29 Ways to Add a Gourmet Twist to a Simple, Last-Minute Meal

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Seasoning food while cooking
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IN THE FEAST LANE

Eating well on a budget is all about being prepared. Sometimes that's making a big batch of meals for the week or having a few three-ingredient recipes up the sleeve. For when those steps fall through, there are simple techniques you can use to liven up even the simplest, last-minute meal.

Spaghetti with sauce
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MAKE YOUR OWN PASTA SAUCE

Pasta is a favorite quick and easy meal. If you're feeling fancy, but don't have much time to pull everything together, try an Instant Pot spaghetti sauce that takes just 17 minutes. Made with ingredients you'll likely have on hand anyway, it's a great way to trick friends and family into thinking you've been cooking for hours. (Feel free to sub in canned tomatoes.)

Recipe: Wholesome Delicious
Pasta noodles cooking
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SALT THE PASTA WATER

Even if you're just using a favorite bottled pasta sauce, there's an easy way to get the most savory flavors from pasta: Throw in some salt once the water comes to a boil. Don't stress about exact amounts; Italian recipe queen Marcella Hazan recommends no less than 1.5 tablespoons for a pound of pasta, and more if the sauce isn't all that salty.

Grated Parmesan cheese
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SPLURGE ON A REAL CHEESE

Grab a real chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano to grate over pasta. Though there may be a quick moment of sticker shock, what you're buying is 100 percent authentic, flavor-packed cheese, rather than a sad, powdery substitute with cheap fillers (including that wood pulp you've heard about). The real thing will also last forever in the fridge. Because the cheese has so little moisture, surface mold won't travel any further into the paste of the cheese — if a bit grows, just slice it off.

Dressing a salad
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DRESS YOUR SALAD

There's no meal quicker and easier than a big salad full of favorite veggies. Why not make your own salad dressing? A basic vinaigrette comes together in five minutes.

Recipe: The Kitchn
Vinaigrette
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CUSTOMIZE A VINAIGRETTE

Start with a tasty, healthy vinaigrette and customize it, from a Bistro Bacon version to Spicy Honey-Mustard.

Recipe: Food Network
Homemade ranch dressing
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MAKE YOUR OWN RANCH

This homemade ranch dressing that takes five minutes to whip up is called a "go-to base ranch dressing" by one amateur chef; another proclaims it "BEST. RANCH. DRESSING. EVER!!!!"

Recipe: Barefeet in the Kitchen
Spinach salad
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GO WITH BUTTER

Olive oil is delicious and good for you, but there's nothing like butter, especially nutty brown butter. Test it: Try subbing it in for olive oil in a favorite vinaigrette, or make this Spinach Salad with Warm Brown Butter Dressing. If you don't have pickled onions, use thinly sliced red onions.

Recipe: The Kitchn
Caramelized onions
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KEEP CARAMELIZED ONIONS ON HAND

There's nothing like caramelized onions to add a burst of sweet-and-savory flavor to any meal, from a grilled cheese sandwich to steak. The next time you have a free hour, do your future self a solid and make a big batch. It'll keep for a week in the fridge, and several months in the freezer.

Recipe: Bon Appetit
Roasted garlic bulbs
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KEEP ROASTED GARLIC ON HAND

Even less hands-on time is needed to make roasted garlic than is needed for caramelized onions, and roasted garlic will add flavor to anything. Throw it in beans, smear it on toast, throw it into pasta, or just eat it plain as a snack. If you have an Instant Pot, you can have roasted garlic in 20 minutes. At that rate, you could even make it the night you need a quick dinner.

Recipes: Simply Recipes and Hip Pressure Cooking
Roasted tomatoes
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ROAST TOMATOES IN ADVANCE

Think ahead for a quick and painless dinner with slow roasted tomatoes, another ingredient you can either plan a meal around immediately — tossed with cheese and thrown them into pasta with olive oil and a bit of black pepper — or keep in the fridge. If halving a few dozen tomatoes sounds daunting, just keep them whole. They'll be a bit less reduced, but still delicious.

Recipe: Smitten Kitchen
Artisan bread loaf
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BE PREPARED TO BAKE BREAD

Homemade bread is another easy make-ahead item that will make upcoming meals feel fancy. It may sound intimidating, but a fool-proof no-knead recipe requires just a few free minutes. Keep the dough in the fridge for up to seven days until you're ready for it. When you get home from work or are thinking about starting dinner, get out however much you want and let it come to room temperature before baking.

Recipe: King Arthur Flour
Sweet and sour chicken
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CHECK THE FREEZER

Many times, you just need to be creative with what you already have. Sure, you can do another meal of chicken nuggets and salad, but in only 30 minutes those chicken nuggets could also be repurposed into a Sweet and Sour Chicken with Cashews.

Recipe: Real Simple
Crusted salmon
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USE THOSE FROZEN HASH BROWNS

If you have a bag of shredded hash browns on hand, try this Potato-Crusted Salmon with Watercress Salad. It's an easy but elegant spin on a last-minute dinner — it takes just 30 minutes to make.

