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Creating quick, healthy meals is essential for busy families

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 1, 2010

Moms like me, whose children have moved on to college and beyond, might get misty-eyed about morning cuddles and bedtime stories, but you won’t find us waxing nostalgic about the back-to-school drill. It’s a huge relief not to have that Mack truck of added obligations barreling our way as summer ends.

Getting the family back on an unforgiving school-year schedule is tough, and capping the day with a sit-down meal can seem impossible. If you care about your kids’ well-being, though, it’s not optional.

The research is clear: Children who eat dinner with their families most nights are much more likely to do well in school and less likely to become overweight, develop eating disorders, smoke cigarettes or abuse drugs. The combination of structure, nutrition and communication that family meals represent is a powerful, positive force in a child’s life.

That said, I’m not going to pretend that getting school-night meals on the table is easy, or that they have to be homemade. The best most parents can do is a patchwork of make-ahead, quick-fix, heat-and-serve and takeout dinners – and that’s good enough.

A casserole or other one-dish dinner in the refrigerator, ready for the oven, is pure gold on a school night. If you can make time on the weekend to assemble one, you’ll be patting yourself on the back the rest of the week.

Lasagna is a can’t-miss dish in most families, and one of my favorite cookbook authors, Pam Anderson, has a terrific lasagna recipe in her forthcoming “Perfect One-Dish Dinners: All You Need for Easy Get-Togethers” (Houghton Mifflin, Sept. 20). The book is geared toward entertaining, but Anderson’s Quick, Creamy Lasagna, with its filling options and simple assembly, is sure to become a family favorite.

Quick-fix

This is the time of year to freshen your lineup of go-to recipes for busy weeknights, and America’s publishers are here to help.

Just out from Chronicle Books is “Time For Dinner: Strategies, Inspiration and Recipes for Family Meals Every Night of the Week” by the editors of Cookie, a stylish mommy magazine that Conde Nast axed along with Gourmet last fall.

The book is chock-full of gorgeous photos, clever recipes (sweet and sour chicken with plums, whole-wheat spaghetti with fried onions and bread crumbs, individual potato-chip frittatas made in muffin tins) and refreshing candor. (You’ve got to love a book with a chapter titled “I Want Something Simple, Fast and Hard to Screw Up.”)

In “High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking” (Random House, $27) the theme is “blunt force cooking, a brash approach … that cranks the flavor and rolls its eyes at bashful ingredients,” writes author J.M. Hirsch. “It balances my desire for real and satisfying food with the demands of my real and overscheduled life.”

In a story last fall, Hirsch, the Associated Press food editor, wrote about getting his picky son, Parker, to eat more vegetables. The now-6-year-old has a pretty sophisticated palate, which shows in this book in recipes like red curry beef, anchovy butter chicken, chili balsamic-marinated sirloin and wasabi miso-glazed salmon.

Those wouldn’t have flown with my picky eater, but if your kids are more adventurous (or grown), you’ll find a lot to like in this book, which goes on sale on Tuesday.

Magazines, of course, are another source of quick meal ideas. The low-fat, whole-grain Pizza Pepperoni Pasta recipe below from Taste of Home Healthy Cooking has loads of kid- and parent-appeal.

Heat-and-serve

If you value your sanity, don’t begin a school week without at least one heat-and-serve entree in your freezer or refrigerator. For the supermoms out there, that may mean a stash of lovingly cooked and carefully labeled entrees. For the rest of us, it’s the best our supermarkets or warehouse stores have to offer.

My biggest frustration in searching for recommendable products was the insane sodium content – 1,000-plus milligrams per serving! – that so many of them have.

These are the best of the dozen products we sampled. Our criteria: good flavor and no more than 10 or 12 fat grams and 500 or so milligrams sodium per serving.

Stouffer’s Easy Express Rigatoni with Chicken : Requiring just 10 minutes in the microwave, this creamy pasta dish has nice roast-chicken flavor along with 260 calories, 10 fat grams and 430 milligrams sodium per serving. The meatball rotini also is reasonably nutritious, but many other Easy Express varieties – especially Asian flavors – have way too much sodium.

