Weeknight Meals

One of the most challenging tasks for me and (I think) a lot of other people is not necessarily "to cook" but to provide food for themselves and their families on a day to day basis. I talk to a lot of people about this and people have asked me before what I do. The challenge is that most people aren't sure they have enough time to cook and prepare meals "from scratch". I am not talking about making homemade pasta or fresh ricotta, I am simply talking about not popping in a frozen pizza or making a box of Mac and cheese. Starting your meal from real ingredients, things that would possibly eventually rot. Staying away from the middle of the grocery store. Eating whole foods and whole grains. All of that good stuff.

So is this possible? First, is it fast enough for the average person who works all day and comes home to more activity whether it be children or book club or basketball open gym? Second, is it too expensive? Third, is it too stressful or too much effort after an already tiring day?

Of course I am writing this to say that it is possible. Is it fast? I find that my quick week night meals take between 30 minutes and 1 hour to prepare. I would guess that a frozen pizza takes about 30 minutes with the preheat and cool down. Is it too expensive? If you want to eat meat everyday, then yes. If you aren't flexible with eating things like beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds, then yes. If you don't like leftovers, then you are in trouble. If you are you used to the cans and boxes, then there also might some sticker shock. But if you go to countries where there are people going hungry and can barely afford to put food on the table, they aren't microwaving a Hungry Man for dinner. They are eating beans and rice. And let's just say, maybe we should all eat a little more beans and rice.  And lastly, is it too much work? You will just get used to it. It is work to eat in any way. Even if you have to go pick up a pizza, there is some hassle involved. It is certainly more effort than any box dinner, but inconvenience is good for the soul. Working a little harder never hurt anyone, so I think in the end it will make you a happier person.  Now that I have had my hand at motivating you to consider this way of thinking (of course I have left out all reasoning for WHY you would want to make your life harder...for that I refer you to In Defense of Food), I will now give you the good stuff. How can you quickly, affordably, and efficiently feed yourself good wholesome food?

1. Plan. The single most difficult aspect of feeding is figuring out what the heck to make. I usually sit down for a half an hour to an hour...either as a break at work, on the bus, while I'm watching "the game", whatever and I decide what I want to make and eat that week. I usually start with something fun, maybe something a little nicer...maybe some meat. Then I think about if I have any lingering ingredients in the fridge that I should incorporate into something.  Then I think about my nights and decide if I have any time that week to make something that takes a little longer. Finally, when I have 3-6 meals, I figure out how much leftovers I will have.  From there, I add whatever I might need for lunches or more dinners (usually yogurt, carrots, fruit, hummus, bread, etc.)  However, I also sometimes go to the grocery store several times throughout the week.  Just depends on where I live and how convenient it is.  And what my schedule is like.  

2.  Eat less meat.  For me, it is easy because I like meat when it is cooked low and slow.  Or if it is a really expensive cut.  I could probably give up ground beef, chicken breast and lean pork and not even think twice about it.  So I typically cook with fish and seafood OR vegetarian OR I have a some favorite recipes to use ground meat, sausage, and chicken or other lean meats.  And then I pull out the big guns (ribeye, short ribs, etc.) on the weekends or on special occasions or really whenever I feel like it.  Oh, and I add bacon to everything.

3.  Try an ingredient at least 10 times before you decide you don't like it and won't eat it.  Also, does it matter if you don't like it?  Maybe it doesn't taste great, but maybe it tastes good enough to eat?  No one craves kale.  But, it ain't so bad.  Instead of focusing on how things taste, focus on how things make you feel after you eat them.  Do they fill you up?  Do you feel good about yourself?  Does it give you energy?  

4.  Keep your kitchen full of ingredients that allow you to cook food from scratch.  Instead of stocking up on canned soups and boxes of mac and cheese.  Keep around root veggies, chicken stock, pasta, cheese...that way your only option is to take a half an hour or an hour to whip up a meal.  If you make something more complicated on the weekend, think about doubling it and freezing half.  Lasagna, enchiladas, casseroles, soups, homemade ravioli are all great from frozen.  Frozen pizza dough is also wonderful.  This one is just as good as fresh when frozen.  Or pick up some dough from your grocery store.  

