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Get back to the routine of family dinners with these cooking strategies and recipes

September 26, 2018

After-school activities may be just kicking in, but snapping out of summer doesnt have to be a mealtime nightmare. A little planning is all it takes to make the transition into fall a smooth one, at least when it comes to meals.

Dinner is often the first casualty when life gets hectic. Its easy to turn to a PBJ or a bowl of cereal when you or your kids are tired and hungry. While nights like that may be inevitable, they dont have to become the norm.

You only need to employ a few strategies to help ensure that a hot, delicious meal lands on your dinner table even on a busy weeknight.

Mealtime strategy: Quick and easy

Google quick and easy meals and youll see a million webpages on how to make a meal in minutes. While any number of these recipes might be good ones, if you dont have any of the ingredients on hand or feel comfortable enough with the recipe to substitute ingredients, its unlikely to be helpful to you.

For that reason, learning a few key culinary techniques, and doing them enough to become confident with them, will help you be able to walk into the kitchen, open the refrigerator and figure out a satisfying meal without having to make an unexpected trip to the grocery store.

For instance, if you know how to make risotto, and keep Arborio rice, Parmesan cheese and chicken or vegetable broth on hand, then youre only a protein, vegetable and about 20 minutes away from not only a hardy meal, but a potentially memorable one.

If you figure out the ins and outs of high-heat roasting, then a quick and easy sheet-pan dinner could be on your table in 45 minutes or less. You wont need a recipe to know how to season your ingredients and place them on a sheet pan in timed intervals that correspond with each ones cooking time. You want chicken thighs with roasted potatoes and asparagus? Just start the chicken and potatoes first and add the asparagus in the final moments of cooking. One pan, a few ingredients, minimal effort and dinner is done.

Skillet pasta is one of my go-to methods when it comes to making good food fast, as is the case in this Creamy Sausage and Broccoli Pasta Skillet. First saut your choice of protein with vegetables. In todays recipe, we are using Italian sausage, but it could easily be cut up chicken, steak or shrimp. Use your preference of vegetables, too. Broccoli goes so well with sausage that weve used it.

The protein and vegetable are then removed from the pan, while the pasta is cooked in broth or water and simmered until its almost cooked through. Then the meat and vegetables are added back to the pan, along with some cheese and perhaps some fresh herbs if you have them, and a complete dinner is done in under 20 minutes.

Mealtime strategy: Freeze it

Taking the time to stock your freezer with a few things you can grab, thaw and reheat for an easy meal pays off on a crazy weeknight.

Marinara sauce, meatballs, soups and stews are all freezer-friendly items that can make a lovely meal quick and easy. Its nothing to throw together homemade spaghetti and meatballs, or a roasted tomato soup with grilled cheese sandwiches if the most time-consuming elements of the meal are already done.

I try to freeze dishes that I can add fresh elements to once they are defrosted. This is true of Chicken Tinga, a Mexican dish of stewed and shredded chicken in a smoky, spicy tomato sauce. Once made, it can be used to top nachos or a taco salad or fill tacos, burritos, quesadillas or, my favorite, tortas, which are sandwiches on crusty rolls. Chicken Tinga makes a saucy filling, topped with Cotija cheese, avocado and a crunchy slaw. Its a little messy, but addictively good.

Mealtime strategy: Dinner into lunch

When you do invest time and energy to cook something more elaborate, make sure its something that makes for useful leftovers.

Taking the time, often on a weekend, to make a large meal can not only be fun, but can also save you time later in the week. Making a little extra of any dish usually wont take much more time, and having something already done for lunch or dinner the next day can make the difference between having a good, nourishing, inexpensive lunch or grabbing an overpriced, prepackaged sandwich on the fly.

Roasting a chicken for Sunday night dinner? Roast two and turn those leftovers into a chicken Caesar salad or chicken vegetable soup. Or even just cut it up for cold chicken to go. Pack it with a crusty roll, a wedge of Brie, carrot sticks and a pear, and you have a simple, lovely lunch.

