30-Minute Meals Are Not Really A Thing

by Sara Farrell Baker
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When I was a child, I used to help my grandmother make a massive amount of potato salad every year before Christmas. I don’t know what about the birth of Jesus demanded potato salad, but it was a staple at our table every year. My job was to dice the celery. I would sit at the table and slice the stalks into strips, then rock the knife back and forth as I moved the strips forward, striving for a uniform size. I gripped the knife so hard that my fingers can now do this gross witchy thing where I lock out my middle knuckles and bend down the tips. It looks weird and is the result of hours and hours of intense focus over multiple Christmases of chopping.

I am not the kind of cook who can hack away at shit and throw it in a pot. When cooking, I am slow and precise, double- and triple-checking my recipe before moving on to the next instruction. I can’t toss in a dash of this and guesstimate that. There are crockpots with more gusto.

Dinner is a laborious endeavor for me. The most frustrating part of my day is the point when I have to stop whatever I am doing, mid-afternoon, to start cooking. If I let it go and don’t begin my prep until later, my family doesn’t eat until just before bedtime.

In my quest to remedy the amount of time it takes me to get a meal on the table, I began a search for simple meals that could be prepared quickly — minimal ingredients, minimal steps, and obviously, minimal chopping. I became disheartened when the recipes I found involved tossing chicken breasts and a can of soup in a slow cooker or mixing a shredded rotisserie chicken with a can of cream soup. Soup and chicken were in pretty much all of the recipes I found. My husband is mostly a vegetarian (I try to only cook meat once a week, if that), and I’m pretty sure that adding a can of condensed soup to our diet five nights a week will result in piss-poor arteries down the road.

Soon my pursuits led me to the phenomenon of the 30-minute meal. These were recipes that, when prepared as instructed, should only take 30 minutes to complete. I’m lucky if I can get some blue box mac and cheese and a plate of broccoli on the table in under 30, so I was skeptical. And rightfully so, it appears. Almost none of the recipes I attempted were successfully completed in 30 minutes or less. To be honest, the only recipe I can truly count on to be that speedy is one where the only step is “Call Dominoes.”

If you think I am being ridiculous, I can assure you, I am. But that is neither here nor there. What is here is the fact that many 30-minute meals take 30 minutes for no one. When reading these recipes, there is usually a note at the top indicating how long the meal will take to prepare, including prep and cooking time.

A bunch of the recipes for 30-minute meals I found were noted as taking 40 minutes. I found one that said an hour and five minutes. What the hell is that? I may be slow with a paring knife, but I am no dummy. Calling that a 30-minute meal is giving alternative facts. Falsehoods. Lies! Even if I follow this recipe at the speed of a normal human being, it’s going to take me over an hour to have it on the table? In Super-Slow Sara Minutes, that’s about two hours and 48 minutes, which translates roughly to “Hurry up and eat this PBJ before your bedtime story, kids!”

Cooking may come easy for some. But for the rest of us, it’s a frantic attempt to remember where the hell I put the garlic powder, and if I can use that and some salt instead of garlic salt because I forgot to buy the damn garlic salt. It is taking 25 minutes to chop an onion because I need frequent breaks on the other side of my house so my eyes can stop feeling like I opened them in a vat of Sriracha. I don’t need 30-minute meals. I need a 30-minute cool-down period after I sweat out half my body’s moisture in one afternoon of working in the kitchen.

Thirty-minute meals are doing you no favors if you’re a hack in the kitchen. I am accepting defeat. Pasta, canned sauce, and a daily multivitamin are going to have to suffice. My family will survive. And maybe one of my kids will figure out how to do this crap without me. I look forward to that day.