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Healthy dinner in a snap

Busy families feeling the tug of the drive-through window need a battle plan to prevent unhealthy — though we admit very convenient — eating.

After the kids have exercised their hearts out for a couple of hours in the dance studio or on the playing field, why not follow with another good habit: a healthy dinner.

Here are some tips for providing home-cooked meals on busy nights in far less than 30 minutes, some of them in about five:

Cook big on the weekends.

That's the time to make more involved recipes or double whatever you are making and freeze the excess for later. Make a big pot of meat sauce and freeze smaller portions; use it for spaghetti, ziti or lasagna. Grill extra chicken pieces for salads or sandwiches or make a big pork roast so you can chop and freeze leftovers to use in soups, chili, burritos, quesadillas or stir-fries.

Prep tomorrow's dinner tonight.

After the kids are in bed or when they are doing homework, cook dishes that are easily reheated, such as soup, chili, meat loaf or lasagna. Save time in the morning by prepping ingredients headed for the slow cooker at night.

Place thawed chicken in plastic bags with a marinade and wrap sliced potatoes and veggies in foil packets with seasonings and a pat or two of butter. They'll be ready for the grill or the oven the next evening.

Double up on starches.

Each time you make pasta or rice, cook twice as much as needed and freeze the remainder. They reheat beautifully in the microwave on partial power in two minutes or less.

Plan dinners.

Menus don't need to be elaborate, just a jotted note of what you plan to have for the week. It can be as simple as Monday pasta; Tuesday tacos; Wednesday something on the grill; Thursday quesadillas; Friday takeout pizza. Or, write on a 3- by 5-inch card what meals you have the ingredients for and post it on the fridge: spinach frittata with sweet potato fries; pork tenderloin with applesauce; blue cheese burgers and onion rings. Cross off meal possibilities as you eat them.

It is a huge relief to know what you are having for dinner before you even leave the house in the morning.

Know your equipment.

The oven takes too long on weeknights. Use the stove, microwave, steamer or grill, and plan one-pot meals.

Fast-cooking protein.

Stock these for nights you only have time to heat a little olive oil in a skillet. They all cook in minutes:

Eggs. Melt butter and make quick omelets or frittatas. Add any vegetables the kids will eat.

Pork. Cutlets or thin boneless chops can be sprinkled with seasoned salt or dredged in Italian bread crumbs and sauteed 2 to 3 minutes per side until golden.

Chicken. Buy thin cutlets or make your own by pounding chicken breasts between two pieces of plastic wrap. They cook in about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Squeeze lemon juice over them and toss in some capers for a quick piccata. Or slice sauteed chicken into strips for a salad or serve on their own with wilted spinach.

Frozen shrimp. Keep a bag of the easy-peel shrimp in the freezer. Thaw in a bowl of warm water while the pan is heating up. Melt about 3 tablespoons of butter in a saute pan, add three cloves of crushed garlic and saute for 20 seconds. Add the peeled, drained shrimp and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook until pink and serve with chopped parsley and a lemon wedge. Sea scallops are also quick-cooking shellfish and can be served over pasta or salads.

Fast-cooking sides.

Couscous. Look for this Moroccan pasta near the rice. Use canned broth instead of water for more flavor, or buy already-flavored mixes. To make couscous into a main dish, add shredded chicken or cooked shrimp and diced or julienned red bell pepper.

Rice noodles. Also called pad Thai noodles, they only need to be soaked in hot water and can be used instead of rice with precut stir-fry veggies and chicken or shrimp. You'll have dinner on the table before the kids change out of their uniforms.

Pierogies. Pasta pillows filled with flavored mashed potatoes are found in the frozen food aisle and cook in 3 to 5 minutes in boiling water. Or they can be defrosted in the microwave and sauteed in a skillet with onions, peppers and sausage.

Pasta. Fresh, rather than dry, ravioli or tortellini cook in half the time and taste better, too. Keep prepared sauces in the pantry.

Veggies. Spinach, broccoli and asparagus cook in mere minutes. Toss grape tomatoes into hot pasta and the heat will cause them to soften and implode. Slice tomatoes and serve with a sprinkling of olive oil and coarse salt. Always have frozen peas in the freezer.

Janet K. Keeler contributed to
this report. Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@sptimes.
com.

>>entree

Black Bean Burritos

1 cup leftover cooked pork or chicken, shredded

1 (14-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained

Small can diced tomatoes or cup of salsa

Juice of one lime

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 cup Monterey jack cheese

4 to 6 flour tortillas

• Mix all the ingredients except cheese and tortillas in a saucepan and simmer. Mash some of the beans with the back of a wooden spoon. Warm tortillas wrapped in dampened paper towels in the microwave for about 50 seconds. Fill with meat-bean mixture, sprinkle with cheese and roll.

Makes 6 servings.

Source: Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times staff writer

>>soup

Tomato Spinach Soup
1 large shallot, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, diced

1/4 cup onion, diced small

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 (14-ounce) can chicken or vegetable broth

5 ounces (1/2 bag) cleaned spinach

2 teaspoons sugar (if needed)

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

Parmesan cheese

• Saute shallot, garlic and onion in olive oil about 5 minutes. Drain diced tomatoes and add to pan with crushed tomatoes, broth, spices and salt and pepper to taste. Chop spinach and add in handfuls. Taste soup after spinach wilts and add sugar 1 teaspoon at a time if needed to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.

• Simmer for 10 minutes and serve with Italian seasoning and a sprinkling of Parmesan. If you like your tomato soup thinner, add more broth.

Makes about 6 hearty servings. Goes great with crusty bread.

Source: Adapted from a Rachael Ray recipe

>>entree

Microwave Frittata
Nonstick spray

Handful of veggies (such as mushrooms, peppers or cherry tomatoes), chopped small

Handful of spinach leaves

1/2 cup Egg Beaters (or 2 eggs beaten)

Handful of shredded cheese

• Lightly coat a microwaveable cereal bowl or single-serving salad bowl with nonstick spray. Pile the veggies in the bowl and pour Egg Beaters over them. Add salt and pepper to taste. Microwave about 2 minutes until eggs are cooked, stirring every 30 seconds. Sprinkle cheese on top.

Makes 1 serving.

Source: Inspired by a recipe from Kathleen Daelemans' Cooking Thin

>>soup

Leftover Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups combination of chopped vegetables (bell peppers, onions, carrots)

3 cloves garlic, minced

32 ounces chicken broth

1 (14-ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained

1 to 2 cups leftover cooked chicken, sausage or pork pieces

Seasonings (Italian blend, coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes) to taste

• In a large saucepan, saute veggies in olive oil for about 5 minutes; add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add broth, beans and meat into the pot and adjust seasonings to taste.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times staff writer

>>fast facts

Rotisserie chicken

Store-bought rotisserie chicken is a busy cook's best friend. Suggestions:

• Shred chicken and mix with your favorite barbecue sauce. Serve on hamburger buns, with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and carrot sticks on the side.

•Go to Times food editor Janet K. Keeler's blog Stir Crazy every Wednesday. That day she features a recipe using rotisserie chicken. Find the blog at www.blogs.tampabay.com/food.

Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Healthy dinner in a snap 03/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 4:59pm]

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