5.  Eat leftovers!  Suck it up. 


Tacos and Other Mexican Favorites
I love tacos.  And I encourage you to think about tacos in a new way (and not just the typical flour tortilla, ground beef plus packet, tomatoes, cheese, lettuce and sour cream).  I grew up eating it too.  And it is wonderful and homey and comfortable.  But, taco night can be a way to explore new flavors and new ingredients.  And it can be just as fast (or even faster).  Also, vegetarian tacos are delicious.  Add crumbly cheese (Queso Fresco or Cotija) or sour cream to any of these.  Usually three tacos is more than I can eat, but you can also serve with rice and beans if you need more calories. 

Charred Corn Tacos with Zucchini-Radish Slaw (2)- frozen corn would be just fine when fresh is not available.  (gf, v)
Chile Chicken Tacos - if you are able to use a slow cooker during the day, this might be a nice recipe for a week night.  Everything is just thrown in a slow cooker for 4-8 hours.  
Black Bean and Sweet Potato Tacos (3)- Yes!  So good for the fall.  (gfv)
Crispy Black Bean Tacos with Feta and Cabbage Slaw (4)- so easy and delicious.  I have made these more times than I can remember.  (gfv)
Grilled Fish Tacos (3)- I always make these in the summer.  I haven't met a fish taco that I didn't like.  
Lentil Tostadas - this is a close relative of the American taco, but made with lentils.  You could also do a mixture of ground beef and lentils to lighten it up a little.  (gfv)
Salmon Tacos with Beet-Citrus Salsa - Salmon is always a good addition to your diet.  (gf)
Spicy Bean Burritos (2)- also reminiscent of the American taco but completely vegetarian.  You seriously won't miss the meat with this combination of pinto and black beans.  (v)
Steak Picadillo Soft Tacos - a combination of olives, raisins and steak makes this a taco something different.  It is a really fun way to mix up taco night.  Great for the winter.  
Stovetop Chicken Fajitas (3)- I am not even a Fajitas person, and I LOVE these.  I have made them so many times.  They are really healthy and are cooked in orange juice.  

Like tacos, quesadillas have a bad rep for being lame.  But you can throw anything in a flour tortilla and fry it up crispy and it can be a great and healthy meal.  The great thing about Quesadillas is that they don't even need to contain Mexican flavors.  

Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Quesadilla (4)- I love.  I will roast a butternut squash up in advance and use in various ways throughout the week.  (v)
Grilled Pineapple and Chicken Quesadilla - It is a like a BBQ chicken pizza in a tortilla.  
I haven't posted other flavor combos, but you can really do anything.
Here is a list from Kevin at Closet Cooking, the king of the quesadilla.  

Chicken with a Pan Sauce
This is THE best way to eat a chicken breast.  And don't let anyone tell you different.  The general method is to split a chicken breast and pound each half out nice and thin.  Then you season and coat in flour.  After a quick sear on both sides, you use the same pan to create a pan sauce and then put the chicken back into the pan to become wonderfully moist and delicious.  Serve any of these with pasta or a potato (baked or roasted) and in some cases a green veggie side rounds out the meal (steamed green beans sautéed in butter, roasted asparagus, steamed broccoli,  etc.)

Chicken Piccata (3)- everyone loves this Italian classic.  Lemon and capers make this sauce tangy and fresh.  Butter helps.  (gf)
Chicken Marengo - a sauce with tomatoes, mushrooms and peppers with some beef broth.  (gf)
Chicken with Tomato and Herb Pan Sauce - this sauce has fresh cherry tomatoes, fresh oregano and paprika.  The paprika is so amazing in this.   (gf)

Quick Soups
Pureed soups and some other soups can provide a quick week night meal.  The best thing about soups is their one pot wonder-ness.  Investing in an immersion blender will make this option much more realistic.  And immersion blenders are tiny, they take up no kitchen space at all.  Serve with bread and they can be a very satisfying meal.  You could also serve with a grilled sandwich (grilled cheese or something else).  Or pair with a quesadilla.  All these soups can be made in less than an hour.  Most only take 10-20 minutes to prepare and the rest of the time it is just simmering away on the stove.  

