20-Minute Meals for When You Don't Feel Like Cooking

In her monthly column, Dinner's Ready, contributor Emily Connor shares three satisfying, ultra-tasty recipes that you can pretty much make in your sleep.

May  1, 2020
Photo by Anna Billingskog

It's the end of the long workday (or the start of an extra-long week) and we're hungry. Like, "can't-think-straight" hungry. Luckily, Food52 contributor EmilyC wants to do all the thinking for us. In Dinner's Ready, her monthly column on weeknight wonders, she shares three simple, flavor-packed recipes that are connected by a single idea or ingredient. Stick with Emily, and you'll have a good dinner on the table in no time. Today, Emily shows us what to cook if you don't feel like cooking anything (and still eat well).

Suffice it to say, people everywhere are cooking differently (and most of us more) than ever before. We’re stretching our pantry items, creating meal plans (even if we never relied on them in the past), and stocking and cooking from the depths of our freezers. We’re turning to foods that bring us comfort, whether freshly baked bread, big pots of beans, or cakes that do double duty as dessert and breakfast.

Until starting to shelter-in-place almost eight weeks ago, I really didn’t have a firm grasp on just how much food it takes to feed my family of four (including my ravenous 10-year old son) a full three meals per day, seven days a week. Nor did I comprehend the number of dishes we’d be washing on a daily basis. So many dishes.

What has surprised me, though, is how much more I want simple, speedy meals during the week—the kind that are on the table in 15 to 20 minutes. Back in March, I had grand ideas of tackling more ambitious dinner recipes (the kind typically reserved for company, or a lazy Sunday) using the time I’d normally spend commuting, or shuttling my kids to soccer practice. But reality quickly set in. After full days of remote work and home schooling (or some semblance of it), comfort for me lies in meals that don't require much mental energy, long ingredient lists, or time to execute, yet still deliver big on flavor. (And ones which don’t dirty many dishes, of course.)

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I have tried Martha's One-Pot Pasta and it is better than I can find words for!”
— NancyKate

Below are three simple, adaptable meals that I’ve turned to multiple times over the last few weeks for lunches and dinners alike. Each one comes together in under 20 minutes and leans heavily on pantry ingredients, with one or two spring vegetables for good measure. (And for more on making your produce last a little longer, take a peek at this article.) The recipes are easily scalable depending on how many people you’re feeding (and their appetites). To make improvising easier, I’ve broken each recipe down into basic formulas, and included ideas for ingredient substitutions.

Miso-Ginger Noodles With Tuna & Spicy Sesame Crumbs

This dish—with its saucy noodles, tuna, and crunchy, spicy crumbs—is basically tuna noodle casserole, reimagined. It’s simple and speedy enough that you can prep ingredients as you cook: Make the miso-ginger dressing while bringing a pot of water to a boil, add the noodles (soba, udon, even spaghetti), and while they’re going, toast a mix of panko, sesame seeds and chile flakes. To finish the dish, toss the warm noodles with the dressing, tuna, and a handful of greens, then top with the nutty, toasty crumbs. It’s calm and comfort, brightness and freshness, all in one bowl.

noodles + canned fish (optional) + umami-rich dressing + leafy greens + crunchy topping
  • Noodles: soba, udon, ramen, spaghetti, linguine
  • Canned fish: tuna or salmon, or leftover fish or chicken cut into small pieces
  • Umami-rich dressing: miso-ginger or your favorite soy-based purchased dressing
  • Leafy greens: spinach, arugula, kale, parsley, cilantro
  • Crunchy topping: panko breadcrumbs and/or sesame seeds, furikake, gomashio

Brown Butter Couscous with Spring Vegetables

When infused with brown butter and sumac (or another spice), grains and small pastas take on a whole new person. Just try it with farro, quinoa, or orzo! My favorite way that I’ve been employing this technique? Quicker-than-quick, supremely satisfying instant couscous. To this, I add any fresh produce on hand. Lately, I’ve been turning to a mix of sauteed and raw radishes (an ode to my love of radishes and butter), a handful of fresh greens or herbs, lemon juice, and a mix of feta, toasted almonds, and dried currants. But I’ve also made this dish with sauteed carrot coins, broccoli, and other vegetables that need rescuing from my crisper drawer, as well as different combinations of cheese, nuts, and dried fruit. It totally hits the spot every single time.

Grains or small pasta + butter + spice + mix-ins + sauteed and/or fresh vegetables
  • Grains or small pasta: instant couscous, pearl couscous, fregola, quinoa, farro, orzo
  • Spice: sumac, paprika, za’atar, lemon pepper, garam masala, Aleppo pepper
  • Mix-ins: cheese (feta, chèvre, torn mozzarella, shaved aged cheddar); nuts (almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts); dried fruit (currants, raisins, chopped figs, dates, or apricots)
  • Sauteéd and/or fresh vegetables: radishes, asparagus, thin carrot coins, sugar snap peas, thinly sliced fennel, Swiss chard

Asparagus with Fried Eggs & Sizzled Paprika Croutons

There’s a lot to love about this simple, boldly flavored meal: It’s cooked in one skillet and ready lickedly-split. It combines asparagus with fried, runny eggs, a tried-and-true pairing that never, ever gets old. It’s crowned with sizzled paprika croutons: irregularly torn pieces of bread cooked in plenty of fat and smoked paprika until crispy on the outside, still soft on the inside. The finished dish is far greater than the sum of its parts. Be warned that you may find yourself eating the smoky, crunchy croutons straight from the pan before dinner ever makes it to the table.

Bread + spice + eggs + sauteed vegetable
  • Bread: any type of day-old crusty bread or sourdough
  • Spice: paprika (smoked, sweet or hot), sumac, turmeric, garam masala, za’atar, chile powder
  • Eggs: Fried or soft-cooked (or I’ve substituted white beans—also good!)
  • Sauteéd vegetables: Asparagus, thinly sliced broccoli, sugar snap or snow peas, kale or other leafy greens

Bonus: Another Low-Maintenance, Non-Dinner Dinner

What are your favorite lightning-quick dinners to make right now? Let us know in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • NancyKate
  • Shelley Matheis
    Shelley Matheis
  • Pamula
  • pamelalee
  • EmilyC

Written by: EmilyC

I'm a home cook. I love salads. Two things you'll always find in my refrigerator are lemons and butter, and in my pantry good quality chocolate and the makings for chocolate chip cookies.


NancyKate August 26, 2020
So many great quick recipes and no way to print them! Or perhaps I hope that I overlooked something??I have tried Martha's One-Pot Pasta and it is better than I can find words for!
EmilyC August 27, 2020
Thanks NancyKate! If you click on each recipe above, it'll take you to a full recipe page. You can print from there! Please let me know if you try anything!
Shelley M. August 9, 2020
Those paprika croutons sound fabulous just on their own!
Pamula May 8, 2020
You always have so many delicious recipes I just want to stay in the kitchen & cook. Thank you
EmilyC May 8, 2020
Aw thank you Pamula! I hope cooking is bringing you joy and comfort right now. Thanks for reading!
pamelalee May 2, 2020
I can’t wait to try these recipes. I especially
appreciate all your substitution ideas!
EmilyC May 4, 2020
Thanks pamelalee! Hope you like the recipes if you try them -- either as written or with substitutions. Thanks for your note!