Recipe: Real Simple
Macaroni and cheese
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MUSTARD IT UP

Macaroni and cheese is perhaps the most iconic quick, weeknight meal. Whether made from a box or from scratch, add a bit of mustard for complexity and brightness to balance the creaminess. Adding a bit of acidity in mustard form makes the flavors come into their own.

Recipe: The Pioneer Woman
Stack of pancakes
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FLUFF UP PANCAKES

Breakfast for dinner is a fun way to feel a quick weeknight meal feel special. If you're making pancakes from a favorite mix, try adding seltzer instead of water for maximum fluffiness. Adding a bit more flour and using a griddle helps too.

Recipe: Epicurious
Cooking bacon in the oven
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MAKE BACON IN THE OVEN

If you're going the breakfast-for-dinner route, why slave away over a stove cooking a side dish when you could just throw it in the oven? Bacon is just as good from the oven, easier to make in big batches, you don't have to worry about splattering oil from a pan. If you prefer your bacon on the crispy side, cook it on a metal cooling rack placed over the pan.

Recipe: Delish
French omelette
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CONSIDER THE OMELETTE

For an elegant, protein-packed dinner using ingredients already in the fridge — and that's ready in five minutes — whip up a classic French omelette. (Just make sure you have a nonstick skillet hanging around.)

Recipe: Serious Eats
Frittata
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WHIP UP A FRITTATA

If a dinner omelette doesn't feel right for tonight, try 20-minute frittata. And if you don't have asparagus or country ham, substitute whatever's in the fridge. Steamed broccoli and turkey? Prosciutto and roasted tomatoes? Why not.

Recipe: Alton Brown
Kale grain bowl with an egg
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PUT AN EGG ON IT

The best quick dinners sometimes come from making over what you already have. The easiest way to do that: Put an egg on it. Whether it's bland, leftover quinoa, a box of salad mix, leftover takeout pizza (use a baked egg), canned chicken soup (go soft-boiled or poached), or just some random veggies, an egg adds protein, substance, and flavor.
Tomato soup with fresh basil
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DRESS UP TOMATO SOUP

There are many delicious ways to dress up a basic can of tomato soup, Bon Appetit advises. Whether it's with cream, fresh tomatoes and fresh basil or Thai red curry paste, some cooked rice, and cooked shrimp, you can have an impressive and delicious dish in no time at all.
Savory oatmeal with cheese and an egg
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REIMAGINE OATS

While we're repurposing standard dishes, why not try a savory oatmeal? Think of it as polenta, but trendier (and quicker). Grab some quick-cook oats and try some favorite flavor combinations. The easiest way to start: Sub chicken or beef stock for the water, and top with cracked paper and a favorite cheese.
Roasted potatoes with rosemary
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GET FRESH

Instead of using the dry oregano that you've had in your spice cabinet for months, fresh herbs will wake up the flavors in a dish and make it feel more special. Just remember that fresh herbs will have more flavor; taste your food as you're seasoning it to make sure it's just right.
Pouring olive oil on salad
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FINISH WITH OLIVE OIL

Know the difference between finishing olive oil and cooking olive oil. Finishing oil is meant for a tiny drizzle atop a dinner, whether that's salad, soup, or even steak and should be higher quality than a cooking olive oil. It may cost a bit more than you're used to paying — but it's used sparingly, and you'll be glad you have it.

Salting water
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PICK UP SOME MALDON SALT

Keeping around a bit of finishing salt will add a bit of zing and texture (and make it look like you had a quick and easy meal planned for ages). Maldon Salt is the most famous and beloved of finishing salts, and probably the most readily available. Jacobsen Sea Salt is also excellent.
Pouring a glass of wine
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ADD WINE

A great way to make a quick meal feel fancy? Serve it with a favorite wine. It doesn't even have to be fancy wine — just holding a glass of it will make a thrown-together meal feel more like a special occasion, especially if pairing the wine with complimentary flavors in food.
Antipasti
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HAVE A STARTER

Antipasti translates to "before the meal" in Italian, but also kind of translates to "the lazy-but-elegant way to create a first course and instantly make a meal feel fancy." Choose things from a grocery store olive bar that look colorful and tasty — artichokes, tomatoes, olives — and grab a favorite cheese and meat. Put each in bowls with serving spoons or on a plate with a knife for a very Italian-feeling first course.
Blue dinnerware
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USE THE NICE PLATES

Nothing says "I've written tonight off" like a meal on paper plates. Even if preparing the food took all of five minutes, serving it on the good plates (or at least not disposable dinnerware) makes dinner feel gourmet.
Salmon with asparagus
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PLATE LIKE A CHEF

You don't have to scroll through Instagram for inspiration or go to food styling school, but we do eat with our eyes first, and an extra touch of elegance goes a long way. Don't just throw a chicken breast on a plate — cut it on a bias and fan it out, maybe with a bit of dipping sauce to the side. Even if you're just serving a sandwich, cutting it in half and arranging potato chips or carrot sticks by it will make the whole thing seem more put together.
Family having dinner together
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SET THE SCENE

Turn on some ambient music, turn off the TV, put out a tablecloth if you have it, and settle in. Last-minute dinner has never felt so fancy.

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