During my 20 years as a food writer, I fielded a steady stream of questions from readers, friends and neighbors: What’s the best chef knife? How do you braise a chuck roast? What’s your favorite restaurant?
Of all the assorted questions, there was only one that gave me pause: What are you cooking tonight?
My answer often disappointed. Too many wrongly assumed I cooked what I wrote about — squid-ink pasta, classic French cassoulet, paella. Yes, on weekends I often did. Cooking relaxes me as completely as a leisurely afternoon nap. To me, chopping onions is a form of meditation. Family meals cooked from scratch are my touchstones.
But not so much on Wednesday nights. When my two boys were growing up, I was more working mom than food writer, too short on time and energy to channel Julia Child.
My commitment to seasonal and local foods often took a back seat to quick and easy fare. I traded cooking from scratch to a mix-and-match cuisine, a blend of fresh and convenience. I called my weeknight routine more food assembly than cooking. My goal was simple: Get the healthiest possible meal on that table as soon as possible after the boys, my husband and I arrived home from school, sports and work.
These weeknight meals were driven by more than a time crunch. They also prevented us from the modern-day trap of grabbing dinner through a take-out window or in a restaurant.
Eating at home — even when taking advantage of prepared foods — is healthier. There’s simply less sugar, fat and calories when meals are prepared at home.
They also were cheaper than restaurant meals. Three meals out can easily total nearly $150 for a family of four. My family’s favorite “assembly” meals were built from three staples — baked potatoes, brown rice and whole-grain pasta.
Yes, the foundation for all three is carbs — healthy, top-grade fuels that help keep our brains and bodies in top shape. And all three are blank slates that pair comfortably with a host of international flavors.
Today, I’m retired, and the kids grown. I now have an abundance of time to cook, and I do. But there are still nights my husband and I dine on our no-fuss favorites.
Before sharing the recipes, all geared for a family of four, here are some helpful tips for eating healthier as a family.
- Plan. Plan. And then plan some more. Take time before shopping to decide what to serve for at least three nights, preferably five, and buy all essential ingredients.
- Add fruits and veggies. Add fresh fruits or chopped vegetables to every plate.
- Prep early. Mornings can be even busier than evenings, but early risers can get a jump on dinner by prepping a few steps before heading out the door.
Whole-grain pasta is significantly higher in fiber and nutrients than regular pasta and, with subtle nutty undertones, also more flavorful. Two other healthful options are brown rice or whole-grain ramen noodles. As with any noodle or pasta, avoid overcooking. Thirty seconds too long can turn pasta mushy. Always reserve half a cup of pasta water to add to the sauce at the last minute. The starchy water helps blend the flavors. Two ounces of dried pasta per person is the recommended serving size.
Bacon, Tomato and Peas: Cut ¾ to 1 pound of bacon and ½ yellow or white onion into bite-size pieces. In a large skillet on medium-high heat, saute both for about 5-7 minutes or until bacon is crispy and onion translucent. Spoon bacon and onion mixture onto paper towels and blot excess oil. Wipe pan clean of oil before adding 2 small cans of diced, fire-roasted tomatoes. Add 2 cups of frozen peas and return onion-bacon mixture to pan. Saute on medium-low heat for about 5 minutes. Add ½ cup of hot pasta water. Stir well and serve over pasta.
Chicken Sausage and Broccolini: Lightly steam 1 pound of broccolini. Dice 4 smoked chicken sausages into bite-size pieces. Lightly coat a skillet with olive oil and saute about 5 minutes, stirring often. Add steamed broccolini and a jar of favorite pasta sauce. Saute until warm and serve over pasta.
Garlic Shrimp and Spinach: Melt 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a large saute pan on medium heat. Add 2 cloves crushed garlic and ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes. Saute 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 1 pound peeled shrimp and cook, stirring occasionally, until pink, about 2-3 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil and 3 tablespoon butter. Stir frequently while melting. When melted, add 2 cups baby spinach and ½ cup pasta water, Cook another minute, or until spinach is slightly wilted. Serve immediately with Parmesan cheese.
Brown Rice Bowls
Brown rice is finally getting the attention it deserves. Unlike its white counterpart, brown rice is a whole grain loaded with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. With the availability of pre-cooked rice, this healthy carb makes for quick and easy Asian dinner bowls.
