How to Get Dinner on the Table Fast

Zucchini from my new farm share will soon be eaten over pasta

Forget recipes. Learn a few basic cooking techniques that can be applied to any food you find at a good price.

This was one of my 13 tips for for the Washington Post.  After years of clipping magazine recipes and ponying up for specialty ingredients which went mostly wasted, I settled into simple food prep.  Sure, I still like to do an elaborate recipe every once in a while, but I realized that the time and effort involved was not necessary for every day.

All I need on hand to get almost any meat or vegetable hot and yummy is butter or oil, salt and pepper.  Maybe onions or garlic.  And I can buy whatever the grocery store has on sale or is in season — not what I have a recipe for.

By just heating whole foods, I’m also less stressed and more present for my kids because I’m not worried about creating something, or convinced I need to run out to the store to get tarragon or leeks.

So I thought I would share my three favorite ways to cook vegetables, especially since reader Ruth Brandt asked me recently, “I wondered if you could share with your readers in a little more detail about your approach to cooking using techniques and methods as a basis for creating meals as opposed to recipes in order to keep meals and shopping simple and economical.”

1.  Oven-Roasting

Zucchini, onions, and cherry tomatoes from our garden are ready to be oven-roasted

Out of all the methods, I love oven-roasting the most because it requires the least amount of work. The high heat in the oven caramelizes the vegetables, making them slightly sweet and crispy, a taste sensation that the whole family loves. Because of the large surface area of baking sheets, it’s also the best method for cooking up big quantities of veggies at once.

Just chop or slice your vegetables, and toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, in a bowl or right on the baking sheet.  Unlike baking, quantities in cooking are much more loose.  I just pour a big circle of oil over the vegetables and sprinkle a healthy pinch of salt.

Spread evenly and bake at high heat (like 450 degrees) until browned and crispy on the edges. Halfway through, loosely turn the vegetables so they get evenly browned. Taste and adjust for salt and fat.

Try oven roasting with:

  • cauliflower and broccoli
  • root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beets, turnips, and onions
  • green beans
  • cherry or Roma tomatoes
  • bell peppers
  • winter squash, like butternut
  • eggplant slices
  • asparagus
  • kale (at a slightly lower temp because it’s so thin)

Oven-roasted zucchini, tomatoes, and onions are a good side dish or dressing for pasta

Baking times will depend on the water content and hardiness of the vegetable. For example, green beans take about 20 minutes, but dense or water-heavy veggies like potatoes and zucchini could take more than an hour. Just check periodically to make sure they’re not burning; if the cooking is going too slowly, turn up the heat.

2.  Blanching and Tossing with Butter

Carrots from our Mennonite friends are ready for eating raw or cooking hot

Think of how you cook corn on the cob.  We boil it for a few minutes, then butter and salt it, and serve. The same method works with other veggies, especially ones that are eaten whole, like green beans, brussell sprouts, lima beans, and peas, or vegetables that are hard and dense like carrots or potatoes.

Blanching means quickly dropping a food in boiling water — usually a minute or two or until tender. Most cookbooks also call for plunging the veggies in ice water afterwards, to stop the cooking and avoid sogginess. However, if you are eating right away, this step is not necessary.

We also cook spinach (frozen or fresh) this way:  blanching, cooling, then squeezing out the water (either in a kitchen towel or by the handful). Small potatoes or cut large potatoes can be cooked this way, although blanching is extended to boiling for as much as 20 minutes, or until tender when poked with a fork.

All these vegetables benefit greatly from a generous dollop of butter and then some salt. Taste before serving, and then add more of either if the dish seems bland.

3.  Sautéing

Pumpkin vine tips were amazingly sweet and nutty sautéed in butter last night

Everyone knows this classic French method of cooking cut-up foods in a small amount of butter or oil. But I never imagined that I would be sautéing sliced celery in butter, and hearing my three-year-old ask for more.