Are you planning to grill something on Saturday night? Make sure to throw an extra steak and vegetables on the grill, too. Then on Monday night, when youre tired and wishing it was Friday, you can slice open a baguette, smear it with some mayo and a little Dijon mustard and pile on the thinly sliced steak, roasted veggies and maybe a little of that hunk of blue cheese youve been meaning to use. Pour a glass of red wine and suddenly you feel like you might make it through the week.

Sometimes leftovers look the same the second day as they did the first. There are plenty of dishes you can make and simply reheat or refresh the next day for lunch or dinner. This is the case with Cold Tahini Vegetable Noodle Salad With Feta and Pine Nuts. Cold noodles or pasta salad dont need to be a disappointing meal the next day, although it often is.

Usually the problem lies in soggy vegetables and dry noodles that have absorbed every drop of dressing. For this reason, I try to use durable, crunchy vegetables in my salads. In the tahini salad, Ive used snow peas, which hold up for days, along with carrots and sliced red bell pepper. Thats not the case for cherry tomatoes cut in half, or for fresh baby spinach, which will likely be wilted and soggy the next day.

Reserving some dressing to moisten the salad, and some garnishes, such as feta cheese and pine nuts to add at the last minute, will make this salad feel less like leftovers and more like someone slipped a freshly made salad into your lunchbox.

With only a few culinary strategies in your back pocket, leaving summer behind and jumping into fall will be a breeze.

Creamy Sausage and Broccoli Pasta Skillet

Serves 4.

Note: This family-friendly pasta, loaded with Italian sausage and broccoli, is quick, easy and has only one pot to clean, which makes it the perfect choice for a busy night. From Meredith Deeds.

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 lb. sweet or spicy Italian bulk sausage

3 c. chopped broccoli

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

4 c. low-sodium chicken broth

12 oz. dried conchiglie, penne, farfalle or other short pasta

1/2 c. heavy cream

1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese

1 tbsp. lemon juice

Directions

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the sausage and cook, breaking it apart, until no longer pink, 3 to 4 minutes. Add broccoli, garlic and red pepper flakes and continue to cook, stirring, until the garlic becomes fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a plate.

Add the pasta and the broth to the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook until just not quite tender, 7 to 9 minutes. Return sausage/broccoli mixture and cream and continue to cook, stirring occasionally to prevent pasta from sticking, until pasta and broccoli are tender and sauce is slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Add Parmesan cheese and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Remove from the heat and stir in lemon juice. Serve with extra Parmesan on the side.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 890

Carbohydrates 86 g

Protein 42 g

Fat 43 g

Saturated fat 17 g

Cholesterol 90 mg

Sodium 920 mg

Total sugars 5 mg

Dietary fiber 6 g

Exchanges per serving: 5andfrac12; starch, 4 high-fat protein, 1 fat.

Cold Tahini Vegetable Noodle Salad with Feta and Pine Nuts

Serves 6.

Note: Using crunchy vegetables that wont wilt and reserving some of the dressing to add to the leftover noodle salad before enjoying it the next day ensures it will be just as delicious on Day 2 as it was on Day 1. Tahini paste is made from ground sesame seeds. Its often used in Middle Eastern or Mediterranean dishes and can often be found in the condiment aisle of the grocery store. To toast pine nuts, warm in a dry saucepan until fragrant and slightly brown, stirring often. From Meredith Deeds.

1 lb. dried spaghetti

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 c. tahini paste (see Note)

1/2 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 1/2 tsp. honey

3 garlic cloves, minced

3/4 tsp. salt

2 c. roughly chopped snow peas

1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced

1 c. shredded carrots

1/2 c. crumbled feta cheese

1/2 c. toasted pine nuts (see Note)

Directions

Cook spaghetti to al dente according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water. Drain pasta again and transfer to a large bowl. Add the oil and toss to coat.

To make dressing, in a small bowl combine the tahini, lemon juice, 1/3 cup cold water, honey, garlic and salt. Add a tablespoon or two more of water if dressing seems too thick.

Add the vegetables and 1 cup of the tahini dressing to the noodles, and toss to coat. Garnish with the feta, pine nuts and serve.

