What to CookDinner

50+ "Emergency Dinners" for Late Nights & Huge Appetites

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Is dinner a love story or an act of desperation?

At 9 P.M. on a weeknight, it's indisputably the latter. It's not that I don't want to cook (though, we've got lots of ideas for that situation, too)—it's that I don't feel like I physically can. These nights coincide, cruelly but expectedly, with the moments when I feel like I could, as the saying goes, eat a horse (though that seems like a much worse option...).

So, in order to avoid tearing through the kitchen, shoving everything edible and in arm's reach into my mouth, and falling asleep in my work clothes with the lights on, I need an "emergency dinner"— so that my day, no matter how it started, won't end with a pile of Saltines.

Dinner tonight?
Dinner tonight? Photo by James Ransom

We tapped the Food52 team and community to compile 50+ ideas for tasty combinations born from necessity. Our Test Kitchen chef Josh Cohen advised, "Take any ingredient cook it, and melt cheese over it, and then add some hot sauce. Dinner is served." While that might need a bit of an imagination, it sheds light on the overarching philosophy of resourcefulness (and easy access to cheese).

Here's what we're eating when we need to eat now—scroll through or click on this handy list to jump around:

Mostly vegetables (and, usually, cheese)

  • Microwave, bake, or pressure cook a sweet potato, then top with vegetables and cheese (shout out to Windischgirl, whose emergency meal, shared in these comments, inspired this post!). Topping recommendations: avocado, segments of grapefruit or orange, dill, walnuts, blobs of Greek yogurt.
  • Gratin-ify: Slice any vegetables in the crisper (potatoes, onion, carrots, kale, etc.) very thin, then cover with cream and cheese. Bake, covered, until soft, then broil to get the top crispy.
  • Finely chop cauliflower ("caul" it "rice," if you will), sear in a pan over high heat, then crack in an egg and cook till set.
  • Roast broccoli until super charred. Eat over rice with soy sauce.
  • Slice a sweet potato into 1/4-inch slices, cook in your toaster (this will take a couple of up-and-downs) or toaster oven, then go sweet (nut butter, banana slices, coconut) or savory (smashed avocado, red pepper flakes, flaky salt).
Marinating Isn't Just for Meat (or Summertime)
Marinating Isn't Just for Meat (or Summertime)
  • Roast or sauté any vegetable you've got lying around. Marinate with lemon, chili, and fish sauce (our Test Kitchen Chef Josh Cohen recommends colatura, an Italian fish sauce made from anchovies, in particular.)
  • Hollow out mushroom caps and add leftover vegetables mashed with feta cheese and sour cream. Bake until warm, then top with more cheese and broil.
  • Think you have no salad dressing? Mix together olive oil, lime juice, and soy sauce, then massage it into hearty greens or drizzle on top of arugula or spinach.
  • Fry cumin and fennel seeds in coconut oil, then add garlic and whatever alliums you have. Add a heap of shredded cabbage, a pat of butter, stir to coat, and cover. Cook until soft, stirring occasionally, then mix in a can of chickpeas and warm through. Top with toasted coconut.
  • Tear up kale leaves (kitchen scissors will make this easier), toss with salt and oil, and bake in a 350° F oven, watching carefully so they don't burn. As soon as they come out, sprinkle the leaves with soy sauce and lemon juice. Eat on toast.

Pasta & noodles:

  • Boil spaghetti, then add butter, Parmesan, and finely chopped herbs to the hot pasta along with a couple tablespoons of the cooking liquid.
  • Or go brighter and add lemon zest, lemon juice, Parmesan, basil, and capers.
  • Mix together chili oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, and black vinegar while you cook soba noodles. Toss noodles in sauce. Top with sliced green onion. Fry an egg and add it to the bowl. (Inspired by "Emergency Noodles" in Fuchsia Dunlop's book Every Grain of Rice.)
More than enough to work with.
More than enough to work with. Photo by Mark Weinberg
  • Boil pasta, coat with butter, grated cheese, and black pepper, then crack a raw egg over top and stir everything together until you have a creamy sauce. (Josh Cohen calls this "lazy boy fake carbonara.")
  • As you boil pasta, sauté pancetta in a big pan. Add peas defrosted from the freezer, and then the cooked pasta, miso paste you've thinned with a bit of its cooking liquid, and butter.
  • While you cook noodles, blend together avocado, lime juice, cilantro, and salt. Toss hot pasta with the sauce, top with freshly ground pepper, and chopped cilantro.
Everyday Avocado Dressing
Everyday Avocado Dressing
  • Boil lasagna noodles in one pot; heat canned tomatoes with tomato paste in another. In a bowl, layer the cooked noodles (tear them! go crazy!) with the sauce, spoonfuls of ricotta, and chunks of mozzarella. Shower with Parmesan or Gruyère.
  • Pasta sandwich
  • Fry garlic slices in oil. Add a can of clams, dried herbs, and butter. Then stir in cooked pasta, along with a spoonful of its cooking liquid, and a splash or wine (or light beer) plus any herbs you have. Zest a lemon over top.

