How long did it take you to grow tired of kid-friendly foods? Right. Not long. So, one of the best ways to save yourself from culinary boredom is to master a few tricks to ‘liven up’ dishes so you’re making one meal for everyone. That’s right, rule number one to save yourself from years of extra dishes, is not to make separate kids meals. Occasionally, as in for holidays and special occasions only, I will make a fancy grown-up feast but even then the side dishes are always kid-friendly then modified for us so that we’re all eating mostly the same thing.
Last week I broke one of my time saving rules and roasted a whole fish on a weeknight. Truth be told, I wanted to lure my husband back to the dinner table. Although we’ve both been working long hours, he typically arrives later and has fallen into a habit of grabbing food at the office and skipping dinner. In favor of a late evening snack.
I want the whole family eating dinner together every night. It’s something I care about, even though it’s not always possible. And yes, with young kids, it’s also not very relaxing … but the routine and Continue reading “Roast Snapper Salad”→
20 minutes or less. No fuss, One pan. Yes, seriously!
Sometimes you need a simple, yet deeply satisfying, ‘small’ meal. By small, I mean, for you. Perhaps for you and your children. My husband is traveling, which frees me up to play with small, ‘snack like’ foods for myself and ultra simple meals (read quesadillas) for the kids. After enjoying a few nights of crackers and cheese, then scrambled eggs for dinner, I decided to treat myself better tonight. Tonight, I made a proper meal.
This was an accidental soup. Sunday, I intended to make butternut squash soup, because there’s half a butternut squash sitting (still) in the fridge. I had a plan for that squash but neglected to buy white potatoes and since I already started defrosting chicken stock, I thought… let’s figure out a way to make a soup with sweet potatoes instead.
On the quest to save time, making quesadillas has become a popular weeknight solution in our home. I usually make them once a week. Sometimes more. My children think they’re delicious and I can get dinner ‘done’ within 20 minutes. Yes… I said ‘within’ as in, less than 20 minutes from when I get home!
Kids & Grownup Versions
Sometimes I make the kids quesadillas as their ‘carb’ to accompany chicken or some other protein and vegetables, while we (grownups) eat the same protein/vegetable combination on top of salad. Other times, I make quesadillas for everyone and my husband and I get a ‘grownup’ version with more interesting fillings.
Yes… It Even Works Cooking For a Crowd
If you’re looking for a fun, casual meal that works well feeding a crowd, whether entertaining impromptu visitors or a large family, make the quesadillas in the oven to get them all done at the same time. It’s super easy that way.
About Serving Sizes
My children are young and I give my little one (newly 4) about 1/3 of one whole quesadilla and my son gets the remaining 2/3. I serve the quesadilla slices with veggies (i.e. broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, and/or peas) and a small serving (1/4 or 1/2 cup) of a protein (i.e., chicken, pork, turkey burger) on the side.
My husband’s new dentist is in a mall with an Eataly. Yes… THAT Eataly. Last Monday he asked if I wanted him to bring fresh pasta home…I said, ‘sure,’ especially since I didn’t have a dinner plan yet. He brought home LOTS of pasta…more than one night’s worth of pasta so I found myself in need of some quickie-no-forward-planning sauces.
My husband loves food as much as I do and we spent a lot of time pre-kids making fresh pasta. We still do (occasionally) but it’s not a weeknight project.
It took a while (ok years) to adjust from cooking, as a hobby (making battenburg cake, homemade cheese with my husband, perfecting my croissant dough) to cooking for sustenance (read speedier-to-cook-meals-the-whole-family-can-eat.)
Once I fully embraced this new normal, I started seeking opportunities to make it more enjoyable, delicious, mostly nutritious and yes, time-efficient.
Early on, I wrote a post about how I handle weekly meal planning because the ‘how do you cook everyday’ question is one I’m asked often.
Every year it’s a big emotional shift to move into fall…. this is not because I don’t like fall, I do…I just don’t like what comes after fall. I’m that person who is always cold, shivering all year round, hovering under heavy sweaters at the office and still wearing my down coat well into May. After a long impatient wait, when the average temperature is somewhere north of 80 degrees Fareneheit I’m completely in my element.
There are, however, two things about fall I really look forward to 1. fall cooking and 2. fall baking.
My son looked at me…his eyes opened wide and his eyebrows, perfect semi circles, seemed to reach his hairline. His mouth, outlined with frosting, stretched into most surprised and joyful smile I’d seen on his tiny face.
That was 6 years ago, when my son tasted his first birthday cake. Now, he routinely conjures up ideas of what to bake next.
Many of us love the idea of homemade snacks for our kids… after all, nothing puts you into Rock-Star-Mommy status faster than gifting warm treats from the oven. However, the process of deciding to bake, buying said ingredients to bake with and then actually baking becomes easy to bump from the busy back-to-school (and life) schedule.
Although it’s been many years since culinary school and my time working in restaurant kitchens was brief, I learned my best food short-cuts from professional Chefs. Working smart makes homemade goodies for the lunchbox and after school completely doable. Really.
3 Simple Snack-Batching Steps:
Bake On Demand.
Making the dough either becomes a weekend project with the kids – because they love being my little sous-chefs or if the weekend is just too crowded, I make and freeze dough after they’re asleep. Have I woken up before dawn to batch bake before school? Why yes…but please don’t. It’s much easier to enjoy this project when you have some wiggle room in the schedule.
Take a favorite recipe and double it (or triple it) for a freezer batch. My youngest is a toddler (not in school yet) so I’m doing a double batch for one child every 4 – 8 weeks.
The dough making step, is pretty quick, typically 20 – 30 minutes. It depends on the complexity of what you decide to make and if you have little hands helping you.
Choosing The Right Recipes:
Cookies – without fillings, frostings or meringues (keep it simple when freezing).
Scones – Love using scones, they’re relatively low in sugar and I ‘make up’ flavors by using what’s available. Sometimes I’ll make a triple batch if we’re hosting brunch (2 batches of regular scones for the party, 1 batch cut into mini-scones for my son’s snacks).
Muffins/quick breads – The dough freezes well, it’s just trickier to work with when freezing. You’ll need either (oiled) mini-loaf tins (i.e., if you’re making pumpkin or banana bread) or for mini-muffins, freeze 1 tbsp. of dough in small paper muffin liners fully before putting them into the freezer-safe containers.
Here are links to 2 favorite recipes that my oldest loves in our out of his lunchbox:
Note, I’ve had great success with this recipe and I modify it slightly to make very small graham ‘crackers’ (they should be called graham cookies), about 1.5 inches in diameter and the baking time, directly from the freezer is between 7 – 9 minutes. Start watching them frequently at 7 minutes, when they’re slightly puffed and browned, remove them from the oven to cool.
Note, I make a lot of different chocolate chip cookie recipes, including some of my own varieties but this one is great because it uses whole wheat flour, (it says to use white whole wheat but you can also use regular whole wheat and they’re still delicious) honey and less refined sugar. I make them tiny (i.e. 1 tablespoon to form the rounds) and with mini-chocolate chips (I use the Enjoy Life brand mini chips, you can buy them at most grocery stores. I discovered them during my 14-month stint of dairy-freeness due to my daughter’s allergy and still like using them).
This part is straightforward except you need some time to ‘freeze’ the dough solid (uncovered) before you can pack everything up for longer term storage. Allow yourself enough time, probably 45 minutes to an hour, for this step. Sometimes, I just make dough with the kids during the day and save this step for when they’re asleep.
Gear You’ll Need:
Reliable freezer bags (I use Ziploc brand) or freezer safe airtight containers
A permanent marker (if using freezer bags)
Spray oil (I use organic coconut oil spray but you can use canola, i.e. something mild but not savory like olive oil that can make your baked goods taste like they belong in a salad).
Shelf space in your freezer where newly frozen items can rest, undisturbed, for about an hour.
After I’ve made a batch of dough (scones, cookies, etc.) I will use plates – either lined with parchment or sprayed lightly with coconut oil, to put the dropped (or rolled) dough (separated, so they don’t stick together) into the freezer, uncovered in a ‘safe’ spot to rest undisturbed for 30 – 60 minutes. Once the dough feels firm, you can store in either freezer bags (separated with a cut piece of parchment paper between each layer, for 2 or more more layers in the same bag) or freezer safe containers (also separate layers with parchment to prevent sticking).
Use the marker to label the freezer bags (if using) – what’s in it, the date and the cooking temperature and time. Trust me, it’s possible your tired brain might forget these little details when you’re ready to use them!
It’s the best step – fun, fast and satisfying. If you use the types of recipes I recommend and make the portions small enough for lunchboxes, you’re unlikely to need more than 10 – 12 minutes to bake anything. Usually an extra 1 or 2 minutes from the recipe’s baking guidelines, unless you’ve miniaturized, then you’ll want to experiment with the baking time (start checking 3 or 4 minutes before the recipe’s stated end time).
I bake off 2 cookies (or scones or mini muffins – whatever I’ve made for the freezer) each afternoon and then, once completely cooled, the sweets are packed in a small airtight snack container and placed in my son’s lunchbox for the next day.
I generally make a new batch of school-snack-treat-dough once every 4 – 8 weeks for my son, depending on whether snacks are used on the weekends (usually not) or we have friends over who want cookies. If you double a recipe and have more than one treat-eater, you’ll need to do this more frequently. Because I love to bake and I’m particular (ok, a control freak) about what my kids eat, this system works well for me and ultimately saves time and money (versus continually shopping for grocery store snacks).
A few friends asked me about back-to-school food, inspiring this post. Typically I only share dinner menus here but if you’re interested in the occasional baking or party menu post, I’m happy to share my recipes and time saving hacks more often, just let me know in the comments.
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