Baked Potato Soup - so good.  So not good for you.  But so good.  (gfv)
Black Bean and Pumpkin Soup - a nice fall soup that has plenty of filling nutritious ingredients that allows it to hold its own.  (gfv)
Broccoli Cheese Soup - Easy to make.  Easy to eat.  Has broccoli in it so that make you feel good about it.  (gfv)
Butternut Squash Soup (2)- this CAN be made quickly if you have roasted butternut squash on hand.  Which is honestly something I will do.  I just roast butternut squash one night and use it in various ways throughout the week.  This soup needs a sandwich with it.  (gfv)
Chicken Tortilla Soup - I really like this soup.  The chipotles in adobo gives the broth a flavor that makes it seem like it was cooked for a lot longer than it was.  Can easily adjust the spiciness level.  
Lentil Soup - there isn't an ounce of bad in this soup and somehow it is strangely addicting.  You will feel good about eating this.  (gfv)
Moroccan-Spice Chickpea Soup (2)- another super healthy option that has tons of energy packed into each bowl.  You won't need anything else besides this soup for dinner.  
Potato and Yam Soup with Spinach and Bacon (2)- another soup that packs everything into one bowl.  A really healthy and filling meal.  Make with sausage instead of bacon and it is especially good.  (gf)
Potato Leek Soup (2)- warms your soul.  Definitely not enough for the whole meal, but would be nice paired with a salad and some bread.  (gfv)
Pumpkin Soup with Chili Cran-Apple Relish (3)- another pumpkin soup.  This one is more simple and probably needs to be paired with a sandwich or something else.  (gfv)
Roasted Cauliflower and Poblano Soup - this is another one that is not for everyone.  But with some goat cheese on top, it is wonderful.  Not a stand alone meal, but can compliment many things well.  (gfv)
Winter Minestrone (2)- so good.  This is one of my favorite healthy soups.  The parmesan rind is key to making this delicious broth.  How can a vegetarian brothy soup be so good?  (gfv)

Quick Pasta Dishes
Always a nice meal because it is easy, quick and completely stand alone.  For a reasonably active lifestyle, pasta is an excellent choice in my book.

Lemony Shrimp Scampi (3)- one of my favorite pasta dishes.
Pasta with Smoked Salmon and Balsamic Reduction - smoked salmon is also a great addition to a weeknight meal.  Although it seems expensive, you only need a very small amount and it adds so much flavor.  Balsamic reduction is an excellent condiment to have around because it makes anything better (and seem fancier).
Pasta with Spinach, Cherry Tomatoes and Feta (5)- The concept of this pasta is perfect for a quick meal.  It simply takes as long as it takes to cook pasta.  You can really throw whatever you want in it, but you want to pick veggies that will cook (or warm up) only from the heat of the hot pasta.  Lots of spinach and crumbly cheese really makes this taste great.  Tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, fresh herbs, dried fruit, etc. are all great additions.  (v)
Caprese Pasta - Similar to the pasta above but cooking the tomatoes down a bit and adding in fresh mozzarella and basil.  (v)
Tuna and Caper Tomato Pasta (5)- not for everyone.  But if you love salty, briny goodness, you will love this.  
Broccoli and Anchovy Orecchiette - I really love this cut of pasta, but if you can't find it...any short cut will do.  (v)
Pumpkin and Sausage Pasta - A great fall dish.  
Cajun Chicken Pasta - A cream sauce with some Cajun spices.  The chicken could easily be left out.  
Classic Penne Carbonara - Not healthy, but better than a box of mac and cheese.  Egg, cheese and bacon with pasta is never a bad idea.  Great when it is cold out.
Gemelli with Fennel and Hot Sausage - another great winter dish.  This pasta is so easy, you just roast everything together in a pan and toss it with some pasta.  You can easily substitute any root veggies and any sausage.  
Mac and Cheese - I could live my life happily without ever eating mac and cheese.  But, I know it is a favorite.  Add some steamed broccoli or something really green to make yourself feel better about it.  If you don't bake it, it is pretty quick.  (v)
Penne with Gorgonzola Tomato Sauce - sounds gross, but it is good!  Definitely give it a try if you like blue cheese.  (v)
Spaghetti with Chickpeas - A nice vegetarian pasta dish.  The chickpeas add wonderful texture and even a creaminess to this sauce.  (v)
Pasta with Broccoli Rabe and Sausage - Any dark green veggie (broccoli, spinach, kale, asparagus, Brussels sprouts), could be subbed in for Broccoli Rabe.  Such an easy dinner option.
Green Israeli Couscous - this is so good.  Israeli couscous is successful, talented brother of regular couscous.  And pistachios and good quality feta make this a real treat.  (v)

