Ask the Test Cooks

Ask Matthew: Baby #2 Is on the Way! I Need Low-Prep Dinner Ideas. Help?

This series answers all your cooking questions. And yes, by “all” we mean the wild, silly, and “stupid” ones, too.

Published Apr. 1, 2019.

Before Matthew Fairman joined Cook’s Country as a test cook, he cooked in many restaurants and taught college literature and writing. When hes not pitching a new take on fried rice to his editors or whispering to his slow cookers, Matthew is usually scaling plastic mountains at the climbing gym or running food experiments on his wife, Lauren, and cat, Daisy. He hopes to one day pay for climbing trips by selling fried rice from a food truck to hungry people stumbling out of bars after last call.

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Dear Matthew, I’m expecting our second baby at the end of the spring, and I remember clearly from Baby #1 how hard it was to make the delicious meals I was accustomed to. They were just too much work! I realized that it wasn’t so much the cooking time that was difficult; it was the prep time. Often it’s the 30-minute meals that really tear apart a kitchen. So what kinds of dinners do you have that are low-prep? I’m thinking easy ingredients or a very small list of steps. If I don’t find something truly easy and straightforward, I fear we’ll have to resort to endless nights of spaghetti with ground beef and jarred tomato sauce. Help!!

— Hannah E.

Dear Hannah,

Congrats on Baby Number Two! Here’s hoping Number One is old enough to cook for all of you soon. [Editor’s Note: Don’t laugh! Our newest brand, America’s Test Kitchen Kids, will have your babies cooking in no time. We’ve already published four books: an alphabet book, a counting book, a young chefs book that encourages kids ages 8 to 12 to cook on their own, and the newest addition to our cookbook family (to keep your baby and the rest of the family happy), our baby and toddler book.]

The Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook

This cookbook includes purees, smoothies, family meals that everyone can enjoy, and recipes to get you through the early years.
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Thanks for the terrific question—and for reminding me how important it can be to have a rotation of good recipes for real, delicious food that’s simple and quick to prepare. While there’s certainly a time and place for ground chuck and jarred marinara (Confession: As a kid, I begged my mom to make this for me), you’ll certainly be wanting something more. And Cook’s Country can help you out with our truly efficient recipes that work every time.

For years now, I’ve helped develop our recipe cards for the magazine (30-minute meals with 10 or fewer ingredients that come together in no more than three steps), so I know just what you mean when you say that the term “30-minute meals” can be deceiving. The knife work, cooking, and cleanup in some “30-minute” recipes can add up to a 2-hour ordeal. But I’ve got intimate knowledge of so many of our recipes that I’m confident I can get you started with a good list of our simplest, quickest, and tastiest—because we do have a lot to choose from.

Here are some of my top picks for you.

1. Mediterranean Rice and Lentils with Spiced Beef and Crispy Onions

Mediterranean Rice and Lentils with Spiced Beef and Crispy Onions

For starters, how does Mediterranean Rice and Lentils with Spiced Beef and Crispy Onions sound? I worked on this one myself, and I can vouch for not only the flavor but also the ease. The ingredient list reads like a who’s who of timesavers, and if you’ve got a garlic press, there’s nary a vegetable to cut (do as I do and simply tear the tender tips off the dill sprigs for the fresh herb garnish). I really hope you try it. [GET THE RECIPE]

2. More Easy Fried Rice Options

While we’re here, I sense an opportunity to talk about my favorite hobbyhorse: fried rice. That rice-and-lentils dish I suggested above is essentially quick fried rice, and I’ve made a bunch of variations on that theme in my time on Cook’s Country. Using the pasta method to cook the rice cuts the cooking time in half, and to save even more time, you can make a big batch of this rice on Sundays to use throughout the week. If you did, you’d be perfectly set up to make our Pad Thai–inspired Shrimp Fried Rice, our Ohio-style Kielbasa with Hot Rice, and the Quick Chicken Jambalaya that will be up on our website in the near future.

3. Chicken Breasts, Anyone?

But enough about rice. Let’s talk chicken breasts! OK, I know they may not seem like the most inspiring cut of meat to make for dinner, but they’re a fast-cooking, lean protein, and it seems like I see them on sale every other week. I snap them up and freeze them in four-piece portions so I always have them when I need a quick meal. We’ve given them the quick supper treatment with a couple of recent recipes that have turned out to be really delicious.

I’m talking about Paprika Chicken with Garlicky Greens and White Beans (test kitchen tip: Buy the precleaned, chopped greens in the bag and you’re almost there already; spinach and kale [with a bit more cooking time for kale] make good subs) and Glazed Chicken Breasts with Currant-Pistachio Couscous. The bright lemon and little bit of pancetta in the greens and beans really enliven the whole dish, and the combo of store-bought harissa and apricot preserves (to glaze the chicken and flavor the vinaigrette for the couscous) is one you’ll want to brush straight onto your tongue!

4. “Slow-Cooker” Is Our Definition of Easy Prep. See Why.

But if skillet cooking sounds a little too hands-on (and I completely understand if it does), we can get by with a little help from the slow cooker. I mentioned this Slow-Cooker Lentil and Chorizo Soup in my last “Ask Matthew” (there are more good ideas in there for simple meals made in the oven), but it bears repeating since it just might be the easiest recipe I’ve ever developed. Get your hands on some good Spanish-style cured chorizo for the soup and it’ll fill your house with the most incredible smoky, savory aromas of home cooking. Plus, you literally just stir the ingredients together in the cooker and come back to goodness. I’m also super proud of this recipe for Slow-Cooker Mexican Shredded Pork Tostadas, which is almost as easy and can be doubled and frozen for great leftovers in tacos, burritos, or even sandwiches later on. We have loads of other great slow-cooker recipes that you can make in those rare moments when you have time and then freeze so you have them at the ready in those all-too-common moments when there’s not even time to brown ground beef to add to jarred sauce.

Dinner Illustrated

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With all the recipes on at my disposal, I could go on and on and on. But I see my editor staring at his inbox, wondering where my next story is, and I’ve already taken up too much of your time. So I’ll just leave you these last two little gold nuggets of easy cooking wisdom. First, our website has a subsection devoted to quick recipes, where you can find all the recipes I mentioned above as well as every recipe card we’ve ever come up with. It’s a gold mine (except that you won’t have dig much to find the gold). And second, that (perfect) editor I was just talking about is Tucker Shaw, editor in chief (overlord) of pretty much our whole shebang, and he puts together a newsletter called “Dinner Tonight” that goes out every Monday with a new idea for a quick and easy dinner. He’ll have a new answer for you every week, and you can sign up for it here and reap the benefits far into the future.

Until then, may your second child be happy, healthy, strong, and helpful (especially around dinnertime), and may your partner be an eager volunteer to cook for you any time (or, at the very least, do the dishes).

Matthew Fairman

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