My Favorite Easy Dinners

I love to cook. I love making everything from scratch, especially—hours standing in the kitchen, chopping, mixing, seasoning—it’s one of my favorite ways to spend a free afternoon.

But I live in the reality of having four active children who attend three different schools and have various extracurricular activities—not to mention weekly therapy, speech, and other appointments. Which means that grocery shopping sometimes gets pushed off a few days too long and cooking has to happen in between tying shoes, refereeing sibling spats, and monitoring bike riding in the street.

It’s kind of a miracle we don’t eat take-out at least five nights a week, now that I think of it!

The thing that has saved me is that I have several go-to recipes that are unbelievably simple and require very little forethought. Most of the items needed are in my freezer or pantry.

As I’ve focused on food in a few recent videos (here and here), I’ve gotten more questions about what eating looks like in my busy household.

I hope to do some more videos about food, but for now, I wanted to share a few of my quick-and-pretty-nutritious-not-to-mention-darn-tasty recipes:

Image result for frozen chicken thighs Pace Chunky Medium Salsa, 16oz

Salsa Chicken (about an hour and ten minutes)

Ingredients:

  • Frozen Boneless Chicken Thighs
  • One or two jars of salsa
  • Shredded cheese (cheddar is great)

Preheat oven to 375. Lay the frozen chicken thighs across a baking dish. Pour salsa over the chicken. Bake for one hour. Sprinkle cheese on top before serving. Serve with tortillas or rice (which you can cook ahead of time and freeze to heat up in the microwave), slices of avocado, and corn (frozen).

Image result for frozen meatballs  Prego Roasted Garlic & Herb Italian Sauce, 24 oz.

Spaghetti (about 30 minutes)

Ingredients:

  • One jar of spaghetti sauce.
  • One bag of frozen meatballs.
  • One box of spaghetti.

Warm the sauce. Add the frozen meatballs. Make the spaghetti according to the directions. Boom. Serve with a bagged salad.

Image result for turkey smoked sausage

Sausage and Vegetables (about an hour)

Ingredients:

  • Whatever of the following you have on hand: onions, potatoes, bell peppers, garlic
  • Smoked sausage/kielbasa (I usually use turkey, but whatever you have works)

Preheat oven to 375. Chop veggies into bite-size pieces. Cut sausage into large bite-size pieces. Pour everything into a baking dish. Toss with some olive oil. Bake for 45 minutes until veggies are done.

Veggie Fried Rice

Ingredients:

  • Cooked rice (from the freezer)
  • Sesame or peanut oil
  • Chopped onion
  • Chopped garlic (from a jar)
  • Frozen mixed veggies
  • Soy sauce
  • Optional: frozen cooked shrimp or leftover cooked chicken

Heat oil in large skillet. If using frozen shrimp, add that first. Otherwise, add rice, veggies, and soy sauce to taste. Cook, stirring frequently, until it’s all hot and delicious.

Breakfast for Dinner I (15 minutes or less)

Ingredients:

  • Eggs
  • Bread
  • Fruit

Cook the eggs to your preference. My favorite way is to break eggs (two per person) into a large bowl (taking care not to break the yolks), heat a large skillet with butter (or olive oil if you have a dairy allergy in the house), pour the eggs into the hot skillet, cook for about two minutes then cover and turn off heat.

Meanwhile, put bread in the toaster. Toast. Top with butter and jelly of your choice.

Cut whatever fruit you have on hand. Applesauce from the pantry does quite well if you don’t have any fresh.

Breakfast for Dinner II (about an hour)

Ingredients:

  • Eggs (about 8-10)
  • Any of the following you have on hand: onion, broccoli (frozen florets are fine), tomatoes (I’ve used canned diced, drained), spinach, mushrooms (canned work), asparagus, etc.
  • Optional: shredded cheese

Preheat oven to 375. Break eggs into a bowl and whisk them well with a fork or whisk. If you’re going to use cheese, whisk that into the eggs. Chop veggies into small pieces. Heat a large skillet with olive oil. Sauteé veggies for a couple of minutes then pour eggs over veggies. Bake for about 45 minutes or so. Serve with cut up fruit or applesauce and toast.

Vegan Taco Bowls

Ingredients:

  • Frozen meat-substitute crumbles
  • Taco seasoning
  • Canned black beans
  • Chopped tomatoes or canned diced tomatoes, drained
  • Cooked rice (from the freezer or made ahead of time in the Instant Pot, which I use all. the. TIME.)
  • Avocado
  • Corn (from the freezer)

Heat a skillet with olive oil. Warm the meat-substitute crumbles. Add taco seasoning and water per instructions. Warm rice in the microwave. Warm beans in the microwave. Warm corn on the stove (I prefer that to microwave, but you can totally microwave the corn). Dish a cup or so of cooked rice into a bowl. Top with taco-meatless-meat, warmed beans, corn, tomatoes, and sliced avo. My family LOVES this one! It also works with the salsa chicken in place of the meatless meat substitute.

