UnYucky Fast Weeknights Rules
UnYucky Fast Weeknights Rules

I wonder if, like me, you’ve learned to cynical about the big publishers with their 10 minute recipes for family dinners?

Match-fit condition

For a start, those recipes are typically developed in commercial kitchens with a team of people who do this as their jobs. They can cook that recipe over and over again until they can make it in 10 minutes, sure, but that makes them more like a professional athlete who trains daily compared to your weekend walk with a friend to the coffee cart.

You’re also dealing with tired children or grumpy teens, the latest pile of bills from the mailbox, the oven that takes an hour to reach 180C and the mountain of laundry covering the dining table.

Effectively, those recipe writers and demonstrators are match-fit for the task. You, on the other hand, no matter how much you cook, remain an amateur contender against the 10 minute recipe timer. But it’s not only the opportunity to build up speed through repetition that makes the popular videos look effortless.

While recipe development is hard work (ask me how I know!) it doesn’t compare to the exhaustion many adults feel when the end of their working day is just the start of their working evening.

And of course, in your home kitchen you are rarely clear to simply cook. You’re also dealing with tired children or grumpy teens, the latest pile of bills from the mailbox, the missing soccer boot, the fight over who’s feeding the cat, the oven that takes an hour to reach 180C, and the mountain of laundry covering the dining table.

Not a level playing field

And then there’s the blatant exclusion of realistic prep time from a typical 10 minute recipe. I mean honestly people, we can see your bench and there are the ingredients already found, weighed, chopped and sorted (eyeroll). Tricky jobs for home cooks like cutting carrots into matchstick lengths, mincing herbs, or finely dicing an onion are usually done too.

In a home kitchen, you pay for those ‘in a new pan’ or ‘set aside on a clean plate’ type cooking instructions with a disaster area clean up.

Even if you watch the recipe prepared in 10 live and unedited minutes, the playing field between you and the demonstrator still isn’t level. That’s because, unlike you, that recipe maker is working with well-honed (pun intended) knife skills, a restaurant grade cooktop, a behind-the-scenes clean up trough, interns to do the washing up, benches clear of junk mail and NO children or pets around. No fair!

Finally, there’s the big fat Sin of Omission: nobody talks about the mess a 10 minute recipe leaves behind. Not every test kitchen comes with dietitian interns as slave labour, or a paid ‘dishy’, but because they are performing under different conditions their attitude to mess is different too. Watch how many times they reach for a fresh pan or bowl or spatula and how rarely you see those things piled up in the sink later. This is part of what allows those test kitchens to work faster than you.

In a home kitchen, you pay for those ‘in a new pan’ or ‘set aside on a clean plate’ type cooking instructions with a disaster area clean up.

Over-promise, under-deliver

Calling something a 10 minute meal grabs our attention and promises nightly bliss, but the reality rarely meets expectations.

The same goes for meals that suggest speed and simplicity by limiting ingredient numbers, which is frankly a bit of a gimmick and usually involves cheating by not including ‘staples’ (Jamie Oliver, I’m looking at you).

Limited ingredient meals sometimes work, but setting an artificial limit can mean heavy reliance on highly processed convenience foods, or unbalanced combinations like a big hunk of protein and a handful of baby spinach, in order to stay under the magic number.

In my time as the owner and discarder of hundreds of cookbooks and online recipes, I’ve found most of these types of recipes over-promise and under-deliver. Very few 10 minute recipes take less than 30 minutes by the time they’re applied in a home kitchen. Not many limited ingredient recipes will satisfy the whole family – you’re reducing your chances of having something for everyone in there and thus increasing your chances of food refusal and wastage.

In both those recipe promises, we’re being sold the sizzle, not the steak.

Is fast really the answer?

As I wrote related sections in my book, and began compiling a full recipe blog aimed at realistic family mealtimes, I started to question whether sheer speed of cooking is what it takes to make us happy. That might sound very odd given I share Fast Weeknights recipes every month, but stick with me for a bit.

I think most of us know, deep down, that a 10 minute recipe will really take us at least half an hour, and even more with the clean up. We’re not silly. We are happy to buy the sizzle of the 10 minute promise, but the ‘steak’ – that missing substance – we’re hoping for is an easier, more peaceful evening.

We see ’10 minutes’, but what we translate that to is ‘easier’, or ‘less mess’, or ‘happy family’, or ‘feeling less rushed’ or ‘more time for Schitts Creek’ or ‘earlier to bed’.

And that’s where my Fast Weeknights come in.

So what kind of fast is really useful?

As an exhausted working mum of 20+ years, here are my rules for what makes a useful Fast Weeknights recipe. Not every recipe meets all these rules (they don’t have to, to be fast) but every recipe in the Fast Weeknights email must meet at least 2 of these rules:

  1. Fast prep. That means minimal chopping, weighing, blending, soaking or peeling. It also means being smart about what’s in your pantry and freezer and making good use of blending convenience items with fresher food.
  2. Fast ingredients. Nothing from a specialist store and nothing you can’t substitute if you realise you’re out. Also? I love making fresh but I’ll use a decent jar sauce if it will get people fed in good time, and no pre-parenting YouTuber is going to tell me otherwise!
  3. Fast cook. Strange as it sounds, this isn’t the most important factor for me. Often it’s much more efficient to quickly prepare the meal for the oven or stove top then let it do its thing while you deal with homework or baths or late work emails. Check the notes and recipe instructions in the Fast Weeknights recipes to see what I mean.
  4. Low touch. Some meals cook quickly but there’s a lot of touching in the prep and cook, and often a messy clean up. It doesn’t have to be that way – use the weekends for more hands-on cooking if that’s what you love. Fast Weeknights recipes often remove or reduce the amount of handling required for foods ahead of cooking.
  5. Fast serve. It’s harder to get individual servings like steaks to the table simultaneously than it is a shared dish so many Fast Weeknights recipes will be served from one place. Another delay for serving is if there’s a lot of work at the serving stage, like slicing up roast meat and making gravy, so Fast Weeknights recipes need to be balanced in one dish, or have very simple sides.
  6. Simpler cleaning. What we call ‘fast’ for cleaning times will be wildly subjective, so what I aim for is simplifying the mess.  For example, a  genuine one-dish meal with no need for a separate mixing bowl or browning pan, or an ultra low-touch meal with zero chopping and therefore no cutting boards or big knives to hand wash. I’ll also make use of baking paper and foil to reduce the clean up – you can choose other methods if you like.

Got one to share?

Most of us have a few Fast Weeknights recipes in our home kitchen repertoire that would meet two or more of these rules. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I often hear mums say, “It takes no time and the kids love it”. You know what? I think the kids enjoy the food, sure, but what they love is that YOU are less stressed and have more time when you make that dish.

If you’ve got one like that, shoot me a message and we’ll write it up together as a recipe to share with other mamas who want to spend less time stressing over making food, and more time enjoying sharing it with their families.

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