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Easy Dinners for Busy Families

Easy, Fast, Healthy Dinner Ideas

I confess to reading cookbooks like some people read good novels.  I like simple home cooking from different countries; as long as it has a lot of flavor, it will be a hit in my family.  Recently I tracked the career goals my children mentioned over the past year.  Two of them mentioned chef and the other, my little gourmand, said she wanted to be a food critic.  You can bet it’s difficult to cook a meal that pleases everyone! 

These recipes have passed the test and I have included the cookbooks that were the inspiration behind the dish.  Enjoy and please share your favorite meals! I have a few cookbook author favorites but Nigella Lawson is probably my favorite cookbook author of all time.  She can cook ANYTHING and she’s also a mom so her expectations are reasonable.  She has cooking show on Style network that is worth taping. I love her cookbook Nigella Express, 130 Recipes for Good Food, Fast.  Now, she’s English, so she have a fondness for English mustard and peas that I don’t share but that is not to say that there aren’t great recipes that are easy and delicious. 


Steak with Lemon 1 1/2 pounds of steak, London Broil is great or Sirloin but any kind of steak is fine 1 lemon squeezed 1/3 cup olive oil 2 cloves garlic, bruised and minced. Cook the steak on a grill pan on the stove until medium rare (or more if that is what you prefer.)  Let the steak rest for 10 minutes in the marinade made of remaining ingredients.  Slice the steak thinly and serve with marinade over white rice that you’ve made in a rice cooker. TIP:  If you want to mix brown rice with white rice, soak the brown rice overnight.  It will cook at the same rate as the white rice in the rice cooker. Serve with fruit for the kids or sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.  Or a mozzarella, tomato salad would be nice too.  Just slice the mozzarella cheese and tomatoes and alternate slices on a plate.  Drizzle with aged balsamic vinegar (the best you can afford) and sea salt (Maldon is my favorite). My kids have asked me to make this chicken pasta dish for them again and again. It’s just chicken piccata served with pasta.  I’ve modified a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe.  This is a great reference cookbook.  The good folks at Cook’s Illustrated have tried every variation to come up with the best, tastiest and easiest recipes.  Just follow the recipe to a T to get the same results.

Cook’s Illustrated has a great monthly magazine my husband and I love that we call the anal-retentive cooking magazine. Chicken Piccata Pasta 1 package chicken breasts, boneless & skinless.  Organic is best. 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil to fry chicken in 2 lemons, slice one into thin circles and squeeze the other 1 cup chicken broth; 2 garlic cloves, minced; 1 teaspoon corn starch 1 package whole wheat linguine First boil water for the pasta.  Cook the pasta while attending to the chicken.  Fry the chicken breast in a little butter (about 1 tablespoon) and a little olive oil (about 1 tablespoon) on medium-high heat.  Remove when done, flipping once; about 5 minutes in total or 2 1/2 minutes on each side.  Remove to a plate and rest for a few minutes.  Add the chicken stock, garlic, the lemon slices and juice and a teaspoon of corn starch, and cook down until thickened.  Cut the chicken up into bite size pieces and add back to the pan with the sauce.  Serve over whole wheat pasta such as linguine.

My husband created this easy and delicious teriyaki sauce recipe by combining a few different recipes.  You can store the leftover sauce in the refrigerator for a very long time and it’s great for chicken or salmon.  We frequently have play dates over for this dinner and everyone seems to like it. Teriyaki Sauce 1/2 cup sake 1/2 cup brown sugar 1/2 cup soy sauce (we use Kikkoman brand, low sodium) 1/4 cup mirin (a sweet sake; available at asiangrocer.com) Put the sake in a small sauce pan on medium-high heat and cook until the liquid is reduced by half. (you are burning off the alcohol).  Add the remaining ingredients and stir to dissolve the sugar.  Simmer for 5 minutes and it’s ready to use.

Chicken Teriyaki

This meal idea came from the Bento Box cookbook.  It’s very simple:   to one package of chicken thighs (bone-in or boneless, skinless), add 1/2 cup of the teriyaki sauce , two handfuls of baby carrots and 1/4 inch slices of potato into a skillet and cook on medium heat, flipping a few times, until the chicken is done and the sauce has reduced to a nice, glossy consistency.  Boneless chicken thighs will take about 10-12 minutes and bone-in will take an extra five minutes or so.  Serve with rice.

