When you're scrambling for something to feed the family at the end of the day, the last thing you want to find is that all your fresh vegetables are gone, all your meat is still frozen, and the only thing that has edible potential within the next 20 minutes is a loaf of stale bread. Planning dinner ahead helps save your sanity at the end of the day; making dinner ahead is even better. And with these five options, you'll have a kid-friendly meal ready to go whether you're just walking in the door or about to walk out.
Quesadillas are kid-friendly food because you can cater to your kids' tastes (and yours, as well). When you wait until the last minute to make them, quesadillas can be a little labor-intensive; but assemble and cook them ahead of time and all you have to do at dinner time is a quick reheat in the oven. For the most basic version, cheese and tortillas are the only requirements. For additional fillings, pick and choose from what you like, what your kids like, and what you have on hand.
10 flour or corn tortillas
2 cups shredded cheese - a cheddar/mozzarella blend is nice, or 5-cheese blend, or anything you have and like.
Olive oil or butter
Filling options: fresh spinach, chopped onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers, mushrooms, shredded cooked chicken, beans.
Heat a griddle, grill, or large frying pan. Oil it with a bit of butter or olive oil, and keep more on hand for flipping the quesadillas. Place one tortilla in the frying pan, sprinkle cheese and fillings on it to cover, and lay another tortilla on top. Cook over medium heat until cheese is melted, then flip the quesadilla over to brown the other side. Add a bit more oil or butter if the tortilla is sticking.
2. Baked Mac'n'Cheese
The classic kids' favorite in the blue box may appeal to the kids' taste buds, but it doesn't always appeal to moms looking for foods that don't come pre-processed, in a box. Make your own mac'n'cheese ahead of time; all you have to do is pop it in the oven for baked, hot, melty and cheesy goodness.
Homemade Baked Mac'n'Cheese
1 lb pasta: elbow macaroni, penne or other smaller noodle (bow ties, wagon wheels, alphabet shapes or rotini are popular at my house)
3 cups grated cheese: your choice, but a strong flavor is better (sharp cheese) or use a blend of your favorite cheeses
3 cups milk
1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup (1 stick) butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water, drain and set aside. While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a large saucepan. Whisk in flour to form a thick paste. Whisk in the milk, 1 cup at a time; mix thoroughly with a whisk to get out any lumps from the flour. Add the cheese and stir constantly as the cheese melts to keep it from sticking. When cheese is incorporated, taste the sauce and add salt and pepper to taste.
Put the drained pasta in a 9x13 baking dish and pour the sauce over. Don't worry if it's soupy; the pasta will absorb the sauce as the mac'n'cheese sits and as it heats before dinner. Cover tightly and put in the refrigerator until about 30 minutes before dinner time.
To heat for dinner, put in a 350 degree oven for 20 - 30 minutes, until heated through and bubbly.
3. Breakfast for Dinner
Most kids like breakfast food in some form or fashion; do your prep work ahead of time, and you'll be ready to produce an easy, filling and kid-appealing breakfast for dinner. Pick and choose your favorites.
follow the quiche recipe
as directed, cooking until set. Let the quiche cool, cover and store in the refrigerator. Slice, wrap slices in foil and reheat in the oven for dinner.
follow the baked oatmeal recipe
as directed, storing the pre-mixed oatmeal in the refrigerator and baking just before dinner time.
: mix your pancake batter
and store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator. Let the batter come to room temperature, then fry and serve. Alternately, go ahead and cook the pancakes, store in a ziploc bag, and reheat in the oven before dinner.
4. Individual Pizzas
What kid doesn't love pizza? Avoid the cost and calories of take-out and the hassle of making your own from scratch with hungry kids on the prowl.
Make-Ahead Individual Pizzas
- Choose a crust: I love naan bread for these, either homemade or grabbed from the nearest Indian market. Pita bread also works well, or English muffins. If you're on a gluten-free diet, try latkes as a base. Whatever you choose, just make it or purchase it ahead of time so it's on hand when you need it.
- Mix the sauce: combine a large jar of organic tomato sauce with salt, pepper, oregano and basil. The herbs can be dried or fresh, your choice. Make the flavors to taste, keeping your kids' preferences in mind. You don't have to heat the sauce, just combine and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
- Prep the toppings: cheese, of course, is everybody's favorite. Here's a secret, too: it doesn't have to be grated. Sliced cheese will melt on an individual pizza just as well. Make sure you have cheese on hand, and toppings that your kids will like. Fresh diced vegetables (mushrooms, peppers, onions), meat (diced cooked chicken, ground beef, pepperoni, ham), or whatever else makes them happy. Usually, for kids, simple is best. Mine are happy with cheese on their pizza. I love fresh spinach, onions and feta, or fresh diced pineapple, cilantro, red onion and chicken.
- At dinner time: heat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread a thin layer of sauce on each "crust," then top as desired. If your kids are old enough, have them make their own! Pop them (the pizzas, not the kids) in the oven on a cookie sheet for about 5 - 8 minutes, or until the cheese has melted.
5. Appetizer Spread
One thing I've noticed about my kids is that they prefer meals that are made of separate components: vegetables here, bread here, a little meat there, some fruit on the side. For those developing taste buds, it's easier to handle one food at a time, which is exactly what you can offer with an appetizer spread.
- Prep vegetables and other dip-carriers: fresh vegetables, crackers, pita bread, bagel chips. Your choice.
- Prep other appetizer additions: cubed cheese, olives, pickles, boiled eggs, fresh fruit of any kind, dates, nuts.
- At dinner time: heat the dips (or serve cold or at room temp) and put all the other goodies out on a tray. This is one of our favorite meals for lunch or dinner, and it's easy to prepare, easy to serve, easy to clean up and suits my kids. It's also a fun way to introduce a new food without making it a big deal. My kids are now hooked on fresh goat cheese smeared on pita chips...
Image: Ernst Vikne.