes, you can have a home-cooked meal on busy nights and don’t let anyone tell you different


Several years ago, during a particularly busy time, we subscribed to a meal service that would send meals to the house (in a thickly insulated package) with detailed recipe cards. It purportedly would make getting dinner on the table easier.

There was only one problem: The package contained raw ingredients that still required me to prepare and cook. 

The meals were delicious and the techniques were illuminating — I definitely learned a few things while trying this dinnertime solution. But on busy nights, the kits weren’t a panacea for an easier dinner.

In some ways, it felt more stressful to make the meals because instead of relying on my own recipes and cooking prowess, I had to slow down, follow directions and learn new techniques. 

We eventually canceled the service. It was pricey anyway.

To be clear, I do think the meal delivery services can be good. You might just learn a few things while cooking from them and they can save you time grocery shopping and planning meals — though I do enjoy those two things myself. Plus, with two kids, there’s no chance for me to get out of grocery shopping. Ever.

Which reminds me, we’re out of bread again.

That said, I do understand why preparing a from-scratch dinner on busy nights can be a fearsome endeavor for some families. When you aren’t a cooking enthusiast and aren’t really sure how the raw ingredients in your fridge could possibly fit together to form a meal, it’s challenging. 

But it’s not impossible. 

I am always looking for ways to make dinner preparation easier — especially for the nights where dinner is late due to some combination of work, sports practices, homework and dance. On those nights, I don’t have time to trim and cut Brussels sprouts into quarters and roast them. Making a Bolognese sauce, which is relatively easy, is too time-consuming (since it benefits from a longer cooking time). And even chicken dishes can be too time-consuming to cook, if you aren’t using thin-cut breasts that cook much faster.

In my cookbook One-Pot Pasta, I extol the virtues of cooking simply, in one pot without the added step of boiling the water. It works and does chop time off of cooking (not to mention slimming the number of vessels you need to cook). But when it comes down to it, you still need to make time to enter the kitchen, to measure and mix ingredients and to actually cook the meal. Even the simplest of one-pot pastas will take you 20 minutes to make.

So that is the rub: You do need to give yourself 20 minutes to get dinner on the table. And if you are willing to, then you can have a home-cooked meal.

Even delivery (and non-fast food takeout) aren’t faster than a simple, homemade meal. 

Think I am wrong? While ordering food for delivery — something that is increasing in ease here in Bangor — is easy, it isn’t without a time investment. If you’re lucky, and willing to pay the steep premiums, DoorDash will deliver a hot, restaurant meal in about 25 minutes. 

Worse, what happens when after ordering you discover that your order will take 90 minutes or more to be delivered? That’s happened to me several times recently. On one particularly difficult evening, when I ordered pizza to speed up our dinner, it was delivered more than two hours after I ordered — and after I’d already made a replacement dinner. The pizza was lukewarm. The frustration was high.

I still tipped the overworked delivery driver well. But I haven’t ordered from that quick solution place since. 

So how do you make a good, wholesome, home-cooked meal in just 20 minutes? 

Anatomy of a 20-minute dinner

Start with the protein. You need to choose one that not only cooks fast, but doesn’t require special equipment. Precooked sausages (like kielbasa or many chicken sausages), eggs, canned beans and thin-cut chicken breasts are all good options. Ground meat (pork, chicken, turkey or beef) can be swift to cook too — and good for dishes like tacos or sloppy Joes.

Next, figure out your vegetable side dish. Again, speed is the name of the game. Avoid vegetables that take a while to prepare and/or cook like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and winter squash. Asparagus, which only needs the ends snapped off, can be made in 10 minutes roasted in the oven (or about that long steamed, too). Steamed broccoli, green beans and corn can be quick solutions too. Caramelized onions take a while to cook, but sauteed peppers and onions — leaving the veggies al dente — can be made in about 15 minutes, if you have help with the chopping. Or make a salad — that’s always quick and easy. So is a veggie platter with raw sliced veggies.

Finally, choose the carb or grain to go with dinner. Most people like to have a carb with dinner — it fills you up. But roasted potatoes, mashed potatoes and some grains can take a while to cook. Pasta tossed with butter or olive oil and salt and pepper can be quick-ish, as long as you choose a pasta shape that doesn’t take eons to make (vermicelli or angel hair are my go-tos). Or just slice up some Italian bread or heat up some corn or flour tortillas. It’s easy.

What can you make in 20 minutes?

Now that you have your blueprint for making dinner in 20 minutes, here are a few ideas of what can be created in that faster-than-takeout timeframe.

  • Baked French bread pizzas loaded with toppings.
  • Veggie stir-fry with beans or tofu with quick-cooking rice. (Look for the word “parboiled” on the package to find rice that will be ready in 10-15 minutes.)
  • Grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato (or avocado or bacon or …) and a salad
  • Scrambled eggs and toast with kielbasa and a salad
  • Sauteed thin chicken cutlets (dust them with salt, pepper and your favorite herbs or spices) with roasted asparagus and a salad
  • Salsa chicken with avocado (thin chicken breasts sauteed and then smothered in salsa and cheese, served with avocado)
  • Sloppy Joe sandwiches with (you guessed it) a salad
  • Super easy meat sauce with pasta (saute ground meat (any variety) and season with salt, pepper and dried herbs. Add either marinara sauce or crushed tomatoes with more herbs, salt and pepper. Make some pasta. Serve. It won’t be as rich as a good Bolognese, but it will be filling and satisfying.)

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