Weeknight Dinners for Busy Folk

[Abbotts Lagoon, January 2013.]

Note: I had planned earlier in the week to post this today, but after all the crazy sh*t that has been going down especially last night and today in Boston, I hemmed and hawed … is it ‘appropriate’? Isn’t food trivial in the face of these terrible things? And then I remembered how in the days and weeks following 9/11, when we were living in a state of what can only be described as shell shock, my friends and I got together as much as possible to eat (and yes, drink) together, clinging to some sense of normalcy in a world that was irrevocably altered. That first Friday afterward I had people over to my new apartment, where I didn’t even have a table yet, and I cooked, and we sat on the floor and talked and talked and talked and ate and just were together. DC was different, we were forever changed, but we still needed that anchor. So I thought I would post this today after all, not in a devil-may-care way, but because despite everything, we go on. We still run and we still eat. We take pleasures in the simple things and we mourn the huge things and we survive. It is the only way.

For someone who is as averse to change as I am (or, as my track record has proven me to be), I’ve been going through an awful lot of them lately: I quit my full-time job where I’d worked for 6 years; I started have nearly finished writing a cookbook; we are moving to Morocco for four years — and that’s just the tip of it. What’s even more strange to me is that I haven’t totally lost my mind just yet (barring an initial freakout in November that I called my ‘post-employment detox period’). In fact, I find myself continually riding the waves, my paddle turning side to side smoothly, weathering the occasional cold splash of water with a mild curse but still keeping on.

Well, that’s most weeks anyway. For some reason this week I’ve been clutched with anxiety about the move (hearing that my future home can be ‘a challenging place to live – it’s a big, dirty, crowded city’ (really?! can’t wait!) and dealing with the bureaucracy that comes along with it sort of dampens my enthusiasm) and mainlining home baked cookies. And of course it goes without saying that I love California, San Francisco, the northern counties, the southern coastline, etc. etc. ETC., so leaving for at least four years is not really my ideal choice. Still, much like college, it is a necessary ordeal and I am hoping that once I’m on the other side (or even in a year) I’ll be glad I went. Time will tell.

With all that other change swirling around I haven’t been too adventuresome in the kitchen of late. Add to that the end-of-cookbook-testing-and-writing burnout and the thought of getting creative with dinner on a nightly basis yet again seems a bit too much. But I’m OK with that. I’ve still been making dinner, of course, and I’ve been trying to keep up the vegetable intake to counter all the baked goods. And so I’ve been relying on my fail-safes and have also been rediscovering some old familiars – like quinoa chowder – that are both nourishing and comforting in these times of slight upheaval.

Which all brings me, in a roundabout way, to something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. Ages and ages ago (maybe late last year?) my friend Jen mentioned she’d love to see a post on some family-friendly meals and how to make them work for busy parents. While I admittedly come to this from a child-free perspective I too know well the feeling that comes after a long workday when you are tired and stressed and the last thing you feel like doing is thinking about cooking something for dinner. And yet, we all need to eat. And we all need to eat good(-for-us) food.

So, what to do? Here, finally, a few thoughts …

First things first: plan your meals weekly. This may sound tedious but really it’s not. It actually helps me so much because I’m not paralyzed at 4 p.m. thinking about what to make for dinner. Bookmark recipes that you find interesting and plan for at least one if you can. I often structure the week’s schedule around what I have in the cupboards and what I have planned (busier days may call for pasta), and I’m always thinking about vegetables, either pulled from the bi-weekly trip to the farmers market or just what sounds good to me. I write up a loose plan, always allowing myself to diverge if, say, Thursday arrives and I can’t bear the thought of making quinoa again (ha! This never happens.). But I’ve found that by coming up with a meal plan on Saturday or Sunday for the week ahead saves me time, money, and a modicum of stress/angst. I also waste less ingredients when I keep things more coordinated.

I thought it might be helpful to detail my little plan for this week. It went like so (with my ‘week’ running from Sunday-Saturday):

Sunday: Quick soba noodles with peanut sauce, tofu, asparagus, and radishes; a carrot-edamame salad, tuna steak (DW)
Monday: Out to dinner!
Tuesday: Rice + bean enchilda casserole, sauteed chard
Wednesday: Buttermilk mashed potatoes, steak + onions (DW), stir-fry of 1/2 head cabbage, garlic, spinach, white beans
Thursday: (6:15 yoga class so) leftover quinoa soup, quesadillas
Friday: Out to dinner at Aziza!
Saturday: Out to dinner in Half Moon Bay!