Dishes with Quinoa or Whole Grains:
Veggies and crumbly cheese mixed together with quinoa or whole grains is always great weeknight.  Fill out the meal with a poached or fried egg, a piece of fish or a pounded out chicken breast, or with a green salad.  Below I list more "pasta salad" type options with whole grains like farro.  

Peppers Stuffed with Quinoa, Corn and Feta (much faster to not stuff the peppers, but just eat the filling with some chopped peppers in it.)  (gfv)
Turkey and Artichoke Stuffed Peppers - I LOVE these stuffed pepper.  It is mostly protein but also has a little bulgur in it.  Again, if you just make the stuffing, it is really quick.  
Quinoa with Poached Egg and Kale - put a poached or fried egg on anything and I will eat it.  This concept could be flavored up in a million different ways.  (gfv)
Pineapple Quinoa - The best way to enjoy quinoa is to just mix it up with a bunch of veggies.  Nuts and fruit are also good additions.  (gfv)
Lemon and Olive Quinoa Cakes (2)- these take a little time to make, but if you make the quinoa mixture the night before, they are especially doable.  I love little fried cakes like this served with a big green salad (Spring mix or spinach).  This recipe makes a lot of cakes, so I pressed the mixture all out on a skillet and fried it up in large batches.  Not as pretty, but much faster.  Sort of results in a quinoa cake scramble.   (gfv)

Asian and Indian Meals
Also known as ethnic.  That is a joke, but also true.  I have a rice cooker, so cooking up some brown or white rice couldn't be easier.  Rice cooker or not, many of these dishes served over rice are usually a two pot meal.  With fairly little multi-tasking.  I grew up with "Stir-fry" night.  And a stir-fry is a great way to get in your veg.  This is true for most of these meals too.  I think making Asian and Indian food is very intimidating for most people.  But what is kind of cool about cooking is that people all over the world have been working towards the same goal for millions of year:  eat food.  So, why not steal the quick dishes that exist in each culture and spice up your life.  

Chana Masala (Chickpea Curry) - A vegetarian Indian dish packed with warm spices and a tomato based curry sauce.  Eat with store bought naan for a delicious and healthy meal.  (gfv)
Beef Stir-fry - Chicken could also be used here.  The idea here is a lots of veggies and nice thick sauce.  (gf)
Beef Congee - An asian comfort food.  Couldn't be easier to make.  Think of it as a rice porridge.  (gf)
Chicken Lo Mein - it is just like the take out version but with lots of veggies.  This tastes much better than it looks.
Cold Noodles with Peanut Sauce - Sounds gross, actually tastes so fresh and delicious.  This peanut sauce is so useful to have a around.
Kimchi Fried Rice - Whenever you make rice, make the maximum amount and use the leftover for fried rice.  Leftover steam rice is the key to good fried rice.  And did you know that fried rice is not actually an alternative to white rice...it IS actually a way to use up old rice and a whole meal on its own.  This version of kimchi fried rice is in my top ten favorite weeknight meals.  (gf)
Shrimp Fried Rice - If kimchi is not your thing, this shrimp fried rice is much less weird.  And seriously, seriously good.  (gf)
Sesame Soba Noodles - This is a super healthy noodle dish with lots of veggies and tons of flavor.  (gfv)

Dishes with Polenta
Polenta is an inherently quick cooking dish.  It is especially delicious with something saucy over it.  Unfortunately something that "something saucy" is typically not quick cooking.  However, if you make some cheesy polenta or grits, it is excellent with some cooked dark greens and a piece of grilled fish.  

