As a first-generation American, I grew up eating Indian food, but the first recipe I learned how to cook, when I was 16, was a pasta dish. I scanned The Joy of Cooking for about half an hour until I found something I was confident I could make.
The recipe was pretty simple. Boil orecchiette, which are medium shells. Steam broccoli. Fry sausage. Mix it all together and add salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese. Even in my novice state, it only took me about a half an hour.
This was the recipe I cooked, in about twenty minutes, when I was 24, trying to win over my then-girlfriend’s teenage sister, who was skeptical: both of the recipe and about me dating her big sister. (I succeeded on both counts.)
I’m 32 now, and as both a startup founder (of Gatsby) and the parent of two small children, I’m extremely stretched for time. And while I rarely cook that pasta dish anymore, I’ve realized that it’s the kind of dish that keeps my life workable.
Put it this way: my goal most days is pretty simple. The kids come home from daycare around 5. They’re usually hungry. If so, my goal is for dinner to be on the table by 5:20. The difference between success and failure here is often the difference between a playful, happy evening and a series of sequential meltdowns.
Over a couple years, we figured out a system to make this happen, while cooking a variety of meals we find interesting. The secret we learned is modular cooking.
Modular cooking came out of understanding and applying a sequence of insights into what dinner is, starting with something illustrated by the orecchiette, sausage, and broccoli dish.
Most dishes have, at most, four core components. Most dishes, across most cultures combine a set of four things:
- A carb base. Rice, naan, pita, bread, tortilla, potatoes…
- A vegetable. Broccoli, mixed veggies, lettuce,
- A meat. Chicken, beef, pork, fish…
- A sauce. Enchilada sauce, cheddar cheese and sour cream, various types of curry, white sauce, red sauce, olive oil and parmesan cheese, salad dressing…
Most cooking time is actually prep time and cleanup time. You know what makes dishes take a long time? Thawing frozen chicken. Then cutting that chicken. Then washing your hands, the cutting board, and the knife. You know how you can avoid doing that?
Use frozen, pre-cut, sealed veggies and meats. Bag-steamable mixed veggies. Salmon burgers. Chicken strips. 6oz steaks. Prepackaged salad kits. Put your sealed containers of meat in the fridge at appropriate intervals; they should last a week or so there.
Use pre-packaged spice packets and pastes. For Indian or Thai curries, I use curry pastes from Amazon along with yogurt or coconut milk solids rather than milk (to reduce liquid boiling time). For TexMex themed stuff, those McCormick spice packets work fine. Rather than sifting through an entire spice drawer, opening five containers, sticking a teaspoon inside each one, the goal is to put one or two things into your one, big frying pan. Which brings us to:
Cooking in parallel with the microwave and one big frying pan. Steam your mixed veggies. Fry your salmon burger, beef strips, frozen chicken. Add in your sauce. Drain the water from steamed veggies and put those in too. If applicable, boil your carb base (pasta or rice) in a two-quart measuring cup in the microwave. (I’m mostly-paleo these days, so often use a frozen bag of riced cauliflower).
Generally, this should be pretty fast, and in ten or fifteen minutes you should be ready to…
Serve food on plasticware. We use plastic plates, bowls, forks, spoons, bowls, etc to eat, and also on the odd occasion we need a cutting board (eg onions, an avocado, making steak strips, etc). As a result, we wash our main pan once or twice daily but only need to run the dishwasher a couple times a week for our kids’ milk bottles, the pan, the spatula, etc.
Here are some meals we cooked this week, all under 15 minutes:
- Chicken tacos: fry frozen chicken strips, beans, sour cream, cheese, microwave frozen veggies & add, serve on tortillas)
- Steak & avocado salad: chopped steak + an avocado + an avocado salad kit)
- Salmon and eggs: fry two salmon burgers, mince them up while frying eggs
- Chicken curry: fry frozen chicken strips, onions, Thai coconut paste, coconut milk, frozen vegetables, served on riced cauliflower.
This probably isn’t a perfect, or universal approach. Our dinners aren’t fancy. They do cost a bit more, and generate a bit more paper waste (though less food waste).
But our modular cooking system gives us more of the ultimate nonrenewable resource — quality time with our kids.
You’ll notice some things that aren’t here.
- No recipes or pre-planning. Because all the pieces are modular and shelf-stable, they don’t need to plan much out in advance — just stock up the freezer on regular intervals.
- No pots or baking dishes. This is for two reasons. First, warming up ovens and boiling water can take ten to 15 minutes prep time. Second, both baking dishes and pots usually end up with food residue on them, which means you need to soak them and eventually scrub them and then they live in the back of your mind until they’re clean.
- No garnishes. Garnishes are nice, but usually go bad quickly in the refrigerator, and add extra work for marginal gain.
There’s also one thing we’ve learned that helps:
- Cook in bulk. Buy a large volume pan, like a deep 11-inch pan or a wok, and you’ll probably have leftovers for yours’ or the kid’s lunch the next day. Modular cooking is scalable. It takes marginally more time to make 50% more food.