The holiday season is the most profitable time of the year but, alas, it is also the most tiring. Families still expect to eat and we need nourishment as well after spending hours creating, delivering and shipping our designs.
So what is one to do when the clock is nearing the mealtime hour, our family is asking “When will dinner be ready” and we are ready to drop?
We’ve all had nights when we feel like calling for take-out or just passing around the box of Cheerios and carton of milk. An occasional night of doing exactly that won’t hurt any of us but our conscience, as well as our health, tells us that occasional is the word. Some advance planning before the season hits can make life and meal planning so much easier and keep us and our families healthier.
Of course, one answer is to have a spouse who loves to come home from work and cook or kids who plan to be future chefs. But that is just a dream for most of us. The meals are usually our part of the marriage deal. Or, if you’re single, that isn’t even an option.
The ideal plan is to create extras of your favorite entrees throughout the year and freeze them in family or individual size portions. Then pull them out, heat and eat on those nights when you can’t even think of cooking. Minutes spent throughout the year will save you hours during those hectic times.
But if you haven’t done that, put it on your to-do list for next year and know that you can still eat well by keeping things simple.
Here are some ideas for quick and healthy meals that I’ve learned through the years, some from experience but most from others who have been there and done it. These are not all things that I would do during the more leisurely times of year but they sure make life a whole lot easier when there just isn’t much time to do.
Instead of cutting up veggies, buy the ones that are already cut up for you during your quick run-through-the-store. You can use the cut up carrots and celery as crunchy munchies or dip in hummus to give you the bit of extra energy you’ll need to just finish up one more gift basket. They will also hold off the kids for a extra half-hour or so. Keep a tray of cut-up vegetable in the refrigerator to make it easy to grab and munch. A bag of shredded cabbage and bottled coleslaw dressing equals a quick side dish. Add some dried cranberries or nuts to make it a bit more gourmet.
Cooking in large batches and freezing the leftovers is an ideal way to quickly and easily have those emergency meals on hand. My husband and I prefer brown rice to white but it takes 45 minutes so I cook a double batch and freeze it in one-meal quantities.
We like Mexican food so I always keep a bag of frozen tamales in the freezer. Last night I pulled out a package of two tamales and mixed a can of black beans with some of that brown rice I had previously frozen and some spicy salsa. After heating the tamales in the microwave and the bean/rice mixture on the stove, I put it on a plate, topped it with chopped lettuce and tomato, and shredded cheese (which I also keep in the freezer.) This was a hearty, healthy meal that only took about ten minutes to prepare.
Earlier this week I cooked a large quantity of boneless chicken thighs. Brushed with bottled barbeque sauce and baked, it made a quick and easy meal when combined with baked potatoes and a green salad. Some of the thighs were used for quick tacos one night and the last of them were used tonight in a zesty casserole. I combined the chicken thighs, which I sliced into bite-size pieces, with a bag of the frozen rice, chopped red pepper, celery and onions (previously cut up and frozen), a handful of chopped spinach, spicy seasoning, and a little bouillon. Sautéed together on the stove top, it was another ten-minute meal.
Leftover chicken, beef or pork combined with a package of frozen Oriental vegetables and a quick-to-whip-up stir-fry sauce (or even a bottled one) is easily stir-fried in your largest non-stick frying pan and served over the rice that was previously frozen and then thawed in the microwave. Toss in some chopped nuts for a bit of crunch and flavor.
A FoodSaver or even zip-lock freezer bags makes it easy to freeze leftovers and
vegetables that I chop as soon as I bring them from the store. Leftovers, combined with canned or packaged stock and some rice or pasta or even a pakage of top ramen, makes a great hot soup on a cold winter night. Mix leftover vegetables with eggs and top with packaged shredded cheese for a great frittata or a quick breakfast.
A crockpot or slow cooker is another great time saver. Coming home to a house filled with the delicious aroma of dinner, already cooked for you after a busy day, is heaven. Keep in mind that if you are going to have a busy morning, you can load the crockpot the night before and store in the refrigerator overnight. If you are working at home, resist the temptation to lift the lid to take a quick peek. Slow-cooking depends on the heat that builds up in the crockpot itself and takes quite a bit of time to reheat.
Martha Smith, owner of Baskets Full of Joy cooks a large beef or pork roast in a crock-pot with vegetables. The meat is sliced and served with the vegetables when done. The remaining meat, along with some of the pan juice, is then frozen in portions large enough for another family meal to be heated and served with either mashed or baked potatoes and a frozen vegetable after a busy day. The remaining vegetables are also frozen with any of the remaining liquid from the crock pot to be combined with canned stock, carrots, celery, frozen vegetables, canned beans and frozen or bagged noodles for a vegetable soup.
Chicken Cacciatore is another family favorite that is so easy to make in the crockpot. Place either 6 chicken leg quarters of 6 boneless chicken breast halves (still frozen is fine) in the crockpot. Add 4 zucchini or yellow squash (or other vegetables ) and an onion cut into wedges. Pour one jar or can of spaghetti sauce over all and stir slightly to mix. For extra flavor, you can add some powered Italian herbs, such as basil and oregano, and even some of that chopped or powered garlic from your pantry. Cook on high 4-5 hours or on low for 8-10 hours. When ready to serve, boil a pot of water and cook your favorite pasta. This usually takes 10 minutes. Serve the chicken over the pasta with a salad on the side and you have another quick and easy dinner.
