Need easy weeknight family meal recipes
December 30, 2013 9:01 AM   Subscribe

I know there have been many, many recipe questions on AskMe. I'm sorry to contribute yet another one. But I am in search of simple, quick meals that will actually be eaten by my small family.

Neither my husband nor I have ever really enjoyed cooking. Since we had our daughter a couple of years ago, we like it even less. I have kind of fallen into the role of cook for our family, and so far I am failing miserably. More often than not, we eat pasta & jarred sauce.... or else just frozen or pre-made meals from Costco. This is not ideal from either a taste or a nutrition standpoint.

In 2014, I am determined to provide better meals! Please help me. Our basic requirements are as follows:

- EASY. I don't have time to learn fancy techniques or use a ton of ingredients. I have a basic working knowledge in a kitchen, but I don't want to waste time with a lot of prep.

- FAST. I am looking for complete meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less.

- AFFORDABLE. We are on a bit of a budget - not too strict, but I don't want to be spending a ton on fancy ingredients.

As far as taste, my husband and I hate mushrooms but other than that enjoy most foods. My daughter (age 2) is a little picky about vegetables (she hates broccoli and salad, but will eat most other veggies) and is allergic to peanuts.

Can you recommend any simple recipes (or books or websites) that could help us?
posted by barnoley to Food & Drink (55 answers total) 135 users marked this as a favorite
This site is no longer adding new recipes, but I always find the cheap, healthy, good recipes to be worth a look. Many of them are now regulars in my rotation.
posted by mmf at 9:06 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]

I love Cooking Light (the magazine or online site). Another nice service is, where you can pick the style of food you want (clean eating, low fat, etc) and they send you shopping lists and recipes for each night of the week. It's pretty inexpensive and the recipes are good,
posted by superfille at 9:06 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have a crockpot? I made this split-pea soup in my crockpot recently and it was good. I didn't even sautee the vegetables first, so it was pretty low-effort. I used bouillon powder instead of stock and I boiled water on the stove to dump over the veggies in the preheated crock pot, left it on high for 45 minutes to an hour or so, and then turned it to low for 8-9 hours, but I'm sure you could adjust that.

(Also, I subbed oregano for marjoram and used the whole 1-lb package of split peas, which technically is a bit more than 2 cups, with no issues.)
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:12 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stir Fry is my goto for inexpensive and less than 30 minutes (including some nice Jasmine rice). I buy chicken breasts on sale, whatever stir fryable veggies are on sale, and use a standard, out of the bottle stir fry sauce. I even purchased an inexpensive cast iron wok which makes it that much easier (and fun, and better).

A nice stir-fry chicken dish for 3 probably costs me about $5-$7.
posted by HuronBob at 9:13 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Best suggestion: buy a slow cooker.

There's nothing better than coming home to an awesome meal that's been simmering all day long. I highly recommend the first Cooks' Illustrated Slow Cooker Revolution book; Volume 2 is good but not as good. But, every recipe in Volume 2 is "easy prep" and a lot of recipes in the first book are as well.

Mostly, you chop a few vegetables, microwave a thing or two for 5 minutes, mix it all into the slow cooker, and come home to a ready and waiting dinner. Almost always less than a 1/2 hour of prep time. Usually, I do most of the prep for tomorrow's dinner the night before, when I have more time. Then, I just toss it in the cooker in the morning and don't have to worry about cooking when I've just come home from work, starving.

The added bonus is that the slow cooker makes a good amount of delicious leftovers, so once you make two or three meals, you can cycle back through the leftovers for a few days as well, meaning there's even less time devoted to cooking. And, the big batches tend to be inexpensive as well relative to how much food you're getting.

I can't stress enough how much a slow cooker has revolutionized how I prepare food and eat meals. In the past two weeks, we've made chicken and dumplings, beef stew, Tuscan white bean soup, and chicken and dirty rice, and we're about to make some chili and then slow-cooked baked potatoes as well, and maybe some pulled pork. Delicious food with so little prep time and it's just ready when we get home.
posted by The Michael The at 9:13 AM on December 30, 2013 [9 favorites]

This will come up so I might as well get it out of the way:

How To Cook Everything is a very good book for exactly what you're talking about. There are lots of ideas for complete meals, as well as things like snacks, breakfasts, sandwiches, and special occasion dishes. There's a section in the beginning going over basics like what kitchen tools you should have and how to look for good ones to buy, how to use your appliances, and everything has a section on preparing and storing so you can waste less. For the most part the recipes are simple, and if it gets more complicated there is usually good reason for it. As I've become a better and more confident cook, I've messed with the recipes a lot to align with my tastes instead of the author's, but it's very reliable for when I'm at a loss for what to make. If I browse it for five minutes I'll inevitably find something that fits my needs.

If you're up for being a little adventurous, you might like browsing Cookpad, which is full of Japanese home cooking recipes. You'd be surprised at how simple a lot of it is. It's a different kind of thinking about food that can align with a smaller, healthier family quite easily. Lots of great recipes for fish and vegetables, for example, that you can easily master and add variety to your usual meals.
posted by Mizu at 9:15 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

I like menus4moms, she has a few subscription plans. For $5.00 a month I'd get a weekly menu with five full meals and a shopping list. It worked great for breaking me from fast food and frozen dinners when my kids moved off baby food.
posted by saffry at 9:16 AM on December 30, 2013

If you can open cans, then you can make this, and it's surprisingly tasty.

If you buy a big bag of frozen peeled shrimp, you can thaw some shrimp in running water in a strainer, then sautee them with some olive oil and garlic. Toss with pasta and a little more olive oil, spritz some lemon juice on with some parmesan cheese and black pepper. Super easy.

Anything picatta is pretty easy to make. You can make it with chicken breasts or pork chops.

Omelettes for dinner are great and easy, also, and kids should like it.

America's Test Kitchen has a Quick Family Cooking cook book -- nothing in it takes more than 45 minutes to make, including prep time. It basically assumes you know nothing about how to cook and includes step by step illustrated guides to anything you need to to do for the recipes.
posted by empath at 9:17 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Firstly, totally give yourself permission to sometimes just make jarred sauce and pasta or frozen meals. If you and your husband both work, it's too much to ask for your family to also be eating sumptuous three-course meals every night.

