A friend of mine recently asked what I do about dinner, since I somehow manage to work (during school months, at least) and do lots of volunteer crap and also feed my family reasonably well. She wanted some meal ideas.
There's no real trick to cooking half-decent (quarter-decent on bad days) meals, just a series of habits which I've developed over the years.
Once a week I make a meal plan. "Meal plan" is actually too grandiose; I write down five dinner ideas. I don't like to spend more than an hour preparing dinner (apparently pretty typical) which limits the weekday dinner repertoire, but we still have a pretty good list to choose from.
After we (I usually solicit ideas and opinions from the rest of the family) pick the five dinner ideas I make a shopping list based on those meals. We typically do one big shop on the weekend and then an auxilliary shop mid-week for milk and other perishables.
With the meal list in hand I also decide which dinner we're having which day, based on what ingredients will spoil first, which days are rushed, when we're having company, etc. Knowing what meal I'm preparing each day also tells me when I'm making something which requires prep earlier in the day, like a crock pot meal or roast.
Other Meal Habits
Most days we eat at 6:00, which means I try to be home and cooking at 5:00. (It usually doesn't actually take an hour of work to make dinner, but I started giving myself an hour when the kids were small to allow for interruptions, and now I just like to have the time if I need it.) Knowing we eat at 6:00 and I cook at 5:00 helps me make decisions about playdates and activities; i.e., we don't schedule them for those times if possible. (As the girls get older and their activities are more "serious" I find it's harder to control what time they're at, but I try.)
If I know I won't be able to be in the kitchen at 5:00, I plan a crock-pot or other make-ahead meal and "borrow" that hour from earlier in the day.
Some Meal Ideas
Here are seven of our favourite meals, with ingredients and instructions.
Bean Burritos: tortillas, can of black or red beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa, sour cream, rice.
Drain the beans and put them in a pot with some water (enough to barely come to the top of the beans) and a generous pinch of garlic powder. Throw in a teaspoon of chicken boullion powder. Let it all simmer for twenty minutes or more, mashing the beans occasionally. Serve in a nice bowl.
(Optional classy version: use chopped fresh garlic, and chicken broth instead of water and boullion.)
Meanwhile cook the rice, chop up the lettuce and tomatoes, and grate some cheese. Warm the tortillas on a plate in the oven or wrapped in a clean tea towel in the microwave. Get a kid to set the table, put out all the food and let everyone assemble their own burritos.
Chicken and Salsa: skinless chicken parts (thighs are nice), salsa, rice, salad or crudites.
Either throw the chicken and the salsa in the crockpot around 2:00 and cook on high for the rest of the afternoon, or throw them in a dutch oven-type pot at 5:00 and cook at 350°F for about 45 minutes with the lid on. Serve over rice.
Serve with salad or crudites. (Bagged salad is just fine.)
Big Salad: lettuce, baby tomatoes, cheese, deli meat, eggs, cucumber, green onion, baguette.
Boil the eggs. Cut up the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and green onion. Grate the cheese, slice the deli meat into little strips. Once the eggs have cooled, quarter them.
Either put the lettuce in a bowl and arrange everything on top, or serve everything separately in little bowls and let everyone assemble their own (perfect for picky eaters, but make sure everyone eats something from all the food groups). Serve with a good dressing, like Renee's (or homemade dressing), and chunks of baguette and butter.
Macaroni and Cheese: macaroni, milk, butter, flour, sharp cheddar cheese (we buy the cheap stuff you can get in great big slabs).
While it's cooking melt about two tablespoons of butter in your favourite sauce pan. Add about the same amount of flour and whisk them together. Cook over medium heat until it smells like shortbread. Add a little bit of milk and whisk together — don't panic as it turns into a lumpy mess. Add a bit more milk, whisk together, warm gently until it gets all lumpy again. Repeat until you've added about two cups of milk. (I don't know if you really have to mess about with all the adding and mixing, but it's kind of fun.) Heat until hot, then remove from heat and add a little salt and pepper and whisk in some mustard powder. Stir in two or more cups of grated cheese.
When the macaroni is cooked, add the cheese sauce and serve. Alternately you can drain the macaroni when it's not quite done, put it in a casserole with the cheese sauce, sprinkle some bread crumbs and grated cheese on top and heat it in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes.
Traditionally we serve this with sliced apple, but go ahead and add your favourite side-vegetable.
Tuna Pasta Salad: short pasta, tuna (2 cans), tomatoes, green onion, mayo or italian dressing.
Cook the pasta. While it's cooking, cut up the tomatoes and green onion. Drain the tuna. Once the pasta is done and drained, mix everything together. Serve warm or chilled.
Spaghetti and meatballs: spaghetti, tomato puree, garlic, onions, homemade or frozen meatballs, salad or crudites.
Here's one that you can spend as much time as you like on, because you can buy the pasta sauce and the meatballs and just throw it all together, or you can hand-make one or both of the sauce and the meatballs.
Here's how to make sauce: chop up the onions and garlic and saute them gently in olive oil — not too high heat or you'll burn the garlic, and there's no recovering from that. Add the tomato puree — either one of those bottles of Italian strained tomato or a can of pureed tomato — and let it simmer gently for at least twenty minutes, or longer if you have time. (Keep an eye on it so it doesn't burn.) If you're using frozen meatballs, you can add them to the sauce after it's been simmering a while to cook them — follow the instructions!
You can also make meatballs yourself. I like to make square meatballs, which is just meatloaf cooked in a lasagna dish (so it's really shallow and flat) and cut into little squares.
"Moroccan" beef and cous cous: stewing beef, onions, garlic, a dozen dried apricots, cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, canned diced tomatoes, cous cous, plain yogurt.
Chop up and brown the onions in your favourite cooking fat; add to crock pot or dutch oven. Brown the beef, add them to the onions. Halve the apricots and add them to the pot along with the garlic, apricots, cinnamon (1 tsp), cumin (1 tsp), cayenne (1/2 tsp), and tomatoes, and some black pepper. (There's probably enough salt in the tomatoes but add some more if you like.)
Cook in the crock pot all day on low (check it mid-afternoon -- if it's really done-looking turn to "keep warm") or in the dutch oven at 350 for... I guess an hour, hour and a half? (I don't think I've ever made it in the oven.)
Serve over cous cous with yogurt on the side, and your favourite side veg.
(I call it "Moroccan" because it seems Moroccan to me but I actually have no idea if this is the kind of thing they eat in Morocco. Probably not.)
So that's how I bastardize the cuisines of the world; I expect this post will drive away any snobs who might read this blog. I hope these ideas are useful for the rest of you! While you're here, why don't you add your favourite quick dinner to the comments below?