Salmon Teriyaki

1 pound salmon steaks or fillets Lightly salt the salmon and cook in a 350 degree oven for about 7-10 minutes for a thin fillet or about 15 minutes for a thicker salmon steak.  Remove from oven and pour about 1/4 cup of teriyaki sauce as the fish cools.  Serve with rice or, if you want to get fancy, try this soba noodle salad.  The soba salad is perfect for warm weather.  My kids love it but they remove most of the veggies.  No matter, soba noodles are made from buckwheat and are a good source of fiber.

Soba Noodle Salad

12 ounces soba noodles

Julienne (cut into match sticks) the following:  1/2 English cucumber, 1 red bell pepper, 1 or 2 carrots

sauce:  1/4 cup soy sauce, 2 tablespoons sesame oil (toasted Asian kind NOT clear kind), 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar.

Follow the package directions and cook the noodles.  Drain and run under cold water.  Add to bowl with the julienned vegetables.  When you are ready to eat, toss everything with dressing and eat immediately.

One of my closest mom friends is Cuban and we’ve been enjoying Cuban food since we’ve met her.  We both cook from In a Cuban Kitchen, by Alex Garcia, a well-known food channel chef and host.  Everyone in my family loves it when it’s sandwich night.  These are no ordinary sandwiches…they are Cubano style.  The reason why this is an easy dinner is that you can marinade several pork  loins on the weekend and freeze them.  For a weeknight dinner, simply remove from freezer before you go to work and roast in the oven for an hour.  Pick up a few baguettes on the way home (our family of 5 needs two), and dinner is a snap.  I have added some fancy condiments that you can either make in advance, buy a jarred version or forego.  This particular recipe is inspired by the Pernil Asado recipe.  This recipe is for one pork loin, so double or triple if you want to make ahead and freeze.  I usually make three at a time; one for now, two for later.

Cubano Sandwiches

1 pork loin (I buy them from Trader Joe’s because they are the right size)

marinade:  1 teaspoon dried oregano or 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, 1 large orange (or substitute three or four clementines if you have them lying around going bad), 1 lemon, 1 lime (or use 2 lemons or 2 limes if that is what you have in your fridge), 5 cloves garlic minced fine, two pinches of cumin,  1 tablespoon salt and freshly ground pepper, 1 bay leaf crumbled.

Rinse and dry the pork loin and put in a large zip lock bag.  Add the marinade and leave in the refrigerator overnight.  RESERVE the marinade, drain the roast and place on a baking sheet covered in foil.  Roast in a 350 degree oven for about an hour.  Rest for 10 minutes then slice thinly.  Put the marinade in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil.  Cook for a few minutes then pour over the sliced meat.  Serve with a baguette, cut into “subway” sandwich lengths.  Condiments include Dijon mustard, roasted & marinated red bell peppers, and carmelized red onions.

I do love Suzanne Goin’s cook book, Sunday Suppers at Lucques.  The recipes are not easy dinners but they are delicious.  This is a riff off her Roasted Bell Peppers.  My version is easier.

3 red bell peppers, broil until charred on all sides (keep flipping).  Put in a covered bowl, then remove seeds and skin but reserve juices.

Put roasted bell pepper slices in a glass container with the reserved juices, 2 thinly sliced cloves of garlic, a slug of good, aged balsamic vinegar and about 2 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar.  You want enough liquid to cover the peppers.  Add salt to taste.  Keeps in the refrigerator for a week or so.

Carmelized Red Onions

Slice a large red onion into fine circles and place in a saute pan.  Add about a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and cook over medium heat until the onions soften.  Add the juice of a lime and lower the heat until the onions are a carmelized brownish color.  This takes about 12-15 minutes.

Carne Picada Burritos

This recipe is from my all-time favorite magazine, Saveur.  I think I clipped this recipe more than 10 years ago.  It’s from the H & H Coffee Shop in El Paso.  My kids love meals where they can make it themselves.  Getting good tortillas is difficult in the North-East where we live.  Try the handmade flour tortillas at Whole Foods.

Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add 1 diced peeled yellow onion and cook until translucent, about 15 minutes.  Trim 1 pound of tri-tip steak and cut into 1/2 inch dice.  Add to onions.  Increase heat to high and brown meat for 2 minutes.  Add 2 diced tomatoes (canned is fine; freeze remainder for another use), and add 1-3 cloves of minced garlic (we like it garlicy).  Crumble in 2 cubes of beef bouillon (secret ingredient!), and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.  Serve with warm flour tortillas.  Makes 4-6 burritos.

Here are some Saveur Cookbooks.  I don’t have these cookbooks because Saveur is the only magazine I save so I already have all the recipes.

Marinated Rib Eye Roast

This will be our Christmas dinner.  It’s from an out-of-print Junior League California cookbook; I think from the Los Angeles area.  Our holiday cards are little recipe books and this recipe was in our first one about 10 years ago.  We still have friends that will call, years after receiving our card, and say they are making this recipe.  It’s easy because most of the time is not active time, but sooo delish!

1 5-pound boneless rib eye roast; we also like bone-in, we get 3 bones to have yummy leftovers

1/2 cup coarsely cracked pepper (sadly, you must crush in mortar and pestle; we tried other methods but it’s not the same)

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamon

1 cup soy sauce (Kikkoman brand, low sodium is fine)

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon paprika

4 cloves garlic, minced

Place roast in a large zip lock bag.  Combine pepper and cardamon and press firmly all around roast.  Combine soy sauce, vinegar, tomato paste, paprika and garlic. Pour over roast and marinade overnight, turning occasionally.

Remove roast from marinade and discard marinade.  Be sure to scrape off the pepper.  Place roast in a roasting pan.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Roast for 1 hour & 15 miutes  for the 5 pound roast or until meat thermometer registers 140 degrees for rare or 160 degrees for medium.  Rest for 15 minutes and then carve.

Vietnamese Grilled Chicken or Beef (a.k.a.  Vietnamese Burritos)

This is another kid pleaser.  We had playdates who are a little picky try this and they all loved it.  I think it’s because it’s a do-it-yourself meal so it’s fun for kids to make their own wraps.  I clipped this recipe a long time ago, but I suspect it’s from Bon Appetit Magazine. It’s actually a riff off Lemongrass Beef or Lemongrass Chicken, but I never seem to have fresh lemongrass.  No one seems to notice it’s missing either.

2  tablespoons sugar

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3/4 teaspoon corn starch

1 pound flank steak, thinly cut OR 1 package chicken breasts, thinly cut into strips

1/4 cup Vietnamese fish sauce

Combine everything and refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally.  Discard marinade and fry in a saute pan on medium-high heat, about 1-2 minutes per side.

Serve with:  1/2 head bib lettuce; 1 English cucumber, julienned; 2 carrots, julienned; sprigs of fresh mint leaves; sprigs of fresh cilantro; and 16 rond rice-paper wrappers, 6 inches in diameter.

To make:  put a large bowl of warm water on the table.  Take the rice-paper wrapper which will be still like card board and dip into the water making sure the wrapper gets completely covered in water.  Drain excess water and put on your plate.  In a few minutes, it will be soft and pliable.  Add whatever combo of things you want to eat.  Roll up like a burrito and eat.

If you would like a Vietnamese dipping sauce, then combine 1 tablespoons of sugar, juice of a lime, and 1/4 cup fish sauce.  Stir to dissolve.

This is a great reference for Vietnamese cooking; the  cookbook author is an editor for Saveur Magazine.

Panko-Breaded Pork Chops or Chicken Tenders

A mom friend gave me this recipe and the spinach lasagna recipe; both are easy and delicious.

1 large egg

1 cup Japanese bread crumbs (panko), in the Asian section or www.asiangrocer.com

2-3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese.  A wonderful source of the best Parmesano Reggiano is FormaggioKitchen.com.

1/2 tsp salt and freshly grated pepper

1 teaspoon minced sage (if your kids don’t freak out about green stuff) for pork; 1 teaspoon minced thyme for the chicken

Four 3/4 inch-thick pork chops; about 1/2 pound each and pounded flat to about 3/8 inch thick.