My favorite really easy dish to make is shakshuka- basically just heat up tomato sauce in a pan, with sausage if you feel like it, or with frozen spinach, or both, and then crack eggs in, two or three per person. Cover with a lid and cook maybe five minutes until the whites are set, and meanwhile toast a piece of bread for each person. Then just serve out the eggs and sauce and meat over the bread. Top with herbs or cheese if you want. It's delicious, it takes like ten minutes to make, and it's cheap as well.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:17 AM on December 30, 2013 [15 favorites]

If you like your pasta, try this. Spaghetti and prawns with white wine and tomato. Tastes great, serve with a nice chunk of crusty white bread, and takes less than 15 minutes.
posted by derbs at 9:18 AM on December 30, 2013

Pick up the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook or Quick Cookbook-they have lots of basic recipes and often instructions on how to vary them and they are pretty darn infallible, so you won't feel discouraged.

Master the simple sautéed chicken breast-dry boneless breasts, salt and pepper em on both sides. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium high heat til melted and sizzly. Fry breasts on both sides til really golden brown and cooked through. Surprisingly yummy. Serve with steamed veggies-or for the adults, I like to slice and serve with all sorts of random salad fixings. For your toddler, slice and give it to her with some sliced veggies and ranch for dipping.

The big salad is a super easy weeknight dinner-we rinse a can of beans, cube whatever cheese we have on hand, chop some veggies, add any dices leftover meat. For your toddler, fill a muffin tin with all the cubes bits-one kind in each compartment. We call this snacks lunch and my kids go batshit crazy for it (little portions of cubes cheese, meat, baby carrots, raisins, and maybe choc chips or something in one compartment).

Also, cooking up a pot of penne or some other similar pasta. Salt the water really well, til it tastes like sea water. Drain and toss with olive oil. Add chopped olives, crumbled feta, diced red onion, a drained can of chopped tomato, toasted walnuts, chopped salami-whatever you have.

Finally, master roasted veggies. Chop sturdy vegetables into similar sized pieces. Root veggies, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, onion. Toss with olive oil and salt and pepper. Put on baking sheet. Roast at 425, stirring occasionally, until turning dark brown at edges and soft through. If you want, add a little balsamic vinegar. You can even crumble a pound of raw Italian sausage in with the veggies at the beginning-cook til it's not pink in the middle.
posted by purenitrous at 9:18 AM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

Also having a stocked pantry is really important for making quick dinners. Always having stuff like spices, flour, garlic, onions, cheese, etc makes a big difference if you just want to throw something together. Having to run down to the store for one ingredient is a huge hassle when you just want to eat. Google around for lists. Everyone likes different things, but the basics are basically the same.
posted by empath at 9:20 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's a list of 600 recipes with 5 or fewer ingredients.
posted by cecic at 9:26 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Biscuits and gravy (if you use frozen biscuits) is another really fast meal- I won't lie, it has a good amount of fat, but it's very filling so a small serving is enough. Pair it with frozen mixed veggies on the side, which can be cooked in five minutes in the microwave.

Basic instructions:
-Pop open a tube of biscuits and bake according to package directions. (You can do the rest of the steps while they bake.)
-Cook some ground sausage in a pan; once it's cooked, remove the meat but leave the fat in the pan, and keep the burner on medium-low.
-Whisk a few tablespoons of flour into the fat and cook for five-ish minutes, stirring the whole time, to make a roux.
-Gradually whisk milk into the roux, several cups, and then cook until it thickens.
-Add the sausage meat back in, along with a lot of fresh black pepper.
-Serve this mixture over sliced-in-half biscuits.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:26 AM on December 30, 2013

Take 2 or 3 skinless chicken breasts, put anything on them that you want (salt and pepper, teriyaki, ginger) cook in the oven until they are juicy.
make a chop salad (you can cater the salad to each individual this way) to this you can add avocado, bacon, snap peas..... anything really
slice the cooked chicken thinly and serve over the salad with any old dressing you prefer

super easy (less than 20 mins and everyone can help)and fairly healthy and using a variety of tasty seasonal (or not) veggies keeps in interesting
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:28 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

This takes about 40 mins, but you can make double or triple batches and have soup for days!

Sautee an onion in a little oil.
Toss in 1 peeled & chopped sweet potato and 5 peeled & chopped carrots
Pour in enough water to cover the veggies
Toss in a couple teaspoons of curry powder and ginger powder
Simmer till veggies are soft
Blend soup in blender or with immersion "stick" blender.

For more nutrition, throw in a can of white beans before blending-- adds a protein punch!

The smaller you chop the veggies, the faster the whole thing cooks.
posted by enzymatic at 9:32 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

We made this chickpea and tomato soup last night for the first time, and it was delicious, ridiculously easy, and took about half and hour. It's vegan (if you leave off the sour cream dollop), but it would be simple to add some cooked chicken or sausage to it.
posted by rtha at 9:32 AM on December 30, 2013 [7 favorites]

Purenitrous is 100% right about mastering roasted veggies. Nothing is more flavorful or more flexible. Any kind of veggie can be roasted. I love bell peppers, cauliflower, onions, beets, potatoes, and carrots. You might love asparagus, turnips, broccoli, cabbage wedges, green beans, eggplants, tomatoes, kale... This list is unending. You can even roast citrus fruits, they're amazing that way. Just cut everything so it's about the same thickness so it will cook evenly. Literally all you do is apply some kind of fat and salt and relatively high heat. The trick is to cover your pan in foil so you don't have to worry about cleanup, and be patient!