Chili

  • Canned beans (black, pinto, red)
  • Canned diced tomatoes, not drained
  • Chopped onion (from freezer)
  • Chopped garlic (from jar)
  • Chili powder (2-4 T)
  • Cumin (1 t)
  • Corn (from freezer)
  • Shredded cheese (optional)
  • Tortilla chips.

Heat oil in large sauce pan. Sauteé onions and garlic. Add beans, tomatoes, chili powder (2-4 TBSP), and corn. Stir and heat until simmering. Serve with shredded cheese and tortilla chips.

Cereal for Dinner

I’m not above serving bowls of cereal for dinner. My kids think it’s a huge treat. I usually do this when my husband is away.

PB & J for Dinner

I’m also not above serving PB & J for dinner. I usually serve it with fresh fruit or—yep—applesauce.

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A Few Notes:

  • I make large batches of rice in my Instant Pot and freeze it right away so it warms up nicely in the microwave when I need it and doesn’t get dry. So I usually have cooked rice in the freezer, which is a great go-to for a base for many last-minute meals. It’s also a good idea to freeze leftover rice the day you cook it rather than put it in the fridge in a plastic container. Rice gets dry so quickly in the fridge, but not if it’s frozen right away.
  • When corn on the cob is in season and at its cheapest, I buy TONS of it, cut it off the cob and freeze it in big freezer bags. The taste of frozen fresh corn is SOOOOOO superior to frozen corn from the grocery store freezer-section. It can been cooked easily on the stove or in the microwave.
  • While most of the meat I buy is ethically sourced, I do keep bags of frozen boneless chicken thighs, which I have not been able to find from ethical sources, which cook pretty well without thawing. To avoid this, you can substitute ethically sourced legs or thighs, but they need to be thawed before cooking.
  • Whenever I have veggies that are getting really ripe that I’m not about to use, I prep them — peel, chop, whatever — and freeze them to use later.
  • I periodically buy a bag of onions and chop them up and freeze them for using in recipes. This saves a bunch of time.
  • While I much prefer cooking with fresh garlic, I do keep a jar of chopped garlic—which is available from my Dollar Tree—in my fridge to use in a pinch.

So I’d love to hear back from you! What are some of your favorite go-to easy recipes that you can whip up on a moment’s notice from things in the fridge/freezer/pantry?

Baked Potato Bar!

Last Monday, our family was in Virginia Beach with my parents and my oldest brother’s family of five. We each had a cabin on a little dead-end street in a beautiful state park, and we all took turns making dinner for one another.

Of course I volunteered for Monday 🙂 #MondayNightDinnerParty

I wanted to do something that would be relatively simple and healthy that could be tailored by each person according to their dietary preferences (one does not eat meat, one does not eat dairy, etc.) I went to the grocery store in hopes that something there would inspire my menu, and discovered that baking potatoes were on sale. Score! I decided to do a Baked Potato Bar, and it was a huge hit!

Here’s how I did it, from start to finish:

Grocery List:

12 baking potatoes

1 package of fresh chives

1 yellow onion, sliced

1-2 c sliced mushrooms

1 can of chili (I used Amy’s Organic Chili with Vegetables—not spicy!)

1 package frozen or fresh broccoli crowns

1 package of shredded cheddar cheese

1 container sour cream

1 container of spreadable butter

coconut oil

salt & pepper

Preparation:

Preheat oven to 400.

Scrub each of the potatoes clean and pat dry.

Scoop out a teaspoon or so of coconut oil, rub it all over your hands, then rub each potato all over with the coconut oil. Get more oil on your hands as needed. Place potatoes in a baking dish or cookie sheet, leaving room between each potato. Poke each potato with a fork two or three times if you want to (I do because my mom always did, but I’m not sure what purpose it serves!) Liberally salt and pepper the potatoes in the pan.

Bake for 60-90 minutes. (Note: there might be some smoke at first as some of the oil burns off the potatoes. That’s normal and will stop unless they’re actually on fire!)

Meanwhile, heat a skillet to medium and add about a teaspoon of coconut oil. Sautée your onions until clear, then add the mushrooms and continue to stir/sautée them until they’re cooked. Remove from heat.

Steam your broccoli (stovetop or microwave, your choice).

Warm the chili just before serving (again, stovetop or microwave).

Chop your chives.

Presentation:

Set out the toppings, buffet style. I left the sour cream and butter in their store-bought containers, but if you wanted to get a bit fancier, you could, of course, put them in nice bowls. I did set out the cheese, chives, chili, and onion-mushroom sautée, but left the broccoli on the stove so it would keep warm.

Set out the potatoes.

Set out a stack of plates and a jar of utensils.

Call everyone to dinner.

This menu is especially appealing to kids, because they love to fix their own food! It was so fun to watch each of them get creative with what they put on their potatoes.

