How many times have you been asked “What’s for dinner?” over the course of these last several months?
I suppose we moms could view this questions as a (backhanded) compliment. Our kids – and spouses – know that they can count on us to keep the family up and running and literally fed.
But after being responsible for menu-planning, grocery list-making, and food procuring for the last several months, even those of us who love cooking for the family are getting worn out. And, if you consider the fact that no matter how full the refrigerator is or how stocked the pantry, it is inevitable that someone in our house is going to complain that “there’s nothing to eat.”
Going out to eat is a mirage, and while takeout is a great, guilt-free option, it does get expensive. That’s why we’ve put together a list of dinner hacks that have proven to be easy and enjoyable for the whole family, including the top chef.
Dinner Hacks for the Whole Family
1. Meal Prep Sunday
On Sunday night we spark up the grill and cook up meat and vegetables for the next several days. That way on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday we warm up whatever is in the fridge and toss a salad and dinner is ready.
2. Crockpot Magic
I’m a big fan of one-pot and crockpot meals. One of my favorite go-to meals is something I call “Panic Chicken” (as in, “I have no idea what to make for dinner!”).
I throw 2-3 chicken breasts into a crockpot with a big jar of salsa and let it cook for 3-4 hours (or 5-6 hours, if the chicken is frozen). Thirty minutes before the chicken is done, I either make a pot of rice (basic white rice, or whatever I have on hand) or heat up a package of soft tortillas. While that’s going on, I saute some onions and peppers (whatever I have, usually red or green bell), and heat up a can of black beans. Once the chicken is ready, I strain off some of the liquid and serve it with the rice or tortillas, onions and peppers, black beans and shredded cheese and sour cream. Tortilla chips and salsa, on the side, if I have it. Maybe some sliced avocado, if I’m feeling fancy.
The chicken lasts for a couple of meals and reheats beautifully. Most of the work is done in the last 30 minutes, but I can literally just make the chicken and rice, if I don’t feel like messing with anything else.
3. Keep It Simple
I try to plan ahead, follow a recipe, and incorporate lots of freshly purchased ingredients into my dinners. But for all the other times, I keep easy emergency supplies on hand: eggs for breakfast for dinner; taco seasoning, shells, tortillas, and beans; pasta, sauce, and frozen meatballs; frozen pizza dough and canned pizza sauce; vacuum-sealed (i.e. long-lasting) meats from Trader Joe’s (their gyro meat is so yummy!) and frozen pitas; frozen vegetables. For nights when I just can’t 1) think or 2) shop, there’s always something easy to pull together. P.S. These simpler meals are perfect for delegating to my kids to cook. If, of course, they haven’t already eaten them all for yet another pandemic lunch at home.
4. Clean the Fridge Night
This is prompted by not being able to find any of the tupperware – realizing it’s all housed in the refrigerator with leftovers from the previous few nights. To me that says, we have food that should be eaten and tupperware that needs to be cleaned. We reheat EVERYTHING, put it on the counter and tell the kids to have at it. It’s cathartic (for me anyway). Inevitably, it’s a hodge podge of many different foods, and comments of “oh yeah, that was good”. Everyone is happy-ish.
5. Leftover Pivot
I feel most creative with a fridge of leftovers. I love finding ways to use leftovers. We had leftover meat and pasta. I made pink vodka sauce. Added meat and pasta with some onions and peas. And called it dinner.
6. DIY Pasta Bar
Having two vegetarian kids and a meat-loving husband, I’ve become accustomed to having different meal components that people can use to create the meal they like. Probably the easiest of those is pasta bar night: one pasta, many toppings. I’ll cook up a large batch of pasta and put out a selection of jarred sauces – meat sauce, pesto, alfredo, and marinara. Put out some freshly grated parmesan, have one of the kids throw together a salad, and serve up a loaf of garlic bread – dinner is done. Dad gets the dishes.
7. Pizza on the Grill
Putting the uncooked dough directly on the hot grill was a first for us but I don’t think we’ll go back to oven pizza ever again! From rolling out the dough to choosing a topping (or several) for your pizza, it becomes an event! Each person gets their own pizza – the dough can be divided up or a large pizza can be divided up – BUT the idea is for everyone to try a slice and in our family we choose a “best pizza” winner each time. So dinner becomes a friendly competition where everyone wins—because who doesn’t like pizza? Plus the extra pizza can be eaten the next day.
8. Deconstructed Taco Tuesday
Make taco filling with meat of choice and lay out all of the fixings. One of my kids makes a burrito, another makes nachos, my third child and husband opt for hard tacos, and I make a taco spinach salad. Same ingredients in a variety of ways. Everyone’s happy.
9. On Your Own Night
I cook for anywhere from 5 – 8 people per night, and that group includes one vegan, so we always have a lot of food around. At least once a week, we have a blissful night when people can take whatever they find, combine it in any way they please, and consume it whenever they want to. All I ask is that they tell me if they use up a kitchen or pantry staple but it usually comes down to some very creative combinations of leftovers. Granted, I have older kids who know their way around the kitchen (except for when it comes to cleaning up), but it’s never too soon to get kids in the kitchen to start learning to cook, even if that means reheating something that’s already been made.
So many perks: in this time of being together, it’s the closest thing to me-time I can get; it’s a chance for each of us to be a little creative about what we eat; it’s a great way to use up the food we have and empty the fridge; and I can have a bowl of cereal for dinner.