What to make for dinner? Faced with pots and pans, raw ingredients and a stack of recipe books, we confront that question every day. The search for an easy meal is like the Holy Grail of modern life.
Before you succumb to suppertime stress or pick up the phone and order a pizza, take a second look at your leftovers. With some planning and creativity, you can whip up a meal quickly and easily, and give yourself a well-deserved break in the kitchen.
Double up for two dinners
Some meals lend themselves to making double and freezing. Tuna casseroles, baked pasta dishes, stews and many soups are just as good when they're made ahead, frozen, thawed and cooked weeks later.
It may only take a little bit more time and effort to make two dishes, one for dinner now and one to freeze for later, when you're making these meals. It's certainly not double work, so the next time you're making these dishes, double up on ingredients, make two, freeze one and you've got a future dinner waiting for you.
Cooking with leftovers in mind
Make your life a little bit simpler by looking at every dinner you prepare as a potential second meal. Most meats and poultry, as well as many vegetables, can be tossed into a pot with some canned broth and some leftover noodles or rice and be a delicious, hearty soup for a quick dinner.
The next time you're cooking up one of your family's favorite dishes, prepare some extra ingredients for another quick meal in the future. Here are three ideas for second meals you can prepare quickly on busy nights.
If lasagna is your first meal--
There are usually a few more lasagna noodles in a box than your recipe calls for. I end up with three leftover lasagna noodles after making my recipe. I leave them in the box, where they wait for four more lasagnas before the leftover noodles can join together to make a whole pan of lasagna.
The next time you make lasagna, cook all the noodles. Take the leftover noodles, spray or lightly coat with oil, cut them in half and put them in a plastic bag. While making lasagna, shred some extra mozzarella cheese and store in a platic bag.
--your second meal is Tomato Pasta Squares
Open a can of diced tomatoes. Sauté in a pan with some minced garlic, basil, black olives, chopped carrots and whatever else you've got in the refrigerator.
Lay a half lasagna noodle on a plate, top with a ¼ cup scoop of tomato mixture, sprinkle with leftover mozzarella cheese. You may add another half noodle and some more tomatoes for a double layer if you choose.
Place under a broiler or bake until cheese melts. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.
If enchiladas are your firtst meal--
My family loves chicken enchiladas. I put chicken, onions, peppers, mushrooms, canned chilies, black beans and shredded Monterey jack cheese on a flour tortilla, roll it up, and bake it in a dish with enchilada sauce. Served with white rice, it's my family's favorite.
If you're making enchiladas, you've taken the time to fix all those ingredients and filled your sink with several skillets and bowls, so why not get another meal out of the effort?
Buy the value pack of flour tortillas, so you'll have some left over. Soft tortillas do freeze, but not for long, so this is a second meal you'll want to make within about a week.
Sauté some extra chicken strips, shred some extra Monterey jack cheese and sauté some extra mushrooms, onions, peppers and chilies. Store all the ingredients in plastic containers or bags.
--your second meal is fajitas
Microwave the mushroom, onion, pepper and chili mixture as well as the cooked chicken strips and a can of black beans. Open a jar of salsa, fluff up the shredded cheese and warm the tortillas by placing them on a paper plate, covering them with a barely damp paper towel and microwaving for about 30 seconds.
Set all the ingredients out and have each person build a fajita.
If roast beef is your first meal--
A large roast may be too much for your family. Buy a big one anyway and cook it the way you normally do. if beef roasts are on sale, buy two and roast them together, setting aside one whole roast for leftovers. Slice the beef and serve it for dinner, then store the leftover beef in a plastic container.
--your second meal is Barbecue Beef Sandwiches
Shred the leftover roast beef by pulling it apart with a fork. Place the roast beef in a skillet with some chopped onion and barbecue sauce and cook, covered, until it's heated through and the flavors are blended. Serve on bakery rolls with a slice of cheddar cheese.
Seasonal healthy meal plans, or building meals around what produce is readily available during each season, can make your meals a little more exciting and a lot more nutritious.
Putting together a meal plan can become overwhelming quickly, especially if you feel like you have to entertain the palates of surprise houseguests. But a few simple strategies can help you maintain your sanity and keep your guests' bellies full.