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Easy Family Dinners That Are Gentle on the Cook and the Wallet

Leah S. Klein
June 7, 2017

A little planning in the kitchen benefits your budget and brings easy family dinners to your table.



Maybe you love to cook, and maybe you hate it. Either way, there's never enough time and there's always a critic at the table. It's easy to fall into the habit of buying prepared foods that are neither budget-friendly nor healthy, but you can just as easily start new habits. Learning a few easy family dinners will help you avoid the boxed, frozen, and pre-made dishes that can quickly cut into your budget.

Be Prepared
Katie Workman, founder of The Mom 100 Blog and author of "The Mom 100 Cookbook," recommends advance prep to save both time and money in the kitchen: "I'm always yammering on about taking some time at the beginning of the week to do some mincing and chopping, so that you have things like minced garlic and chopped onions in the fridge, ready to go." When your ingredients are ready to go, you can get some easy family dinners on the table pretty quickly. This can also lighten the load on the nanny when they have to do some cooking for your kids.

Bonus? Cooking at home saves you money. "If you are at home, cooking meals from scratch will make a big difference to your weekly spend," says chef Annabel Karmel, the author of 39 cookbooks, including "Annabel's Family Cookbook." "It will give you more control over your budget, and you can opt for cheaper and healthier ingredients." So skip the takeout and try techniques for tasty and easy family dinners.

En Papillote
Doesn't it sound fancy? "En papillote" just means "wrapped in parchment" in French, which isn't really fancy at all -- but it tastes that way. Wrap chicken, fish, tofu or vegetables in parchment paper or tinfoil and cook it on an outdoor grill, in a toaster oven or in an oven heated to 375 degrees F. The New York Times provides a simple recipe that you can easily adapt, substituting the protein, herbs and vegetables to your taste. You can make the same dish in a pan using Workman's method for Non-Boring Pan Sauce. Fish and tofu cook more quickly than chicken, so adjust the cooking time as needed.

Sauce It Simply
What really transforms these dishes into something special are the sauces. Take the juices from the meat and pour (or keep) them in a pan. Add a liquid to create a base: white wine, chicken stock or vegetable stock. Then layer in flavor one teaspoon at a time to create different sauces:

  • For an Asian sauce, try fresh ginger, soy sauce and scallions.
  • For a French sauce, add Dijon mustard, tarragon and sour cream.
  • For an Indian sauce, add fresh ginger, turmeric and curry powder.
  • For a Thai sauce, add coconut milk, ginger and lemongrass.

Stir in the herbs, chopped vegetables and spices that you like and taste as you go -- the simpler the better. For a heartier meal, add a side of rice or bake some potatoes to serve with the dish.

Love Your Leftovers
According to Karmel, "Loving your leftovers is also the key to making meals go further."

  • Double It. "Whenever I make a large piece of meat, or a chicken, it's never designed to be eaten all in one meal," Workman says. "I will always make a few extra chicken breasts, and those will become chicken wraps for lunch a couple of days later. Brisket will become beef barley soup. Steak will be thinly sliced onto a salad later in the week." This is a great way to stretch out ingredients and make the most of your time and money. Buying "family packs" of chicken or other staples lets you prepare extra meat more cheaply. Try making a quesadilla with slices of leftover meat and some cheese, or leftover fish with avocado and a squeeze of lime.
  • Stir-Fry. You can also make a quick leftover stir-fry. Cook some pasta or rice. Add cherry tomatoes to a pan until they blister and split, then add the leftover fish, chicken or tofu, sliced into cubes. Add the pasta -- a little wet from the pot -- to the pan and mix together. Top with a drizzle of olive oil and some Parmesan.

Shop the Sales
"I always shop the sales," Workman says. "I don't even think of it as saving money, but rather finding recipe inspiration. It keeps you out of your usual recipe ruts. Pork chops on sale? Then we're having pork chops! Scallops on special? It's our lucky day! But I also always keep my eyes open for the things I use most that are either pantry items or freezer staples. Frozen peas, corn, edamame, shrimp. Cans of beans, broth, tomatoes -- they last for so long, and with the volume of food that gets made in my kitchen, I'm not really worried about expiration dates on these items."

During the growing season, head to the farmers' market for fresh fruits and vegetables at a good price. And if you're there near closing time, farmers will often let you buy in bulk and save -- you just have to ask.

For more healthy dinner ideas, check out these 28 healthy dinner recipes for kids.

Leah Klein, a mom of an 8- and a 10-year-old, loves to cook. She blogs about her adventures at Leah's Life: Pearls & Oysters, and her husband is a Mom 100 Cookbook devotee. She loves to cook for her family -- or sometimes just for the grown-ups -- from Annabel Karmel's Quick Children's Meals.

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