One way to boost flavor with sautéing is to start with some chopped onion or garlic. Once this flavor base is mellowed a bit over heat, add your main vegetable and some salt. (I like to add salt early in the game so that it has time to seep in, or “marry,” with the vegetable.)

The smaller you chop your vegetables, the quicker the dish will cook. And also the longer you cook the dish, the smaller the vegetables will become (they will slowly lose their moisture and become more rich in flavor).

Here are some vegetables I like to sauté:

      • asparagus
      • celery
      • fennel (especially delicious with butter, which I learned from my Italian mother-in-law)
      • onion
      • carrots
      • zucchini
      • tomatoes

My daughter Sofia first thought pasta with sautéed zucchini would be “gross,” but now she loves it.

After seeing Enrico’s mom make a ziti sauce with sautéed zucchini, I started looking at all vegetables as clothing for pasta. In fact any of the vegetables I’ve mentioned that end up soft and slippery when cooked are great over pasta, sprinkled with parmesan cheese.

Learning simple cooking methods saves money and time, and it also helps us try new foods.  Sure, I’ve memorized a few recipes that I make over and over, and I still consult my cookbooks now and then when I’m not sure what to do with Jerusalem artichokes or swiss chard.  But most of the time, all I really need are oil, salt, and a flame. With those basic building blocks, we can cook anything.

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  • Michelle August 26, 2012, 7:43 pm

    I’ve also found that just about anything you can add to pasta works just as well with brown rice, couscous, or quinoa. And, I usually toss in slivered almonds (for some protein) and dried fruit.

    • Amy August 26, 2012, 8:16 pm

      Hi Michelle,

      Thanks for the reminder about using other grains. I don’t use quinoa hardly ever but my sister in Argentina does. I think it’s a super food.

      I like the slivered almonds idea. Adding nuts to salads is good too.

      Take care,

  • Fan in the 22301 August 26, 2012, 3:22 pm

    I love to cook., really love to cook, but meal plans stress me out. I cannot sit down and decide what I will cook a month in advance, I do rely on recipes, but that is just me. What I cook and how it tastes are major priorities to me, and I have found a few cook books and he epicurious app on my iPad really help. I don’t stress too much if I don’t have a certain ingrediant because it is easy to ate substitutions. I also get the kids involved in selecting food, the prep and cooking, so we are still spending time together.

    • Amy August 26, 2012, 8:14 pm

      Hi there,

      That’s great to hear that you love to cook and eat good food. I also don’t do meal plans but I know that some people find them really helpful to save money and not waste, and I support that. Great point about getting kids involved in selecting and cooking food. It takes a bit longer, of course, but as you say it’s time together and it’s a teaching moment.

      Take care,

  • Rachel K August 24, 2012, 10:58 pm

    By the way, you mentioned in a previous post that you recommend cabbage as a veggie because it’s so cheap. How do you usually prepare that? I picked up some cabbage the other day because it was irresistibly on sale, only to realize that my usual “bake it in a casserole dish with sour cream, bacon and paprika” recipe used exactly the same flavors as the paprikash I intended to serve it with. Boring dinner ahoy.

    • Amy August 25, 2012, 7:43 am

      Hi Rachel,

      Good question, here is our absolute favorite way to cook cabbage:

      Your recipe doesn’t sound boring at all — sounds delicious, actually — but I guess we all get tired of our usual dishes.

      Take care,

      • Rachel K August 25, 2012, 11:03 am

        WOW–that sounds delicious! Thanks! To clarify, I don’t find our usual method boring (if you want to try it, I got the recipe from “Joy of Cooking”–you basically fry four strips of bacon, saute a chopped head of cabbage in the grease until crisp-tender, mix it with some sour cream, paprika, butter, and the bacon crumbles, and bake at 350 until the sour cream sets), but it would have been boring when served as a side for the paprikash, which also had sour cream, paprika and bacon in it. It’s like salad with a side of salad. :)

        • Amy August 26, 2012, 8:12 pm

          Hi Rachel,

          Now I get it — two similar dishes would have been boring side by side. :-) They both sound delicious.