Sausage, chicken, bacon, etc.

  • Fry tomato paste, garlic, and smoked paprika in some oil, then tip in shredded chicken (or chickpeas!) and warm through. (This can be taco filling.)
  • Score fresh Italian sausages, cutting 1/4-inch into the meat. Nestle into a pan along with diced canned tomatoes, harissa or hot sauce, chopped onion, smashed garlic cloves, then broil for 15 minutes, until the sausages are bursting.
  • Pound chicken breasts flat, then brown quickly in a skillet on high heat. Top with arugula, lemon, olive oil, and curls of Parmesan.
3 Variations on Pan Sauce for Weeknight Chicken
3 Variations on Pan Sauce for Weeknight Chicken
  • Fry up nubs of any cured meat or a lone breakfast sausage, stir in greens, tip in a container of takeout rice, and warm through. Splash in some vinegar before serving.
  • Shred leftover chicken (or the rotisserie you just picked up at the store) in a bowl, add mayo, mustard chopped pickles, chopped hard-boiled eggs, and errant chopped produce and herbs lying around. Spoon onto bread; eat open-faced.
  • Fry bacon in a skillet. Remove from the pan but leave the fat. Throw in thinly sliced potatoes, cook until tender, then fry an egg. Chop up the bacon; toss with potatoes; top with egg.
How to Make Breakfast Hash Without a Recipe
How to Make Breakfast Hash Without a Recipe

Fish & seafood (canned and frozen)

  • Salmon patties: Mash a can of salmon with chopped onion, garlic, red pepper if you have it, and capers. Sauté veggies and mix into salmon with an egg and bread crumbs. Pan-fry. ("I eat it with ketchup. Is that gross?" wonders Olivia Bloom.)
  • Reduce a can of whole tomatoes with a pat of butter, chile flakes, and dried basil and oregano; add defrosted shrimp and stir until cooked through.
  • Mix oil-cured jarred tuna with chickpeas, diced red onion, olive oil, and lemon. Plop onto salad greens or rye bread.
  • Defrost frozen shrimp, then toss them with olive oil and salt. Broil in the oven, flipping once, then scatter dried or fresh herbs over top and dress with lemon juice and chunks of feta.


  • Beat eggs with fish sauce, sesame oil, chile flakes, and squeeze of lime. Scramble till soft, then fold in cilantro.
  • Fry garlic, add frozen corn, and stir till defrosted. Scramble in eggs. Eat atop an English muffin.
100 Ways to Eat Eggs
100 Ways to Eat Eggs
  • Crack eggs into an oven-safe dish (how about an egg coddler?), and add cream, torn herbs, and any kind of tomato (sauce, whole from a can, or fresh and diced in summer). Bake until set. Just add toast.
  • Fry two eggs and perch each on a rice cake. Top with whatever's in the fridge: kimchi, harissa, chutney, leftover greens—and definitely some flavored salt.

Beans et al.

  • Drain and rinse a can of chickpeas, then smash them with a fork. Mix in a little mustard, mayonnaise, lemon juice, chopped dill pickle, and a dash of hot sauce. Eat on toast.
  • Or, simpler: Semi-mash a can of cannellini beans with olive oil, salt, pepper. ("It has saved my life," claims Kaitlin Bray.)
  • Sauté a diced onion with any combination of cumin, curry powder, za'atar, sumac, or coriander. Add a can or two of any type of beans you have on hand, then any hearty greens (kale, mustard greens, chard) and cook until the greens are wilted. Spray with lemon or lime juice, then stir in Greek yogurt, sour cream, or crème fraîche. Garnish with nuts and herbs.
A $10-Dollar Meal For When You're Convinced You Have "Nothing" to Make
A $10-Dollar Meal For When You're Convinced You Have "Nothing" to Make
  • Cook a diced onion and grated or smashed garlic in a healthy amount of olive oil. Add tomato paste, followed by a few cans of white beans, a large can of whole peeled tomatoes, a splash of water or stock, and thyme or rosemary if you have. Cook to a stewy thickness, season with salt and pepper, and spoon into bowls. Top with Parmesan cheese and more olive oil.
  • Heat oil in a heavy skillet and add any alliums you have—garlic, too. Then take a block of tempeh and crumble it into the pan. Let the crumbles brown, then stir so that the other sides sear, too. Add your favorite chili powder and hot sauce and stir to combine.
  • Cut tempeh into triangles or thick cubes. Sear both sides in a pan, then add a mixture of orange juice, maple syrup, soy sauce, grated ginger, and rice wine vinegar. Pour into the pan with the tempeh, bring to a simmer, and reduce until syrupy. Squeeze a lime over top.
Smoky, Savory Vegan Crumbles to Add by the Handful to Everything
Smoky, Savory Vegan Crumbles to Add by the Handful to Everything
  • While you press tofu and soak rice noodles, mix together slivers of chile or chile flakes, Sriracha, soy sauce, sesame oil, and mirin or rice vinegar. Slice the tofu into slabs, heat vegetable oil in a high-sided skillet, and fry the tofu pieces until brown. Tear or chop the fried tofu into chunks, spoon over rice noodles, then pour the dressing over everything.
  • Warm a can of black beans and a can of fire-roasted tomatoes together on the stove, seasoning as you like. Spoon over charred tortillas or a pile of tortilla chips. Top with avocado slices and a fried egg.

