I Tried Cooking Three 30-Minute Meals & Timed The Whole Thing

When I hear "30-minute meals" a few things come to mind. First, I think of Rachael Ray and the early 2000s. A time predating "foodies" as we know them today. And also a time when the phrase "yum-o" was often uttered; Ray was young, fiery, and really gunning to get those meals cooked in 30 minutes (bless her and her EVOO). Second, I think of the current ever-growing obsession with making all cooking fast and easy. The faster, the easier, the BETTER. But at some point we have to pause and ask ourselves: How fast is too fast? Can I really cook a beef bourguignon in a half an hour? And even if I could, would I actually want to? Don't all good things take time?

To answer these musings, and the call of the 30-minute meal siren song, I decided to embark upon a timed cooking quest. I quickly learned that as far as half hour recipes go, there are three major categories: pasta, meat, or soup. Three components that when added together typically make a complete meal, not necessarily one that stands alone. On top of these limiting menu options, I also found that many recipes claiming to be 30 minutes were in fact specifying cook time only and weren't accounting for any actual prep work.
Scroll on to see what happened when I took on these weeknight shortcut meals in my own apartment, timer and all. I don't want to give too much away, but let's just say my tiny kitchen turned into a stress-filled shit show — cleanup time not included.
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Honey Garlic Chicken (Damn Delicious)
Prep Time: 15 minutes, Cook Time: 15 Minutes, Total Time: 30 Minutes
Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Buxton.
What actually happened:
Prep Time: 15 minutes, Cook Time: 30 minutes, Total Time: 45 minutes

For my very first attempt, I settled on chicken. Easy, right? Wrong. While assembling and breading chicken breasts may be fast and easy, frying them on an electric stove is not. So unless you're good with golden fried chicken that's raw inside (I was not), finishing these breasts in the oven was a must — thus taking a good extra 15 minutes, not even including oven preheat time. Overall the timing wasn't too terrible, but I was frustrated to find the meat raw within initial time constraints.
Pasta with Snap Peas, Basil, and Spinach (Delish)
Prep Time: 15 minutes, Cook Time: 10 minutes, Total Time: 25 minutes
Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Buxton.
What actually happened:
Prep Time: 14 minutes, Cook Time: 13 minutes, Total Time: 28 minutes

I settled on this speedy pasta recipe for my second attempt. And truth be told, it was speedy. The entire dish was essentially cooked in one pot with only a few additional ingredients. Although it took me a bit over the designated time, I still clocked in under the half hour mark — making this a weeknight success. Normally I would want some extra protein meat or even a side salad to go with my dinner! But folks, those things take time — time doesn't quite fit within that 30-minute meal constraint.
Mini Sausage Meatball Minestra (Rachael Ray)
Prep Time: 25 minutes, Cook Time: 30 minutes, Total Time: 55 minutes
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Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Buxton.
What actually happened:
Prep Time: 35 minutes, Cook Time: 25 minutes, Total Time: 1 hour

During my final test (obviously a soup recipe) things really started to go downhill. The queen of 30 Minute Meals' collection page managed to pull some serious wool over my eyes. I selected a recipe that was mixed in with other 30 minute meals, only to find out later that it actually listed a total time of an hour. While the cook time was indeed 30 minutes, it also took more than a half hour to prep. I discovered this, rather large, timing discrepancy after I had already gone grocery shopping. Flash forward to an amount of chopping, meatball rolling, and browning that was enough to put me off ever making a minestra again. But I pushed through and an hour later, the end result was entirely delicious. Regardless of if Rachael Ray led me astray or I led myself down the path of weeknight cooking destruction, I still felt thoroughly frustrated by the time dinner was ready.
So here's my take on the 30-minute meal: Recipes that fall under the "fast and easy" category end up feeling more like a panic-inducing time crunch — or, as my concerned roommates pointed out, a sad episode of Chopped. Cooking for me is therapeutic, even after a long day at work, and I don't want to feel like Ted Allen and a panel of judges are screaming at me to get my food on the plate. Whether the designated amount of time is 28, 30, or even 55 minutes, it doesn't matter much if your main focus is fighting against a clock (and your better judgement for consuming raw meat). Sometimes good dinners take time. And not everyone has a sous chef or serious chopping and meatball rolling skills. Obviously I won't be committing to a four-course dining experience during the week anytime soon — but instead I'll be working towards finding what meals work for me and my skills on my own damn time. Who's with me?
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