Simply Potatoes Country Style Mashed Potatoes : With 100 calories, 3.5 fat grams and 190 milligrams sodium per serving, these could almost pass for homemade. Watch for sales and coupons; they freeze well, and make for a real comfort meal alongside our favorite heat-and-serve roast beef (see below).

Mama Mancini’s Sunday Sauce and Meatballs : These fat, tender meatballs are absolutely delicious – better than many restaurant versions I’ve had. Each serving has 160 calories (you’ll want to add pasta, of course), 10 fat grams and 550 milligrams sodium. Not available at local stores but can be purchased online for $14.99 plus shipping per 4-pound package at mamamancinis.com.

Morton’s of Omaha Beef Pot Roast with Gravy : We tried three supermarket varieties, but they weren’t nearly as tasty as this warehouse-store brand with an impressively short ingredient list (no artificial anything). It has 230 calories, 450 milligrams sodium and 12 fat grams per serving – easy to improve on if you remove the hardened fat from the gravy before heating. Available at many Costco stores.

Green Chili Kabobs : These pleasantly zingy chicken-breast skewers require cooking, but they take only about 10 minutes on the grill or 20 minutes in the oven, and are delicious on a bed of rice or couscous. Available at many Costco stores.

Schwan’s Chicken Bites : Minnesota-based Schwan’s offers doorstep delivery of more than 350 frozen items – some ready-to-cook, some heat-and-serve – including entrees, side dishes, desserts and beverages. They’re quite pricey, but the quality is high, and you can’t beat the convenience.

I especially liked the Chicken Bites – moist, tasty chunks of roasted breast meat with 90 calories, 1 fat gram and 450 milligrams sodium per serving that are far healthier than breaded chicken nuggets ($14.99 per 8-serving bag at www.schwans.com or 888-724-9267).

This is a dish worth prepping ahead if you can carve out 20 minutes in the morning. Wagon-wheel pasta would be a fun option. Low-fat turkey pepperoni is virtually indistinguishable from the regular kind – great to have on hand to dress up plain cheese pizza.

12 ounces whole-wheat spiral pasta

1 pound lean ground turkey

1 medium onion, chopped

1 (24-ounce) jar garden-style pasta sauce

1 (14 1/2-ounce) can low-sodium diced tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

4 ounces sliced turkey pepperoni

1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese

Cook pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, cook turkey and onion in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until meat is no longer pink. Stir in pasta sauce, tomatoes, basil, oregano and Worcestershire sauce; set aside.

Drain pasta. Transfer to a 9- by 13-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle pasta with Parmesan cheese. Top evenly with sauce mixture and pepperoni. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese.

Cover and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until cheese melts and pasta is hot.

Yield: 8 servings

If you prep the ingredients the night before, you can have this on the table in 15 minutes. Complete the meal with quick-cooking brown rice and frozen sugar-snap or baby peas. Adapted from “Time For Dinner” by Pilar Guzman, Jenny Rosenstrach and Alanna Stang (Chronicle, $24.95).

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/3 cup sugar

1/4 cup white distilled vinegar

1/2 cup pomegranate or pineapple juice

3 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

3 firm, sweet plums, pitted and cut into chunks

1 large rib celery, sliced

1 bunch scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into small cubes

1/4 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder

Salt and pepper

Whisk the cornstarch, sugar, vinegar, juice and soy sauce in a small bowl; set aside.

Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the plums, celery and scallions for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.

Add the chicken, five-spice powder and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken begins to brown, 3 or 4 minutes. Stir sauce mixture, add to pan and cook, stirring, until it thickens, another minute or two.

Yield: 6 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 283 calories, 6.1 grams fat (1.3 grams saturated, 24 percent fat calories), 23.3 grams protein, 21.6 grams carbohydrate, 94 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber, 406 milligrams sodium.