Cooking from scratch is still an option, but it takes up to an hour. I often cooked rice in the morning or over the weekend and stored it in plastic bags. It reheats in minutes. A rule of thumb is to serve ½ to 1 cup of rice per bowl. When my boys were growing and always hungry, I often served heftier helpings. Top with vegetables and chicken, shrimp, beef or — for a vegetarian option — tofu. Making sauces from scratch can be too time consuming for weeknights, so opt for favorite bottled sauces, from peanut to Szechuan.
In a pinch, you can turn a can of chicken, beef or vegetarian broth into a sauce. Simply add diced garlic, a healthy dose of soy sauce and a dash of Asian chili sauce. Use either a steel wok or large, deep saucepan to stir-fry the topping while reheating the rice in the microwave. Because stir-fry meals cook quickly, prep all the ingredients and make the sauce before cooking. Substitute at will. Again, these bowls can be tailored to fit your family’s tastes. Don’t like broccoli? Try green beans. Use leftover meats instead of fresh.
Beef and Broccoli: Heat wok or skillet on medium high heat. Lightly coat with olive oil and, when hot, add 1 pound of thinly diced beef sirloin and stir fry 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove beef and toss 4 roughly chopped scallions, 2 cups broccoli florets and 1 diced bell pepper into the wok. Stir fry 2-3 minutes. Add beef and about ½ cup of a favorite Asian sauce to the wok. Stir fry another 1-2 minutes. Divide evenly and top four rice bowls.
Chicken, Onion and Bok Choy: For the sauce, combine 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce and 1-2 teaspoons sweet chili sauce. Heat wok or skillet on medium-high heat. Lightly coat with olive or canola oil and add 1 pound of ground chicken, or 1 pound of diced chicken breasts, and ½ cup diced white onion. Cook for about 4 minutes, stirring constantly, until chicken is no longer pink. Add 1 head of bok choy, diced into bite-sized pieces, to stir-fry. Cook, stirring constantly for 2 minutes. Add sauce, stir well and divide topping evenly among four bowls of rice.
Tofu, Cashew and Veggies: Heat a wok or skillet on medium-high heat. Lightly coat with olive oil. When hot, add 8 ounces of extra-firm tofu, well drained and cut into ½-inch cubes. Cook, stirring gently until tofu starts to brown around the edges. Remove tofu and lightly coat pan with oil. Add 4-6 cups of any diced vegetables, from carrots, peas, green beans, celery and mushrooms to broccolini and spinach. Stir fry 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add cooked tofu and ½ cup almonds or cashews. Add about ½ cup of peanut sauce. Stir until blended. Divide into four equal portions and add to four rice bowls.
Baked Potato Meals
A spud comforts, fills and offers a healthy dose of vitamin C and potassium. To cook, pierce with a knife to prevent exploding in the oven, and bake at 375 degrees for 50-60 minutes. If really pressed for time, you can cook them halfway in the microwave and finish them with 30 minutes in the oven.
Potato meals are extremely forgiving. Add or subtract ingredients to suit your family’s preferences.
Southwestern: Lightly coat a large skillet with olive oil. Heat on medium high and add 1 pound of ground turkey, chicken or beef. When done, add a packet of taco seasoning, ¾ cup water, ½ cup black or pinto beans and ½ cup frozen corn. Stir well and simmer for about 15 minutes. To serve, slice baked potatoes in half and top with equal parts of the mixture. If desired, sprinkle with Cotija or cheddar cheese.
Ham and Broccoli: Lightly steam 2 cups broccoli florets. Dice 1 pound of ham into small pieces. Set aside. For cheddar sauce, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a heavy saucepan on medium low heat. Add 1 tablespoon flour and stir until well mixed and bubbly. Be careful not to scorch. Remove from heat and add 1 cup milk, stirring until blended. Return sauce to heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Once boiling, reduce heat to low and add ½ to 3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese. Cook until cheese melts, stirring frequently. Add broccoli and ham to sauce and divide evenly over four baked potatoes.
Pizza: Heat 12-16 ounces of pasta sauce and 1 pound of sliced pepperoni. While heating, grate 2 cups of mozzarella cheese. Top four potatoes with equal parts sauce and cheese.