Quick Meals for Tired Families

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Fast healthy dinners

June 2004

We are a family of four (kids 2 1/2 and 6 1/2) with two working parents. Good nutrition and healthy eating habits are high on my list of priorities for my family, but after the arrival of my second child and recent job change to a much more difficult position, I have found dinner preparation to be very challenging. Hiring a personal chef to prepare healthy dinners in my home is out of the question (financially!) and I have determined the biggest hurdle is really coming up with a repertoire of 30-40 dinner recipes - so that I wouldn't have to THINK about WHAT to make. I feel like we have the same few things all the time because I don't have time to sit down and go through cookbooks, online recipes, etc. anymore. My husband and I can both cook each night as long as we have the food at home and the prep time is not outrageous. I think having variety, as well, is the key to teaching your kids to be good eaters. Anyway, my fantasy is that someone has had these same feelings and perhaps has put together a collection of recipes (successfully tested in their home with kiddos) that they might be willing to share. Some nice big binder with healthy recipes. We don't eat red meat, just chicken and turkey occasionally, and our kids do like tofu as well. Also hoping to find a collection of recipes that are not too high in fat. Would love to do more with the crockpot as well - I am just trying to get started in this direction, hoping it may help. Anyway, if anyone has 'been there done that' and would be willing to share/sell such a resource, I would be grateful. I am trying to find casseroles, pasta dishes, bean dishes, complex carb combos, stews. stir-frys, etc. Dishes that will add variety to our regulars which include pesto/pasta, garden burgers, and burritoes, as well as a few others. I know many other families must also be in this same position. Any advice would be appreciated. mother who wants healthy dinners

Hi, First, I want to compliment you on making the effort to make healthy dinners for your family!

I wanted to offer a few tips on where to find great recipes:
--Rachael Ray's 30 minute meals are great, and recipes can be found online (http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/show_tm/0,1976,FOOD_9997,00.html)
--I use the little magazine: Everyday Food to find loads of healthy and fast recipes. I tear out the good ones when the magazine arrives and put them in a stack of recipes to try. The ones that pass my family's ''test'' go into a stack of recipes that we rotate through...
--Cooking Light also has some awesome recipes, many of which can be found online. Now a small shameless plug: I am a consultant with The Pampered Chef and often do workshops for groups of people to teach them how to prepare fast and healthy meals. If you are interested in setting up a workshop, I'd love to help. Here is a recipe that I recently made at a baby shower, to share with the new mom. In this recipe, you can prepare enough chicken and pasta to use both in this recipe AND for a second recipe the following night. Preparing ingredients once for two meals is a great way to save time!

Mandarin Pasta Salad Dressing: 1 tsp fresh ginger 1 clove garlic 1/3 cup rice vinegar 1/4 cup orange juice 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 tsp sesame oil 1 envelope Lipton Recipe Secrets Onion Soup Mix 2 tsp. Sugar Salad: 8 ounces bow tie pasta 1/2 cucumber 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper 1/2 cup chopped red onion 1 pkg fresh spinach leaves 1 can mandarin orange segments 2 cups cooked chicken 1/2 cup sliced almonds Directions: 1. Using food chopper finely chop ginger. 2. In measure, mix and pour mix remaining dressing ingredients and refrigerate until ready to use. 3. Score cucumber using lemon zester/scorer , remove seeds using the corer. 4. Slice cucumber using ultimate slice and grate, cut slices in half 5. Dice bell pepper using chef\x92s knife. 6. Coarsely chop onion using food chopper. 7. Add cucumber, bell pepper, onion, spinach, mandarin oranges, chicken and almonds to cooked pasta. Add dressing as desired.

