BY SAMANTHA SCHWALM
While back to school is an exciting time for children and parents alike, it is also is a period of adjustment for all involved. With more strict schedules once again being set into place and fall activities beginning, finding ways to take the stress out of dinner with quick and easy meals becomes a necessity. These significant changes in daily routine can seem overwhelming, but with a little planning, dinnertime can be transformed from a potential stressor into an enjoyable evening spent as a family sharing with each other the day’s experiences.
If you are like our family, you have activities starting bright and early on Saturday mornings with your children. I find the best time to plan meals for the upcoming week is with a cup of coffee during that early Saturday soccer game. You can plan the weekly menu, and even swing by a farmers market or grocery store on your way home. Whether you are an experienced chef or a beginner, it is difficult to prep and cook everything in a short period of time. If you start on Saturday, all you have to worry about for the rest of the weekend—at least when it comes to food—is to finish prepping your meal(s), instead of joining the rest of Chicago at the grocery store late Sunday afternoon.
Reviewing your family’s schedule for the week will help identify days when you will need to reheat the same meal for people arriving home at various times, or evenings the family can share your home-cooked meal together. During exceptionally busy weeks, you may only have 15 to 30 minutes to get dinner on the table. In order to make life easier, I buy ingredients that can be used in multiple meals throughout the week.
For example, baking chicken breasts in the oven with goat cheese, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomato, and shallots, served with steamed broccoli and rice pilaf, is a wonderful family dinner—and it’s easily reheated for anyone arriving late that night. Best of all, that chicken can be easily repurposed later in the week as an entirely different meal. A delicious stir-fry can be created by dicing up the leftover chicken and mixing it with sautéed zucchini, yellow squash, onion, garlic, cashews, and soy and hoisin sauces. Serve it over rice and you have an amazing meal, with totally different flavors than its previous incarnation, in less than 30 minutes.
Meatloaf (beef or turkey) served with mashed cauliflower (or tater tots) and steamed broccoli can be found on my dinner table at least twice every month during the fall and winter seasons. Turning leftover meatloaf into something your family will not recognize as leftovers is simpler than it may seem. I recommend dicing up the leftover meatloaf and adding pasta sauce—it becomes an instant bolognese. Ladle over spaghetti noodles or spaghetti squash and serve with a baguette, then you have a quick, no-fuss dinner in under 15 minutes.
Another staple family dinner is grilled tomatillo-marinated flank steak. I recommend serving it with oven-roasted Brussels sprouts and side of portobello mushrooms stuffed with pesto and Parmesan cheese. Transforming the leftover flank steak into a second meal is surprisingly easy. Add sautéed bell peppers and onions in a cast iron pan and leave on the stove. When hungry family members began to trickle in, break out the tortillas, sour cream, cheese, salsa, and you just created steak fajitas for an on-the-fly dinner perfect for nights when everyone’s schedules just don’t seem to align.
Keep in mind the following when planning meals for the week:
What kind of meals do I need for the week?
Will meals need to be reheated through out the evening or will it be a family dinner?
How much time will I have to make the meals?
Most evenings, people only have time to make 30-minute meals.
Stick with recipes and ingredients you are familiar with and have used before.
Everyone should explore new ingredients and recipes to avoid getting redundant in your cooking. After all, variety “is the spice of life.” But be sure to set yourself up for success! I recommend waiting to try those new recipes when you have time to spare—don’t add extra stress to an already busy week by tackling something new.
Keep your pantry stocked with basic ingredients.
Every pantry should be stocked with these basic items: olive oil, coconut oil, balsamic vinegar, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, kosher salt, pepper, soy sauce, Dijon mustard, and basic dried herbs and spices. I also like to have a bag of pasta on hand for really busy nights—add pre-frozen meatballs and red sauce and dinner is served.
Baked Chicken with Artichoke Hearts and Sun-Dried Tomatoes
2 T olive oil
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 can quartered artichoke hearts
1 shallot diced
1 jar of sun dried tomatoes
1 T white wine
1 cup of chicken stock
1/4 cup of goat cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees
Grease the bottom of the baking dish with olive oil
Place chicken breasts in the dish
Dice up artichoke hearts, sun dried tomatoes, and shallot; place in bowl
Add wine, salt, and pepper to artichoke mixture; set aside in the bowl
Pour chicken stock in the bottom of dish
Place goat cheese evenly on top of each chicken breast
Cover chicken with artichoke and sun-dried tomato mixture
Cover with foil and place in oven for 20 minutes; after 20 minutes, uncover and bake for 10 more minutes
Take out of oven and serve
1 bunch cilantro
1 garlic clove
1/2 cup olive oil
Place flank steak in a sealable plastic bag
In a blender, combine all of the ingredients until smooth
Pour over flank steak and marinade in refrigerator overnight (or at least 3 hours) in bag
Grill steak for 5 minutes on each side
Take off grill and rest for 5 minutes
Slice steak on a bias, against the grain
1 lb ground beef or turkey
1/4 cup diced onion
1 T dried oregano
1 T dried thyme
1 T dried basil
2 T Worcestershire sauce
2 T ketchup
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
In a large bowl, mix together all of the ingredients
Place in a greased loaf pan, and bake in the oven for 1 hour
Let rest for 10 minutes and remove