It’s 4 p.m. Do you know what you’re making for dinner? The daily struggle is real and the busier we get as schedules go back to the way they used to be, the tougher it is to figure out what to prep and make for dinner. Author and mom Claire Tansey’s new book, Dinner Uncomplicated, aims to simplify weeknight dinners with ideas that take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. All the meals in the book are categorized by the time they take to prepare. Tansey is a big fan of make-ahead dinners and Sunday meal prep. We asked her to share her best tips to speed up dinner along with her go-to weeknight recipes.
New Jersey Family: Quarantine has gotten us so tired of cooking at home so a quick and easy dinner is a big win. Your book features 15-minute dinner ideas. What are a couple of your favorite quick go-to ideas?
Claire Tansey: One of my favorite recipes in the book is the Sesame Ramen Salad with Chicken and Celery. It uses ramen noodles which take almost no time to cook, plus rotisserie chicken, one of my favorite shortcuts. But it’s the creamy, rich tahini sauce that takes those two ordinary ingredients into the stratosphere of delicious (and all in less than 15 minutes!).
NJF: What about make-ahead meals. Which is your go-to make-ahead idea?
CT: I can’t say enough good things about frozen homemade meatballs. Ground meat freezes so well, and meatballs can be cooked from frozen so no worries if I have forgotten to thaw! My two current go-tos are the Glazed Ginger Chicken Meatballs and the Spiced Beef Koftas with Tzatziki. I always make a double batch and freeze half.
NJF: Now that fall is here, we’re thinking about meals from our crockpots. Do you use yours for a staple dinner?
CT: So many of our family meals come out of the crockpot, from ribs to chili to barley risotto! A new winner is Slow Cooker Chicken Taco Chili, which was originally an accident (I added too much liquid when making pulled chicken for sandwiches) and is now part of our regular rotation.
NJF: Your book also features 45-minute dinner ideas. Can you share a favorite with us?
CT: On nights when I can find a bit of time to cook I really focus on enjoying the process, and using the time to decompress from my workday. The Caramelized Onion Pasta with Sausage is kind of perfect for that: the onions and sausage need to be stirred every now and then, but I can listen to a podcast or unload the dishwasher and laugh at endless knock-knock jokes from my 8-year-old all at the same time.
NJF: What are some basics we should always have in our pantry and fridge to be able to put together a meal on the fly?
CT: I’m never without a box of pasta and a chunk of parmesan; with that and a lump of butter, I can make a dinner that we all love in 15 minutes. I also have canned black beans on hand all the time for an almost-instant taco filling. Eggs are another must-have; a last-minute frittata (or even just yummy cheesy scrambled eggs) is a great back-pocket dinner to lean on.
NJF: What are some go-to lunch ideas for the kids while they are home during remote learning?
CT: Having a hot lunch can be a great way to break up a long school day in front of a screen. My son eats his fair share of sandwiches and cheese strings, but I also keep the freezer stocked with pita bread so we can make individual pizzas in a hurry. I’m crazy about Roasted Vegetable and Hummus Pizzas, which are also easy to customize for each eater, and make for a delicious, filling and fun lunch.
NJF: What is your best piece of advice for busy working parents who want to cook five meals a week but are always short on time?
CT: Make a plan at the beginning of the week. Take twenty minutes to sketch out meals for the week before you go grocery shopping. It sounds basic but it makes all the difference! For some families, the “Camp System” is ideal: assign a theme or protein to every night of the week, just like at summer camp! Taco Tuesdays, Chicken Wednesdays, Vegan Thursdays, and so on. The recipes can change from week to week but the themes or proteins repeat. This knocks out a lot of the daily “what’s for dinner” stress and gets you to a homemade dinner so much more quickly.