(I’ve been sitting on this blog post for over two weeks and since our computer had a nasty virus, I was unable to post it ‘til now.)
We just came off an incredibly long, hardly-ever-home week, and it was made worse by my failure to properly plan for it. Usually, I am on top of weeks like this, but I let the past few sneak up on me. We ended up getting far too many meals from a drive-thru window, and the number of straws in my minivan was evidence of my week…and a reminder that I need to go back to meal planning during a busy time. (Although I gotta say…I am loving this year’s Shamrock Shake with the whip cream and maraschino cherries!)
It is not difficult to have “fast food” on hand in your own home, but it does take some preparation and foresight. In the end, not only will money be saved, but it is healthier to eat at home. Listed below are some food ideas that I’ve used on those days when the question, “What’s for dinner?” can send me into a frantic panic, wondering if Cheerios can be a part of a good, balanced dinner. (It works for breakfast – why not dinner?) These are ideas that we regularly use above and beyond the mac-and-cheese/hotdogs/frozen pizza standbys. (This is not about making and freezing complete meals in advance… that’s a whole separate system I have.)
1) Assemble a collection of super-easy and fast recipes that use ingredients which are always on hand.
This starts with a well-stocked pantry – or, in my case, well-stocked shelves in the basement. I was raised with the practice of stockpiling food when there are sales (not in a “the world is ending!” Y2K kind of way), and I’ve carried this practice into my own home. When we run out of a pantry staple (peanut butter, applesauce, mayo, oatmeal, pasta, flour, sugar, cream of chicken soup, etc.), the kids know to run to the basement shelves for more. I keep the shelves well stocked! (They are divided into categories like canned veggies, baking goods, crackers/cookies, etc.) If you are fortunate enough to have an extra freezer, keep it filled with some basics. (more on this later) I am careful to make sure that my fast-recipe ingredients are always “in stock” in my basement. Go through your collection, pull out the easy-peasy recipes and stockpile ingredients accordingly! A family favorite meal is Ball Park Soup served with sweet onion cornbread on the side and raw veggies with Ranch dressing as a dip.
[A side note about onions: my kids would tell you they don’t like onions, but I put them (the onions, not the kids) in most foods and no one can tell! Sweet onions are a bit pricier than yellow onions, but I think they are worth it. Sweet onions don’t have as much of a biting onion-y taste and when being chopped (in teeny, tiny pieces, of course), they don’t make your eyes tear up. For me, it’s a safer choice when I have a sharp knife in hand!]
BALL PARK SOUP
(serves 4 people, but can easily be doubled)
1 can (15 oz) pork and beans (approx. size can)
1 can (14.5 oz) diced tomatoes, do not drain
1 c. diced potatoes
4 beef hotdogs
½ med. sweet onion, chopped fine
1 – 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
½ tsp. caraway (omit if you don’t have this ingredient)
½ tsp. dill (I use dried)
salt & pepper to taste
1 Tbsp. parsley (I use dried)
½ stalk celery, chopped
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
2 Tbsp. vinegar
Sauté hotdogs, chopped onion and garlic ‘til onions are soft.
Add all other ingd and simmer ‘til potatoes are soft.
SWEET ONION CORNBREAD
(serves 6 – 8)
2 Tbsp. butter
½ med. sweet onion, chopped
1 c. milk (I use skim)
1 c. sour cream (I use low-fat)
2 boxes (approx. 8 oz. each) corn muffin/bread mix.
Oven to 375 degrees. Grease bottom of 9” deep-dish pie plate. Melt butter in skillet and sauté onion ‘til tender. Combine all ingd. Pour into pie plate and bake 35 – 40 min or ‘til golden brown. Top with butter and serve warm.
English muffins and bagels can be used as the base for some yummy meals. Spread either the muffin or bagel with pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese and broil on a foil-lined baking sheet ‘til the cheese is melted. Use a pepperoni slice to cover the center hole before the sauce and cheese are added to make it less messy. Or, spread Dijon mustard on either the English muffin or bagel, top with ham lunchmeat and Swiss cheese and broil for an at-home version of a toasted sandwich.
Change up a basic ham/turkey and cheese sandwich on bread by dipping it in beaten egg and pan frying it like a restaurant Monte Cristo. Another family favorite using lunchmeat in a “bigger meal” kind of way is this recipe:
1 box (15 oz) refrigerated pie crusts, softened per package instructions (a staple in my freezer)
½ c. fresh grated Parmesan cheese
¾ lb. thinly sliced deli ham
¼ lb. thinly sliced pepperoni
1 c. shredded Cheddar cheese
Oven to 450 degrees. Removed crusts from packages and press out fold lines. Sprinkle each with half the Parmesan cheese. Top each with half the ham, pepperoni and cheddar cheese to within 1” of the edges. Loosely roll up each crust. Place seam side down on ungreased baking sheet and fold ends under. Bake 15 – 18 min or ‘til golden brown. Cool 5 min. Slice and serve!
2) Keep cooked meat in the freezer.
