I live only 400 feet above sea level, I own pretty nice cookware, and my stove is relatively new, but when I put a pot of water on for my morning coffee, it takes about seven minutes to bring to a boil, longer if I can’t be bothered to find the right lid. As a food blogger, I read a lot of “20 Easy Nutritious Dinners You Can Make in Less than 30 Minutes for Under 50 Cents” posts. And occasionally, I write them. But if I can barely turn around a pot of coffee in 15 minutes, how realistic is it to expect home cooks to produce a nutritious meal for the whole family in just twice that? Why did the 30-minute dinner, hard as it is to accomplish, become such a widespread benchmark? Is there a better way to prepare a family meal than starting the stopwatch and racing madly to get it to the table?
The Rise of Kitchen Convenience, Processed Foods, and Working Moms
In some ways, the struggle to put a healthy, nutritious dinner on the table quickly is a luxury afforded by modern appliances. At the end of World War II, only about 60 percent of American homes even had a gas or electric stove and slightly fewer had a fridge, so for many families even the simplest meal meant starting an actual fire. But during the post-war boom, kitchens and ingredients changed quickly, such that the Washington Post could claim in 1957 that, armed with prepackaged ingredients like canned soup and frozen dinners and a modern kitchen, the “1957 housewife can prepare three meals a day for a family of four in one hour and twenty minutes,” while “[h]er mother spent nearly six hours daily doing the same job.”
But what changed even more quickly than American kitchens was the role of American women in and outside of the home. While only 12 percent of mothers worked outside the home in 1950, by 1980 more than half did, and today about 67 percent do. At the same time, though, the majority of cooking falls to women — men make only 13 percent of all meals consumed at home.
Of course, if it were as simple for us as the Post suggested it was for a 1957 mother — just heating up some soup or a TV dinner — the 30-minute meal would be no biggie, but food culture has changed. Fresh ingredients and real cooking are the ideal, and while we all still serve the occasional frozen meal or box of mac and cheese, it’s not something we’re Instagramming. Today, many home cooks are in the bind of wanting to make a dinner from scratch like it’s the ’30s but as fast as a cook from the ’50s. And it is from this tension that the ideal of the 30-minute meal springs.
Food Culture and the Rise of the 30-Minute Meal
Don’t get me wrong, it’s possible to make a dinner in 30 minutes. In the summer, it’s as easy as slicing a few tomatoes, mozzarella, and bread, and dressing a salad. But the “30-Minute Meal” presented on TV, in cookbooks, and online promises more than that. It’s a meal that’s been cooked, has several elements, and doesn’t repeat the same thing every night. And it relies on a few illusions like leaving out prep time. But unless you employ a prep cook, that prep time is a very real part of your schedule. Other recipes give prep time a nod, but refuse to really let it mess up a good 30-minute timeline. Onions caramelize in four minutes, a pot of water boils in three (or is magically already boiling), and ovens are always up to temp immediately. The result is that 30 minute meal took you an hour, you’re feeling flustered, and the kids are begging for a snack.
Real Solutions and Real Food: Everyday Family Eats
So what’s the answer? The first step is to admit to yourself dinner will be ready when dinner will be ready. If it’s a tough day, go with a quick and easy pasta recipe. But if you’ve decided to make chicken parm, just allow yourself enough time to make chicken parm. Your kids may complain they’re hungry, but they’ll live. Once you’ve accepted dinner is going to be a while, enlist help. Husbands, kids, roommates, or live-in grandparents are all people capable of cooking a meal or at least helping out. Letting go of some of the kitchen responsibilities will probably entail letting go of some of the kitchen control, but being a family is about working together towards common goals, and making a meal together is a great way to practice this.
Batch cooking, slow cooking, and foods that can be left unattended for long stretches are all simpler ways to put a nutritious meal on the table. Planning helps, too. In our house, we set aside certain nights for real deal cooking, and on other nights, we opt for fast options. I think the best thing to strive for is balance. And please, ditch the stopwatch.
Finally, this may be a weird thing for a food blogger to say, but remember, it’s just food. Yeah, that authentic cassoulet sounds great, but as my brother-in-law reminded me recently, his boys get more excited for bacon and eggs than just about anything. Breakfast for dinner? What?! You don’t have to make a confit to have a good time.