We don't have a binder of recipes, but we do have this cookbook: Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home: Fast and Easy Recipes for Any Day It's got a ton of quick, easy, vegetarian recipes. Michael

I recently found a book called ''Saving Dinner'' which has already done the difficult part of dinner prep -- made up the menus and the grocery lists! The food is healthy and mostly quite good, and the meals tend to take around 45 minutes to make. The author of the book also puts together a weekly email menu/recipe/grocery list mailing (see http:// www.savingdinner.com/about.html). The only problem for you might be that the menus all do include beef (it's usually something like, one beef, one chicken, one fish, one crockpot, one soup, one casserole -- and the soup, crockpot and casserole may contain either beef or chicken); but you might be able to edit the meals and lists without too much trouble (e.g. switch to ground turkey instead of hamburger, etc.). They're not great, gourmet meals, but they're good, quick, and healthy. Karen

My Mother-in-Law gave me a great book a couple of years ago called Desperation Dinners. Every recipe is for good food in 20 action-packed minutes. The authors teach you what to have on hand and how to do everything as efficiently as possible. They know every shortcut. The Food is great and feels like a home cooked meal. I highly recommend it. anne

I have the answer for you! Try a new book called ''Saving Dinner: The Menu, Recipes and Shopping Lists to Bring Your Family Back to the Table,'' by Leanne Ely. I used to subscribe to Leanne's email menu service (www.menu-mailer.net), which was great and we really enjoyed the food. The recipes are definitely healthy, easy and can be made vegetarian. Most importantly, it got me cooking regularly again. The only problem is not all of the recipes are as low-fat as I would like, but you can certainly pick and choose. You can check out some of Leanne's recipes and shopping lists at the above website. anon

''The Working Parents Cookbook'' was reviewed in The Chronicle today. Here is the link: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2004/06/16/FDG1875LQJ1.DTL I try to do as much main dish prep the night or morning before, such as rinsing and seasoning or breading chicken, fish or tofu, or putting together turkey meatloaf. When I get home all there is to do is pop it in the oven, prepare a quick starch item, adding vegetables to the same pot or eating them raw. I usually run out of fresh ingredients by the end of the week, so we have something like breakfast for dinner or a frozen dish from Traders Joes. Liz

There was a fascinating thread about this awhile back called ''Dinner Blues'' that I found a lot of wisdom from. It looks like it hasn't been archived yet, but perhaps you could ask a Moderator about it? The ''Desperation Dinners'' cookbooks by Beverly Mills I bought after reading that thread have become mainstays at our home, as well as Pamela Anderson's ''How to cook without a book'' and Mark Bittman's ''How to cook everything''. This list is such a wonderful resource! Sima

There is a new book out called, The Working Parents Cookbook by Jeff and Jodie Morgan reviewed in the Chronicle food section today. It sounds like it might fit your needs. I'm thinking about getting it myself as I'm in the same boat as you! Good Luck

I have developed a folder of some recipes and you'd be welcome to come borrow and copy them if you'd like, but if you're looking for a big book of recipes the best one that I've found is Moosewood Cooks at Home, easy quick recipes like you've described. kg

Check out www.savingdinner.com-- according to the website: ''Menu-Mailer is a six-day a week menu with recipes AND a categorized grocery list included! The menus are wonderful and healthy, the recipes are easy and the fact that the grocery list is already made up is a dream! Menu planning has never been so easy, because all the work is done for you. For just pennies a day, you will never have to panic about what's for dinner again. Menu-Mailer is a true bargain at only $9.95 for 3 months of menus, delivered weekly on Wednesdays to your email address.'' I haven't tried it myself, but have read good things about it. good luck. Paula

For crockpot ideas, try going to chetday.com. chet day fan

Have you checked OAMC (Once A Month Cooking)? There are lots of websites if you google them. I do a modified version when time gets hectic, but you can also double cook (make a double version). I freeze dinners and the day of the dinner, take it out of the freezer, pop in the oven, set the oven timer and dinner is ready when we get home - cheap and healthy. I'd do some modified version of OAMC and then have some quickie dinners on hand for when you're not up for a frozen dinner. Fish with couscous or brown rice, roasted chicken and potatoes (this can cook for hours if you want) - things like that. Kathy

