How to master 3-ingredient meals – and save yourself from kitchen burnout

No decent dish needs more than a trio of complementary ingredients – think tomatoes, chickpeas, hake or chicken, orange, olives – so why over-complicate matters, writes Sophie Morris

Tomatoes, chickpeas, hake. Chicken, orange, olives. Ham, egg, chips. If it’s a weeknight, I typically follow the rule of three. No decent meal needs more than a trio of complementary ingredients, so why over-complicate matters? Choose wisely, eat well. If you’re coming over to mine for dinner, I’m unlikely to be grinding spices or pounding dough. But you will get a great dinner, albeit from a very limited selection of meals – meals that involve such a tiny expression of effort on my part, I’m not sure they can be called “cooking”.

Rule of three

This isn’t even a cooking “hack”, given I’m not on TikTok. No matter. Because the dinner will be delicious and I won’t be stressing in the kitchen. For the hake, I’ll empty a jar or two tins of chickpeas into an ovenware dish, top this with two tins of chopped or plum tomatoes, nestle the fish into the tomatoes – hake is my preference if it’s around, but use whatever you like – season and bake for about 20 minutes, depending on the fish and how thick the pieces are.

I began this approach more than a decade ago. At that point, I wasn’t looking to simplify my own cooking, though with hindsight I saw it often erred towards the unnecessarily complicated. I got the cookbook Hugh’s Three Good Things…On a Plate (Bloomsbury, £25, 2012) to encourage my kitchen-shy partner to try out more recipes, and to get a feel for how, in most cases, three ingredients, each with different flavours and textures, are plenty to make a rounded meal.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s three-things repertoire is vast and varied, from mackerel, potatoes and shallots to chicken, plum and soy. His recipes do sometimes feature more than the three main ingredients, but this doesn’t detract from the simplicity of his ideas and the importance of his proposal. He says the book is for anyone who feels their cooking is “stuck in a rut” and that “it’s not about exotic ingredients or trendy techniques or shunning certain foods or worshipping others”. Instead, it’s about recognising the “magic pattern” of three things on a plate. If you Google “three-ingredient recipes”, you will find hundreds of ideas.

Condiments and seasonings

Unfortunately, my partner didn’t take to the idea. But, a decade on, he tends to cook once a week and it will be – you guessed it – three things, on a plate. Ben’s three things are either smoked mackerel (from a packet but warmed through), broccoli and rice. Or fried tofu, whatever greens are available, and noodles. Instead of properly mixing a tangy dressing, we’ll put limes, sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar and chilli flakes or oil on the table, so everyone can season to their own needs. We might have jars of pickles, sliced cucumber, chopped cashews or peanuts and some herbs, too – but more often we stick to the basics.

Is this boring? I’m sure many people will think so, yet one of my most popular Instagram posts was a meal we eat frequently: drop a block of feta into an oven-proof dish, empty over a tin of tomatoes, sprinkle generously with oregano, bake. I’m not a planner, so I can’t make midweek meals easier by advance prep. I don’t know what I’ll want to eat from day to day, so rely on this streamlined approach to cut down on time and stress.

When I read about what Glamour UK editor Deborah Joseph calls “My 70 per cent life” it made me think of how I do weekday food. Joseph describes her 70/30 approach as “a concept I created mentally to help me find balance. Creating strict boundaries, saying ‘no’ a lot, not being hard on myself when I inevitably mess up.”

For me, this means that while I spend my days poring over recipe books and Instagram posts for meals I’d need a week to prepare, when it comes to my own dinner I’m content with an omelette (eggs, ricotta, herbs) and a glass of wine.

‘I eat baked feta, chickpeas and tomato regularly. It’s delicious’ (Photo: Supplied)

Sometimes I’ll veer off track and find myself planning three sides and a complicated sauce to go with a pork chop. Sometimes I might have time to cook a complex meal – and I do love cooking, just not the daily demands of it. But more often than not I’ll look in the fridge and find a protein, some veg and something starchy, and that’s dinner. This frees up my very greedy mind to focus on things that matter more than a Wednesday teatime.

Simple over speedy

There are hundreds of cookbooks offering super-quick meals. They’re not without merit, but do often require you to put a lot of thought and time into the shopping and prepping part. And if you have to return to the recipe over and over, a so-called quick recipe can become trying. A simple recipe might ask you to put sausages, beans and peppers in the slow cooker all day, or stand around stirring risotto rice. The important thing is that you don’t have to make an extra visit to the shop or take a class in how to julienne courgettes.

Easy meals

I’ve revealed my predilection for a tin of tomatoes to soothe all ills, but I do have other quick hits. The classic Venetian pasta dish bigoli in salsa – a traditional recipe but one I found through Russell Norman’s Polpo cookbook – is onions and anchovies cooked until meltingly soft and stirred through pasta.

Pasta, by the way, is not just a speedy supper but also a sybaritic pleasure. Why not have a bowl of your favourite kind dressed in nothing more than oil, parmesan, and a few chilli flakes? Or oil, salt, and crispy sage leaves? Carbonara (four things really – pasta, eggs, parmesan, bacon or guanciale) makes frequent appearances. Chicken thighs are your perennial friend, too. Bake with root veg or cabbage through the winter and peppers and courgettes in the summer. Throw in some potatoes. Dinner in 40 minutes.

Diversify your diet

A current health mantra, popularised by Tim Spector, the professor of genetic epidemiology and nutrition author, asks us to eat as many different fruit and veg as possible – 30 plants a week. It’s easy to hit this target even when following this streamlined approach, because the rule of three gives you the time and headspace to eat different, home-cooked, food most nights. If we assume you eat something plant-based at breakfast and two things at lunch and dinner, that’s the five-a-day or 35-a-week the health influencers are selling us.

There are hundreds of ways I could make the feta or fish dishes more exciting or sophisticated. I could take my time over the tomato sauce, simmer passata with butter and sugar, add kicks of paprika, chilli or chorizo. I could top the dish with pangrattato – crispy, garlicky breadcrumbs. I could sauté peppers and courgettes until golden and melting, and add these to the tomatoes. And, often, I do some or all of these things. But I know I don’t need to in order for the meal to taste good – good enough.

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