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News / Life / Food

5 easy school-night dinners to beat chaos

One-skillet dishes keep prep to a minimum

By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Published: September 20, 2023, 6:42am
5 Photos
Skillet lasagna is made on the stovetop instead of in the oven, and requires no boiling.
Skillet lasagna is made on the stovetop instead of in the oven, and requires no boiling. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) Photo Gallery

Having to make dinner night after night can be a drag any time of year, but it can feel even more like a chore in September if you have kids in school.

After the relaxed days of summer, it can take a while to get back into the rhythm, routine and energy of a school year. In addition to making sure everyone gets fed, evenings bring homework, packing book bags and lunches, putting yet another load of laundry into the washer and laying out clothes for the next morning.

Between sporting events, teacher conferences, dance or music lessons and other after-school events, the weekly calendar can quickly fill up. Add parents’ jobs to the mix, it all can feel just so … chaotic.

But with a little planning, it’s possible to get a nutritious family meal on the table, at least some of the time, while also pinching your pennies. It’s even better if you can get family members to help with the chopping, stirring, plating and cleanup.

Here’s another reason to gather around a home-cooked meal with your kids: Multiple studies show that connecting with kids over dinner can improve their academic performance, increase self-esteem and also improve cardiovascular health by encouraging healthier eating habits.

Children and teens who eat dinner with their families also experience less stress and have a better relationship with them.

The best weeknight dinners, of course, are ones that are easy to pull together and go from refrigerator or pantry to stove top in around a half-hour. The easiest way to achieve that is reaching for one of the most utilitarian pieces of kitchen cookware — a trusty skillet — and choosing simple, everyday ingredients.

We’ve gathered five easy but tasty recipes that can be made in a single pan on the stove top or simply tossed in a bowl. Other than the fried rice dish, which involves marinating pork for a few hours before roasting it, none take more than about 30 minutes to prepare once you’ve assembled all the ingredients. That leaves plenty of time for your other duties on school nights.

Skillet Meaty Lasagna

Serves 4. Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette

This quick-fix version of an old-time favorite gets you from the cupboard to the table in less than a half hour. Yet, it’s just as delicious as lasagna made in the oven. Serve with a tossed salad and crusty bread.

3 14.5-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, minced

Salt

3 medium garlic cloves, minced

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1 pound meatloaf mix or 1/2 pound each of ground pork and ground beef

10 curly edged lasagna noodles, broken into 2-inch lengths (do not substitute no-boil noodles)

1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Ground black pepper

3/4 cup ricotta cheese

Chopped fresh basil, for garnish

Pour tomatoes with their juice in a food processor and pulse until coarsely ground and no large pieces remain.

Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick pan over medium heat. Add onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until softened, 5-7 minutes. Stir in garlic and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add meat and cook, breaking apart, until lightly browned and no longer pink, 3-5 minutes.

Scatter pasta over meat, then pour processed tomatoes over pasta. Cover, increase heat to medium-high, and cook, stirring often and adjusting heat to maintain a vigorous simmer, until pasta is tender, about 29 minutes.

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Remove pan from heat, and stir in half of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Dot heaping tablespoons of ricotta over the noodles, then sprinkle with remaining cheese.

Cover and let the pan stand off heat until cheese melts, 2-4 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and serve.

Gluten-free Chicken Noodle Salad

Serves 2-3. Adapted from “Itsu 20-Minute Suppers” by Julian Metcalf and Blanche Vaughan

This recipe embraces the world’s best ingredient for busy cooks — a grocery store rotisserie chicken. It’s paired with shredded napa cabbage and spiralized cucumber “noodles” for a gluten-free take on lo mein.

For salad:

2 cups shredded rotisserie chicken

4 cups shredded napa cabbage

1 carrot, cut into long thin strands or strips with a spiralizer or julienne peeler

1 cucumber, cut into long thin strands or strips with a spiralizer or julienne peeler

1 shallot, thinly sliced

1 1/2 ounces mixed coriander and basil leaves, with a few mint leaves, roughly chopped

1 1/2 ounces roasted, salted peanuts

For dressing:

4 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons fish sauce

1 or 2 hot red chilies, chopped

1 tablespoon honey, maple syrup or agave syrup

1 garlic clove, finely chopped or crushed

1 tablespoon rapeseed oil or other neutral-tasting oil

Mix all salad ingredients except dressing in a large bowl. Make dressing by placing ingredients in a separate bowl and mixing together well.

Pour dressing over salad, toss well and serve.

Crispy Fish Sticks

Serves 4. Gretchen McKay, Post-Gazette

Gorton’s fish sticks are a school-night classic, but it’s almost as fast — and imminently better — to make them at home. I used cod and served them with a homemade tartar sauce. Add a salad or air-fyer french fries for a complete meal.

1 1/2 pound firm white fish fillet, such as cod

Salt

1 teaspoon each black pepper, oregano and paprika

1/3 cup flour

1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water

1/3 cup panko bread crumbs

1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup vegetable oil, for frying

Parsley, for garnish

Fresh lemon slices, for serving

Pat fish fillet dry and season with kosher salt on both sides. Cut fillet into pieces or sticks (1- to 1 1/2-inch thick and about 3 inches long).