This menu is especially appealing to adults, because there was zero whining or negotiating about who would eat what or how much. Oh, and also it turns out adults like to have the freedom to fix their potatoes the way they like them too 🙂

NOTE about using coconut oil:

I am pretty much obsessed with coconut oil these days. I use it on my body, on my kids’ bodies, to brush my teeth, and for cooking. I love how it smells and how it tastes, but note that it does add a definite flavor to your food when you cook with it (at least, the kind I buy does). So if folks in your midst don’t like coconut, or have coconut allergies, substitute olive oil, which is what I used for baking potatoes for years.

NOTE about baking potatoes:

I like the skins crispy. Some people like them softer. If you prefer softer potato skins, wrap them in foil before baking. Otherwise, leave them just oiled, not foiled, and they’ll be deliciously crispy. 

ANOTHER NOTE about baking potatoes:

This would also work well with sweet potatoes! Perhaps you’d choose different toppings, but sweet potatoes or yams make great baked potatoes as well, and add a bunch of good nutrients to boot!

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Y’all, this is one of the simplest, crowd-pleasingest menus you could do. There is almost no actual “cooking” involved! It’s mostly prep! And you could easily involve your kids in the prep if you wanted to (mine were too busy running around with their cousins this time, but other times, they’d be right there with me, chairs pushed to counters).

What would you add to the menu? Do you have favorite baked potato toppings I didn’t include?

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Fellowship of the Table on the Road

Last Tuesday morning, I left my children with my parents in Virginia and started driving northwest. We had gotten word that my grandmother, whom I call Meme, was nearing the end of her life, and I wanted to see her one last time. I drove for over ten hours, stopping only for a few very quick bathroom and refueling breaks, straight to the house where she has spent the past year or so, a wonderful end-of-life care home facility (that is more of a “home” than a “facility”), where I joined my aunt and cousins, who had been with her for several days.

The plan was for me to spend the night and then drive back to Virginia the next day. However, it became very evident that instead of me going back to Virginia, my parents and children needed to come to Michigan. The end was very close.

For the next several days, with my uncles joining us, we camped out in the living room of the Serenity House of Commerce Township. We each took turns going in to sit bedside with Meme, reading passages from the Bible to her, singing hymns, and just talking. By the time I arrived, she was already sleeping, and she never really woke up. However, when I left that first night, I went into tell her one last time that I love her and that I would be back the next day, and she opened her eyes ever so slightly and said “I love you” back. Those were the last words my Meme said to me, and they were among the last words she said, period.

Pure gift.

The hospice nurse predicted 24 to 48 hours. My parents left Virginia Thursday morning with my kids and drove up, arriving around 10:00 PM. My dad was the last of her seven children to make it to the house, and she died about 12 hours after he arrived. We all believe she was waiting for him.

Over the next several days, more and more family arrived from Massachusetts, Washington, South Carolina, North Carolina, New York, Virginia, and, of course, Michigan. We took over a Holiday Inn Express & Suites, and there, in the common area of the hotel, the Fellowship of the Table began. Over the next several days, not only did we plan and hold a funeral and reception for Meme, we also had a birthday party for my niece, who turned eight over the weekend, as well as a retirement party for my uncle, whose last day of work was the day Meme died.

For several days, in the lobby of a Holiday Inn, the fellowship of the table continued. We brought in food and beverages and enjoyed hours and hours of conversation, card games (pinochle is a family tradition), and much, much laughter. Everyone contributed something, from bags of carrot sticks to dates and nuts, cake, wine, pizza, beer, and potato chips. For my niece’s birthday party, there were butterfly decorations and mylar balloons from the Dollar Tree near the hotel and a chocolate cake from the grocery store down the road. For my uncle’s impromptu retirement party, it was another small grocery store cake that we had “Congrats Brian” written on, along with a card we all signed.

The point was not how good the food was, how beautiful the decor, or how ideal the circumstances. The ambiance was the people.

The point was not how good the food was, how beautiful the decor, or how ideal the circumstances. The ambiance was the people. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and grandkids, brothers and sisters, all gathered to celebrate life.

We need to do that more.

We need to stop waiting for the right time, the clean house, the perfect menu, and the planned-out guest list.

We need to seize the moment and gather around a table together. I love a good menu, I love setting a beautiful table, I love thinking through who to invite.

But some of the best times of fellowship are the ones nobody planned.

Paper plates, a store-bought cake, a hodgepodge of snacks and take-out containers can be the makings of some of the best meals, if the goal of the meal is to gather and connect.

Paper plates, a store-bought cake, a hodgepodge of snacks and take-out containers can be the makings of some of the best meals, if the goal of the meal is to gather and connect.

If you’re reticent to invite people to gather around your table because your house is not “company ready” or you don’t have time to prepare a beautiful meal or set a gorgeous table, let my family’s recent experience inspire you.

It doesn’t matter.

Just gather. The people will be the ambiance.