This is a huge time saver for me! I like to brown up a few pounds of ground beef with some garlic and sweet onions (chopped tiny, of course) and freeze half of it. I season and simmer the other half with taco seasoning before freezing it. When in need of a quick meal, I just microwave defrost some seasoned meat to make tacos, a taco salad or nachos. For fast nachos: line a jelly roll pan with foil – spread tortilla chips on foil – sprinkle with taco meat – sprinkle with shredded cheese – broil ‘til cheese melts – serve with sour cream and salsa. Easy! (Goes well with the corn bread!)
I like to defrost the plain ground beef to make green pepper free stovetop sloppy joes. It’s quick and makes the house smell yummy. Serve on buns or use tortilla chips to scoop and eat.
1 lb. cooked ground beef
1 tsp. prepared yellow mustard
½ c. ketchup
½ c. bbq sauce (we like Open Pit for this recipe)
1 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
Mix all ingd. (adjust ketchup and bbq sauce to taste) in pan on stovetop and simmer 30 min. Serve. This is also goes well with the cornbread.
Another very simple family favorite is a stove top meal using the pre-cooked ground beef.
1 ½ lbs ground beef
1 c. white or brown rice (NOT instant, 5 min. rice)
8 oz. spaghetti, broken into 2” pieces
4 Tbsp. butter
4 c. chicken broth (I use low-sodium chicken bouillon and boiling water if I don’t have prepared chicken broth on hand)
Brown raw rice and uncooked spaghetti in butter. Stir constantly ‘til lightly browned and nutty smelling. Add cooked beef. Add broth. Cover and simmer 20 min or ‘til rice and noodles are cooked.
I also keep cooked Italian sausage in the freezer to later mix with jarred spaghetti sauce. Serve over pasta with fresh grated Parmesan cheese and it’s a hearty meal. Breakfast sausage links or patties are another item that I pre-cook and freeze. Defrost the sausage then cut up the links or patties to add to a nice baked omelet.
BAKED OMELET SQUARES
(serves 6 – 8)
¼ c. butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese
cooked breakfast sausage, cut up (I use at least 9 patties OR 14 links…usually more)
sliced jalapeno peppers (opt)
sliced mushrooms (opt)
sliced black olives (opt)
¾ c. milk
salt & pepper to taste
Oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish. Melt butter in skillet, add onions and garlic and cook ‘til tender. Spread cheese in bottom of baking dish. Layer with optional veggies, if using. Add onion/garlic. Add cooked sausage. In bowl, beat eggs and milk with a fork. Season with salt and pepper. Pour egg/milk mixture into pan. Do not stir. Bake, uncovered, for 30 min or ‘til no longer runny in the center and slightly browned on top. Allow to cool slightly, cut into squares and serve.
Cooked boneless, skinless chicken breasts are always in my freezer. I often cook up some pasta, make Alfredo sauce from a packet mix (or open a jar), add some garlic and cut up cooked chicken…and voila! I also like to shred the cooked chicken (by hand, or with two forks) and simmer it with taco seasoning mix. The seasoned chicken and some shredded cheese between two flour tortillas go in a 350 degree oven for 5 – 10 minutes ‘til the cheese is melted. Serve it with salsa and sour cream and you’ve got fast fajitas for dinner. Often, I skip the chicken and make cheese quesadillas for a pre-baseball game snack or a fast lunch. Having cooked chicken on hand also allows you to make time-crunched chicken salad. I chop up the chicken and add chopped sweet onion and celery, a handful or craisins and almond slices (or chopped pecans or walnuts) and half a can of mandarin oranges, drained and chopped. For the dressing, I thin out the mayo with milk and whisk in some garlic powder, onion powder and dried dill. All the measurements are “to taste” so be sure to experiment! Instead of using mandarin oranges and milk, you can thin the mayo with some unsweetened pineapple juice and add chopped pineapple to the chicken salad. Pre-cooked chicken also makes great wraps: cut up the chicken, toss it with Ranch dressing, bacon bits and shredded cheddar cheese. Fill a lettuce-lined flour tortilla with the chicken mixture, roll up and enjoy!
3) Marinate meat and freeze.
Throwing some steak or chicken on the grill, baking fries in the oven and opening a bag of pre-cut salad is a great warm-weather quick meal. When I get home from the grocery store, I immediately marinate some meat, throw it into a zipper top plastic bag and freeze. (Be sure to label the bag with the date and ingredients.) There is nothing simpler than chicken mixed with bottled Italian dressing. My stand-by marinade for almost any cut of steak is a family favorite. (As a totally geeky side note, “marinade” is properly used as a noun and “marinate” as a verb.)
½ c. soy sauce
¼ c. brown sugar
¼ c. wine (red or white chosen according to personal taste)
¼ c. olive oil
4 cloves garlic, crushed
Multiply the recipe as needed.
Sometimes (but only sometimes), I am a cool and fun mom and I jazz up my kid’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Peanut butter and Nutella (no jelly) or peanut butter and marshmallow fluff (again, no jelly) are easy and fun favorites in our home!
Gotta run – the kids are hungry. I think it’s a fluff kind of day…although I just might hear a Shamrock Shake calling my name!