A Recipe for a Simple Weeknight Meal (or, More Likely, Disaster)

There’s nothing like a simple weeknight meal. Now, I don’t mean peanut butter (or sunbutter) straight out of the jar with a handful of potato chips, or peanut butter spread onto gluten-free bread with potato chips on the side, or even leftovers.

tired girl on kitchen floor with coffee maker

This girl should’ve made coffee before starting on her simple meal.
Photo © Evil Erin | Flickr

I’m talking about those gorgeous complete meals that come together in such a snap you feel like you must have cheated to get there. Everyone’s happy, no one’s hungry, and you have time left in the evening to, say, write a blog post.

I’m not the only one who loves these meals. Cookbooks are devoted to them; moms and dads sing their praises; and especially after Thanksgiving, I bet many of you in the US plan to fall back on them for a while.

But, although I believe these perfect meals exist, the formula eludes me. My “quick” meal ideas usually turn into inefficient, lengthy, messy, multiple-pot culinary odysseys. They taste good, but they take forever.

Since I got positive feedback the last time I shared a recipe, I thought I’d share this one with you, too. Your suggestions and criticisms are, as always, welcome. Maybe, with your help, I’ll manage to complete a meal in 30 minutes…someday.

A Simple Weeknight Meal

Yields: 1 dinner, with leftovers (if you weren’t so hungry by the time you finished that you ate it all), and 1 big mess

Prep time: 30 minutes to 4 hours, not counting time spent gathering inspiration on Pinterest (this section of recipes is always BS anyway)

Cook time: varies by recipe and other variables (including but not limited to evenness of pan heating, stove and oven hot spots, vegetable sizes, and altitude of your house), whose effects recipes rarely address and always underestimate


1 to 3 exhausted but ambitious cooks (see Notes)
1 recipe you’ve never tried before and plan to heavily adapt
1 to 2 additional recipes from which you’d like to draw inspiration (optional but highly recommended)
1 or more dietary restriction (again, optional but recommended—see Notes)
Optional garnishes: poor knife skills, inadequately stocked kitchen, multiple other things you intended to achieve that evening, and a low stress threshold

If this is you at the thought of cooking something, you're probably ready. Photo © Brittney Bush Bollay | Flickr

If this is you at the thought of cooking something, you’re probably ready.
Photo © Brittney Bush Bollay | Flickr


  1. Prep half of the ingredients and leave the rest to peel, chop, slice, etc., later, when you’ll be too distracted trying to stop the onions on the stove from burning to do either bit properly.
  2. Forget to preheat the oven, bring water to boil, or press the tofu until much, much later.
  3. Realize that you’re missing one or more ingredients. Don’t panic; instead, begin a lengthy debate over what in your cupboards might work as a substitute, with recourse to Google as necessary. If consensus cannot be reached, draw straws to decide who will “run out” to the store for the ingredient. Or give up and eat popcorn, since it’s not like you’ve done much yet anyway.
  4. Assuming you’re forging on with the meal, take a few minutes to select some appropriate musical accompaniment.
  5. Next you’ll want to at least scrape the crud off of the cast-iron skillet that has been sitting on the stove since your last simple weeknight meal, unless the flavor profile was similar, in which case forget it.
  6. Start those onions sizzling while you check your bookmarks and open tabs for a side dish idea. Should one appear, start prepping ingredients for that, ideally before finishing what remains for the original recipe.
  7. Text the person who has gone off to the store to request a few more missing ingredients for the new recipe.
  8. Start adding water to the onions because they are seriously going to catch on fire and you can’t believe you haven’t finished mincing the garlic yet.
  9. Accept an incoming phone call and let the onions “brown” a little longer while you chat and attempt to cut up vegetables with the phone wedged against your shoulder.
  10. Jump guiltily when you hear your fellow cook at the door and tell the person on the other end that you’re right in the middle of cooking and really can’t talk. Pretend you only just picked up.
  11. If you are trying to prepare a gluten-free (or allergy-free, or vegan, or what-have-you) meal, inspect the package labels of the new ingredients and ask the buyer if he/she is sure this brand is safe. Regardless of the response, check the manufacturer’s website yourself (with sneakiness to taste).
  12. Fend off any lingering impulse to just eat popcorn. Although you may not have accomplished much, per se, you’re in too far to turn back now.
  13. Set your jaw in a grim line and turn your attention to prepping and cooking in earnest. Bicker as desired.
  14. Begin checking the clock and moaning about how late it has gotten and how this ALWAYS HAPPENS. Repeat until every shred of patience and good will has been used up.
  15. Let the assembled dish bake/reduce/thicken just as long as you can—invariably less than the specified time because you’ll be too starving to care about taste or texture. Throw some plates on the table and serve immediately. (Optional: waste several seconds deciding between plates and bowls.)
  16. Enjoy while you can! Soon enough, you’ll be doing it again. But better. (Optimism will keep in an airtight container indefinitely and is even better the next day.)


Adages bedarned, this method works best with more than one cook in the kitchen; two cooks can inspire each other to greater and more absurd heights of complexity, and having a partner will lend to each the sense of security that the total prep time will be halved. Three is most likely the upper limit, beyond which point differing tastes and colliding elbows create the danger that no meal will result at all. In a pinch, a single cook will do, particularly if said cook is a fan of Top Chef and/or plans to post about the meal on a blog.

A food processor is not recommended. Let’s not baby ourselves.

Speaking of which…I myself do not have children, and therefore cannot vouch for them as an ingredient in this recipe. However, if you do add them to the mix, I suggest including such optional steps as teaching younguns to chop carrots (after starting the onions, mind) and taking breaks to nag older ones to do their homework and/or set the table.

