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 sheet 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
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
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…