last week’s meals

Sunday 10/23 – Sally’s Slow Cooker BBQ Turkey Meatballs, mashed potatoes, and roasted broccoli. This recipe called for Italian dressing and I don’t typically keep premade salad dressing in the house, so instead I stirred together a quick one with red wine vinegar, olive oil, dried oregano, dried parsley, granulated garlic, and frozen basil. This recipe made a lot but they freeze and reheat well. Which is basically money in the bank. My oldest, who is occasionally leery of foods that come with extra sauce, tapped his plate and said “More sauce, please. Uh…actually more than that.” This would be a great football meal, but I was incredibly disappointed that my local CBS was experiencing technical difficulties and would not play my Patriots game for me. So instead I made Christina’s mini pumpkin cakes. I doubled the recipe since that’s how much pumpkin purée I had leftover from last week.

Monday 10/24 – Chicken cordon bleu casserole, rice pilaf, and steamed green beans. This was so, so good. My friend Jaime told me about this meal years ago and I lost her recipe but came up with something similar. This is going in the rotation for sure!

Tuesday 10/25 – Leftover crockpot BBQ Turkey Meatballs, mashed potatoes, and peas. This meal paid DIVIDENDS, folks.

Wednesday 10/26 – Baked ziti and roasted broccoli with parmesan. Pasta is always a winner with my kids, and parmesan is a double winner. A gold medalist? A super-marathon runner?

Thursday 10/27 – We got Panera. One sick kiddo, one sick parent, and one late afternoon dentist appointment equaled no home cooked dinner.

Friday 10/28 – Sausage, sweet potato, kale, and alphabet noodle creamy soup. I was inspired by a recipe I had bookmarked earlier but didn’t look at it while I was cooking. This made a ton but it was easy and delicious. My toddler picked out a few offending items, but my preschooler ate a whole huge bowl, including the kale, and informed me that it was going to help him grow big and strong.

Saturday 10/29 – BBQ baked salmon, steamed broccoli, and wild rice pilaf – I sprinkled a BBQ seasoning blend over a salmon filet (I left a second filet plain for the boys) and baked it at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 16 minutes, until it was cooked through. Meanwhile, I made a wild rice and white rice pilaf that was packed with finely chopped carrots, celery and onions for extra vegetables. We also had steamed broccoli and had a little BBQ sauce for dipping.

quick tips for more flavor

More bang for your buck! More yummy for your money! Or, less catch-phrase-y, why the bleepity bloop should you even cook dinner if it’s not the most delicious possible version of that dinner?

  1. Brown it. Or toast it, which is a different technique with a similar result – get color and flavor on it. Before you put meat in the crockpot, brown it in a pan on the stovetop. It adds an extra step and an extra dish to wash but what it adds in flavor and texture is worth it. The same goes for vegetables – roasting in the oven or browning on the stovetop adds an extra layer of flavor compared to steaming or boiling. Toasted nuts and sesame seeds will always taste better than raw ones. Before you boil rice or oatmeal, melt a little butter or oil in the pot over medium heat and stir your grains until they get a warm, toasty smell. Bronze your bagel instead of warming it.
  2. Use liquids other than water: a splash of wine to thin out an overly-thick sauce; Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and diced then boiled until tender in just enough broth to cover them for luscious mashed potatoes that can go without cream or butter; rice steamed in broth will have an extra layer of flavor; green beans simmered in broth and soy sauce will taste amazing with an Asian-inspired salmon; a splash of coffee or vanilla in anything with chocolate.
  3. Extra garlic and onion! The pungency and size of a garlic clove or an onion are all over the place. Most likely, your recipe can handle the additional bulk and flavor of extra onion or garlic as long as you can too.
  4. Add salt throughout the cooking process – but only a little bit each time.
  5. If a recipe calls for white sugar, consider brown sugar. It might change the moisture content (depending on how much you use) and it will definitely affect the color, but the payoff is a richer, slightly smoky taste instead of the bland sweetness of white sugar. You can also use maple syrup or honey in some recipes, but be careful substituting a liquid sweetener for a dry one in recipes for baked goods.
  6. Cut the sweetness. You might prefer a dish or baked good with less sugar because the reduced sweetness allows the other flavors to shine through. But this is a tricky tip, since a recipe might not rely on sugar solely for its sweetness but also for its chemical properties. For example, baked goods can rely on sugar to add moisture, for structure or to help yeast rise, so cutting sugar can result in an inferior final product. Usually, I do some research to find a similar recipe that uses less sugar and I make my decision to cut the sweetness from there. Caveat: don’t cut the sugar from jams, jellies, or cooked candies.
  7. A tiny bit of heat from your favorite hot sauce, crushed red pepper flakes, or chili powder can go a long way to adding a layer of flavor without burning your mouth off. Just go for some background heat instead of chili-pepper- eating-contest level.
  8. If you’re baking something simple with cinnamon, you can also add other warm spices that play well with sweet. Allspice and nutmeg are a good start. Take it closer to a chai flavor with cardamom, cloves, coriander, and a little black pepper. Go the pumpkin spice route with ginger and cloves. Bonus: you’re more likely to use up the spices in your cabinet before they go bad!

