Let's be real, not everyone is home all day to plan and cook dinner. And those of us women and men who do enjoy the pleasure and work of being a stay-at-home? We're busy, too!
During the school year, my mornings from 8-12 are busy teaching my own children. Then there's lunch, house stuff, probably some leftover school things, and maybe someone has a lesson or activity. I do have the ability to plop something in the crockpot between phonics and fractions, or get a batch of dough rising while I'm heating up lunch. Some days.
We're all BUSY, aren't we?
Planning is the key. I would be lost without meal planning. Many people like it in theory but don't put it into practice, and then are left with the daily decision of what to make for dinner, and often at the moment they get home from work and have to face a hungry and tired family.
Even if you don't nail down the details of exactly what to make each night, it's helpful to have a general plan of basic, quick, healthy meals that take 30 minutes or so to put together. If you have the ingredients in your fridge, freezer and pantry to mix and match, you can come up with at least a month's worth of meals from those basic elements.
Make a list of 20-30 dinners that you and your people like to eat. And that doesn't mean 20 pasta dinners! Include crock pot meals, soups, stews, meatless, stir fry, pasta, etc. When you look at that list, think of what items you need to have on hand to make them - and then GO BUY THEM!
Do you have one evening or afternoon a month to do a bit of prep work? Even something simple as putting chicken pieces into smaller bags, browning some ground beef-onion-garlic mixture, cooking a pot of rice, making a pot of Red Sauce, baking bread or rolls, making a large batch of waffles. Even grilling up some sausages or chicken breasts ahead of time can take many minutes of prep work off your weekday evening rush.
Plan aheads are excellent ways to save time, too. For example, on a Monday morning, put a beef or pork roast into your crock pot with seasonings, set it on low, and head to work or off on your daily routine. When you get home from work, put some baby potatoes and carrots on a baking sheet and roast in the oven at 400 for 30 minutes. Add a salad to your meal and there you go. BUT, make sure your roast is way bigger than your family will eat that night. After dinner, shred the meat, or chop it into smaller pieces and put it in the fridge. Tomorrow night's dinner? Tortillas with shredded beef, cheese, lettuce, salsa and whatever else you like in there. OR, add the beef to the leftover potatoes in a skillet and make a quick hash. That beef could also become soup, combined with broth you have in your freezer or pantry, some of the leftover potatoes and carrots (or a handful of rice and some fresh vegetables). Add bread or rolls for a simple supper of comforting and healthy soup.
Several chicken breasts grilled on a Saturday afternoon can become the base of a pasta, a rice and broccoli and cheese dish, an entree salad, or a stew. Pre-browned ground beef starts about a million meals, from chili to tacos to shepherd's pie and more.
Use your crockpot! Really, it's not rocket science. Find a crockpot cookbook, or a website (A Year of Slow Cooking) and browse the recipes. Something you put in the pot in the morning that becomes your dinner when you walk in the door is a miracle to me. It never ceases to amaze me that I can do almost nothing to make a good meal.
Basic, Quick Meal Ideas
CHICKEN: Individual pieces (bone in or not), thawed in the fridge all day. Toss in a bit of olive oil, place on a rimmed baking sheet and season as you like with seasoned salt, herbs, etc. Bake at 375 or 400 until done, about 30 minutes. On another baking sheet, do the same with some vegetables - oven roast! Carrots, potatoes, parsnips, brussels sprouts, leeks, beets, peppers, asparagus - they all roast beautifully and at the same temp as the chicken, but possibly less time depending on the vegetable. While that is in the oven, make a quick pot of couscous, rice, or pasta, and season simply with butter, salt and herbs. Open a bag of salad. Dinner is done.
PORK: Pork roast or tenderloin or chops can be sliced and seasoned with barbecue sauce, apricot jelly, mustard and wine, or anything else you like. Pan fry, oven bake, or grill. Again, serve with a starch you want, or some bread if you prefer, add a salad and include some raw vegetables.
BEEF: Ground beef "steaks" are great in a skillet, smothered with sliced onions, or just cooked simply and served with roasted or mashed potatoes. Small steaks can be pan-fried as well, and finished with a splash of red wine or balsamic vinegar and a pat or two of butter for a silky pan sauce.
MEATLESS: Beans you've cooked earlier, or from a can, can be combined with rice and spices and even a can of diced tomatoes. Top with cheese or not. Serve with a salad or a plate of raw veggies and dip. Pasta, combined with fresh or canned tomatoes, canned garbanzo or white beans, and some basil or sage makes a complete protein. If you add nuts or cheese or hardboiled eggs to a lettuce and vegetable salad, you've got protein and veggies and you can call it dinner.
COLD: One of our favorites! Pick up a couple new cheeses to try, some crusty bread or crackers, canned fishies if you like (sardines or anchovies!), a few olives, apples or pears or dried fruit. You've got every single thing covered, it will taste great, everyone can graze at a leisurely pace, and your family will think you are genius. If your man needs some "meat" with his meal, grab a salami or chorizo and slice it up. Many of the elements of this meal can be kept in the pantry, and the cheese and meat picked up at the last minute. Serve it on the floor, in front of the fire, or around the coffee table.
BREAKFAST DINNER: It takes 30 minutes or less to make pancakes, waffles, french toast or eggs. Bacon or sausage is great to have, but not necessary. Open a bag of frozen berries and heat in a pan on the stove with a bit of sugar, some cornstarch and a squeeze of lemon to make a yummy berry compote to serve instead of (or in addition to) maple syrup. Drink milk or orange juice, or yogurt/fruit smoothies. A simple cheese and herb omelet takes less than 5 minutes to make. For a family of 4, you can even do "made to order" in that 30 minute time. If you don't like the idea of breakfast for dinner, get over it, because your kids will love it.
TORTILLAS: Our go-to for leftover meat. Shredded beef, grilled chicken, baked fish, or just rice and beans go into the tortilla (corn or flour). Lettuce, salsa, cheese, peppers, sour cream, hot sauce, guacamole can all be added as each person makes their own.
I'll leave you with a recipe that tastes exotic but uses 4 ingredients and takes 30 minutes to make. You can probably find Thai Green Curry seasoning at a nicer grocery store, or international store, but you can also find the ingredients on the web and make up your own seasoning blend. My friend Melissa makes this and she's lived and traveled all over Asia, so I trust her statement "it's the real deal."
Thai Fish Curry
4 fish fillets (cod, halibut, tilapia, whatever you like, even salmon I think)
1 can coconut cream (coconut milk will work in a pinch)
Thai green curry seasoning (in the dried herb aisle of a good store, or make your own from a recipe that you can find on the web) - a VERY generous sprinkling
Fresh cilantro for garnish
Place the fish in a casserole dish. Pour the can of coconut cream over the fish. Sprinkle the entire surface with a good bit of the curry seasoning. Cover the dish with foil and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
You might as well make Melissa's rice while you're at it. You can do it in a rice cooker or in a pot on the stove.
2 cups white rice (brown rice is better for you, white is traditional)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
large pinch of red chile flakes
handful of chopped cilantro leaves and stems
4 cups chicken broth or water
Combine all ingredients. Cook according to your rice cooker directions, or in a pot on the stove for 20 minutes until the liquid is all absorbed. Let stand 5 minutes, then fluff and serve.