Once you have roasted vegetables, you can:

-Puree or chunky roasted veggie soup (add beans, pasta, meat, sauteed greens, whatever, and broth)
-Dice and toss in pasta or rice (squeeze of lemon, green herb, cheese if you like)
-Top a bagel with cream cheese or hummus (add greens and/or coldcuts)
-Make a quick ratatouille to plate with a protein
-Top store-bought pizza dough, or do what we did and make english muffin "pizzas"
-Eat cold out of the fridge for snacks
-Mix into scrambled eggs
-Toss into mixed salads with fresh veggies and more delicate lettuces

The list goes on. You can roast a big batch over the weekend (buy what's on sale; if you're looking for seasonal local produce there are often better prices on large amounts of veggies) and keep a few containers in the fridge and freezer. If you're doing soup or sauce, freezing is just fine.
posted by Mizu at 9:33 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Recipes are stressful. You need to follow directions, you need to have every one of the ingredients on hand, and they usually require more salt and fat than you'd prefer (because cookbook authors, like restaurant chefs, feel pressured to satisfy, and the easiest/laziest route to satisfaction is to load food with fat and salt).

I'd suggest a radical departure. Think of cooking as a mix-and-match process (ala Grranimals). What proteins do you like? Have them on hand in raw form. What carbs do you like? Again, have them available. And a big bottle of extra virgin olive oil, some canola oil, and some butter. Have on hand a bunch of spices and condiments you like. And find interesting ways to combine them.

If the thought terrifies you, then move on to the next posting; this isn't for you.But if you're at all creative, you can create ad hoc stuff that tastes better than recipes - and certainly is a lot more to your taste (because you control every aspect, and only use stuff you like). Read cookbooks to learn about new techniques, so you don't fall into narrow ruts (which wil bore your family). Pick up tips and ideas. But don't follow the recipes. Apply them to your own cooking.

If this sounds viable, but you're concerned about launching into it suddenly and whole-hog, then do this: every third meal, experiment. Take a recipe you've already internalized and expand it - adding new stuff, different stuff, or preparing it a new way. On the second of the three meal cycle, cook an old favorite, with just one single interesting wrinkle. Get used to creating variations on themes (don't do it willy nilly; try to visualize how the end result will turn out; aim for a result, don't just make it an abstract intellectual exercise). And, for the third, freelance it completely.

Involving the kids in some of the steps could help. If they want to add potato chips to the turkey burger recipes, find a way to make it work!
posted by Quisp Lover at 9:35 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Egg Frittata

In an oven safe pan, saute chopped onion in a few Tablespoons butter or oil for 3 minutes, salt
Add whatever other veggies (cooked or uncooked) and saute until as soft as you prefer, salt
Add leftover meat or pepperoni or lunch meat if desired
Scramble eggs (salt) and pour over cooked meat and veggie, cook for 2 minutes until dry on bottom
Turn on broiler, put pan under broiler, set timer for 3 minutes or less
Put bread in toaster
Add cheese to top of eggs if desired and set broil for 2 minutes or less
Serve pizza shaped slices of the egg frittata with toast. Serve with sliced tomatoes or slices of avocado or bagged salad.
Many variations are possible with different veggies, meats, cheeses, Mexican, Italian sausage, leftovers, even leftover pasta. I could eat this many times a week.
posted by RoadScholar at 9:36 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, so many responses already! Thanks.

We don't have a slow cooker - but perhaps it's worth buying one. Are there different sizes or is it standard? Any recommendations for a specific brand?

For future responses, I forgot to mention that we don't like beans... so please don't suggest anything with those. I know they are cheap and nutritious, but unfortunately both my husband and I don't like them.
posted by barnoley at 9:39 AM on December 30, 2013

I highly recommend a meal planning service. I had the same problem as you. I make most of the meals for my two person houosehold but hated the planning aspect of it. I'd want chicken on Monday, but what to have with it? And then what should I have the following day? Ugh! To much mental energy to plan a full week of meals.

I tried a bunch of different services out, but finally settled on Mealime. I love Mealime! It's targeted toward busy single professionals. So every receipe is two servings, with the idea being that you have dinner and lunch the next day. I just end up doubling everything so I have two dinners and two lunches. It works out well and we tend to have a half portion left over since we don't eat that much. I think it would work out well for two adults and a small child.

The receipes are quick, healthy, and delicious. Everything takes about 30-45 minutes to make with pretty simple cooking techniques. They also provide a shopping list so you get everything you need in one trip to the store and cooking tips in their weekly plan. It's really helped my cooking skills and expanded my go to receipes significantly. They provide a free trial, check it out!
posted by Arbac at 9:49 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have friends who love emeals.

It does two things. It gives you a planner for meals based on how you live and what you like. THEN it does this genius thing where it meshes this with your local grocery stores so that you can take advantage of weekly specials!

Total money and time saver. You can coupon with it too, but only if that appeals to you.

You get variety and cost efficiency. Look it over and see if it would suit you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:56 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I created a weekly planner in Word that I stole off something at a store but was unwilling to spend $15 on. It basically creates a shopping list next to your weekly meal planner so that you can plan your meals in advance AND it also has a to-do list for every day. Each page has 2 weeks on it so you can see what you made the week before and not repeat the same meals too much. So at a go, you get to see this:

What meals you need to prepare for the week
What ingredients you need to buy for the week
What things you need to do for the week

MeMail me if you are interested and I'll send you it. Holy jeepers has my life been made simpler with it.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:59 AM on December 30, 2013

I like The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper. It will give you some tips on stocking your pantry, and all the recipes are doable for when when you get home, need dinner in under 30 minutes, and absolutely nothing is pre-planned or pre-prepped. Plus they're tasty.
posted by Hypatia at 10:09 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are there different sizes or is it standard? Any recommendations for a specific brand?