how to get in the habit of making dinner every day

  1. Know that this is the right option for you.
  2. Write a meal plan. Start with just planning the next three days and work your way up to a weekly plan if it makes sense for you. Be realistic about your schedule, what you will actually eat, and any other limitations. Don’t feel you need to cook each meal from scratch right from the start – ease into it.
  3. Get your recipes together.
  4. Write a shopping list.
  5. Go grocery shopping.
  6. Make sure your food doesn’t go bad. Store it properly and use it before it spoils.
  7. Give yourself the time to prepare dinner and make it a pleasant event. I like to start with a clean kitchen, drink a glass of wine and sometimes listen to music. The kids watch TV while I cook and I refuse to feel guilty about it.
  8. Eat at the table. That way you can focus on the food you made! It’s harder to notice how it tastes and what might improve your food the next time you make it if you’re concentrating on watching TV or working. In our house we make exceptions for the Super Bowl, the World Series, Election Day and the third snow day in a row when we’re starting to go a little crazy and the only solution is an indoor picnic dinner.
  9. Refine your technique. Don’t make something again you don’t like it. If you were only lukewarm on a dish, think about how to make it better. If it took too much work, how could you make it more easily?
  10. If at all possible, have someone else clean up. You worked hard! Someone else scrape that baking dish clean!

how to write a grocery list

It’s time to gather tools and prepare for the Grocery Store Battle. I kid. My grocery store is lovely and my family has befriended a half dozen of the employees, who are beyond kind, and will back me up when my children announce their plans to run freely through the parking lot, hands unheld.

First, I claim my portion of the dining room table and spread out my papers. I’ve got my notepad and pen. I’ve created my meal plan. I’ve sorted my recipes. My grocery store flyer has all my circles identifying items that may make the list.

I don’t need to buy every ingredient for each meal every week, because I’m not starting with an empty pantry, fridge or freezer. I need to buy the things that can spoil, like produce, some meats, dairy, and eggs or a special ingredient for a new meal that I’m trying. I do need to replenish some staples most weeks. I’ve been burned before, so I keep a notepad in the kitchen and write down anything as I use it up.

I write down everything I’ll need for the week’s dinners. But I can’t forget other meals and snacks! For breakfast we often have eggs, and cereal in the summer or oatmeal in the winter. Lunches are usually sandwiches or leftovers. With two kids, it’s pretty much Snack City over here. Fresh fruit, raisins, Larabars and cheese can appeal to all ages but we are also never without purée pouches and, of course, the ubiquitous Goldfish cracker. Right now we are on a rainbow Goldfish bender.

I carry my list around and double-check it against what’s already in my home. I tend to stock up when the store has a good sale, and often a recipe doesn’t use the entirety of a purchased ingredient. There’s often no need to buy another pound of ground beef, box of panko breadcrumbs, or bottle of Dijon mustard if I look in my cupboard, pantry, fridge or freezer.

Personally, I go crazy unless my list is organized by section. I’ll forget something, and then another thing, and then find myself having spent an extra 20 minutes trekking back and forth. At this point my kids will have realized it and I no longer have the upper hand. So after I know I’ve written everything I need and crossed off anything I don’t, organizing it is! I group items from the produce department, then dairy and eggs, baking supplies and spices, frozen foods, then pasta, rice, beans, and canned tomatoes, and finally, meats and seafood.

