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Published: 9/9/2013 - Updated: 7 months ago

Simple meals for a busy cook as a new school year gets under way

BY JANET K. KEELER
TAMPA BAY TIMES

The new school year is here, and that means more homework, more sports practices, more dance classes and music lessons, more drama. More, more, more.

But unfortunately, the academic calendar doesn’t come with any more time. And when all those activities collide around the dinner hour, meals often get the short shrift. Takeout and fast food beckon. Leftovers are merely a dream because who had time last night to make anything to be left over? And a completely homemade dinner? Well, scratch that.

Yes, time is part of our problem, but so is a lack of ideas. Add to that the fact that we don’t do a lot of planning (why not make menus and shopping lists while watching Mary Sue practice her backflips at the gym?), and we’re not always great at keeping cabinets and fridges stocked with staples that make whipping up a quick meal easier.

The following 25 simple meal ideas should help get you out of your dinnertime doldrums. You’ll see that there are no recipes because these suggestions are meant to juice your imagination and build on what you are already making. Tucked in the list are meatless meals and plenty of dishes that the kids can help with. Remember to augment main dishes with fresh vegetables and fruit, and use whole-wheat pasta and breads when you can.

So, no more excuses.

1. Avocado-Veggie Burgers
Grill prepared veggie burgers, such as Boca, and serve on whole-grain buns piled high with tomato slices, lettuce and sliced avocado. There is still plenty of fresh corn in the stores, and the watermelon looks tasty, too.

2. Chicken Chef’s Salad
Load up plates with ice-cold lettuce and veggies (tomato, cucumbers, shredded carrots), about 1/4 cup of shredded cheese or 2 tablespoons of crumbled blue or feta and 1 tablespoon of sunflower seeds. Layer on shredded rotisserie chicken, skin discarded. Dress lightly with vinaigrette.

3. Black Bean Soup
Open a few cans. Serve soup over a scoop of rice and garnish with chopped green onions and sour cream. Accompany the soup with buttery, toasted Cuban bread for dipping and a refreshing salad of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions with an herby vinaigrette.

4. Hash-Browned Eggs
This quickie dinner can be set on the table between soccer practice and homework. To start, you’ll need a bag of frozen shredded hash browns. Sauté chopped onions and garlic in a large skillet for about 5 minutes. Then add the hash browns and cook according to package instructions. Remove from skillet and keep warm. Fry eggs — one per person — and top each portion of hash browns with an egg. Serve sautéed spinach on the side.

5. Chicken Thighs With Chunky Tomatoes
Salt and pepper chicken thighs and brown in an oven-safe skillet, then drain off fat. Add cans of drained Northern beans and diced tomatoes with herbs. Cover and pop in a 350-degree oven for about 25 minutes. Serve with egg noodles and steamed broccoli.

6. Crusty French Bread Pizza
Split the bread and toast in the oven slightly. Remove and slather with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese and toppings of your choice. Bake at 350° until cheese is melted, 10 minutes or so. Load up a green salad with veggies and a favorite dressing.

7. Sautéed Onion and Goat-Cheese Pizzas
Use flour tortillas as the crust for these easy pizzas. Start by sautéing onions over medium heat in a skillet with olive oil for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. To assemble, brush tortillas with olive oil. Place on baking sheet and dot with goat cheese. Layer onion on top and several pinches of fresh or dried thyme. Bake at 375° for about 15 minutes. Fruit salad on the side.

8. Quick Shepherd’s Pie
In an ovenproof skillet, brown a pound of ground beef, drain, then add ½ cup of ketchup and 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. Add 1 cup of frozen mixed vegetables and heat through. Cover with heated microwavable mashed potatoes and a handful of grated cheese. Put under the boiler until the cheese melts.

9. Crunchy Chicken Legs
Chicken legs are cheaper than other parts and are kid-friendly. Make them spicy by coating with smooshed barbecue potato chips or even Pringles spicy Szechuan chips. Crush the chips, then dredge the legs in milk or beaten egg first. Roll in the chips and bake at 350° for about 30 to 40 minutes. Steamed broccoli and carrots to accompany.

10. Barbecued Chicken Quesadillas
For each quesadilla, mix about ½ cup of shredded rotisserie chicken, 1/3 cup of cheese, some chopped onion and a tablespoon (or more to taste) of barbecue sauce. Spread it on a flour tortilla and place in a hot, dry skillet. Top with second tortilla. Cook until tortilla is golden and cheese begins to melt. Flip and repeat. Serve with melon slices.

11. Tuscan Grilled Cheese With Tomato Soup
For the sandwiches, brush sturdy country bread with olive oil, then layer on thin smoked mozzarella slices, fresh basil leaves, ripe tomatoes, and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette. Grill as you do a regular grilled-cheese sandwich. Open a box of organic tomato soup. Eat pineapple with vanilla ice cream for dessert.

12. Greek Quesadillas
For a fast tzatziki sauce, mix 1 cup of plain yogurt, 1 or 2 minced garlic cloves and a peeled, seeded and diced small cucumber. Set aside. Place a flour tortilla on a hot skillet and layer on shredded mozzarella cheese, feta cheese, strips of roasted red pepper, and chopped kalamata olives. Top with second tortilla. Let brown and then flip. Dollop with sauce. Green beans cooked in stewed tomatoes on the side.

