12/26/2014 08:00 EST | Updated 02/25/2015 05:59 EST

Is a 30-minute meal really a 30-minute meal? Food pros tackle the thorny issue

TORONTO - The importance of getting a healthy meal on the table quickly for family dinners was a hot topic in 2014. But do some recipes underestimate the time they take to make?

"The 30-minute meal is all over the Internet. There's lots of chefs and cookbooks focusing on getting a meal on the table in 30 minutes or less," says Christy Brissette, a registered dietitian working in the ELLICSR kitchen at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. "But is that a reality when you have phones ringing, doorbells ringing, children tugging at your legs, the dog wanting out, kids needing help with their homework?"

At what point do recipe developers start the clock? Does the 30 minutes begin when the home cook walks into the kitchen or when the food hits a pan on the stovetop?

Barb Holland, a freelance professional home economist based in Markham, Ont., has a timer going when she's developing and testing recipes for such clients as Foodland Ontario.

"As soon as I step in the kitchen and slap on the apron, then I start figuring." This includes taking ingredients out of cupboards, setting up a food processor if needed, assembling utensils, chopping and cooking. She ignores distractions, including the phone and email.

Julie Van Rosendaal, whose seventh cookbook is "Gatherings: Bringing People Together with Food" (Whitecap Books), also doesn't take into account a mise en place when writing recipes. Mise en place, a French phrase which means "putting in place," refers to organizing and arranging spices, chopped vegetables and other items needed for menu items being prepared.

"If you're getting your mise en place together then that's part of your prep time," says Van Rosendaal. "I don't do that because I don't like extra dishes. I tend to cook right from grab stuff from the fridge and the pantry and just do it as I go."

But it seems many recipe developers don't count the time taken to prep ingredients when writing a 30-minute recipe. For instance, if a cup of chopped carrots is called for, it's assumed the veggie has been cut up before the half-hour starts.

Other factors wreak havoc with the 30-minute countdown. Home cooks don't always read a recipe through completely to make sure all the ingredients are on hand before starting, or forget to preheat the oven until they're about to use it.

Calgary-based Van Rosendaal, who also does food segments for the local CBC Radio station, takes into account how long it takes her and then adds about 20 per cent to the total. "I know I'm faster than most people."

Also coming into play can be the cook's expertise and how well equipped the kitchen is.

It takes longer to chop with a dull knife. "You're more likely to get cut by a dull knife than a sharp knife because you're trying too hard and it hits your hand," says Holland.

Most recipes don't take into account grocery shopping as part of the equation either, but that's a huge part of getting healthy meals on the table quickly.

"To save time, first and foremost plan your menus for the week," suggests Brissette. "It takes time to sit down and do that, but it really saves you from running out every night of the week to grab that ingredient you need to make a dinner. If you do one big shop you're ready to go.

"The last thing you want to do when you get home at the end of a long day is wash and chop. It's going to take you a lot more time. Most recipes that you see start with the ingredients already chopped and already ready to go. But that's often not the way that we get them.

"So if you come home right after your grocery shop, set aside just half an hour, chop up a bunch of veggies, get everything ready for recipes so you can just throw vegetables into pastas or soups during the week."

Check sales flyers. If something is a better price than what is called for in your recipe, sub chicken or salmon for tuna or put items in the freezer and make them part of next week's meal plan.

"Most recipes are just templates anyway. If there's a different vegetable you want to use, you can," says Brissette.

Post the week's meal plan and recipes on the fridge. Whoever gets home first can start prepping.

Choose recipes that are uncomplicated.

"The longer the ingredient list, the longer it's going to take you to hunt down all of the ingredients. If you don't have them on hand or if there's exotic ingredients you might have to go to multiple stores to get some of the things," says Brissette.

"If it's more than 10, 12 different types of food, I usually turn the page to something else."

Set up your kitchen efficiently, return items to the right place when finished with them and stock the pantry well. But don't have the pantry, cupboards and drawers so full that you waste time trying to find things, says Holland.

She stores canned goods like tomatoes in the pantry and keeps her baking supplies in one section of her kitchen. Measuring cups and bowls are on one shelf, flour and sugar are on another, spices on another and the food processor and mixer are on the counter below "so when I go to bake, then it's all right there."

When a recipe instructs to cook onions at medium heat for 10 minutes, the time can depend on the pan being used and the stove temperature. Holland, who works with a gas appliance, thinks electric takes a little longer. "If I ever move and get the chance to do a kitchen, I would put in induction in terms of efficiency."

Van Rosendaal was disappointed to find the new oven she purchased during a recent home renovation doesn't keep a consistent temperature. Since she relies on accuracy for recipe testing, she uses an inexpensive oven thermometer. "It's my backup right now, but it's not ideal."

Another test is to bake a batch of cookies.

"If they're spreading too much, the dough is melting before they have a chance to set. It indicates your oven is too cool," says Van Rosendaal. "If they set before they spread and are not spreading enough then the oven is too hot."

You can also test for hot spots by toasting coconut. "If you spread out coconut on a baking sheet and toast it you can really easily see where your oven is hotter than other areas because it's so white and it's so sensitive," says Van Rosendaal.

"If it turns evenly golden that's a good sign that your oven is nice and even," she adds. "It's really good to know your oven and your tools."

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