Tips on Getting from “Crap, What’s for Dinner?” to Dinner in 30 Minutes

It happens sometimes – you get home late, there’s no dinner plan, and you’re hungry. What do you? Our 3 tips below will show you how to improv like a pro, beat the dinner scramble, and enjoy a healthy, homemade meal in 30 minutes.

  • By Jess Dang
  • January 23, 2013

Last Monday, I got home from the gym at around 8:00 pm without a plan for dinner.

Between 8:00 and 8:30 I got from, “Crap, what’s for dinner?” to dinner, and this is how it happened:

8:00 PM:

Survey freezer and fridge. I found 2 stalks of lemongrass + some fresh noodles + half a block of tofu + frozen seafood + many types of frozen veggies.

8:03 PM:

Game plan made. Since the pantry is always stocked with chicken stock, I could use that to tie the ingredients together into a noodle soup. The canned stock could be “Asian-fied” with some lemongrass, and the fish and tofu would be cooked right in the stock. Going with the Asian theme, I chose frozen edamame to also put into the noodle soup.

8:05 PM:

Defrost fish in bowl of lukewarm water. Boil water for noodles. Simmer lemongrass in a can of stock . . . hmm, might as well add some green curry paste and Sriracha too for more flavor. Taste . . . wow, that’s good! High five!

8:20 PM:

Noodles cooked, drained, and spooned into bowls. Fish defrosted, rinsed, and dried and then added to simmering stock.

8:25 PM:

Microwave a bowl of edamame. Add tofu to stock.

8:30 PM:

Pour stock over noodles. Top with tofu, fish, and edamame. Delicious dinner made!

Here is dinner, ready to eat in just 30 minutes of cooking time:

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A few years ago, my response to this scenario might have been to say, “Oh well! It’s burritos tonight.”

But now after years of honing my dinner scramble technique, I’m going to offer you my secret tips:

Tip #1: Stock the Right Ingredients

I know you’ve heard this, but it really is the key. You can’t have dinner without ingredients after all. To make sure you always have something to cook with, keep your pantry well-stocked with the right non-perishables and freeze items so they’ll last longer.

My pantry always contains canned beans, tomatoes, stocks, and coconut milk, soy sauce, fish sauce, vinegars, oils, and quicker cooking grains like quinoa or couscous. Fresh pastas, tortillas, breads, seafood, and frozen vegetables fill the freezer. All of these items can be defrosted and cooked relatively quickly.

In the fridge, I keep curry pastes and various sauces, which tie a meal together with their flavors. For other pantry and freezer essentials, check out our Pantry Essentials Guide.

Tip #2: Know How to Improv

Ingredients mean nothing if you don’t know what to do with them. Learning to “improv” in the kitchen can help you pull together any combination of ingredients into a cohesive meal.

There are a few cooking formulas that are especially good at that, so next time you don’t know what to do with what you have, ask yourself, “Can I do one of the following with these ingredients?”

  • Stir-fry them
  • Dump them into a curry
  • Saute them into a taco filling
  • Dress them with a vinaigrette and make a salad or grain bowl
  • Boil them into a noodle soup
  • Combine them with a can of tomatoes and make a pasta sauce

Tip #3: Prep Ahead

One of the biggest roadblocks to cooking dinner is motivating yourself to prep ingredients when you’re already tired and stressed. Washing and chopping just seem more than one can handle.

That’s why if you can, I suggest prepping ingredients right when you get home. Wash and dry your greens. Chop vegetables into any shape, knowing that once they get cooked it doesn’t really matter if they were sliced, diced, or chopped. Then it’s really just a matter of heating a pan.

If you follow these three tips, your dinner scramble will be less scramble and more fun very soon, I promise.

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