Actually, maybe this week wasn’t the best example as we were out quite a bit more than usual. Last week, then, was:

Sunday: Nettle tart, baked salmon (DW), sauteed chard
Monday: 1 1/2 year anniversary dinner at the Slanted Door
Tuesday: Nettle risotto, beet + kale salad
Wednesday: Baked tomato polenta, stir-fried cabbage + white beans, steak (DW)
Thursday: Steamed broccoli + edamame, baked potato, chickpeas + garlic
Friday: Whole wheat spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce (+ spinach), faux meatballs, salad
Saturday: Miso soup, leftovers

These are not fancy meals, but they work for us. (And in truth these are much less creative than I’d like/often can be; stuck in end-of-book-land I’ve just tried to keep us fed on a daily basis during this past month.) You can also tell where I sneaked in stuff I had on hand (the buttermilk in the mashed potatoes – initially I’d planned to roast them and then toss with the cabbage but needed a bit of comfort food – the cabbage twice in two weeks). Even though I’m now working at home, I still keep to that full-time job cooking philosophy which is to try to not take more than 30 minutes on a weeknight to make dinner. I save the longer stuff for weekends and the fussier (and fun) stuff for dinner parties when I want to play and experiment a little (and let’s face it, impress, if I can!).

On ordinary days we’re pretty simple. I like it that way. I will also note that a lot of the way I cook is so very seasonal – in the fall and winter, for example, there is a lot of soup (minestrone crammed with a ton of vegetables figured in to many meals last year, along with no-knead bread) and in summer more salads. I tend to try to finagle in as many vegetables as I can though of course some nights are just … less. I think the main thing to keep in mind is that you are doing your best, and some nights will just be more on the healthy side than others – and that’s OK. For nights when you’re simply too wiped out, take-out is perfectly acceptable, too! And finally, I think cooking comes in waves. Some months you are craving more fresh things and feel inspired and it feels effortless while during other months you’d rather do anything else but churn out another dinner (even me who ‘loves’ to cook feels this way on occasion). Just go with it. And then go read Dinner, a Love Story for (many) more thoughts.

In our house sometimes there are snacks for dinner …

Hummus + assorted fresh cut-up veggies
Whole wheat pita bread
Raw almonds

And sometimes there is pizza, with a variety of veggies …

Easy Pizza Dough (can freeze and thaw)
Makes 4 individual pizzas or 2 larger pizzas

1 1/2 cups warm water
2 tsp. active dry yeast
2 Tb. olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup whole wheat flour
3 cups white flour

Pour 1/2 cup of the water into a mixing bowl, stir in the yeast, ans et aside until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining water, olive oil, and salt, then add the whole wheat flour and the white flour, adding enough to form a shaggy dough. Turn it out onto a floured board and kneed a few minutes until smooth, adding more flour if necessary to keep it from sticking.

Put the dough in an oiled bowl, turn once to coat, then cover with a towl and set aside to rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Turn dough onto the board and divide into the number of pizzas you want (this amount would make about 4 personal pizzas I found). Shape each piece into a ball ball, cover with a towel, and let rise for another 20-30 minutes.

Take one ball at a time and flatten into a disk, pushing it outward with your palm. Working from the middle, push the dough out with your fingers until it’s about 1/4 inch thick and fairly even, thickening slightly at the edge. Dust your pan with cornmeal or flour, set the dough on top, and let rest for about 10-15 minutes. Preheat oven to 500 F.

1 tomato
6 mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
handful basil
1.5 ball small mozzarella

salt and pepper

Blanch the tomato in a pot of boiling water for about 5 minutes. Run under cool water and remove skin. Press through a sieve to remove seeds. Add tomato flesh to tomato juice.

Meanwhile, saute the garlic and mushrooms until soft.

Put the tomato/sauce on the dough, leaving about 1/4-inch edge. Add the mushrooms and cheese, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle basil over the top.

Bake for about 6-7 minutes until crust is crisp and the cheese is melted and bubbling. Remove from oven and let rest a few minutes before devouring.

Sometimes a lasagna …

Two favorites:

Lasagna with sweet potatoes and chard
Potato-Pesto lasagna

Simple pasta nights can be punched up with veggies and a quick salad. Try:

Whole wheat spaghetti tossed with roasted cauliflower, lentil ‘meat balls’ (can be made ahead and frozen) or vegetarian sausage (such as gimme lean or tofurkey) and a tomato sauce of:

1 yellow or red onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 cans unsalted organic crushed tomatoes (or 4-5 fresh tomatoes in season)

Saute the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat until soft. Add the tomatoes and cook down until thick and bubbling. A glass of wine alongside is a must. Splash a little into the sauce, too. Or make a pesto dinner party.