I have a Crock Pot. There are different sizes, and you want to get the one that's big enough for however many you're feeding and that fits in your kitchen.
posted by empath at 10:09 AM on December 30, 2013

Oh, and when you get back from grocery shopping on the weekend -- chop some onions, carrots, celery and peppers and throw them in tupperware in the fridge. Then you don't have to do all the extra prep time and cleaning involved in chopping them during the week.
posted by empath at 10:10 AM on December 30, 2013

It sounds like Dinner Tonight might be just the thing for you. Every day they email you a recipe. Most have few ingredients and are simple to prepare; all can be made in 20 minutes or less. Each recipe has nutritional information available, and the reviews from other people can often be very helpful in improving (or waving you off) a particular recipe.
posted by DrGail at 10:19 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

this frittata-cake recipe is , quick, really easy although the ingredient list is fairly long (basically, mix it all then fry it), pretty healthy, and very flexible: all sorts of herbs, spices and vegetables (and cheeses) can be added to the basic batter.
posted by AFII at 10:23 AM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: (Honestly, it sounds like the occasional cheese-plate and vegetables night would be helpful - you just have some slices or chunks of decent cheese (not super expensive but should stand on its own, Tillamook or whatever and maybe a soft cheese) and some crackers and some baby carrots and other cut-up vegetables or else a big salad-from-a-bag and then you have some sliced fruit for dessert or accompaniment, depending on how you feel about fruit.

You could easily have:
Baby carrots
Grape tomatoes
Sharp cheddar
Some crackers
Sliced apples

You'd be surprised how filling this can be, particularly if you take the trouble to slice it all up and put it on a plate. If you are meat-centric, you can add some summer sausage or similar.
posted by Frowner at 10:30 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Are there different sizes or is it standard? Any recommendations for a specific brand?

I have a simple late 90s-era (I think) Rival brand 5-quart that I bought at a thrift store. That's also what I used when I lived at home growing up, and I would recommend them. If you want leftovers I'd recommend 5 or 6 quart.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:35 AM on December 30, 2013

I know her personality is grating, but I love Rachel Ray's cookbooks. Most of her 30 minute meals really do take just 30 minutes (read the directions and ingredient list first, though, some of her recipes call for lots of chopped veggies in the ingredients list and they don't really factor the chopping time into the recipe prep time). Her 365 book and burgers book are on heavy rotation in our house. Her portion sizes can be out of control, so it's also a good way to generate leftovers for future dinners or lunches. I can usually get 6 or 8 servings out of a 4 serving recipe. My extremely picky 3 year old has been willing to eat burgers with actual spices and flavors when I cook from her recipes.

Another fast barely-any-effort dinner: get a rotisserie chicken, a loaf of good crusty bread, and a bagged caesar salad kit from the grocery store. Salad + chicken = chicken caesar salad. If your kiddo won't eat the salad you can give her some chicken and bread, throw a few baby carrots on the side, and it's a pretty complete meal anyway.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 10:37 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Are there different sizes or is it standard? Any recommendations for a specific brand?

I always recommend this type, because you can use the pot to do any initial browning or frying, or get it all simmering on the stove, and then put it on the warming element thinger to do the crockpot thing. Plus then once it's cooled you can put the whole pot in the fridge, too. I love mine.
posted by lemniskate at 10:38 AM on December 30, 2013

Are there different sizes or is it standard? Any recommendations for a specific brand?

It's a pretty dead-simple and rock-solid appliance. We just retired the Crock Pot brand one we purchased for ~$20 in 2007, but only because it was getting a bit dinged and scratched and we received a new one as a gift. The old one is still perfectly serviceable, and we will keep it in storage for use at parties or some occasion where we could use more than one.

As far as size goes, for two adults and a child you probably want a small one -- 3 or 4 quarts will probably be enough, but one of the joys of the slow cooker is that just about anything you make in them can be reheated fairly successfully. We (two adults and one teenager) have a 5 quart model, and we usually end up having twice as much food as we need, but the extras make for great lunches to take to work or dinner tomorrow if you don't mind doubling up.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:38 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

Let's address your daughter and the vegetable bit first - by doing simple vegetable soups. You can take just about any vegetable in the world and turn it into soup thusly:

1. Dump a chopped-up quantity of the vegetable into a pot.
2. Add water.
3. Bring to a boil.
4. Simmer until the vegetable in question is soft.
5. Puree with a stick blender.
6. Add a bit of salt to taste.


Sure, you can gild the lily by adding a little chopped onion or garlic or herbs if you want, but if the vegetable is in decent shape, you don't need it. Just the vegetable, salt, and water. The best butternut squash soup recipe I know is just the squash chopped up, a couple cloves of garlic, and water, cooked until soft and pureed. I've tried the fancy-ass recipe where you roast the squash first and add other ingredients, and I liked the simple approach way better.

Or you could do the minestrone approach -

1. Assemble a random grouping of vegetables.
2. Chop them up.
3. Bring a few cups of vegetable broth to a boil.
4. Dump in the chopped vegetables and turn down to a simmer.
5. After about 15 minutes, throw in a handful of small pasta.
6. When the vegetables and pasta are soft, you're done.

Traditionally minestrone also has beans, but you don't like beans, so just leave them out. There is no Italian Nonna Zuppa Police that will come break your door down. You will also note that I don't specify quantities of vegetables, or the specific types of vegetables - that's because it honestly doesn't matter. As long as you have enough in the pot to feed everyone, and it tastes decent, you're good.


The reason I suggest soups is not only because they're easy and flexible - it's also because for some reason, kids who are fussy eaters sometimes can be tricked by soup. It's kind of like soup is an entirely separate category of food in their brain, and they may not like carrots if they're put on a plate - but those same kids can look right at carrots in a soup and not cause a fuss.

And soup plus something can make for a fine meal. I'd pair the minestrone-esque soup with something like bread, and a salad for the grownups to round that out; and as for the pureed soup, you can go nuts. (Cream of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches is a classic combo, and was often used for dinner in my house as a child. It's akin to comfort food for me.)