Roasted Corn and Poblano Polenta - A Mexican twist on Polenta.  With spicy shrimp on top, this meal is really good.  (gf)
Corn Fritters with Polenta - Another use for polenta.  Making corn fritters!  Yum!  (gfv)
Polenta with Spinach and Goat Cheese - Although we brought this camping, it could be a nice vegetarian weeknight meal too!  (gfv)

Main Dish Salads
I have a reputation as "the salad girl".  I always order them at restaurants (especially at American/grill type places).  And when I have lived alone, a big salad was always my go to dinner.  In the summer, we eat salads because it is too hot to make anything else.  But, I do love a good salad.  Plus, there is no easier meal in my book.  Chop up some veggies.  Whisk up a dressing.  Maybe cook up a steak or piece of chicken.

Green Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette and Nuts and Fruit (50)- this salad is so popular right now that you can't go to a wedding without eating it.  And this is because EVERYONE LOVES IT.  It isn't really hearty enough to stand alone as is.  Usually it is some leafy green, some fruit (dried, fresh or even cooked...usually dried cranberries, apples, pears, but anything would work), nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds), crumbly cheese (goat cheese, blue cheese, feta) and a balsamic vinaigrette.  You could add lots of things to bulk this up including: roasted butternut squash, roasted sweet potatoes, bacon, chicken, steak, roasted potatoes, etc.  (gfv)
Skirt Steak Salad with Arugula and Blue Cheese - this is sort of like a slight variation of the above salad.  Tomatoes instead of fruit and no nuts.  Arugula in a salad really needs meat, in my opinion.  The dressing is a little different too.  (gf)
Seared Steak and Mushrooms on Mixed Greens with Asian Ginger Dressing - another steak salad but with mushrooms and an Asian inspired dressing.  (gf)
Winter Kale Salad - one more variation on the green salad with balsamic vinaigrette and fruit and nuts.  This time, with raw Kale!  really good!  (gfv)
Mexican Chopped Salad (2)- beans, corn and cheese make this super filling.  A lime vinaigrette is delicious in this.  (gfv)
Paysanne Salad (2)- potatoes, lettuce, bacon, Dijon vinaigrette with a poached egg on the top.  Oh, add a big ball of toasty goat cheese.  Edible.  (gf)
Roasted Edamame Salad (3)- leave out the lettuce!  This is another great mixture...corn, edamame, tomato (you could sub red pepper in the winter).  This is great with chips.  We ate it over lettuce with a vinaigrette poured over.  Since the edamame and corn are roasted, it is a really satisfying winter dish.  (gfv)
Texas Caviar (4)- like the roasted edamame salad, Texas Caviar is another healthy and filling non-lettuce salad.  It is great with chips but can also be served over lettuce or with a piece of grilled fish or chicken.  (gfv)

Other ideas (I make these ALL the time, include any or all of the ingredients listed):
Greek salad-chopped romaine lettuce, feta, kalamata olives, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, pine nuts with a oil and vinegar dressing.
Italian chopped salad - chopped romaine lettuce, chunks of provolone, parmesan cheese (grated), tomatoes, cucumbers, artichoke hearts, jarred salad peppers, red onion or green onion, pepperoni or salami, raw zucchini, chopped black olives, bell peppers tossed in a oil and vinegar dressing.  You could also add fresh croutons.
Chef Salad - chopped romaine or any watery lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, hard boiled egg, chopped deli meat (turkey or ham), shredded cheddar or jack or swiss or provolone, chopped celery, chopped carrots served with a ranch, honey mustard or 1000 island dressing.  You could also add croutons or sesame seeds.
California Chopped Salad - chopped lettuce, diced avocado, crumbled cooked bacon, hard boiled egg, cucumber, tomato with a vinaigrette, or blue cheese dressing (not my thing) or just add crumbled blue cheese.
These are all what I consider quick and can be substantial enough to be a full meal.  Go to my full list here, and find more combinations and list of salad dressings.

