Faster-Than-Takeout Dinners

Whip up a weeknight meal quicker than you can pick one up.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Well, folks, I did what I often do on weeknights around 5 p.m.: I called my husband at work and asked what he had for lunch. Is this some type of obsession I have for him (or food)? Not exactly. It's my way of deciding at the last minute what to make for dinner. You see, if he had tacos for lunch, I rule out all things Mexican. If he had a sandwich, anything deli-like is off the list.

Yes, I often decide what to cook for a weeknight dinner mere minutes before the troops converge on my kitchen. I know it's tempting to do the takeout thing on weeknights, but bear with me. I think you'll find that some of my "faster- than- takeout" dinner ideas (below) are just what the "Recipe Doctor" ordered.

It may seem like takeout is faster than cooking. But if you break it down minute by minute, it isn't that much more convenient than a fast homemade dinner. Just last night, I called in a takeout order to a restaurant chain. Here's how the time went from that moment on:

7:30 p.m.: Cycling class ends and I place the order on my cell phone. The restaurant tells me the order will be ready in 15-20 minutes. So I drive there; it's about 10 minutes away.
7:55: I pay for the food, after parking and then getting through the line at the restaurant.
8:10: I arrive home and start unpacking the dinners.
Total Time: 40 minutes
Total Cost for family of 4: $35 (that's with my two teen daughters getting the kids' meal, my husband and I splitting an entree, and a $1 tip for the nice lady at the front desk).

OK, so now you're thinking, "Well, of course it took 40 minutes; she went to a full-service restaurant. That's why drive-through fast food is the ticket on a weeknight." Well, I tried the fast-food route and it did improve my time -- but not by much. Here's the breakdown of my fast-food drive-through experience:

6:10 p.m.: I pick my daughter up from the dance studio. I haven't had the chance to go to the supermarket, and last I checked, there was next to nothing in the fridge. So I'm thinking fast food is the way to got. We drive 10 minutes to a part of town we fondly refer to as "fast-food row."
6:28: Other families must have the same idea, because it takes us eight minutes to get to the intercom and order our dinner.
6:32: We pay for our food and head home.
6:42: We're home and unpacking dinner.
Total Time: 32 minutes
Total Cost for family of 4: $20 (includes 4 chicken sandwiches, 4 side salads from the dollar menu, and no drinks).

So now you're thinking "32 minutes? What can I cook in 32 minutes?" Read on.

Faster-Than-Takeout Option 1: The Potato Bar

I discovered this awesome weeknight dinner option one day when I decided to use that 5-pound bag of potatoes sitting in the corner of my kitchen, and I've never looked back. We do this about every other week. Fitting for a family with an Irish name, don't you think? Here's my timeline for a potato bar dinner (see more specifics in the recipe below):

Starting Time: 6:05 p.m.: I threw four potatoes into my microwave/convection oven and set it to sensor cook for "hard vegetables." Then I preheated the oven to 400 degrees (I'll explain why later). I ran to the grocery store while they were cooking and bought a few items I was missing (shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese; fat-free sour cream; and green onions). When I got back, the potatoes were tender and the oven was preheated. I rubbed a wee bit of canola oil on the outside of each potato, set them on a baking sheet, and let the outside crisp up a bit in the oven for 15 minutes.

I opened the bag of cheese, put a spoon into the nonfat sour cream container, chopped the green onions, and set out the pepper grinder and whipped butter and less-fat margarine (either has less fat per tablespoon than stick butter or margarine). I even had time to steam a little broccoli and saute some pre-sliced mushrooms, in case anyone wanted to get a little fancy with their potato.

About 20 minutes after I got home from shopping, I was yelling, "Dinner's ready!" Then we all sat down at the table to enjoy our personalized potatoes. I will definitely be repeating "Potato Bar Night" in weeks to come (that 5-pound bag of potatoes is now a 2 1/2-pound bag).

End Time: 6:40 p.m.
Total Time: 35 minutes (20 minutes if you don't crisp the potatoes in the hot oven)
Total Cost for a family of 4: $12

Faster-Than-Takeout Option 2: Pick-a-Pasta Night