A final recipe to pair with a pureed vegetable soup - pasta carbonara. This is butt-simple. For two people:

1. Get about four strips of bacon and chop them up. Then dump them into a frying pan and start frying those up.
2. Start cooking up half a box of pasta.
3. Crack two eggs into a bowl and add half a cup of grated parmaesan (don't go for the stuff in the green can, go for the better stuff in the refrigerated section of the supermarket). Mix that up good.
4. Ideally, the pasta and the bacon should all be done at the same time. If the bacon finishes first, just turn off the burner under it and leave it. If the pasta finishes first, drain it, and then dump it into the bowl with the parmaesan and egg. Mix that all up good.
5. Then dump everything in the frying pan into the bowl, bacon grease and all. (If you had to turn it off and let it sit, turn it on again for a couple seconds first to let it heat back up.) Mix the bacon bits and bacon fat and all all through the pasta and egg and cheese. The hot bacon fat is what cooks the egg and melts the cheese.
6. Add a little ground black pepper and mix it up again. Done.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:50 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I love the America's Test Kitchen "Quick Family Cookbook." Tons of fast, simple recipes. Printed in a three ring binder so it lies flat in the kitchen. Best of all? On sale at the ATC website for $10, and I've seen it at B&N for $7.
posted by Marky at 10:59 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

We eat a lot of ground beef for fast meals:

-- Chilli, made with this kit (there's nothing funky in it).

-- Simple Bolognese sauce (stir-fry mince/ground beef, onions, garlic; add two cartons of passata; add a handful of mixed herbs; throw in some red wine if you have it; simmer for 20 minutes.) As a bonus, it freezes so it's way easy to take out tomorrow's dinner the night before.

-- Shepard's Pie: stir-fry mince/ground beef, onions, garlic; add a handful of mixed herbs; throw in some Worcester sauce if you have it; add a small can of corn and a handful of frozen peas. Boil potatoes, make mash with butter and cream or milk. Top the mince mix with the mash; put in the oven for 30 minutes. As a bonus, this is really easy to make any time on Sunday and stick in the oven on Monday night for dinner.

-- Tuna Casserole. Leave out the pimentos, add peas.

-- Chicken Picatta: Chicken breasts, beaten flat with a wine bottle. In a pan, melt a large knob of butter and a 1/4 cup of lemon juice. Dump the chicken breasts in and put a lid on it. Flip after 3 minutes. (There is a fancier recipe if you need more help, but this is way cheaper.)
posted by DarlingBri at 10:59 AM on December 30, 2013

Best answer: nthing the slow cooker. here is a great website filterable by main ingredient. i especially love slow cookers because it's such a great way to intro new cultures. want to try italian? make homemade red sauce like a little old italian lady, how about REAL mexican food (carnitas anyone? mmm carnitas), or how about homemade indian foods? seriously the thing is all we need. we could ditch our whole kitchen but for the slow cooker.

as for brands etc, nah. just buy one where the lid seems to fit pretty good and it has 2 settings (low and hi) here's what you do NOT need in a slow cooker:

1. digital anything
2. discrete temperature settings. you need off, low, high.
3. timers (there is nothing overcooked in a slow cooker, just over-awesomed!)
4. multiple sizes
5. until you are a zen master you don't need a gigantor one (we have one NOW after using up 2 regular sized ones because we buy whole parts of the animal now!)
6. size: 5qt or 5qt is plenty for your family size. you will get a main meal and lunches for the next day.

mmm. i'm hungry now.
posted by chasles at 11:02 AM on December 30, 2013

Breakfast for dinner is always a good idea in my book. You can sneak veggies into omelets or vegetables hash. Pancakes or waffles with fruit also works.

Tacos! Endless possibilities here. You can just cook whatever protein you like in a pan (I'm a vegetarian, so I boil lentils and mash them up), add some seasoning (either your own blend, or a pre-made spice packet), have some tortillas, shredded cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and whatever other taco fixings you like. It's easy, everyone likes tacos, and the leftovers make good taco salads, or even thrown into a macaroni and cheese to make...taco mac and cheese!
posted by inertia at 11:13 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Last week I threw this together very quickly. SO easy and quick that at the end I was all "why don't I do this all the time!" And once you do it once or twice, you can switch out the vegs, or the meat, or add other spices (curry!).

4 boneless pork chops. Salt and pepper liberally.

2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 apples, peeled and cut into 8 slices
1/2 red onion, cut into chunks
Toss vegs in olive oil (2T), salt and pepper liberally

Put a roasting dish in the over and turn to 450. When the dish is hot, add the potatoes, apples, and onions. Roast for 15 minutes or until potatoes are soft.

Warm 2T of oil in skillet. Cook chops 5 minutes on each side. Remove chops, add a cup of apple cider (or juice, or apple sauce) and 2T of dijon mustard. Whisk, removing brown bits from skillet. Simmer to thicken slightly. Serve over vegs and pork.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:36 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Slow cookers are really cheap these days, or you may be able to get a hand-me-down from a friend. It's nice having one that has a timer function but that's about all you need in terms of features. A Year of Slow Cooking has great recipes.

I get some great recipes from Skinny Taste. It was originally designed for Weight Watchers members but the recipes are very family-friendly and most are not difficult. I think she explains them well and has good pictures. The comments are useful and you will see the different substitutions people made and the questions they had.
posted by radioamy at 11:40 AM on December 30, 2013

I use a slow cooker with some stock and chicken breasts and then get a boatload of shredded chicken with very little effort. That can be mixed into stir fry, pastas, salads, smothered in bbq sauce, or added to soups. I also generally use it to make these enchiladas (it can survive without the beans. Also, faster to make it as a casserole: put the tortillas on the bottom and edge, filling in the middle, tortillas on top, cheese and more sauce on top. Still delicious).

Also in regular rotation is this oven-fried chicken parm and meatloaf and/or meatloaf muffins (recipe: ground turkey + quinoa + broccoli and carrots and onion minced in a food processor + tomato paste + garlic and whatever other seasonings you like. Mash all that up using your hands in a bowl until it's stiff enough to hold a shap but moist throughout. Put in oven at like 350 for a while. Take it out periodically to bust a muffin open and ensure it's cooked through. We also roast a ton of veggies and some might be more than 30 min but you only pay attention to it every 30 min to mix up the veggies on the pan.