Macaroni and cheese made with whole wheat macaroni is pure comfort food (fold in butternut squash to make you feel even better). Serve with a protein (garlicky chickpeas, a fake or real sausage) and salad. This is a fantastic make-ahead meal and should get you at least 2-3 dinners (if you can eat that much of it!) or freeze the rest in portion containers for later.

Quinoa figures into at least two weeknight meals per week (bonus is that there are usually leftovers for lunch the next day).

Quinoa salad with sweet potatoes, arugula, and apples
Quinoa ‘Greek salad’
Quinoa salad with feta and mint
Quinoa with pesto and chickpeas

Also: non-dairy soups, which can be made and frozen in individual (or more) servings to be quickly heated in the microwave or on the stove. A perusal here should yield quite a few options.

Make good use of fish, fresh or frozen, which can be baked in the oven with a bit of olive oil, white white and lemon juice (Trader Joe’s salmon is in constant rotation in my kitchen); a bonus is that frozen fish need not be defrosted before being placed in the oven. Pair that with roasted red and sweet potatoes and a salad or another roasted vegetable such as asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, etc., or quickly sauteed spinach, chard or kale.

I make extra brown rice when I make a vegetable-tofu stirfy and save it for a meal later in the week or stick it in the freezer for eventual fried rice-making. Fried rice is one of the quickest, healthiest and simplest meals going, and it can contain as many vegetables and eggs as you like. My own recipe is here (I also typically add asparagus, chopped red peppers, broccoli, etc.); doctor it up as you like.

You could also do a dinner such as we had recently when I just … couldn’t … dig up much inspiration beyond 2 veggie dogs (+ Acme rolls), steamed broccoli and oven-baked sweet potato fries. Satisfying and fairly healthy, things like this are my go-tos when the dinner doldrums hit. Baked beans on whole wheat toast + some sauteed mushrooms and/or spinach is perfectly acceptable, too. And we love veggie burgers on whole wheat bread or rolls, topped with all the fixin’s of a slice of cheddar, sauteed mushrooms, avocado, onion, lettuce … served with a salad or a baked sweet potato.

I can’t forget to mention my husband’s favorite (besides steak, o’course), breakfast for dinner! By this I mean a pan of scrambled eggs (with or without vegetables added) served with veggie (or real) bacon, pancakes or biscuits if I’m feeling motivated, mashed potatoes, or simply on toast. I don’t eat a lot of eggs in the morning (it’s more oatmeal or peanut butter on toast for me), so scrambled eggs or a quick omelette for dinner feels slightly decadent. A glass of wine makes it more special.

For a few more ideas, check out my latest NPR story; the nettle tart is particularly lovely, and we were able to make 2 dinners (plus a lunch) out of it along with a salad and some roasted asparagus. Though I’ll be honest: nettles may sound kind of weird, not to mention hard to find. So swap spinach for the nettles (about 4 cups) and you’ll be just fine. I would imagine this might freeze great as well.

(Dare I mention dessert? Well … I’ve been making and freezing batches of my favorite cookie dough – such as chocolate chip cookies (sub whole wheat pastry flour for some of the white) – and then thawing as the urge strikes. I particularly love doing this because I can make just 6 or so at a time without being overwhelmed by cookies. Plus there’s always a bit of cookie dough at the ready which feels quite fine.)

There are so many more dinners to touch upon, but I think this post is long enough as it is. I hope this serves as a little inspiration, a little cheering-along to the extremely busy and hard-working among us (and those who are plain old sick of coming up with dinner yet again) trying to turn out healthful and nourishing meals on a regular basis without feeling completely exhausted. I know this is just a small bit of what you can do, but perhaps the other recipes on this site will provide a few more ideas …

To that end, here is a salad I made this weekend and which I think fits in nicely with the ‘make ahead if possible’ idea – edamame tossed with carrots and cilantro and garnished with avocado. It’s a little bit of work in the moment (chopping the carrots and such) but makes such a large quantity it might even last you all week, or at least will make a healthy part of quite a few daytime lunches. Try tucking it into pita bread with hummus and/or lettuce for a heartier – and hand-held – lunch.

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Join the Conversation

  1. Thanks for all of this, Nicole! Hmmm…maybe you’ll become a personal chef. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming post on your kitchen (hint!)

  2. Yay! I love all these ideas and will be reporting back. Caleb’s favorite food is “nyanya” but I’m getting a little sick of my spinach lasagna standby so very excited to try these versions.

  3. Wow! what a post! food for months! Kudos for all the thoughtful and healthy meals. One day at a time.

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