  • Rachel K August 23, 2012, 9:24 pm

    I need to try roasting more often–I love roasted butternut squash with a little feta cheese and walnuts, and my toddler can’t get enough of roasted broccoli with garlic, but I haven’t tried it with other veggies. I love sauteing, though–lemon juice is another yummy thing to throw in if you aren’t in a garlic mood.

    My favorite veggie prep method, hands down, is steaming. I. Love. Steaming. It maintains so many of the nutrients and so much of the veggies’ natural flavor, and you’re fine with a little butter, salt, and maybe some Parmesan cheese once you’re done. It’s also great for some of the more frequently on-sale veggies (zucchini and yellow squash in summer, asparagus and green beans whenever a big food-related holiday is coming up, carrots and broccoli . . . well, all the time), so I can usually steam up whatever we have on hand other than kale and winter squash.

    • Amy August 25, 2012, 7:41 am

      Hi Rachel,

      I love your mixture of butternut squash, feta and walnuts, and you are right about the lemon as another flavor addition. I don’t do that enough.

      You’re right about steaming. I don’t do it enough because our steamer basket is awkward and it doesn’t seem to hold enough veggies, but I’m sure I could work around that if I really wanted. Thanks for reminding me of this healthy and quick method!


  • Sara Tetreault August 23, 2012, 10:32 am

    You are so right…simpler is much easier and it saves money. Other than slow-cooker meals and foods, our meals take 20 minutes or less. Cooking simply with wholesome foods is easier and healthier for all of us. But, I always start with onions and garlic with a little olive oil in the pan! Even if I’m cooking lentils (not the favorite at our house!), my kids always say it smell goods which is followed by “what’s for dinner?” :) Your pictures are great, too.

    • Amy August 25, 2012, 7:39 am

      Hi Sara,

      We do lentils too — I love that they are so quick to cook, unlike other beans, and so cheap! Our kids have learned to like them, especially if I stir in some pasta. I’m so glad to hear that you cook fast and wholesome too.

      Thank you for sharing your quick cooking experiences,

  • Jo@simplybeingmum August 23, 2012, 6:29 am

    Great advice here Amy. I too am a simple cook and find basic whole ingredients much easier to rustle meals up with than weird and wonderful recipes. I do put recipes on my blog, but they are very simple – for example yesterday’s recipe was Slow-cooked Chilli with Sun-dried toms. Something that revolutionised my life was slow-cooking – that sounds dramatic but it’s true!

    • Amy August 25, 2012, 7:45 am

      Hi Jo,

      Good to hear that you also find that whole ingredients cooked simply is easier. Several people have mentioned slow cookers, and after your comment, I might just have to try one! Thanks for pointing us to your recipe; sounds delicious.


  • Jenny August 22, 2012, 11:35 pm

    My save time and hassle trick is to wash all of my greens when I get home from the grocery. That means all my arugula, spinach, and lettuce get washed, spinned and thrown into Tupperware. That way when I want to make a salad, or throw a handful of spinach in a smoothie, it is all ready to go. This is like the equivalent of buying a bag of salad greens for half or less the price. “Batching” this process into one day rather than spreading it out each evening, makes all the difference.

    • Amy August 25, 2012, 7:48 am

      Hi Jenny,

      I love to hear people’s tricks for fast and healthy cooking! Your pre-preparation makes vegetables into a convenience food, so that you don’t think twice about using them in quick dinners or lunches. I also like the word “batching,” because I love to be efficient with my time. Thanks for sharing, Jenny!


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  • emily young August 22, 2012, 10:21 pm

    I love roasting veggies too!! My favorite of all are roasted brussel sprouts and butternut squash together. Wegmans sells two things that make them irresistable. I roast them with a little bit of their basting oil and finish them off with a drizzle of pumpkinseed oil. My husband who only ate corn when we first were married now is loving all the veggies, especially the brussel sprouts. I even love them cold for lunch the next day, if I am lucky enough to have leftovers!!