In a small bowl, combine black pepper, dried oregano and paprika. Season fish sticks on both sides with the spice mixture.

Place flour and egg wash in separate shallow dishes. In another bowl, combine bread crumbs and grated Parmesan.

Take a fish stick and dip it in the flour to coat both sides; shake excess flour off. Dip fish stick in egg wash and then in bread crumb and Parmesan mixture. Pat to help the coating adhere. Repeat until all the fish sticks have been coated.

Heat oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add fish sticks and fry in batches until golden brown. Remove onto paper towel-lined plate to absorb excess oil. For baked fish sticks, arrange coated fish sticks on an oiled baking sheet and mist with baking spray. Bake in a 400-degree oven until fish is cooked through, about 12 minutes.

Garnish with parsley and serve with lemon slices and your favorite dipping sauce.

Chicken Tinga Quesadillas

Serves 4. Adapted from halfbakedharvest.com

This dish will appeal to family members who like dinner to be a little bit spicy. To make the quesadillas a little more substantial for heartier appetites, add cooked rice or black beans. The filling can also be used to fill taco shells, rolled into a burrito or added to a plate of nachos. Complete the meal with a tossed salad, refried or black beans or Spanish rice.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 pound boneless chicken breasts or thighs, cubed

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 poblano pepper, sliced

3/4 cup red enchilada sauce, canned or homemade

2 or 3 chipotle peppers in adobo, finely chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

8 flour tortillas, warmed

2 1/2 cups shredded Mexican cheese

Chopped cilantro, for garnish

Guacamole, for garnish

Garlic Lime Sauce

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream

3 tablespoons mayo

2 teaspoons lime zest, plus 2 tablespoons lime juice

1 clove garlic, finely minced

In a large skillet, add olive oil, chicken and onion. Set over medium-high heat. Cook 5-8 minutes, until the chicken is seared. Add poblano pepper, enchilada sauce, chipotle chiles, oregano, cumin and salt. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.

To assemble, layer cheese and chicken mixture on one half of a tortilla. Sprinkle with a little chopped cilantro. Place another tortilla on top to enclose the fillings.

Heat a second skillet over medium heat. Quickly brush the top of the quesadilla with a light coating of oil, then carefully flip it with a spatula.

Let the quesadilla cook until golden and crispy on the bottom, about 1-2 minutes, reducing the heat if necessary to prevent burning. Brush the top with a light coating of oil, then flip it and cook until the second side is golden and crispy.

Immediately remove the skillet from the heat and transfer the quesadilla to a cutting board. Let it cool for a minute to give it time to set, then use a chef’s knife to slice it into wedges.

Meanwhile, make the garlic lime sauce. Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Season with salt.

Serve quesadillas topped with garlic sauce, guacamole and cilantro.

Fried Rice With Chinese Barbecue Pork

Serves 4. “Chinese Soul Food” by Hsiao-Ching Chou (Sasquatch Books, $24.95)

Everyone loves fried rice because it’s so darn flexible. Just about any combination of rice, protein and vegetables works. Here, barbecued Chinese pork — which you can make a day or so ahead — is the star ingredient.

One tip: Always start with cold rice. Otherwise the dish could be soggy. Serve with hot sauce, curry, different kinds of greens or cilantro.

For pork:

1-1 1/4 pound pork tenderloin

2 tablespoons red fermented bean curd, optional

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons honey

1 heaping tablespoon hoisin sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

3 or 4 large cloves garlic, minced

For rice:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

2 eggs, beaten

2 green onions, finely chopped

5 cups cold cooked rice

1/2 cup chopped carrots and peas

2 tablespoon soy sauce

Kosher salt, as needed

Chili crisp, optional

Prepare pork: Trim any large pieces of membrane from pork tenderloin. Cut in half lengthwise and set aside.

In small bowl, combine bean curd, soy sauce, honey, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce and garlic. Place in a large Ziploc bag with the pork pieces and squish it around to make sure all the meat is covered. Marinate in the fridge for at least 3 hours or as long as overnight.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with foil. Place a heatproof rack on the baking sheet and place marinated pork on top.

Roast pork in oven for 30-35 minutes, or until internal temperature of pork registers 145 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Let rest for 5 minutes before slicing. (You will only need about 1/3 of the pork for the fried rice.)

When ready to make rice, cut pork into bite-sized pieces.

Fluff rice by breaking up any big pieces with your fingers or fork. This will make it easier to stir-fry.

Preheat wok or large frying pan over high heat until wisps of smoke rise from the surface. Add 1 tablespoon oil and heat until it starts to shimmer. Add eggs, which will quickly pool at the bottom. Reduce heat to medium. Let the eggs cook for a few more seconds and then start to scramble them.

When the eggs are soft cooked, not hard, turn off heat, transfer eggs to a bowl and set aside. Rinse wok or pan and dry with towel.

Return wok or pan to the stove over high heat. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, immediately add onions and fry about 5 seconds, or until softened. Add rice, carrots, peas, and chopped pork, then reduce heat to medium. Using a spatula, scoop, stir and flip the rice to combine it with the vegetables.

Break apart any remaining large chunks of rice. Add soy sauce. Actively stir and scoop the rice to help it heat through and prevent burning. If needed, add salt to taste.

Serve immediately.

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