YOU KNOW HOW THE KIDS WANT DINNER EVERY NIGHT? This relentless demand is actually one of the things that TERRIFIED me before becoming a parent. In my NYC single days I often ate a PB&J or cereal for dinner. You know, with a bowl of ice cream later on. Perhaps in front of the TV.
Sure, I cooked sometimes. With the biggest dining table in Manhattan squeezed into my single girl apartment, I often hosted dinner parties, dutifully pouring over Ina Garten recipes before spending a couple of days prepping/trying to figure out how many of those fancy cheeses I really needed to buy to make her Penne with Five Cheeses.
That was before I got married and had four kids. In five years.
While the Barefoot Contessa’s decadent food is hard to pass up, this sleep-deprived mom needed to come up with a speedier, healthier, more affordable way to get dinner on the table for a family of three, then four, five and now six. Especially if the rascals are going to keep up with this every night business. Here’s what I’ve learned.
My TOP 10 TIPS for making dinner faster, easier, cheaper & even more kid-friendly
1. Find Something New & Fun for the Week: I hit up a few blogs or magazines to find a couple of recipes that sound good, something new enough to be interesting but not such a stretch that no one will try it. This little bit of inspiration sets the tone for the week. “New” and “fun” make cooking a creative activity, rather than drudgery over a hot stove. And BTW, this planning doesn’t have to happen on a weekend. Your “week” can start any time you choose and it doesn’t have to include 7 days; even planning out 3 or 4 days ahead helps a lot.
2. Make a List: Jot down the ingredients you need for your new stuff, plus your tried and true favorites. I include my grocery list for lunches here too, plus a couple of ideas for breakfast and snack staples like unsweetened applesauce, nuts, raisins and so on.
Now for the dinner strategies. This is my mix for a week’s worth of home cooked dinners, without losing my mind by Friday.
3. 15-Minute Meals: At this point in my life, I have about 20 minutes to make dinner. To the good people who make the “Little Bear” program, I thank you. (And you guys who make outdoor play sets? You deserve some credit too.) That means one of these fast dinner recipes often makes its way to our table:
- Homemade Mac & Cheese
- BBQ Pork & Cheese Quesadillas
- Whole-Wheat Penne Pasta with Pesto & White Beans
4. Slow Cooker Favorites: Or go the tother way and get the slow cooker going early in the day when everyone is more fresh (including you). It’s taken me a long time to find a few slow cooker recipes that don’t include packages of gravy mix, onion soup or any other processed foods but now we’re on a roll. Here are a few of our best slow cooker recipes yet:
5. Everything in the Oven: Not every meal can be a one-pot dish, but throwing everything into a hot oven to cook at once (with nary a pan on a stove to keep track of) is pretty darn helpful. My favorite combinations:
- Roasted Cauliflower + Roasted Turkey Breast with Rosemary
- Baked Risotto + Roasted Whole Carrots with Maple Syrup
6. Make 2-in-1 Meals: Plan to cook a “base” once in the week, then use it twice. For example:
- Skillet cooked sausage with tomatoes and rice can be the filling for Stuffed Red Peppers plus, our family’s favorite Zucchini Sausage Casserole.
- Grilled chicken thighs can be Creamy Lemon Chicken with Pasta one night and Peanut Ginger Stir-Fry the next.
- A big batch of meatballs can go atop piles of spaghetti one night, then become meatball sandwiches (with cheese melted in the broiler) later on.
7. Eggs: We eat eggs all the time. For breakfast, lunch and dinner. They’re fast, a great source of protein, easy to have on hand and fairly inexpensive*. Our favorite ways to eat eggs at dinnertime:
- Scrambled eggs with spinach & sausage AKA “Green Eggs & Ham”
- Baked Eggs in Bowls with Ham, Cream and Melted cheese
- Frittata with Spinach and Pancetta
- Easy Ham & Cheese Quiche
- Or follow Mark Bittman’s advice and use the broiler and your muffin pan to make several “fried” eggs at once. Set it on high, butter the pan and crack in as many eggs as you’ll eat. Cook for 6 minutes and serve with toast.
(*Ours are always free-range, cage-free, organic because I can’t stand the idea of those sad chickens squished together in chicken factory farms.)
8. Make Your Own Sandwich night: This is my Mom’s Exhausted Meal. Now that one of our kids is old enough to make her own sandwich (5) and the others can at least tell us what they want on it, I just pile up a tray with sandwich makings from the fridge like turkey, ham, cheese, salami, mustard, mayo, etc. Then I rifle through again, this time looking for sides like pickles, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes and so on. Everyone gets to pick what they like and make their own meal. The kids LOVE it and so do I.
9. Make-Ahead Meals: I’ve got a bunch of meals that I can make during the afternoon nap, those that take a long time to cook or can just hang out in a warm oven, or on the stove with a lid, until we’re ready. A couple of our best:
10. Transform Leftovers Into Something New: Because my kids are small, we always have a LOT of leftovers. But instead of trotting out the same dish twice in a short time span, I like to change it up for the second time around for the sake of variety. For example:
- Beef Tacos can become Tex-Mex Rice
- Any kind of leftover pasta in red sauce can become Baked Pasta with Spaghetti Squash
- A Bacon-Wrapped Pork Roast can become Roasted Sweet Potato and Pork with Quinoa in Mustard Sauce (Just use pork in place of chicken.)
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