"Soups," porridges & other bowl foods

  • Sauté shallots, then add coconut milk and water, bring to a simmer, and add whatever vegetables you have. And noodles or rice, too, if you've got them.
  • Cook quinoa in water or vegetable broth with sliced scallions, then top with more sliced scallions, soy sauce, and a few drops of sesame oil.
  • Cook rolled oats in coconut milk. Add a spoonful of curry powder, chopped herbs, and toasted coconut and float a soft-boiled egg on top. Now, hot sauce!
  • Boil quinoa and add whatever chopped vegetables or greens are around for the last few minutes. Once cooked, stir in feta or goat cheese and a can of beans, then drizzle with olive oil and the best vinegar you've got.
Oatmeal: It's Not Just for Breakfast

Oatmeal: It's Not Just for Breakfast by Brette Warshaw

Savory Oatmeal You Can Have Any Time of Day, Any Which Way

Savory Oatmeal You Can Have Any Time of Day, Any Which Way by Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm


Carbs of all kinds

  • Cook garlic and onion in a wide, shallow skillet. Add a can of whole tomatoes and a couple spoonfuls of chipotles in adobo. Add a handful of tortilla chips, press them into the sauce, and cook until the sauce simmers and the chips soften. Garnish with salty cheese.
  • Heat a pat of butter in a big skillet. Add a flour tortilla, then top with any kind of melting cheese. When the cheese softens, spoon over green chiles from a jar (or pesto, or salsa), then fold the quesadilla in half, flip, and cook until the bottom side is golden brown, too.
Gabrielle Hamilton's Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
Gabrielle Hamilton's Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
  • Spread two slices of bread with mayonnaise. On the non-mayo side of one piece of bread, add a smear of mustard, a slice or two of ham, and pile of shredded cheese. Balance the other piece of bread on top, mayo side facing out, then cook in a dry skillet over medium-low for 5 minutes on each side.
  • Sauté garlic, ginger, onions, and any vegetables from the fridge or freezer. Dump in leftover rice and soy sauce, then scramble in an egg. Season with sesame oil. (If you have roasted seaweed in your pantry, Eunice Choi recommends you turn this into a hand-roll.)
  • Bring water and/or milk to a boil, then season with salt and whisk in quick grits. Cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes. Then dump in your favorite shredded or crumbled cheese and a whole lot of black pepper and stir until the cheese has melted. (Merrill likes to eat this with a poached egg.)
  • Bread salad: Toast any slice whole-wheat bread (stale is fine) in the oven. As it cools, toss hearty greens with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, diced shallot, herbs, and chopped-up dried fruits and nuts. When the bread is cooled, briefly run it under cold water, then ring it out and crumble it into the bowl. Let it sit with the dressing and vegetables for as long as you can muster, then adjust salt, pepper, and oil to taste.
Crispy Salt and Pepper French Toast
Crispy Salt and Pepper French Toast
  • Dip slices of bread into beaten eggs seasoned with a salt, a generous amount of pepper, a dash of cayenne, finely grated Parmesan, and chopped chives or scallions. Fry like French toast, then eat with hot sauce.
  • Spoon leftover rice of any kind into a bowl. Shower with cheddar cheese, then microwave until melted. (Don't knock it 'til you try it.)

And in case of a dessert emergency...

  • Pitted date cut in half, smeared with peanut butter, and sprinkled with cardamom
  • Graham cracker spread with Nutella and sprinkled with cinnamon
  • Peanut butter, frozen banana, chocolate chip smoothie

If all else fails, break glass do what our controller Victoria Maynard does: FEAST—"a.k.a. cheese and crackers and meat and olives and hummus etc.—whatever tiny bites are in my fridge on a plate. Always called 'Feast.'" Way to choose your attitude, Victoria.

Phew! That's enough from us: What about you? Share your emergency meal in the comments below. We could all use the help!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Weeknight Cooking, Lists, Dinner, Faster