One option that we're trying is ''Saving Dinner'' by Leanne Ely -- you can find it at Amazon: She also has a menu mailer at savingdinner.com. Good luck! Beth

We also have two children and no time but want healthy foods. We like making homemabe soup. We like roast chickens (often bought pre-made at Costco or the grocery store) and we save the bones in the frezer. Then one day we throw the bones and a handfull of veggies (leeks, onions, carrots, celery, mushrooms and any scraps you may have had over the last few days) into the stockpot with the bones and simmer on low for a few hours. If you want to add peppercorns, bay leaves, ect for seasoning you can do so now. You can do this on a weekend. The only real work will entail that you strain the stock when its done cooking. We then have a ton of stock which we store in big ziploc containers in the freezer. When we want a good quick dinner we dunp a container of stock into the pot, throw in some chicken, cooked noodles or rice and cooked veggies (carrots, corn, potatoes, beens, etc...)and VOILA its homemade soup in 20 minutes - and kid friendly. Great with salad and crusty bread. You can vary this endlessly with different seasonings and ingredients. Yum. S. W.

Cheap eats in a hurry

One of our favorite quick meals are nachos. They can be done in a variety of ways: with or without beans, olives, sour cream, etc. They take about 15 minutes to fix with minimum clean up. They can be toned down to accommodate picky eaters or really added to for more sophisticated tastes or even done half and half on the same baking sheet.


Suggestions for cheap eats:

1) Magnani Poultry on Hopkins (also on College): spit-roasted whole or half chickens (barbequed, teriyaki, or rosemary-lemon); spit-roasted potatoes
2) Spenger's Market on 4th St.: the fish and chips dinner to go is large enough to serve two moderate eaters
3) LaVal's on Euclid (also on Durant): I've o.d.'d on the pizza after years of kids clamoring for it, but still enjoy the ravioli (they also have spaghetti, eggplant parmigiana, salads, etc.) --Margo Wesley


I have a tupperware microsteamer. They come in two-serving and family size. You can cut up vegis and put in all ingredients as indicated on recipe cards, or make up your own, put it in the microwave, and have a dinner of chicken, rice and vegis in 10 minutes, and it practically rinses clean. I have found myself using it quite frequently.


One kind of cheap dinner I like to have on Friday nights when I'm too exhausted to cook is Di Giorno Frozen Pizza. I normally hate frozen pizza because they are really gross, but the new one by Di Giorno is really good because it is not pre-cooked and then frozen. It is made with fresh ingredients on a really good crust (kind of like Boboli) and then frozen. So, all you have to do is take it out and pop it in the oven for about 10-15 minutes.

It's delicious and it only costs $5.99 for a large combination pizza. Let me tell you, I haven't gone back to Roundtable Pizza (way too expensive for my budget) since I discovered it!


Have you tried Boston Chicken? With a whole or half chicken, you get side dishes which include mac & cheese (since my kids don't like chicken), jello, fruit salad, or different kinds of vegetables. And with the coupons that seem to appear every week in the Sunday Chron, it's really cheap -- we once even got a free chicken.


This is a great topic. I hope others will share their ideas. My two favorite quick and easy dinners: (1) baked potato, cooked in the microwave, with substantial toppings (corn, broccli (sp?), bacon bits, shredded cheese, salsa, etc) plus a veggie & salad (2)lots of spaghetti served with bottled marinara sauce & shredded cheese, served with french bread and a veggie or two.

For an easy salad, I like shredded cabbage with Good Season's Garlic Salad Dressing. It's a lot easier than making a lettuce salad, and still adds that quality of something fresh and crunchy. If I have more time, I add raisins.


Thanks for the Safeway chicken tip. My newest dinner is buying premade Oriental salad mix and adding pre-cooked shrimp. However, what I do now with a 9 month old and husband both starving right when I get home is I cook on the weekends. Sounds like a lot of work, but it's worth it. I make chili or spaghetti sauce and freeze it or sometimes I just make packages of ground round with garlic and onions and freeze them in 1 pound portions and then I can use them to make tacos or whatever. It's the preparation time that usually get me so these tricks have been working. Of course, I've also been known to get up at 6 am before both of them and prepare an entire dinner and then leave it in the refrigerator to nuke when I get home exhausted.