Definitely get a crock pot and a crock pot cookbook.
posted by adorap0621 at 11:51 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't always manage it, but my guiding philosophy is this:

Never cook an entire meal at one time
Never cook only a single meal at a time

So when I cook chicken, I load up my largest glass baking dish with a family pack of breasts so I have enough for 3 separate meals, freezing some if necessary. When I make pasta sauce or chili or cook up a batch of taco meat, it's 3-4 meals worth and 1-2 of those go in the freezer. When I crock BBQ pork (pork shoulder/loin/butt/whatever roast, quartered onion, bottle of BBQ sauce), I make several pounds of it. (I buy 4-packs of loin roasts at Costco for about $20 and cook 2 at a time, freezing the other 2 for later.)

So I'm only cooking meat 2-3 times a week (sometimes all of it on the weekend if I'm really organized) and I'm only cooking veg (and starch, if applicable) and reheating meat from the fridge or freezer most nights. Tonight, for example, we'll have BBQ pork I made this weekend plus I'll microwave a sweet potato to split and roast two pans of broccoli - which I'll do while that family pack of chicken marinates for half an hour, then I'll put it in the oven when the broccoli comes out to cook while we eat. After dinner I'll take it out and let it cool, then pack it away after we clean dishes. Tomorrow we'll have chicken and the rest of the broccoli, either with some jar alfredo or just all heated up with cheese on it or something. We don't eat rice or pasta, but the principle is the same: make at least 2 days' worth if you're going to bother making any.

A 5-6qt crock pot can certainly make this easier. But don't worry so much about making Recipe With A Name - not all meals need to be lasagna or an enchilada platter. Eat a protein and a green, a starch or legume, have a salad if it doesn't feel like enough.

We both work from home, so I'm doing this for 2 people 3 times a day. Lunch is often a graze plate of odds and ends, breakfast is usually a fritatta-style casserole that will get us through 4 days and then I'll just scramble some eggs or we graze on Fridays. I'm still really only doing hardcore work in the kitchen 2 days a week, maybe 3 if I'm not fantastically organized.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:37 PM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]

I like to roast several chicken breasts at a time. I steam some veg (usually broccoli) and serve with Major Grey Chutney.

Leftover chicken is either diced for salads, or used for Dragon Noodles
(I use chicken to augment the protein and use udon noodles for lo mein).

That might be a bit spicy for a youngling but boy is it tasty for the grownups.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 2:43 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]

One Pot Kale and Quinoa Pilaf has never steered me wrong, and this Yam, Zucchini and Chickpea Salad makes great leftovers for lunch if chickpeas don't qualify as beans for you.

Also, Easy Asian Beef and Noodles from Cooking Light is just that: easy, and very tasty - a stirfry without mushrooms (we shred our own cabbage and carrots rather than buying coleslaw, and we get the cheap thin-cut steak the original recipe asked for).

This Crockpot Chicken with Artichokes is one of the first things I learned to make in the crockpot and I still love it because it's not the traditional "dump a can of this and a can of that" - lots of flavor, and you can leave out the mushrooms and not even miss them.

One thing that's helped us feel like dinner is less of a burden: plan and shop in advance. Even if you only do that for four meals, and have leftovers for the fifth, already knowing you have ingredients waiting and ready helps a lot.
posted by deliriouscool at 4:40 PM on December 30, 2013

Stupid simple recipe #1:

Chicken tenders dredged in ranch dressing, then in a mixture of panko and parmesan. Fry up.

Stupid simple recipe #2:
Pot roast. Shake a 1 packet each of ranch dressing and au jus over meat. A couple of pats of butter. A few pepperoncinis if you have them, if not, no biggie. Slow cooker on low for 7-8 hours.

Both recipes came from One Good Thing By Jillee. She also has a chili recipe that is very simple and I've multiplied x 5 for homeless feeds.
posted by HeyAllie at 5:13 PM on December 30, 2013

I love making the following when too tired to care!

Protein can be a seared steak, pork chop, lamb chops, chicken wings, really anything. My go-to is usually to coat in seasoning (salt & pepper, or a dry rub, or herb mix) or a marinade overnight in fridge (honey + soy, lemon juice + herbs) then oven bake. Whilst that's baking in a dish, I mix up the couscous (5 minutes in a bowl with hot water) and assemble the salad. Because I don't care for salad, I mix it up with the hot couscous and it wilts and tastes not so cold and unfriendly and makes the entire thing look gourmet-ish. Then I remove the meat from the oven and lay it on top.

Making rice in a cheap ricecooker is super easy and takes 3 min of prep. Whilst the rice is cooking, I dice up any combo of vegetables + protein, then fry them in order of hardest-->softest. For a sauce, I'll use a mix of sesame oil, soy sauce, a bit of lemon juice, and some water. I don't like my stir fry sauces thick and gluggy, so this works. My husband does, so sometimes I use bottled oyster sauce or stir fry sauces.

Then, because you made extra rice the day before in the above recipe, you probably have a nice bowl of rice sitting under clingwrap in the fridge! Look up any recipe for fried rice - but I just heat the wok, get some hot oil in there, add sesame oil and scramble up some eggs... then I add protein (ham, sausage, chicken, beef, pork, mince meat, anything really) and vegetables, finely diced... add some seasoning (salt, soy sauce, etc) until it smells like I want to marry it. Then dump the rice in, and keep stirring until it's hot all the way through and season it the way you like it.

I nearly fainted from elevated joy when I first read here on Metafilter that you could cook burgers from FROZEN, direct. So i buy good quality burgers from the local butcher and keep them in the freezer. Then I pull them out, fry them up in a pan. Whilst that excitement is going on I lay out condiments and salad, sliced tomatoes, and buns. 15 minutes, and we have a dinner even children love.

Did you know evaporated milk in a tin can be used as a substitute for cream? It tastes no different! I start off a pot of pasta in boiling water. Whilst that's happening, I start another pan with some kind of protein & vegetable frying up (I like bacon and mushroom, sometimes chicken, sometimes tuna + corn & peas). Then season to taste and add your fresh cream or evaporated milk. Let simmer until thickened to your liking. PRO TIP - when you take your wooden spatula out of the cream sauce, draw a finger in the sauce on the spatula whilst holding it vertical. if the sauce doesn't run into the finger mark readily, the sauce is at perfect thickness. Your pasta's probably finished cooking now. Chuck a cup or 2 of grated cheese (any kind, and this keeps perfectly in the freezer and goes direct into pot) in the sauce. Then pour the drained pasta into it and coat it all until it's all silky. Turn off the fire. Serve with more grated cheese.