Beat the egg in a shallow dish.  Mix the panko, Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and herbs in another shallow dish.  Dip the pork or chicken first into the egg and then coat with panko mixture.  Bake in an oven, preheated to 350 degrees, for about 15-17 minutes until golden.  Serve with a wedge of lemon for adults and ketchup for kids.

To make this a fun dipping dinner, serve with sliced English cucumbers, baby carrots and ranch dressing.  My kids also like sliced apples that they dip into a mixture of cinnamon & sugar.

Easiest Spinach Lasagna

Barilla brand baking sauce, one jar

No cook lasagna noodles

1 package pre-washed baby spinach leaves, uncooked

1 tub marscapone cheese

1 tub cottage cheese

In a large baking dish, pour a generous layer of baking sauce and add a layer of lasagna noodles.  Add another layer of sauce, and spread a thin layer of both the cottage cheese and marscapone cheese.  Squish down a layer of the spinach.  Do this again until everything is used up ending with lasagna noodles with sauce on top.  I get 3 layers of lasagna noodles.  Cover with foil and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about an hour.

Pork Chops with Roasted Parsnips, Pears and Potatoes

I clipped this recipe from Vogue a long time ago.  It’s a Jaime Oliver recipe, a.k.a. The Naked Chef.  If I recall correctly, he made this for Tony Blair, then the Prime Minister.  The original  recipe is for 8 so I’ve halved it for 4.  I haven’t read Jaime Oliver’s recent cookbooks, but I used to watch The Naked Chef religiously.  He’s a disciple of  The River Cafe, so I’ve included their cookbook as well because I believe they are the “grounding” behind Jamie’s stripped down but amped up Italian style.  I tend to like the first cookbook that each chef puts out the most — I have a feeling the first cookbook is the hardest to get published so it tends to be their best effort —  so  I’ve included The Naked Chef even though this recipe is not in here.  I’ve also included The River Cafe’s Italian Easy Cookbook; it’s not their first cookbook but unlike their other cookbooks, you don’t need a wood-fired oven to make some of their recipes.

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

6 garlic cloves, lightly smashed

2 large branches of rosemary, cut into 2-inch length sprigs

zest and juice of a lemon

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

four 8- to 10-ounce pork rib chops, 3/4 to 1 inch thick

3 parsnips, quartered lengthwise

3 firm but ripe Bartlett pears, quartered lengthwise and cored

1 1/2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, sliced into  1/3 inch thick wedges

Combine olive oil with garlic, rosemary, lemon zest and juice, and pepper in large roasting pan.  Marinate pork chops for 1 hour at room temperature or overnight in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.   Scrape marinade off chops and set aside on a platter but return marinade to roasting pan.  Add parsnips, pears and potatoes to roasting pan and turn with hands until everything is covered in the marinade.  Season with salt, about 1/2 teaspoon sea salt.  Roast for 40 minutes, stirring occassionally until the vegetables are tender.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan, and season the pork chops with salt on both sides.  Cook over high heat until golden, about 5 minutes total, then return to roasting pan, setting on top of the vegetables and roast an additional 5-8 minutes until pork is cooked through.

To examine any cookbook more closely at Amazon, please click on image of book.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom

4 Comments

  1. Catherine Johnson

    Those recipes sound delicious. While I’m so busy with fussy little eaters my recipe books have been growing cobwebs. Well-meaning relatives kept buying me more and more cookbooks and now I overwhelmed with them and it’s ridiculous. My father-in-law is coming to stay soon and he loves cooking, I do hope he uses a cook book, but thing is he doesn’t need them. Maybe I should sell them off one by one, no one would ever know.

    • To Catherine,
      Sounds like a great time for a book swap. Swap your cook books with friends who want to swap out novels or other books that appeal to you. Make it a cocktail hour for a night of fun and re-gifting!

  2. Catherine Johnson

    Thanks! That’s a great idea, though I’d feel guilty doing that with the gifted ones, at least they would be used more 🙂

    • To Catherine,
      I confess that I read my cookbooks when I snack late at night. It makes the food taste better somehow. Usually I don’t make the recipes I’m reading either because no one else would like it. Nigella Lawson is a favorite as is River Cafe Cookbooks.

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