My kids love the Boston clam chowder and shrimp salad you can get at the To Go counter at Spenger's in Berkeley. We get a quart of chowder, salad and some of their sour dough rolls and have a quick inexpensive meal (less than $9).


We make burritos and tacos where the ingredients are on a tray and everyone can choose what to put in: beans, olives, lettuce, tomato, onion, salsa, etc. etc.

Another idea is pasta (a different shape = a different dish!) with 2 or 3 additions: chicken, peas and nuts, chard and mushrooms (not for kids), artichoke hearts and shrimp, green beans and carrots, etc. I just toss the veggies in with the pasta near the end of its cooking. Drizzle with olive oil and garlic salt.

A similar dish is chow mein with spaghetti noodles and snips of vegetables tossed with soy sauce. Or the same with rice instead of noodles.

Kids like to make their own sandwiches with the ingredients on a tray and different kinds of bread.


I make burritos with canned refried beans (Trader Joe's fat free, spicy jalepeno black refried beans are wonderful, but these are strictly for adults), shredded cheese, bits of leftover chicken or meat if I have any (not necessary), red onion, and salsa. Microwave til gooey. Very cheap, fast, and good.

I also make a tofu dish by sauteing cabbage and mushrooms in sesame oil, then equal parts of saki and soy sauce, sugar to taste, and cubed tofu. Serve over rice. I like to add hot red pepper flakes, but then I'm lucky because my son eats very hot, spicy food.

Sometimes I make quesadillas by filling a large tortilla with shredded cheese and chopped garlic, folding in half, then frying in butter til melted. Quite popular, but only good when your serum cholesterol needs replenishing.


re: Quick meals: I go to Nations on Central and San Pablo in El Cerrito (there are more of them in Berkeley, I believe) and get a sweet potato tart for $1.70. They also have grilled cheese sandwiches. Don't forget the new Red Tractor Cafe, on College Ave. opposite Oliveto's near ROckridge BART, (difficult to park) where my son likes the macaroni and cheese ($3.95). They have other interesting dishes that cost a little more, and come with two side orders of stuff like garlic mashed potatoes, fresh stringbeans, etc. Also, Whole Foods has a whole wheat soy cheese spinach and mushroom quesadilla for $2.95 and other good take-out for kids, some of it expensive, unless you look for specials and get small quantities. Smart Alec's on Telegraph and Durant has so-called healthy french fries, and my son loves them. Barney's Hamburgers on Solano Ave. in Albany and the one on College have 1/2 huge orders of big fat soft french fries for $1.70. And Andronicos also has good roasted chickens to go as well as cold cuts, and cheap stuffed huge baked potatoes.


First, it's not at all necessary to limit your quesadilla consumption to high-cholesterol days. I use soft-taco-sized flour tortillas and a heated nonstick frying pan: wet the tortilla on both sides quickly under running water, place in pan, flip over after about 3 seconds, place grated cheese, a little salsa, a little shredded, cooked chicken, a little whatever on one half of the tortilla, fold over and tamp down the edges with the end of a wooden spoon or something (I use the handle of one of my faithful Chicago knives), leave for a minute or two and flip to brown on the other side. The trick is to heat, flip, and fill the tortilla quickly, before the wet edges dry out--that way they'll stick together when you tamp them down (you can always sprinkle more water along the edges if the timing gets away from you). Tamra

Someone mentioned cooking on weekends for the whole week. There is a great book out (I think it's called _Cooking Once and For All_ or something like that) that details how to cook for an entire month at a time, spending one whole day each month to do it. If you like this sort of thing, it's supposed to be the best book out.

Our family likes burritos for quick dinners. They can be a great leftover-user too, depending how adventurous the family members are. Dawn