Any protein can be made into a tomato sauce by adding tinned tomatoes and tomato paste. It really takes only a bit more time than jarred sauce, and you can make it in the time it takes to make your pasta cook.

I make a huge batch of this because it freezes so well in individual serves to pull out on really lazy nights. I put 1kg of mince meat (beef and pork mixed is good but whatever you want) in a casserole, drizzle a generous amount of olive oil and salt and pepper over it. Cover with 4-5 400ml tins of diced tomatoes, about 5-6 generous tablespoons of tomato paste, and sometimes a glug of red wine never hurt. I also hide lots of chopped vegetables in there (grated carrots, pumpkin, zucchini). Cover the casserole dish with the lid, and pop in a really slow oven (125 degrees celsius) for 4-5 hours, checking and stirring every hour (just set the timer). This will make about 16 servings, so eat the ones you need then freeze the rest in little containers.

Salmon or chicken, laid over a bed of vegetables, with whatever seasoning you want over it (lemon juice, soy sauce, honey+soy, bottled sauce, whatever) and wrapped in a foil package (per serving). Shove in oven. 20 minutes later, you have moist, tender, flavourful meal in a pack.

I agree with the poster above who said blended vegetable soup is a wonderful, cheap, and fast meal, and that a slow cooker is a great investment. I would say I use my rice cooker more though, and a slow oven + heavy casserole dish can be a great substitute for slow cooker in the interim. Roast vegetables are also fabulous and can often go underneath a great hunk of melting meat. :)
posted by shazzam! at 6:20 PM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

Refrigerated pizza dough. You can, of course make an easy cheese pizza with it, and make savory, or sweet hand pies (calzones) with whatever you have in the fridge. Great way to use up leftovers, including mashed potatoes.

You can stretch, and make a bunch of meals with a rotisserie chicken; tacos, burros (freeze them), soup, along with some canned/boxed broth, and frozen veg medley.

Lasagna can be labor intensive, but portioned (after an overnight stay in the fridge), then frozen, it can give you several meals.
Meatballs are another item to make in batches, then freeze. Pasta, sandwiches, and make some on the smaller-side for soup.

I make a cheat chicken pot pie'
Preheat oven to 350
In a bowl, combine:
3 cooked, and cubed chicken breasts
1 - 16oz bag frozen veg medley (I use a Southwestern mix, and add broccoli as well)
1 can cream of chicken, or celery soup
1/2 can milk
1/2 tsp dried thyme. Salt and pepper to your liking

Mix, then dump into a greased 13 x 9 casserole.
Cover with shredded cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack...)
Cover with foil that's been sprayed with cooking spray on the cheese side.
Cook for 40 minutes.

While the casserole is cooking quarter a can of refrigerator biscuits.
After the 40 minutes, remove foil, then dot the top with the biscuit pieces.
Bake another 15 minutes, or until puffed and brown.

A quick pasta sauce:
Marcella Hazan’s Tomato sauce with butter and onion
1 28 oz can San Marzano Tomatoes (whole)
1 med onion peeled and halved
5 TB butter
Recipe doesn't call for it, but garlic doesn't hurt...

Simmer 45 minutes
Awesome. Easy.


Pig Pickin' Cake II (The Total Cheat Version)
• Hands-On Time:1 Hour
• Total Time: 1 Hour 30 Minutes
• Servings: 8 Servings (or 1 serving, for the total dessert whore)
1. 1 box Duncan Hines Yellow Cake Mix
2. One 11 oz. can mandarin oranges
3. 4 eggs
4. 1/2 cup oil
5. 1 3.4 oz. package vanilla instant pudding
6. 1 15 oz. can crushed pineapple with juice
7. 1 12 oz. tub Cool Whip

Baking Instructions
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
2. Mix cake mix, oranges, eggs, and oil.
3. Divide cake mix into 2 greased, and floured – 9” cake pans*
4. Bake for 30 minutes at 325 degrees F.
5. Cool cake completely before icing.
6. Combine pudding mix, pineapple with juice, and Cool Whip.
7. Spread on cake liberally.
8. Store cake in refrigerator.
*This cake is traditionally made as a three layer cake.
So, to make this thing a total cheat, bake it in a 9 x 13” glass baking dish; again, greased and floured, or use cooking spray (cut baking time by 5 minutes). Don’t forget to turn it 180˚
mid-way, through baking. Serve right out of the pan.
Wanna cheat more? Don’t even serve it. Put it on the table, give everyone a fork, and have at it. Thus, the recipe’s name.
posted by JABof72 at 9:05 PM on December 30, 2013

Mark Bittman has two good quick recipe books:

Kitchen Express, which has over 400 recipes which require less than 20 minutes of prep.

He also wrote Quick and Easy recipes from the New York Times, a little less focussed on time constraints though.

Get the paper editions rather than the ebooks. Most libraries carry them too.
posted by storybored at 10:15 PM on December 30, 2013