Some vegetables and proteins won’t last more than a couple of days, so I usually plan to pop into the grocery store closest to my work and pick up those crucial ingredients midweek. Those ingredients get copied to my kitchen notepad and I’ll add anything else I run out of throughout the week. Sometimes my grocery store has a really good deal on something like eggs, but they limit it to four units. When I go in midweek, I’ll grab a few more then.

I don’t often use coupons, because I find that many of them are for the packaged prepared foods that we rarely buy. But sometimes I want to stock up on an easy-to-grab treat for snacks on the go, or there’s a bargain to be had for our favorite cold cereal. I’ll paperclip these to the shopping list but still occasionally manage to forget to hand them over.

Often I’ll highlight or circle items that were on the grocery store’s sale flyer. I’m not committed to buying the featured items though, because sometimes it’s not the best deal. This helps me remember to look.

Then it’s off to the store! Preferably, with the list, and with my reusable shopping bags. Once I’m there, I stick to the list! It can be so easy to stray and pick up items I don’t need because I’m hungry and they look good.

how to write a meal plan

I start with a brainstorm. This is the best part. I just think about what I want to eat. I’m pretty much always hungry, and even if I’m not, I have keen memories of hunger and cravings (primarily from my pregnancies) so this is easy. I keep a notebook where I write down our dinner every night (shout out to Jenny Rosenstrach) and I will pull that out and look at what we had this month last year and the year before. I’ll poke around in a favorite cookbook. I’ll think about my favorite childhood meals. Sometimes a meal pops into my head – something I ate at a restaurant, or something I saw online? I’ll ask my husband and sometimes, if I’m very very lucky, he will say the name of a meal. I’ll ask my boys. “Mac and cheese and peas and carrots!” they’ll shout. I know this, so I only ask them occasionally. I just write it all down.

Then I look at our schedule for the week. I know which days we have commitments, when we might be eating dinner at some else’s house, if we might need a super quick meal, or if I should get dinner started in the morning in the slow cooker. Some meals start to fall into place. I’ll cross things off if they’re too similar, or if they’re too much work for the week we have ahead. I make sure we’re getting an assortment of vegetable sides – we tend towards broccoli, which is actually really awesome if you have to choose a vegetable tendency, but again, variety is good. I make sure we’re not eating pasta every night, or eating every meal on top of rice, or that it’s not all Italian or Asian or French (ha!). I make sure that my boys, who are fairly adventurous eaters, are not challenged every single night with something new – there are tried and true hits every week. I don’t push myself to cook a challenging meal every single night. I build in meals that would work with the ingredients or prepared foods we have at home that need to be used up. I often leave a day open, where we could eat any leftovers from a previous meal, or we might order a pizza.

By this point, I have a solid idea of what we’ll be eating each night for the next several days. I’ll write a fresh copy and post it in the kitchen. That way it’s easy to see every day, and I can check it each night to see if something needs to come out of the freezer and thaw, or if I need to stop at the grocery store in the morning. It’s not written in stone though, especially towards the second half of the week.

Some families find it useful to assign themes to each night, taking some of the guesswork out, like Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, pizza Fridays, a roasted dinner on Sunday when they’ll be home all day to keep a hot oven company. Personally, I need a bit more variety than that, but it’s a good place to start.

This might seem horrific and time consuming but it isn’t. It used to be. It takes a while to create a new habit. Start with only planning three nights at a time, and don’t feel that you have to cook a dinner from scratch each of those nights. Be realistic about your schedule and your comfort level in the kitchen. It’ll get easier in time.

why I make dinner at home every day

So many other writers have covered the “why” of making dinner at home. Your reasons might be totally different from mine. My family eats homemade dinner at home because it’s cheaper, it’s easier than taking the kids out, it’s healthier, it’s often actually quicker than eating at a restaurant, and we get to eat the exact foods we want to eat.

