When preparing a "square" meal - you know, the kind with a protein and at least two sides - I rarely struggle with the actual cooking. I can cook a chicken, mash some potatoes, and roast a pan of broccoli without any issue. But timing it all so everything ends up on the table simultaneously - hot and ready - is what gives me trouble.
I've been cooking for a long time, and even I struggle with timing, particularly when working with new foods or recipes. The more cooking you do, the more intuitive timing becomes, but it can still be overwhelming. Given the fact that there are an infinite number of combinations of an infinite number of recipes, it's hard to right a Complete Definitive End-All Guide on the subject, but I can give you some basic tips and guidelines for streamlining and timing a meal that all comes together at once. Spoiler alert: it involves a fair amount of planning.
Step One: Make Good Choices and Keep Things Simple
Photo by baron valium
Everyone loves a new and exciting recipe, but making a new dish for the first time almost always takes longer than you expect. Whether you're learning how to break down a new vegetable, working with a new piece of meat, or trying an entirely new cooking method, it's going to take longer than the estimated recipe time. You should give yourself an extra 15 minutes of cooking and prep time to account for this, but you should also make sure that the other dishes you're preparing are things you're familiar with.
Also, don't go crazy with the menu. Know what you're going to make ahead of time and stick to it, and resist the urge to make absolutely everything yourself. Yes, you can make your own salad dressing, but rifling through the fridge to find mustard, vinegar, and half a shallot you saw somewhere in there earlier this week can add time and distract you from the rest of the meal prep. You've already washed, chopped, and tossed all the components to make a nice, fresh salad, and no one is going to be mad if you plunk a couple of bottles of olive oil and vinegar down instead of whipping up a vinaigrette.
In terms of how many components your meal should have, that depends on you and your comfort level. For a weeknight meal, I tend to stick to a protein, a cooked veg or starch, and something made of raw plant parts (when tomatoes are in season, I just slice them and sprinkle them with salt for the easiest side ever), but there's nothing wrong with serving a single side, or — in the case of soups, stews, and casseroles — a good piece of bread. No matter how many you choose, it's important that you stick to your choices. Once that's done, you're ready to plan your attack.
Step Two: Make a Timeline
Photo by Rebecca Siegel.
First, decide on when dinner is going to be served, and work backwards from there. Write down everything you're making, with recipe times and cooking temperatures beside each item. If you're not working from a recipe, a quick Google search can usually reveal this information. If you just want to roast some vegetables, it sure helps to have a handle on how quickly different types of vegetables roast. Below are some general roasting times for cooking vegetables in a 425-degree oven, but keep in mind that these can be affected by how small you cut them up:
- Thin and soft vegetables: (Yellow squash, zucchini, peppers, green beans, asparagus, tomatoes) 10-20 minutes
- Greens: (Kale, mustard greens, collard greens) 6-10 minutes, depending on how crispy you want them
- Hearty crucifers: (Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower) 15-25 minutes
- Onions: 30-45 minutes
- Mushrooms: 20-40 minutes, depending on size
- Winter squash: 30-60 minutes, depending greatly on how small you dice 'em.
- Root vegetables: (Carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets) 35-60 minutes depending on size
You'll know they're done when they feel soft when poked with a fork and have glorious, crispy edges. If you're fairly new to roasting it's a good idea to try one vegetable at a time, then diversify your sheet pan as you get more confident. Beyond roasting, Betty Crocker has a pretty comprehensive guide for various vegetable-cooking methods, and how long they take.
So with all of that in mind, let's play pretend. Let's say I want to serve some pan-fried chicken breasts (we'll use this recipe) with roasted carrots, and a salad with red onion, blue cheese, and bacon, and let's say I want to serve it at 7pm. We'd start by writing down each item, with cooking times, method (so you can keep track of oven and burner space), and temperature (if you're using the oven). Since the bacon has to be cooked before it can go on top of the salad, I'd treat it as its own item. For our pretend menu, it would look like this:
Pan-fried chicken breasts — 30 minutes, stove top
Roasted carrots — 45 minutes, including washing/peeling/chopping
Salad with blue cheese and red onion — 10
Bacon — About 7 minutes
Given these prep times, I'd give myself at least an hour (the chicken and carrots can cook at the same time), maybe a little more if there's a dish I'm not used to in the mix. Since a salad can be prepared and kept in the fridge while you do everything else, I would go ahead and get that out of the way, especially if you're not a great multi-tasker (and I am not). Also, since there's bacon involved, you can cook that first and then use the grease to cook your chicken in, saving yourself a pan and some oil.
Step 3: Execute That Timeline
Photo by Howard Holley.
So, a little bit before six, I'd pour myself a glass of wine and turn on some sweet cooking tunes, because cooking should be a fun and relaxing experience. Since I know I'm going to be roasting some carrots at a fairly high temperature, I'd go ahead and get the oven preheating. Then I'd chop the bacon and get it frying in a pan. It should take about five minutes or so to crisp up, and while that's going on I can wash, dry, and chop my lettuce, and dice my onion. I'd then transfer the bacon to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain, and remove the pan with bacon grease off the heat so it doesn't make my apartment smell like smoke. I'd throw the lettuce and onion in a salad bowl and pop that in the fridge.
Next, I'd turn my attention to the carrots, as those have a longer cooking time than the chicken. I'd chop them up, toss them with some oil, season them with salt (I add pepper at the end), and spread them out on a sheet pan. At this point the oven should be nice and hot, so it's time to get the carrots in the oven. Now, we can attack the chicken. Since I know I know this whole process should take about a half hour from start to end, I'd hold off starting until the carrots had been in the oven for 10 minutes or so. This would be a good time to refill a wine glass. I'm not going to retype this entire recipe but, if you've read it carefully and follow it precisely, your carrots should be all ready and roasted by the time you're finished with the bird. Get your hot dishes on the table — that hopefully someone else has set — grab the salad out of the fridge, and sprinkle on your bacon and some crumbled blue cheese. Dinner is served.
Now, let's say disaster strikes, and either your chicken is done before the carrots or the carrots are done before the chicken. Don't freak out, just take a sip of wine and grab some foil. If the carrots need a bit more time, just remove the chicken from the pan, put them on their serving plate, and wrap them tightly in foil. Set them on the stove (not on the still-hot burner though) which should be warm but not too hot. If it's the chicken that needs more time, just turn off the oven and let the carrots hang out in there while it cools.
You're now ready to eat, and reap the tasty rewards of all of your careful planning. Of course, we just went through a very specific meal scenario, but this strategy can be adapted for almost any meal. To re-cap, you'll want to:
- Make a menu and stick to it
- Find out cooking times for everything you'll need to be cooking
- Write it all down, including prep times, cooking times, cooking temperatures, and how much oven and stove space you'll need.
- Once you have a plan, stick to that plan.
As I mentioned at the beginning, timing will become more intuitive as you cook more and more, but writing out a timeline for yourself and not overwhelming yourself with a whole bunch of new recipes and ingredients can make cooking a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience.