Ripppppp. Just like that, another handle broke. The noise was surprisingly loud on the now quiet streets. I wasn’t even half of the way home. I stopped and put all of the bags down, before cradling the broken one like a baby and holding the others with my left hand. My mask, pushed up by the bag handle, just made the whole trip more comical. In the Northeast, winter hangs on tight, so I was also wearing gloves and a knit hat with my stylish paper mask. A block from our building the last bag broke and sent frozen peas and blueberries tumbling into the street. Thankfully, I recovered the groceries, so only my pride was damaged.
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.
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.
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.
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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Hello foodies! Although the main point of sharing my weekly dinner menus is to show how you can cook one dinner that satisfies everyone in the family (yes even the picky ones), every night and save considerable time following a ‘system’ — where all of the dishes and leftovers work together for the week. I keep getting requests for an easy way to ‘browse’ all of the recipes.
You’ve come to expect relatively easy, fast, budget and kid-friendly dinner menus from me. However, this week’s menu isn’t quite that. It took on a life of it’s own due to the Easter holiday and Shad Roe season.
Typically, even on the weekends I cook main dishes that are pretty healthy, wallet and kid-palate friendly (i.e. Chicken and Pork versus Lamb and Shad Roe). Still, despite the switch up from our normal routine, I managed to make one meal for the family each night!
If you haven’t read my previous posts about the whole system, here’s a quick review of where the time savings comes in:
Basic, flexible formula for a healthy meal each night.
A set of quick turnaround ‘go-to’ proteins, grains and veggies that work during the week (30 minutes or less).
Always have a set of plan B staples in the pantry and freezer.
Smart use of leftovers and weekend meals that feed my family at least twice.
Although this menu requires more effort, my family enjoyed the special holiday meals and my children especially loved the addition of cake to our weekend line up.
If you try any of these recipes or the whole menu, please leave a comment and let me know!
Normally, I start off the weekends with a 2X (feeds the family twice meal) however, my husband had a schedule change and the Shad Roe I bought to surprise him with on Friday night had to wait until Saturday.
Let’s save time making dinner for the family! Let’s reduce the number of dishes, avoid the ‘short-order-cookism’ of serving each person their own special meal that meets their every whim and desire… basically let’s make this communal, perhaps fun (okay depending on the age of your kids), nourishing family time without all of the complexity of making dish-intensive, complicated menus or worse, planning ‘dinner’ on the fly each night.
To quickly recap — I save considerable time, at least 1 to 2 hours (of prep, clean up, shopping and mental energy) each week by:
Repeating a basic ‘formula’ of how dinner works (protein + grain + 2 or 3 vegetables)
Choosing meals that are very quick to prepare (i.e. less than 30 minutes) during the working week (see previous post with my go-to list of weeknight vs. weekend grains, vegetables and protein choices).
Cooking at least 2 meals a week that feed my family two times (2X meals)
Making one dinner that works for everybody, with some minor variations to make the ‘grown up’ servings more interesting and the kids’ versions more ‘kid-friendly’ (i.e. nothing touches each other, no spicy sauces, de-saucing items cooked in sauce altogether, etc.)
I’m also a dish minimalist. I go to extraordinary lengths to reduce the amount of pots, pans, cutting boards, etc. required for each meal. I enjoy the cooking part and want to reduce the dish washing and clean up (the joyless) part. Most of my meals and menus are designed with this in mind.