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Quick Tips for Fast Meals

Keep pasta and other convenience foods on hand to whip up a quick meal. For more ideas, see pictures of easy weeknight meals.

Q. I tend to cook the same quick meals over and over again. Can you suggest more creative meals that are quick to prepare?

A. For this answer, we turned to the Food Network's Rachael Ray. Rachael Ray grew up in food: "My first vivid memory is watching Mom in a restaurant kitchen. She was flipping something with a spatula. I tried to copy her and ended up grilling my right thumb."

For three generations, Ray's family has been in the food business. After working in the family businesses, Ray went on to manage the fresh foods department at Macy's Marketplace in New York City, then opened Agata & Valentina, the prestigious New York City gourmet marketplace.

However, Ray left the fast lane to manage pubs and restaurants in upstate New York, and eventually landed a job as a food buyer for a large gourmet market in Albany. In that capacity, she taught cooking classes to bring in crowds during the holidays; the classes -- "30-Minute Mediterranean Meals" -- became so popular that soon the local TV stations were filming them.

Two Emmys and several successful cookbooks later, her work has grown to include a series of lifestyle and travel segments on the Food Network: "30-Minute Meals" and "$40 a Day" (in which Ray travels the world, showing the viewer how to eat well anywhere on $40 a day), and CBS's Rachel Ray Show, which always includes a cooking segment. Following are Ray's time-saving tips, plus two of her menus, including recipes, so that you too can get delicious meals on the table in less than half an hour:

  • Time is money, so take help where you can get it. "Sometimes it's worth the added cents to choose raw deveined shrimp over shrimp you have to clean, or chicken cutlets over the breasts you would have to trim and split," Ray says. She also uses canned foods, such as beans, tomatoes and stocks, because of the time savings.
  • Keep your pantry stocked with the building blocks of fast meals: basics such as pastas, rice, broths, stocks, canned tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, and canned beans.
  • Keep chicken breast cutlets or tenders, chops, ground beef, and turkey in the freezer. Defrost them in the morning before you leave for the day, and you'll have the protein part of the meal ready to cook when you get home.
  • Prepare your menu items according to the time it takes to cook them. For example, start longer-cooking foods first. While they're cooking, prepare the rest of the menu.
  • Purchase and cook foods with other meals in mind. For example, chicken breast cutlets can be chicken Parmigiana tonight and chicken fajitas tomorrow night.
  • Get children involved in making dinner. Besides benefiting from the obvious creative aspects of cooking and the boost to their self-esteem, there are the more practical bonuses of developing math skills and learning how to eat well. "Plus," Ray adds, "if they're helping you cook, you're not distracted or interrupted, so dinner can be done on time."

Q. What other items can I use to make meal preparation even faster?

A. Don't be afraid to use take advantage of the items at your local grocery store. Here are more ideas:

  • Supplement the main dish with prepared salads and/or side dishes from the supermarket or natural foods market deli. Packaged salad greens have just about eliminated the need to tear up fresh greens.
  • Cook in large amounts and refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. Include ingredients such as beans, rice, ground meat, and vegetables. For example, steam enough fresh green beans for a side dish one night, a salad the next.
  • Use convenience foods that cut down prep time, such as ready-made pizza crusts, prepared frozen stir-fry meals, and packaged fresh pasta.
  • Skinless, boneless chicken breasts cook up in no time. Season or bread them for a quick saut√© or stir-fry, or cook them whole in a sauce or marinade.
  • Check out recipes on the boxes and packages of convenience foods for ideas. Many of these recipes are developed with speed in mind.
  • Although it might seem like a contradiction, slow cookers actually make quick work of getting a meal on the table. Just toss the ingredients in the cooker in the morning, and dinner is ready when you get home.

For more quick meal recipes, see: