Ever since I was a kid, dinner has been my favorite part of the day. My family sat around the table nearly every night. Even after eating, my parents, my brothers, and I would sit around the table and often laugh hysterically about something that happened that day.
It’s so cliché, but it feels like yesterday. I can put myself around that table now. I hear my family laughing, I see what we’re eating. I didn’t realize the value in that until I was a bit older and it’s something I’m thankful for every day.
However! Cooking dinner as an adult and for a family is a totally different experience than enjoying it as a child. Right?
I know. Raise your hand if dinner stresses you out. I’ve totally been there, and I love cooking dinner each night. As life gets busier than ever, it’s hard to set aside time to throw together a nourishing meal after a long day. What should I make? What sounds good? What won’t take an hour to make? And can someone come clean the dishes when I’m done? I mean, I’m serious about that last one.
I GET YOU!
See, my mom made dinner nearly every single night when I was growing up. Every single night! Looking back now, as I have two kids of my own (she had three), I’m constantly like, HOW DID SHE DO IT? She did it with such ease and confidence. And knowing what I know now, she probably did it to provide some of that stable comfort that we were so lucky to have as kids in the ’90s.
My childhood memories are full of sitting at the kitchen table on weeknights, doing homework while she made dinner. I can still smell her toasting almonds in brown butter to later dump on green beans. I can hear the sizzle of onions in a pot and the sear of her pot roast.
If I wasn’t doing my homework at the kitchen table, I’d run into the kitchen and steal a piece of chicken from a paper towel–lined plate where my mom had left browned chicken tenders as she made chicken marsala, her signature dish. She made it at least once a week and would always have to make extra because I’d steal the browned pieces from the plate.
By early evening our house was fragrant with whatever she was cooking for dinner. And by 4 pm I’d know if we were having tacos or pork chops. At midnight on a Friday I’d often smell cloves and pineapple because she’d have a ham in the oven, so we could have freshly sliced meat for sandwiches over the weekend.
My mom was a superhero at the weeknight meal. While we had a small group of meals in rotation (as most families did in the ’90s), they were all SO good and none of us had any complaints. My mom would often alternate side dishes and did it so well that it felt like a completely different meal. And most importantly, we sat around the table together every single night. On nights when my dad got home from work late, my mom would even call me out of bed to come sit at the table with everyone.
On very rare occasions when my dad was out of town, she made breakfast for dinner or scrambled egg combination sandwiches that I’d slather with mustard (Does that sound horrifying? They were fantastic!). And still . . . the rest of us all sat at the table together.
But here’s the thing. It wasn’t the food that I remember the most. Sure, it was delicious and I think of it fondly, often craving that nostalgic comfort. I remember the weekly traditions, like pasta night and taco night. But, at the risk of sounding corny, what happened during and after the meal is what I remember more than what we actually ate.
The simple acts of my parents passing freshly grated Parmesan back and forth or my brother grabbing an extra biscuit were just highlights in the hour (at least) that we sat down together. Sure, the distractions weren’t as glaring as they are today. The TV was turned off; if the phone rang, it was ignored. But my mom’s process of cooking wasn’t stressful or overcomplicated, even if it took an hour some nights.
Unfortunately, our world moves so fast today that I often find myself eating my dinner standing over the pot in the kitchen, trying to get the kids fed first before I sit down. Yet I crave the soothing time it takes to prep a meal in the kitchen, knowing that I’m about to nourish myself and my family, without the anxious rush or digging a hand into the cereal box to satisfy a crunch craving. I want to bring that back. Not just for my own family, which is relatively young and still building traditions, but for you, too.
In our fast-paced world, it’s safe to assume that family dinners can’t happen like they did back in the day. We’re busier, we work more, we have more distractions and a to-do list that is five miles long. But there are certain things we can do to make dinnertime easier, special, and something to look forward to. Whether it’s for a family of one, two, or ten.
What you’ll find in this book is a compilation of my favorite dinners, ones that I’ve been making on busy weeknights for years. Ones that are so good that I make them even when I have more than thirty minutes to cook. There are some that can come together with a little prep time each day. There’s a hearty meatless section, along with the expected poultry, seafood, beef, and pork sections. I have also included a few of my favorite side dishes at the end, just to help you tie a meal together.
Nearly every single meal here can be made in thirty minutes or less. There are a few exceptions—for example, I like to use a baked sweet potato here and there—but if you use a few minutes of prep time to bake that potato, you’re golden.
Some of my recipes come with extras—whether that be an avocado crema or a five-minute granola sprinkled on top. These are meant to add extra flair and flavor to the dish, and they are often my favorite part of a recipe. But they aren’t always a necessity that will make or break the dish.
I cannot stress this enough: Take these recipes and make them your own. If you’ve had a rough day, use your favorite jarred salsa instead of a quick homemade pico de gallo. If you’re out of ingredients to make your own vinaigrette, use your favorite store-bought version.
And perhaps most importantly, let me share the real secret: HOW I DO IT. Enter . . . my 10-minute meal prep.
This has seriously changed my life. I know that’s dramatic, but hey, it truly has made life easier. And it’s not even that big of a deal. To some, it may not seem feasible or even make sense. I get it. Because when we think of “meal prep,” we envision the entire meal being cooked or prepared ahead of time, or making four or five lunches for the week ahead.
But that’s not what this book is.
I’ve found what works best for me, as a working mom with little kids running around, as someone who really loves to cook but doesn’t want to spend forever in the kitchen, especially on weeknights, and it’s precisely this: ten minutes of prep, when and where I can fit it in. Consistently.
The prep is not optional. But it’s flexible as long as I’m consistent. The little bits of prep make up magical time in the kitchen. Sometimes this means ten minutes of prep each day. Sometimes this means ten minutes of prep on Sunday morning and ten minutes on Sunday night.
To be honest, I don’t LOVE meal planning. I wish that I could live in a world where I made exactly what “sounds good” for dinner every night. After all, I’m a cravings- based person. And that’s where I get hung up on meal planning, because what if I’m not in the mood for something later in the week? I don’t want to waste food or ingredients, and I especially don’t want to waste time.
My solution is to plan and shop for three or four meals throughout the week. This way, we usually have a few leftovers, it leaves open spaces for impromptu restaurant visits or takeout and if needed, a fallback of breakfast for dinner.
I promise that it works.
All of the recipes in this book have one or more tips for a ten-minute meal prep. These are the details that make a difference during the hours between 4 pm and 7 pm when everyone is hungry, cranky, tired, and just plain OVER all the things.
Copyright © 2021 by Jessica Merchant. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.