Salads with Cooked Pasta or Grains
Another easy dish to throw together is the "pasta salad" concept.  It is basically some cooked grain, veggies, and a dressing (always some vinaigrette for me).  These are nice because they are great leftovers for lunch, easy to throw together, usually taste good warm, cold or room temperature, and are healthy.  I think they can sometimes be substantial enough on their own, but usually you will need to pair with bread, eggs, another protein, maybe a sandwich, or maybe just a green salad.  

Greek Orzo Salad with Mustard Dill Vinaigrette (5)- this is a perfect example of the concept.  You cook the orzo, add chopped veggies, toss with feta and a homemade Mustard Dill Vinaigrette.  This is more of a summer version, but could be made year round.  This one tastes best cold.  (v)
Jamie Oliver's Pasta Salad - another delicious pasta salad concept.  This is really the simplest of them all.  Pasta, cucumbers, tomatoes, black olives in a vinaigrette.  (v)
Orzo Salad with Celery Radishes and Dill - another great summer salad, but this one is nice because radishes and celery are good year round.  (v)
Farro Salad with Herbs and Tomatoes - farro is a really great grain to start using.  Great for winter.  Here is a really simple salad with only tomatoes, but really you could any roasted root veggies.  (v)
Toasted Israeli Couscous with Grilled Summer Vegetables - Israeli couscous is another great grain to add into the mix.  Here it is mixed with grilled summer vegetables but you could sub in roasted winter root veggies and this would be just as delicious.  (v)
Green Israeli Couscous - this is so good.  Israeli couscous is successful, talented brother of regular couscous.  And pistachios and good quality feta make this a real treat.  (v)

I LOVE sandwiches.  And I think they are valid dinner food.  Plus, a grilled sandwich (or panini) usually takes less than half an hour to make.  Serve with a green salad, soup, potato chips, fruit, raw veggies (carrots, celery, broccoli, etc. with a ranch dipping sauce), or a fruit smoothie.  

Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Panino (3)- the infamous combo.  We love having roasted butternut squash on hand to whip up soup, sandwiches and quesadillas.  You could substitute another cheese or even cream cheese.  (v)
Egg Salad Sandwich - if you hate mayo, then this probably repulses you.  But I love a salad sandwich.  Chicken, tuna, turkey, egg.  This recipe is great because it makes just one and is super fast even starting from the raw egg.  (v)
Grilled Cheese and Roasted Green Chile Sandwich - I will eat roasted green chiles on anything.  (v)
Parmesan Crusted Grilled Turkey Sandwich (3)- classic dinner grilled sandwich and so easy to make at home.
Prosciutto, Artichoke Heart and Leek Panini - it is good.  Definitely need to eat with a salad.
Sherried Sardine Toast - I like sardines.  I like them on toast.
Thai Tempeh Wraps with Spicy Peanut Sauce - buy the peanut sauce and this is a really easy wrap to throw together.  (v)
Lentil and Goat Cheese Burger - if you make the mixture a day in advance, these burgers are a snap to whip up.  (v)
Black Bean Burgers (2)- again, I think veggie burgers are a great weeknight meal.  Especially if you can prep the mixture before the night you want to eat them.  Top burgers just like you would any other burger.  (v)
Turkey Burgers (10)- another healthy burger option.  These are my favorite.  Of course, will all burgers, did you know that taste equally delicious when you cook them in a skillet rather then on the grill?
Salmon Burgers with Cilantro Mayo (2)- tastes like a fish sandwich!  But better.  This is a great meal to have every once in a while.

gf, gluten free.  Some subs may be required but are straight forward (in case of a roux or something similar).  Also, be sure to buy gluten free ingredients (in the case of stocks, sauces, etc.)
v, vegetarian.  In some cases meat stocks or bacon are in the recipe, but labeling them vegetarian means they could be left out or subbed with veggie version.
(#) - number behind recipe indicates how many times I have made the recipe (approximate).