I love cooking and normally cook everything from scratch, but when my kids were small and money were few, we lived from very few dishes that we’d interchange over the week. We’d help each other out cooking, including giving the children – even 2yo, a task each. There was no room at the counter, so children and others sat at the table.
The dishes were:
- different types of pasta, with a meat sugo (fried minced meat + vegetable sauce from a can), a vegetable sugo (often store-bought), carbonara, and lasagne. You do those already, good!
- different curries. Cook some rice. In a wok (a wok is a wonderful thing for tired parents), heat some oil, add a curry paste you like. Add chicken or pig, or no meat. When the meat is coloured on all sides, add chopped vegetables (my supermarket has three different styles of frozen wok-veggies, otherwise, spring onions, carrots and fennel are a good bid). Add a tin of coconut milk. Bring to a simmer, add frozen peas, or something similar. Bring to a simmer, add lemon, soy sauce to taste, serve.
- Different types of toasts: with cheese and ham, obviously, with tomato and basil, with some meat sauce that was left over from a pasta.
- Home made hamburgers (well not so home made – I bought the buns and otherwise the idea was that I set out all the ingredients on the table, fried the burgers, heated the buns, and everyone put together their own sandwich. Great success from 3 year old kids and on. With frozen fries heated in the oven on the side.
- We also had lentils, but maybe you won’t like those: heat some oil in a pan, add one chopped onion, one chopped carrot and one chopped celery stalk. When they are all soft, add two cups of Puy lentils, then a litre of stock (made from an organic stock cube), bring to the boil, add thyme and pepper, and then let simmer for 30 minutes. Salt to taste. Serve with a lot of chopped parsley, a dollop of yogurt and some good bread.
- Chicken drumsticks, quickly turned round in a mix of sweet chilli sauce, lemon juice and soy sauce, then roasted in the oven or in a pan till golden, with a few black spots. Normally I’d serve them with a salad and or rice, but sometimes I didn’t bother.
- Home-made pizza. Probably the greatest success of all. You can buy the dough, but it is really easy to make. Heat the oven as high as possible. Meanwhile, heat some oil in a pot, add a little garlic and chilli, then a can of crushed tomatoes. Let simmer for ten minutes. Put the dough on your kitchen counter, or on the table. Let everyone create pizzas of any size and shape, using your salsa, pre-shredded cheese, and any ingredients you like: ham, sausage, potato, artichoke, shrimp, whatever. Bake the pizzas, eat right off the board you cut them on. I had kiddie-fans for years, who came over for play-dates just to make and eat pizza, starting at 2 years old.
- Roast chicken: buy a chicken and an organic lemon. Rub the chicken inside and out with a mix of salt, pepper and tarragon (or thyme, if you don’t like tarragon). Put the whole, washed lemon into the chicken and close the opening with a pin or something. Cook at medium heat till the chicken is golden and the juices are clear.
Take the pan juices into a pot, add cream and a little soy sauce, bring to the boil, and boil while stirring till the sauce has a nice thickness. Serve with a simple salad and boiled potatoes. A simple salad could be: a head of lettuce, a cupful of thawed green peas, a dressing of half a cup of cream, a tablespoon of lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste, shake or stir well.
- For weekends, we often had couscous. In a large pot, heat some olive oil. Add pieces of meat – chicken, lamb, veal, duck, whatever. Since it is a north African dish, we never used pork, but I’m sure you can. It is a good thing to mix meats, but not necessary, and its good as a vegan dish too. Then add roughly chopped vegetables: a carrot, and onion, a leek, a celery stalk or maybe two. Stir while the meat and vegetables absorb the oil and brown on the edges. Add a tin of crushed tomatoes and use the tin to add an equivalent amount of water. Add pepper, thyme, a bay leaf and maybe oregano. Let simmer/boil for 90-120 minutes. This is easier than it looks – everything only needs to be roughly chopped and then mixed before cooking.
Shortly before serving, cook a large amount of instant couscous (follow instruction on the package).
Serve with a hot sauce made by mixing a small amount of the juice from the main dish with a tablespoon of harissa , if you can buy it where you live, otherwise a bottle of Tabasco or another chilli on the table is good.
It looks nice if you sprinkle with a lot of chopped parsley.

All of these dishes work well for lunch boxes. My elder daughter just had them cold, but for the younger one, I finally figured out to use a thermos, so she could get a hot lunch.
posted by mumimor at 2:46 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, tons of great recipes suggested already.

I just wanted to poke around the edges of your question and say that perhaps weeknight cooking would feel less burdensome if you and your husband shared duties a bit more evenly. Maybe he does the shopping and some prep on the weekend if you're going to cook every night? Maybe he has a meal that he does once a week, even if its very basic.

Also, you had a few words in there that might suggest you think cooking is something for "fancy" people or "fancy" occasions. I think food TV shows, food blogs, "foodie" culture, and also big food business has totally warped what is a basic necessity. Some people (myself included) enjoy cooking. Some people have the luxury to treat it as a hobby, seeking out new ingredients or equipment. It sounds like you guys aren't in that boat, and so cooking seems out of your league in both skills and money, so you're left with boxed meals. This really isn't true. It's a part of our warped cultural attitude towards cooking. Mix in a few thousand years of gender-obligated cooking and you'll really feel like a failure.

Cooking doesn't have to be recipes, or even dishes with names. Theres really no reason that a dinner has to be more complicated than veg + starch + protein. There's also no need to feel guilty in reaching for those jars, cans, boxes, frozen foods a couple of nights a week. Not all cooking needs to be foodie/hobbyist level cooking. There isn't some level of knowledge that is out of your reach, some secret trick, some way you'll magically start enjoying cooking.
posted by fontophilic at 6:54 AM on December 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

As I often do in threads like this, rather than recommend a slow cooker (which is also a good idea!), I recommend a pressure cooker, and any of Lorna Sass's pressure cooking cookbooks. Simple to prepare, tasty, and fast. Yes, an investment (of about $80-$100) to start, but I think it's worth it!
posted by freezer cake at 11:03 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all SO much for all these suggestions. There are so many good answers here. I will be going shopping for a slow cooker this weekend, and look forward to starting to use it!
posted by barnoley at 11:23 AM on January 2, 2014

Response by poster: Wow, the slow cooker I bought has literally changed my life. I can't believe that I lived for so many years without one! I have only made two things in it so far, but it has already made such a difference. Since each meal is so large, it lasts us for 3 days, which is amazing since I love leftovers (yeah, I know, I'm weird). And I spend less time prepping each meal and doing dishes. Yesterday we came home to pot roast! I LOVE that I can relax after coming home instead of running around trying to come up with something to cook.

For anyone on the fence about a slow cooker....seriously, just buy one already. It is LIFE CHANGING.
posted by barnoley at 12:23 PM on January 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

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