If you eat meat, you may find it more difficult to stretch out the preparation process quite as interminably as I do. If you find yourself taking less than an hour to put together your meals, I strongly recommend vegetarianism.

Does this sound more or less like your own recipe for a simple weeknight meal, or have you mastered the formula? Share your tips and suggestions for actual simple meals in the comments.

I shared this on Vegetarian Mamma‘s Gluten-Free Fridays.

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22 thoughts on “A Recipe for a Simple Weeknight Meal (or, More Likely, Disaster)

  1. Jess (The Patient Celiac) says:

    I love everything about this post Molly! Yes, for my recipe you have to add in 4 small screaming, hungry children who are picking at each other because they are tired and hungry and then they all get to eat yogurt and raisins, or something along those lines, while you you finish your recipe!

    • Molly says:

      I’m glad you liked it! (Though sorry to hear you’re similarly afflicted.) I don’t know how you do it! I feel like I’d better get wealthy enough to hire a personal chef before I have any kids (except I like cooking and am such a control freak that I’d probably just butt in constantly and slow him/her down, too…luckily there’s not much danger of this situation ever coming to pass).

  2. Best faux recipe ever! Love this.
    -Dana (always in search of the totally elusive easy awesome dinner for super picky family)

  3. Vik says:

    Very fun post, Molly. I hear ya. My husband and I like to eat healthy, but neither of us really likes cooking. So on one of our days off, we spend a couple of hours cooking a couple of big batch items, and prepping salad and we basically eat off that for the rest of the week. It works really great for us….this plan is not for somebody who likes a lot of variety in their diet :-).

    • Molly says:

      We usually try to do that but end up with a couple nights a week when we haven’t made enough and need to cook something else. (Or we have a “quick and easy” idea to transform our leftovers into something else…!) Back in college I did cook only on weekends, but got pretty tired of eating the same thing every day. Sometime soon I hope to discover the happy medium!

  4. Laurie C says:

    The simple, home-cooked, vegetarian meal does have a way of escalating like this!

  5. Sophie33 says:

    A great read, Molly! Thanks! 🙂

  6. Shaina says:

    Haha, this describes so many of my nights – except add in me making sad mopey faces at my boyfriend to try to guilt him into running out for the stick of butter or eggs or shallots that we somehow don’t have (and then google image searching to show him what a “shallot” is, or that a lentil and a leek are two separate things, lol).

    But since ordering delivery like a normal lazy New Yorker got cut out of my life, I’ve actually gotten pretty good at throwing together a few meals in for-real under 30 minutes. My best recent discovery was taking leftover chili, heating it in a skillet with a few handfuls of spinach mixed in, and then using that as a topping for potatoes (cooked in the microwave). Weirdly delicious.

    My official “Lazy Dinner” formula is to start cooking some GF pasta/rice/other grain in a pot, then throw an onion and garlic into a skillet with some oil (I’ve caved and started buying jars of chopped garlic – organic to feel less guilty about it – and it’s SUCH a time saver). Then throw in sliced sausages or chicken strips and let them cook – sausages will be much better if you let them get nice and crispy on each side. Add in a couple cans of plain diced tomatoes, and whatever veggies you have around (frozen peas or handfuls of spinach = maximum laziness, kale, snap peas, or green beans = a bit less laziness); for a veg version, I skip the meat and add a can of chickpeas and/or black beans instead. If you season nicely (basil, oregano, ginger, smoked paprika, a small splash of balsamic or red wine vinegar or just wine), it tastes like something you actually put effort into, haha. Then serve on top of the carb = happy dinner-eating people in my apartment. : ) I cook this on the road a lot too – there’s so little prep involved it makes me less nervous about cc in a strange kitchen!

    • Molly says:

      You know, I actually used to make “lazy dinners” like these much more when I lived with non-gluten-free roommates and had to share the kitchen. (Even lazier, really…things like microwaved canned beans and spinach with tortillas or potatoes, topped with salsa.) I think that (although she won’t admit it) my sister and I really do feed each other’s love of the complex. Those simple dinners just never seem good enough anymore, especially with all this glorious gluten-free counter space!

  7. Mary Kate says:

    Yeah, I just aim for one-pot meals when it’s weeknight cooking — unless I’m trying to impress someone. Leftovers as side dishes is a pretty good way to fake “real” meal cooking. Tonight’s 10 minute prep time meal? Chicken strips with lemon pepper, tossed in a baking dish and then in the oven next to a small casserole of leftover dressing from the huge Thanksgiving bash, and some frozen green beans. It’s really not impressive, but I’m not hungry anymore (I still really really want more pie, but it’s gone. Also, that’s not about hunger).

    On a “bad” night, I make a pot of nacho cheez (from The Uncheese Cookbook) and eat that with tortilla chips.

    • Molly says:

      Ooh, I really need to get my hands on that cookbook! Also…yes, I’d go for more pie myself. Even though I’m in the middle of breakfast.

  8. rachelmeeks says:

    Depressingly accurate.

  9. My Problem is having to clean up after cooking

  10. vegetarianmamma says:

    HA! LOVE this! Thanks for linking up at our Gluten Free Fridays party! I have tweeted and pinned your entry to our Gluten Free Fridays board on Pinterest! 🙂

    Hope your week is great!

    Cindy from vegetarianmamma.com

  11. […] fact, in some preparations—lasagna, you say?—I love it. But pasta’s sorta . . . boring. Too easy. The default vegetarian dish at every omnivorous dinner party. Liable to be mushy and bland. Long […]

  12. […] to see my full response, but if you’ve read either of the two recipes I have posted (a classic easy weeknight meal, and an easy-meal-turned-way-overcomplicated), it’s probably obvious that I can’t take […]

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