To enjoy leftovers the next day: store leftover noodle salad and reserved dressing separately, along with the cheese and pine nuts, covered in the refrigerator. To serve, add as much dressing to salad as is necessary to moisten it and garnish with the feta and pine nuts.

Nutrition information per serving, using 1 cup of the dressing for all 6:

Calories 610

Carbohydrates 79 g

Protein 20 g

Fat 25 g

Saturated fat 5 g

Cholesterol 11 mg

Sodium 645 mg

Total sugars 7 mg

Dietary fiber 8 g

Exchanges per serving: 2 vegetable, 4 starch, andfrac12; carb, andfrac12; high-fat protein, 3andfrac12; fat.

Chicken Tinga

Makes about 9 cups.

Note: This saucy Mexican chicken filling makes enough for a few meals and freezes beautifully. Use in tacos, burritos, salads, quesadillas or in classic chicken tortas (see recipe). From Meredith Deeds.

4 large bone-in, skin-on chicken breast halves (about 4 lb.)

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1 tbsp. vegetable oil

1 medium white onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 tsp. dried oregano (preferably Mexican)

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1 1/2 c. low-sodium chicken stock

1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes

2 to 3 canned chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, finely chopped, plus 1 tbsp. sauce from can

2 tbsp. cider vinegar

Directions

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add chicken and cook, turning once, until browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a large plate.

Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 4 to 6 minutes. Add garlic, oregano and cumin, and continue to cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add stock, tomatoes and chipotle chiles and bring to a boil. Add browned chicken and reduce heat to low. Simmer, turning the chicken occasionally, until chicken registers 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 25 to 35 minutes. Transfer chicken to a cutting board and let rest until cool enough to handle. Remove skin and bones and thoroughly shred chicken meat (there should be no big chunks).

While chicken is cooling, continue cooking the sauce over medium heat, stirring frequently, until thickened and reduced by about half, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the shredded chicken and vinegar, and bring to a bare simmer, over very low heat, for another 15 to 20 minutes, stirring, or sauce coats the shredded chicken. Use for tacos, burritos, tortas, etc.

To freeze the chicken: Cool it to room temperature. Transfer to 2-cup or 1-quart sized freezer containers; freeze up to 2 months. Place frozen chicken tinga container/s in large bowl filled with hot water about 5 minutes or until filling can be slid out of container into a saucepan. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until hot.

Nutrition information per andfrac12; cup:

Calories 110 Fat 3 g

Sodium 245 mg Saturated fat 1 g

Carbohydrates 7 g Total sugars 2 mg

Protein 16 g Cholesterol 42 mg

Dietary fiber 1 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 2 lean protein.

Chicken Tinga Tortas

Makes 4 sandwiches.

Note: Tortas are Mexican sandwiches made in crusty rolls, and in this case, filled with spicy Chicken Tinga. Avocado slices, crunchy cabbage and a cilantro-lime mayo round out this satisfying sandwich. From Meredith Deeds.

2 c. shredded cabbage (red, green or a combination)

4 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro, divided

2 tbsp. fresh lime juice, divided

Pinch of salt

1/4 c. mayonnaise

2 tbsp. sour cream

Avocado slices

Crumbled Cotija cheese

Red onion slices

4 crusty sandwich rolls (ciabatta, French, etc.), sliced and toasted

2 1/2 c. Chicken Tinga (see recipe), warmed

Directions

Place cabbage in a medium bowl. Add 3 tablespoons cilantro, 1 tablespoon lime juice and salt. Toss to combine.

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, remaining 1 tablespoon cilantro and remaining 1 tablespoon lime juice.

To assemble the sandwiches: Spread some of the mayonnaise mixture on the cut sides of each roll. Divide the Chicken Tinga among the rolls. Top with avocado, Cotija, red onion, slaw and top half of roll. Serve immediately.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 545 Fat 29 g

Sodium 1,020 mg Saturated fat 7 g

Carbohydrates 42 g Total sugars 7 mg

Protein 31 g Cholesterol 80 mg

Dietary fiber 7 g

Exchanges per serving: 2 vegetable, 2 starch, 3 lean protein, 4 fat.

Reach Meredith Deeds at meredith@meredithdeeds.com. Twitter: @meredithdeeds.

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