Author J.M. Hirsch calls this flavor-packed dish a “Thai-inspired sloppy joe” in his new book “High Flavor, Low Labor” (Random House, $27). Look for red curry paste in the Asian aisle at the supermarket. As long as you’re opening a can of coconut milk, use the rest of it to replace some of the rice cooking water; you’ll love the sweet, creamy result. Complete the meal with melon chunks or grapes.

1 cup long-grain white rice

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 1/2 tablespoons Thai red curry paste

1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 pound lean ground beef

1/4 cup coconut milk

6 scallions, thinly sliced

1 (5-ounce) bag baby spinach, chopped

Juice and grated zest of 1/2 lime

1/2 cup shredded fresh basil

1/2 cup crushed unsalted peanuts

Bring the rice and 2 cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Cover, reduce to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes. Remove pan from heat and set aside, covered.

Meanwhile, heat the oil, curry paste, soy sauce and sugar in a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add ground beef and cook, crumbling meat with a wooden spoon, until cooked through, about 8 minutes.

Stir in the coconut milk and return mixture to a simmer. Stir in the scallions and spinach, and cook just until the greens wilt, 2 to 3 minutes.

Stir in the lime juice, zest and basil. Serve over rice, garnished with peanuts.

Yield: 4 servings.

Approximate nutrition per serving: 591 calories, 30.3 grams fat (9 grams saturated, 46 percent fat calories), 31.7 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrate, 73.7 milligrams cholesterol, 731 milligrams sodium.

If your kids are old enough to be home alone after school, they’re probably old enough to heat the oven and pop this in for you. For most families, this makes enough for at least two meals. Leftovers can be refrigerated for several days and reheated in the microwave. Or cut them into individual portions and freeze for those inevitable nights when everyone needs to eat at a different time. Adapted from “Perfect One-Dish Dinners” by Pam Anderson (Houghton Mifflin, $32, Sept. 20.) Cook a package of frozen broccoli florets or make a green salad to complete the meal.

Salt

15 ripple-style oven-ready lasagna noodles (such as Ronzoni; from 2 boxes)

For the filling (choose one):

Chicken: 4 cups cooked, shredded meat (from 1 rotisserie chicken)

Seafood: 2 cups (1 pound) pasteurized lump crab meat plus 2 cups cooked salad shrimp

Vegetarian: 1 pound sliced mushrooms sautéed and mixed with 2 thawed, squeezed-dry (10-ounce) boxes frozen chopped spinach

To complete the dish:

1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil

12 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, softened

1/2 cup reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

1 (24- to 26-ounce) jar good-quality marinara sauce

4 cups (1 pound) grated part-skim mozzarella cheese

3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Vegetable oil spray

Place oven rack in lower-middle position; heat oven to 400 degrees.

Dissolve 1 1/2 tablespoons salt in 2 quarts piping hot tap water in a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Add noodles and soak until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Meanwhile, mix filling of choice with basil, 8 ounces of the cream cheese and 1/4 cup of the broth. In another bowl, mix remaining 4 ounces cream cheese and 1/4 cup broth; set aside.

Smear 1/4 cup marinara sauce on bottom of baking dish. Layer ingredients in this order: 3 noodles; scant cup marinara; 1 cup filling (scant if vegetarian); 3/4 cup mozzarella; and 2 tablespoons Parmesan.

Repeat layering 3 times, for a total of 4 layers. Top with remaining 3 noodles, cream-cheese broth mixture, 1 cup mozzarella and 1/4 cup Parmesan.

Spray a large piece of aluminum foil with oil and place it, oil side down, over the pan, sealing tightly. Bake until bubbly throughout, 40 to 45 minutes (50 to 55 minutes if it went straight from the refrigerator into the oven).

Leaving the lasagna on the same rack, remove the foil and broil until spotty brown, about 5 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before cutting.

Yield: 10 to 12 servings.

Approximate nutrition per serving (based on chicken filling): 496 calories, 21.4 grams fat (10.9 grams saturated, 40 percent fat calories), 38.3 grams protein, 35.4 grams carbohydrate, 103.4 milligrams cholesterol, 2.3 grams dietary fiber, 866 milligrams sodium.



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