One of the best way to eat those healthy vegetables is to roast them. Chop up a random supply of fresh veggies such as peppers (all colors and sizes), cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, squash of all kinds. Toss them in a little olive oil, add your favorite seasonings, spread on a baking sheet and bake at 350 or 400 degrees until lightly browned. Stir occasionally while baking.
Doreen Tancredi of Doreens Decadent Chocolates makes a Cheese Tortellini Soup by boiling a 32 ounce box of Swanson’s Chicken Broth (if watching your salt, use low-sodium) with 3 or 4 sliced carrots and 2 sliced celery stalks for about 5 minutes. Add 4 or 5 ounces of frozen cheese tortellini and cook for the amount of time called for on the package (usually around 6 minutes). Pour into bowls and top with your favorite grated parmesan cheese. Add a salad and crusty bread and you have a simple, fast, and delicious meal for 3 or 4 people.
Another trick that I learned was to freeze enough individual servings of chicken for a meal with the marinade. As a result, it is marinating while it thaws and is ready for grilling that evening.
Like old-fashioned oatmeal but don’t like the long cooking time? It, too, can be cooked in large batches and frozen in individual servings. Add chopped nuts and raisins or dried cranberries when cooking and you have a hearty, healthy breakfast.
Keep plenty of standard staples on hand and don’t be afraid to use them. Chicken tenderloins, turkey, beef or veggie patties are all quick to cook and come pre-frozen in individual serving sizes. Tossed on the grill or cooked on the stovetop, and served on a heated bun or even toasted bread with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and whatever sauce your family prefers makes a nutritious fast meal.
A carton of cottage cheese in the refrigerator and a can of water-packed fruit from the pantry can be used to serve a quick salad. If you have the time, serve it on lettuce for extra nutrition.
Frozen meatballs can be added to your favorite sauce and served over pasta.
Fresh hard parmesan or Romano cheese can be freshly grated for a tasty addition to a quick meal. It is so much better than the kind you buy already grated and is easy to grate in a food processor to keep in the refrigerator until ready to be used.
Other simple staples that can be combined into a fast meal include pasta, frozen vegetables, potatoes, garlic, onions, eggs, and your favorite seasonings Don’t forget canned or packaged chicken, beef, and vegetable stock, canned tomatoes and tomato sauce. Rotel tomatoes are a wonderful addition to any recipe that needs a little heat from peppers. Canned black beans as well as garbanzo beans are two favorite items in my pantry.
Minced or chopped garlic in a jar, or even garlic powder, eliminates time spent peeling and chopping those fresh cloves and works well in any recipe. Here is the conversion: 1 clove of garlic = 1/2 teaspoon chopped garlic from the jar or 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder.
Potatoes can be used in a variety of ways for quick and easy meals. Just microwave the potatoes and top with a combination of vegetables, meat or vegetarian meat granules, and top with cheese. For hash-browns, skip microwaving the potatoes and chopping the pepper and onion by keeping a bag of Ore Ida Potatoes O’Brien in your freezer. It has no fat, just chopped potatoes, onion, and peppers and saves you loads of time.
Make a list of your own favorite staples and make sure they are on the shelf or in the freezer before the holiday season hits. This way you’ll always be prepared for a quick and easy one-pot meal, a skillet dinner, oven dinners, microwave specials, hearty sandwiches and wraps and even savory meal-in-a-bowl salads.
Have a family that just has to have dessert? This is a part of the meal that many kids can take care of for you. A carton of a favorite ice-cream combined with frozen cookie dough that can be sliced and baked is one way to keep them happy.
Another easy dessert that the kids can prepare are layered fruit cups. Drain the juice from a can of pineapple chunks and a can of mandarin oranges. These should be packed in their own juice, not syrup, if you are thinking healthy. Layer the fruit in individual bowls and top with light whip cream.
There are many other quick but healthy meals to add to your menu planning. Here are several to get you thinking:
Last Minute Chili
2 15-ounce canned beans of your choice, drained
(I like to use either kidney or red beans but any kind
2 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1/1/3 cups vegetarian griller crumbles or hamburger
1 4.5 ounce can mild green chiles
Chili powder to taste
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes and serve. This is even better if you have the time to top it with shredded cheese and chopped onions. Any leftovers can be used for a later meal in burritos or tacos.
You don’t have to forego the pizza on those nights when it sounds wonderful and easy. Thanks to the convenience of pita bread, which makes great individual pizza crusts, ready made sauces, and packaged shredded cheese, you can have your pizza in less time than having one delivered. And it can be healthy, too.
Individual Pita Pizzas
Pita bread ( as many as the number of people you will be serving)
Whole-wheat is a nutritional plus but white ones will do as well
1 can spaghetti sauce
Dried oregano and basil or other herbs
Your favorite toppings
Mozzarella or whatever cheese you have on hand. Cheddar works well.
Lay the pitas flat on a baking sheet. Forget the pockets are there. Just lay them flat.
Spread a little sauce onto each pita. Sprinkle with dried oregano and basil. Add your
toppings, ending with the cheese. Then broil 2-4 minutes until the cheese is melted and
beginning to brown. Serve with a green salad and you have a quick and easy meal
that even the kids will love. Better yet, they can make the pizzas.
With a little imagination and a few ideas, you can create quick meals that are relatively healthy during your busy time of the year.