My husband and I both love good food. We like to try new restaurants and we gravitate towards independently-owned restaurants with carefully prepared food. It’s not cheap. We’ll find ourselves spending $75 for dinner for four at a restaurant that isn’t very fancy. Neither of us really cares for typical fast food. Dunkin’ Donuts is the exception, because we live in New England and we would get kicked out if we thought differently. But if we’re talking quick chain options for carryout, Panera is pretty much the only thing we are comfortable with. And that stuff’s expensive! I’m not saying the cost isn’t worth it, but we have a hard time getting out of there for under $40. It’s not much cheaper to get meals prepared in-house at one of the grocery stores close to our house. Instead, if we get our ingredients at the grocery store and cook at home, we can get a week’s worth of food for under $140. I’m sure we could push that even lower if necessary.

We have two boys, ages four and two. Sometimes they just want to drum their silverware on the table to Queen playing “We Will Rock You” in their heads and eat soup with their hands. This is something that goes over better in the privacy of our homes instead of at a restaurant where people might care more deeply at fork dents in the table and soup sieved onto the floor. We’re trying to teach them manners. They’re learning. It could go more quickly.

It could also be going more slowly. Cue eye roll.

Cooking at home also means I’m eating more healthily. I don’t count calories but since I know all the ingredients that went in to my dinner and the effort behind it, it’s easy for me to be aware of what I should eat more or less. I don’t deep-fry anything – it’s too much effort – and while I use butter, cream, and whole milk, I balance it out with vegetables that taste so awesome that they actually get eaten. My taste buds aren’t accustomed to an abundance of salt and fat, as often happens in restaurants. I know that I’m getting a good intake of fiber, complex carbohydrates, and a mix of vitamins. I am positive that I’m eating a variety of foods. Let’s talk about variety. If you’re eating at restaurants all day, you might get a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast, pizza for dinner, and pasta alfredo for dinner and feel like you are eating several different foods. But in actuality, you ate bread and cheese for each meal, with a few minor tweaks. If I cook at home, I’ll have something like soft-boiled eggs on buttered toast with a banana for breakfast, an apple for snack, leftover pork and cabbage stir fry with brown rice for lunch, cheese and crackers for another snack, and roast chicken with potatoes and steamed broccoli for dinner. I have days that are more varied or less, and of course there are people that would line up to tell me how my food choices are *wrong* but these are the choices that are serving me well, that I’m comfortable with, that help me feel good, fight off illnesses, ace my annual checkups, keep my pants fitting the same way, and allow me to work hard every day. Those are my benchmarks for a healthy diet.

If I’m going to keep that up, if I’m trying to be balanced with my choices every day, eating a variety of foods prepared to my liking, and save time and effort while not driving myself absolutely insane by creating the wheel every day… I need to plan ahead and execute that meal plan. It was a hard habit to get into and there are days that I struggle, but overall, I see no other viable option for my family.

last week’s meals – comfort to the max

Sunday 10/16 – Cookout at Jane’s. How fun to see so many friends and their kids in one place! We were tired but it was beyond worth it, and the apples we picked were delicious all week.

Monday 10/17 – Roasted chicken and yukon golds, roasted carrots with pattypan squash. Possibly the best roast chicken we’ve ever had, and a large one, so we got three more meals from the leftovers. The pattypan squash was mediocre – maybe roasting was not the way to go? Made a huge batch of stock in the slow cooker.

Tuesday 10/18 – Budget Byte’s pork and cabbage stir fry with brown rice. This is the second time I’ve made this in the last month. I loved the ginger and pork together, and the leftovers reheat so well for lunch the next day.

Wednesday 10/19 – Chicken & dumplings over peas. It’s cool weather comfort food season in our hearts if not outside! We used leftover chicken and broth from Monday’s roast chicken dinner.

Thursday 10/20 – Chicken chili and cornbread. Thanks Monday! You were totally good to us!

Friday 10/21 – Cottage pie with double peas, carrots, and corn. I accidentally say shepherd’s pie sometimes, but I use ground beef instead of lamb. This was a great way to recover from getting caught in a rainstorm on the last few minutes of our afternoon walk.

Saturday 10/21 – Greek chicken noodle soup. This was pretty much the last of Monday’s roast chicken, although I did freeze some of the stock. With lemon, dill, and beaten eggs slowly added to the hot broth to make it thick and creamy without the use of any dairy, this might be my favorite version of chicken soup.