13. Garlic Shrimp
Since plenty of garlic and have the mouthwash ready. Melt ½ stick of butter in a large skillet. When it starts to foam, dump in about 2 pounds of peeled shrimp and 4 to 6 minced garlic cloves and saute for about 4 minutes. Toss in some chopped parsley and the juice of 1 lemon. Serve with rice studded with chopped scallions.

14. Grilled Mojo Chicken
Toss boneless, skinless chicken breasts into store-bought mojo marinade in the morning and they’ll be flavorful by dinnertime. To make the chicken cook quicker, split the breasts crosswise so they are thinner. Serve with beans and rice and a salad of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with vinaigrette.

15. Spicy Sausage and White Bean Soup
In a big soup pot, sauté a chopped onion in olive oil until soft, about 5 minutes; add a minced garlic clove in the last 30 seconds. Stir in 1 pound of spicy, bulk sausage and brown. Drain off fat. Add chopped carrots and celery and a lot of chicken broth (about 2 boxes). Let simmer for about 15 minutes, then add a couple of cans of drained and rinsed Northern beans. Season with salt and pepper and serve. Biscuits, please.

16. Seafood Tacos
Use frozen fish sticks, popcorn shrimp, or breaded fish nuggets as the main filling for these tacos. Prepare them according to package instructions. Load into small heated flour or corn tortillas with crunchy coleslaw, lime wedges, and fresh, chopped cilantro. Slices of melon sprinkled with a bit of cayenne go nicely as an accompaniment.

17. Yellow Squash Casserole
This can be a side dish or a main course with a salad. Cut 3 large yellow crookneck squash in ¼-inch slices and layer in a pie or quiche pan. In a separate bowl, mix 2 large eggs and ½ cup of half-and-half or evaporated milk. Season with salt and pepper and add about 1½ cup or more grated cheese. Pour over squash. Sprinkle top generously with breadcrumbs. Bake at 350° for about 40 minutes.

18. Potato Pierogies With Sauteed Apples and Cabbage
Look for frozen pierogies in your freezer case and prepare according to package instructions. To make the side, saute sliced onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes, then add cubed apples. Cook another minute, then add shredded cabbage, a few splashes of apple-cider vinegar, and salt and black pepper. Offer sour cream as a condiment.

19. Sausage and Mushroom Fettuccine
While water boils and pasta cooks, make the sauce. Brown a pound of bulk Italian sausage, then add sliced mushrooms and scallions plus red pepper flakes. Cook until veggies are soft. Add 1 can of diced tomatoes. Drain pasta and add to the sauce. Add black pepper if you want more kick.

20. Cajun Red Beans & Rice
To make the beans, saute 1 small chopped onion, ½ bell pepper, 2 minced garlic cloves and 2 ribs of celery in olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add 2 cans drained and rinsed red beans and 1 can of diced tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and stir in 1½ teaspoons Cajun seasoning and ½ teaspoon dried oregano. Cook on low for about 10 minutes, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with cooked rice and hot sauce. Oh, and a slab of corn bread.

21. Tangy Apple Tuna Melts
We’re dressing up tuna salad tonight with Tangy Apple Tuna Melts served with fruit salad. Make the tuna salad however you like (mayo, celery, and a bit of lemon zest for me) and scoop it onto whole-wheat bread that has been buttered on one side. Add thin slices of Granny Smith apples and cheddar cheese; top with the other slice of bread and do the grilled-cheese thing.

22. Tortilla Soup
Start by sautéing chopped onion, a diced red bell pepper and 2 garlic cloves in olive oil until soft, about 7 minutes. Add 1 can diced tomatoes with oregano and at least 2 cups of chicken broth. (Add a can of drained corn if desired.) Bring to a simmer and stir in shredded cooked chicken. When it’s heated through, ladle into bowls and top with crushed tortilla chips, sour cream, and sliced scallions. Offer a green salad with sliced avocado on the side.

23. Corkscrew Caprese Pasta
Mix 1½ pounds seeded and coarsely chopped plum tomatoes with 8 ounces fresh mozzarella cut into strips or small pieces, ¼ cup of extra-virgin olive oil and 3 teaspoons of red-wine vinegar. Season with salt and pepper and toss with 1 pound of hot, drained fusilli pasta. Garnish with ½ cup of chopped basil. Green salad on the side.

24. Italian Cheeseburgers
Stuff patties with a large cube of mozzarella cheese. Make sure to add some dried Italian seasoning and tomato sauce to the meat mix. Grill the burgers, then dress however you like and serve with pasta salad.

25. Lemon Egg Drop Soup
Bring 8 cups of chicken or vegetable broth to a boil. In a bowl, whisk together 4 large eggs, the juice of 2 lemons and a few shakes of lemon pepper. Slowly stir 1 cup of hot broth into the egg mixture. Reduce heat of broth and add egg mixture, stirring constantly. Do not boil or eggs will curdle. Heat through and serve with lemon zest and shaved curls of Parmesan. Serve with baked frozen egg rolls.



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