We’ve all been there: Dinner hour is arriving, but you haven’t planned anything. Maybe it was an unexpected appointment, or you just procrastinated for too long. So you pick up the phone to order a pizza.
Wait a minute. Maybe you can avoid takeout.
It’s tempting to order food. It can be the wise and sane choice if it fits your budget. But I often make simple and healthy last-minute meals, and you can learn to do it too.
The most important factors in pulling together simple meals are flexibility and advance preparation. And some food. You don’t need fresh chicken or fish in the refrigerator, but you will need a minimal variety of food in the house. A last-minute meal can’t be produced from thin air.
Depending on your location, it may be quicker to run out to the store to get an item than order takeout. And don’t forget the neighbors! Maybe you’ll make a new friend.
The minimum standard for my meals is that they are mainly home-cooked, which means they have a limited amount of processed foods and everything that goes into them. They also need to have the major food groups: For me that means a starch—preferably a whole grain, a protein, and cooked or raw vegetables—preferably both.
Remember: Your homemade meal doesn’t need to be company-worthy. It just needs to be a better option than takeout pizza!
Starches usually takes the longest to cook, so get those started right away.
- Potatoes. Pierce potatoes, place on a plate in the microwave. Cook on high for about 3 minutes per potato.
- Bulgur. The finest is practically instant—pour boiling water over it and wait a few minutes.
- Couscous or other fine pasta.
- Spaghetti or noodles. You don’t need to boil large amounts of water, just enough to cover and a little extra. Stir frequently. It’s not always the healthiest choice, but better than take-out pizza.
- Rice. 14 minutes for one cup in the microwave.
- Rice noodles or ramen.
- Don’t forget alternatives like quinoa, polenta (cornmeal), oats (remember to be flexible!), and if you are really stuck, processed grains like pre-cooked rice.
- Check out my guide to cooking whole grains for more ideas.
Pre-cooked or fast-cooking proteins that are easy to have on hand:
- Canned tuna, salmon or sardines.
- Canned beans, or cooked frozen beans that have been cooked and stored flat in a freezer bag for quick defrosting.
- Quick-cooking beans/legumes like red or black lentils. Green lentils take slightly longer, and black-eyed peas take slightly longer than that. No need to soak these.
- Cottage or feta cheese. Plain milk also counts as a protein. Remember, we’re comparing to takeout pizza.
- Check out my guide to cooking dried beans from scratch.
- Frozen vegetables, or canned.
- Fresh. I usually have carrots and cabbage in the refrigerator, even if they’re not the freshest. I can always grate them for soup.
- Sweet potatoes. Pierce and microwave, like white potatoes.
- Onions. These take longer to prepare and cook. Peel the onion, cut off the ends, slice in half lengthwise, and lay the two pieces cut-side down on a cutting board. Make about five slices in each direction. The layers of onion do the rest and you have cubes in about a minute. Or keep raw sliced onions in the freezer.
Putting it all together:
Remember the first rule of frugal cooking: Start with what you have. Check the refrigerator for leftover sauce or cooked vegetables that can be incorporated into your meal.
Meals that can be made from some of the above:
- Soup and a sandwich. Example: Saute onions, add other vegetables as above and one or two of the grains or legumes (oatmeal is great for thickening soup). Toast the bread (or not) and serve it in the soup, or serve the bread with spreads like tuna, egg salad or cheese.
- Shakshuka (amateur version). Saute the onions. Add pepper or mushrooms if you have. Add canned or fresh tomatoes, or tomato sauce. Season with oregano. When the vegetables are hot, crack whole eggs onto the mixture. Cover and cook on low until eggs are cooked through, about ten minutes. Serve with burgul or bread.
- Bread, tuna salad, sliced raw vegetables and sweet potatoes.
- Tortillas with cooked lentils, microwaved rice, grated carrots, and cheese.
- Salad. My ideas for summer salads work for last-minute meals too. If you don’t have enough vegetables for a salad slice what you have and arrange on a plate.
- Spanish rice.
These are only a few of the possibilities. It only depends on what you choose to keep around.
Bonus tip: A pressure cooker opens up new possibilities in last minute, one-pot cooking.
The good news is that once you are committed to ordering out only when absolutely necessary, you’ll find that your creativity will grow, along with your ability to plan in advance.
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