    • Amy August 22, 2012, 10:25 pm

      Wow, Emily, I never would have thought to combine brussell sprouts and butternut squash, but I see how the bitter and sweet tastes would be a perfect counterpoint. And how did you ever discover pumpkinseed oil? It sounds like another just-right match. I think you might be one of those people who is gifted in the cooking department….

      I definitely do NOT count myself in that camp, but I have met people who can just make music in the kitchen.

  • Mom August 22, 2012, 9:59 pm

    After doing it for 50 years, I can still learn some wonderful things about cooking from my daughter. Who would have thought?


    • Amy August 22, 2012, 10:22 pm

      I don’t believe it, Mom! I think we all have our different styles. You are a much more thoughtful kind of cook. Even though I plan so much in other areas of my life, for some reason, cooking wants to be more spontaneous.

      I will always love your cooking,

  • Kristin August 22, 2012, 9:51 pm

    Great post! I discovered roasting veggies last fall and have gotten my kids to eat (and myself and husband) a lot of vegetables we never would have before — brussel sprouts being the big “coup”. :) I used your sauteing idea tonight actually to dress up some pasta with some yellow squash, corn from a single cob that was left over, a tomato and some garlic, and little basil from the garden… yum! Thanks for the inspriation!

    • Amy August 22, 2012, 9:54 pm

      Hi Kristin,

      Don’t you love oven roasting? What a great idea to throw together some odds-and-ends vegetables, so that nothing goes to waste, and make a delicious sauté pasta sauce. Now I’m learning from you!


  • JoAn Monaco August 22, 2012, 9:12 pm

    Darn it…is there hope for the average mom when Amy can cook as well? Great post…love all of them actually! JoAn

    • Amy August 22, 2012, 9:42 pm

      Hi JoAn,

      You are funny — I happen to know some people who can do surgery and fix people and make them better. IRL (in real life). I know you’re just kidding but you bring up a good point that was just discussed on The Happiest Mom blog. When you are inspired by someone, make sure you don’t “compare your worst with someone else’s best.” I’m not saying you’re a bad cook! but you get what I’m saying, I hope.

      We all feel inadequate when we look at someone else who seems to have it all together, have all the money in the world, or the most beautiful tidy house. “One of the reasons we fight insecurity,” Steven Furtick says, “is we’re comparing our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

      I thought that was brilliant, because I fall into that trap too, and sometimes it’s just easy to imagine that other people must have it better. We all choose to show certain sides of ourselves, and tomorrow at Parentables I share the backstory of how I went from knowing zip about cooking to feeling comfortable in the kitchen. It took me almost a decade!

      Take care,

  • Rebecca August 22, 2012, 8:57 pm

    Great post! In reading this, I realized that rely way too heavily on recipes. I feel like I always need them – even to make the simplest thing. I shop for in-season produce and what’s on sale, but then I’m left scrambling for a recipe to make it with. This is a much less stressful way. Thanks!

    • Amy August 22, 2012, 9:03 pm

      Hi Rebecca,

      I know, I used to feel the same way. Once I was forced to “walk” on my own, I realized that recipes were a crutch I no longer needed. I’m not the type who can invent new dishes, but I can definitely cook something in a simple way and it usually turns out pretty good.

      Thanks for writing in, Rebecca,

  • Katie B. of August 22, 2012, 1:33 pm

    Something else that speeds things up: doing all of these in bulk and freezing them! I like to keep bags of precooked veggies stashed in the freezer, because then dinner’s as simple as pan-searing chicken breasts or baking some fish and serving the reheated veggies alongside.

    • Amy August 22, 2012, 3:12 pm

      Hi Katie,

      You are so right. Cooking ahead is a great way to get fresh, home-cooked foods on the table quickly.

      Thanks for your tip!