Although I love cooking interesting and complex meals for my family, the reality of life is that many nights, the time for meal preparation is sandwiched tightly between my work, my son’s soccer game, a community meeting, a promise to draw pictures with my daughter, and a pretty firm eight o’clock bedtime.
The easy solution is to go out for dinner – or, even quicker (and less healthy), order some sort of take-out or delivered food. The problem here is that it can be quite expensive – and I also have little control over the ingredients, which means that I lose some control over the amount of vegetables and other healthy elements that I want my kids to have.
So what’s the solution? For us, it all revolves around finding ways to get healthy (or reasonably so) home-cooked meals on the table quickly.
One of my favorite pieces of Amy Dacyczyn’s Complete Tightwad Gazette is her framework for a simple, quick casserole on page 625:
1 cup main ingredient
1 cup second ingredient
1-2 cups starchy ingredient
1 1/2 cups binder
1/4 cup “goodie”
Main ingredient: tuna, cubed chicken, turkey, ham, seafood, etc.
Second ingredient: thinly sliced celery, mushrooms, peas, chopped hard-boiled eggs, etc.
Starchy ingredient: thinly sliced potatoes, cooked noodles, cooked rice, etc.
Binder: cream sauce, sour cream, can of soup, etc.
“Goodie”: pimiento, olives, almonds, water chestnuts, etc.
Topping: cheese, bread crumbs, etc.
The advantage of this recipe structure is the flexibility. All you have to do is have one item in each category that seem to at least reasonably match well in terms of flavor. Cook any uncooked element thoroughly, put all the items in a large pot, and gently cook it over a steady heat, and just ten minutes or so later, you have an original creation on the table – just as healthy or unhealthy as you want it to be.
Here are a few examples of casseroles using this framework that work well for us.
1 cup diced chicken breast, cooked
1 cup broccoli, cooked
2 cups rice, cooked
1 1/2 cups cream of chicken soup (or a healthier substitute)
1/4 cup mushrooms or black olives (purely optional)
pepper to taste
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Combine all ingredients except cheese. Cook over medium heat, stirring regularly, until hot. Top with cheese and serve.
1 cup tuna
1 cup chopped hard-boiled eggs
1 1/2 cups diced potatoes, cooked
1 1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup black olives
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup mustard (dijon is fantastic!)
This one is a great light supper served cold on a warm summer evening, and works great on sandwiches. Just mix all of the ingredients together.
Ham, Apples, and Sweet Potato Casserole
1 cup ham, cooked and cubed
2 apples, sliced
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup water
1/8 cup light brown sugar
1/8 cup marshmallows (seriously!)
Combine all ingredients except marshmallows, then spread the marshmallows evenly on top. You can either bake this at 350 for about 30 minutes or cook it over medium heat, covered, on the stovetop.
1 pound corned beef, chopped into small pieces
2 cups sauerkraut
1 1/2 cup rye bread crumbs (just toast four slices rye bread and chop ‘em)
1/4 cup Thousand Island dressing
2 teaspoons melted butter or margarine
1/2 lb. shredded Swiss cheese
Combine all ingredients and cook on the stove top in a covered pan until thoroughly warm!
Some Additional Tips
As you can see, this framework is really flexible, enabling you to turn out all kinds of different things. The best part is that it’s often easy to make these work based entirely on what you happen to have on hand – I’ll often assemble dinner based solely upon what I find in the cupboard or what I picked up on sale at the grocery store last week.
Here are some additional tips to make meals with these casseroles more well-rounded or to shave some additional spending from these dishes.
Many casseroles are best served with a vegetable on the side. Depending on the season, we either steam flash-frozen vegetables or fresh ones, or we make a small, simple salad. Usually, this is steered by what vegetables are on sale that week at the grocery store. In other words, let your grocery store’s flyer take the lead here. Use it not only for an ingredient or two that would fit into these casseroles, but also use it for the vegetables on the side.
Rice is my favorite constant element, so we’ll buy it in bulk. I’d be happy to have long grain rice with every meal if I could, and there are many, many casseroles with this framework that a person can make using rice as the “starchy” ingredient. Because of that, rice is something we’ll always buy in bulk – we can use it in so many things and it’s very flexible.
Spicing is key. Almost any dish will either come out bland or come out spectacular, largely depending on how you spice it. Don’t be afraid to be liberal with the spices when you’re cooking anything. Don’t have any idea how to do this? If you’re just getting started, you really only need ten different spices in your kitchen – here’s a guide to those ten key spices and when/how to use them.