Saturday, September 19, 2009

Food...One of My Favorite Subjects

My friend over at Live...From Ninevah is talking about having the dinner doldrums and asked us all to share our food helpers and supper savers.

Personally, I can hardly resist an opportunity to talk or think about food. It's almost as great as eating it! I'll even confess a little known secret about myself, some of my favorite books to read are cookbooks. Now, when I cook, I don't actually use recipes, but I really love to read them. I like to think of recipes as loose road maps with general plans for a good trip. Although, when baking or creating something in the baking world, it does pay to at least follow the formula to get your proportions right. It helps, especially if you prefer an edible return for your efforts.

This isn't about the gourmet here or pulling off that spectacular dinner party, not that those aren't great fun to do once in a while, but this is all about busy mom's and time crunched families and still having a satisfying dinner.

My first disclaimer is that my tips and thoughts may or may not reflect your idea of healthy eating. Sorry. I work in my own kitchen, you work in yours. These are thoughts only for you to take and do what you please with! I know one of the main thoughts was to keep the breakfast for dinner option down to once a week, but really, breakfast foods can be healthy, satisfying and there is just something fun and relaxing about having a breakfast for dinner night. You could even do the showers first and get into your jammies before dinner!

We'll begin there. Try eggs with a pasta dish...very fancy, plus the kids get a kick out of the odd combo. You can always do a set of eggs with meats or fish, don't limit yourself to sausage or bacon. Try poached eggs with broiled salmon. Totally fast. A little fruit on the side. Ta da! Dinner. How about taco meat with scrambled eggs and salsa in a tortilla? Works for us. Add cheese of course, this is Wisconsin. There are great one dish bakes out there with veggies, meat, cheese, potatoes, bread, and eggs. You can use endless combinations and premake them. There are even great recipes to make quiche mix in a ziplock bag! You keep it in the freezer then dump it in a premade pie crust and bake. Yummy! Of course you can do all the waffle, pancake, french toast stuff. It is fun to take those and make them into sandwiches. Mmmm. Add some salad or fruit, away you go.

Next. Dig out the crock pot. Everything goes in. Any sort of chunk of meat on sale at the grocery can go in, frozen even, and come out at dinner time much, much better. When you put the meat in frozen make sure to add a liquid or you will crack the crock pot over time. Don't ask why I know that, or how many crock pots I've been through in the last 20 years.

A tasty and easy way to do the meat in the crock pot is to add stuff. I think the best easy gravy happens when you add a can of cream of something soup and a package of dry onion soup mix. I like to use the cream of mushroom, but cream of onion is good, celery, chicken, whatever. Cream of chicken I'd limit to chicken or pork. You then add just a little water, 1/4 to 1/2 cup depending on the size of the meat. Big meat, more liquid. Now is the spot when you can get fancy or clean up the fridge and freezer. You can add chopped onions, mushrooms and/or celery.

Just before you eat, whip up something to put the gravy on, potatoes, pasta or rice. Super easy. Then you have flexibility and stretch to your meal too. The kids can always eat it plain with a little butter and salt or cheese instead of the gravy.

Bring on the salad in a bag or some easy frozen or canned veggies and you're done. For salad, I try to keep a bunch of small bottles of favorite dressings on hand, then they can do it themselves and have a choice. I also mix up the add ins. Sometimes it's just lettuce and dressing. Sometimes we have fresh chopped veggies, carrots, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, or whatever else is around. You can mix it up with croutons or other odd things like chopped up left over garlic bread or muffins. Don't forget about raisins, nuts, apples or grapes. Raspberries or blueberries, strawberries, anything is good for a try. Hard boiled eggs and cheese chunks. You get the idea, just keep mixing it up. Give out really small portions to get everyone used to doing it and then suddenly, salads are an every night sort of thing.

For the veggies, I don't always do plain butter and salt. Sometimes I use a season salt or dry spice like ginger, nutmeg or cinnamon on something like carrots or squash. You can add dill to lots of things. Garlic is always a winner. Skip the butter and use a little olive oil for a new flavor or sesame oil. Add toasted nuts or seeds. Add a little cheese or mix an unusual pair of veggies.

Next is soup. Soup always wins. And it makes a little go a long way. A large can of tomato juice--super cheap--is one of my favorite bases. Add any sort of meat, potato and veggies. Let it sit in the crock pot all day. Fridge biscuits and salads. Dinner is on. The most important soup tip, don't add your rice, pasta or potatoes too early or you liquids will get soaked up. Try to think of your families favorite meals and make them into soups. They love spaghetti and meatballs, make it a spaghetti and meatball sort of minestrone type soup. Try a baked potato soup or taco type chowder. There's always good old chicken noodle or vegetable beef. Fall is also a good time to be brave with combinations of apple, squash and sweet onion. Add in some peanut butter and you have super yummy soup supper! To have a chowder or stew add more starches and veggies with less liquids.

I'm a huge fan of stir fry-ish dinners over rice too. Any sort of left over meats and veggies can be "fried" together with some new flavor sauces and served on rice. Plus rice gives you the option again of serving it alone for the kids if they're turning up their noses at the main meal.

Another great time is precooking. My sister-in-law always precooks her ground beef to cut the cooking/prep time for meals like tacos, spaghetti or baked potato night. It's also the beauty of things like precooked ham or canned tuna. You could also precook or partial cook things like chicken in the microwave while you're chopping other ingredients.

Don't be afraid of casseroles. They're easy to mix up and sneak veggies into. Creamy sauces and cheese make them better. Try topping them with those canned french fried onions, croutons, bread chunks and of course cheese. Also, spice them up. No one likes the old bland tuna casserole, so zip it up. Add garlic or season salt. Add in some hot sauce or make it tomato based with salsa instead of mayo or cream soup based. Give it some crunch too or at least serve something crunchy with it like raw veggies and dip or dry, crunchy bread sticks or crackers.

Keep the rest super simple. Everyone gets the same drink, at our house it means water. Try to have a fruit with dinner, even if it's a bowl of grapes or sliced apples. To make it fancy, empty a single container of vanilla yogurt over it and sprinkle it with cinnamon. Applesauce is always a winner over here. Plus, it's like ketchup for pork. Don't rule out sauces to keep kids eating. Basically anything in my fridge door is a sauce option for any meal, salad dressings, soy sauce, ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, egg roll sauce, pickle relish or anything else they can find. Dessert is not the rule, but a treat, then it can be simple and still a big deal.

I'll get off my kitchen counter now. I could just go on and on. Food is a favorite subject for me but I have other things to do today! Plus, I have to get my own dinner in the crock pot!! Happy eating and easy cooking to you.

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