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For Busy Families, Theme Nights Are Better Than Meal Plans

Presented by Infiniti

This time of year feels like entering the last leg of a really hard sprint: I can see the finish line of summer in sight, but it's just not here yet. It's a time when cooking-and all the planning that goes into figuring out what to cook-can feel like too much, even if you normally love to be in the kitchen.

A strict meal plan is just never going to happen for me, but I find that it can be helpful to divide the week into a series of loose themes. If you too have that tight window of 30 minutes, or maybe 45, to get food on the table and stave off hangry looks, I hope this list serves as inspiration. Maybe following the plan day by day will help to curb decision fatigue, but feel free to dip in and out, or reorder the nights as needed. Maybe some other family favorites fit in each daily category, or perhaps you'll riff on the recipes here and rekindle your creative fire.

I find that writing out the meals for the week and posting the list on my fridge can help set expectations and make sure our household's teenager (and everyone else) knows what's for dinner without having to ask.

Glancing at the list can be a reminder too: You've got this. And it's going to be delicious.

Recipes: Smoky Beans and Greens on Toast, Sonoran-Style Potato Cheese and Tomato Soup, Peppery Creamy Greens with Eggs, Spinach-Artichoke Dip Frittata, Smoky Spanish Potatoes and Eggs

Start with a loaf of good bread and dinner can't help but be tasty. Crisp the bread in olive oil until golden brown, then pile with bacon-fat-simmered smoky beans and greens.

Cut your loaf into hefty hunks to dunk in caldo de queso that's bobbing with cherry tomatoes, cubes of potato, and cheese. Leftovers make a fantastic lunch, so you might want to double the recipe.

Or ease into the week with a crowd pleaser: breakfast for dinner. There's nothing quite so fine as puncturing softly set yolks with toast points. Try these peppery, creamy greens with eggs-you're looking at 20 minutes, tops, which is just about right for a Monday. Grab a can of artichoke hearts and some frozen spinach and turn everyone's favorite dip into an easy frittata. Or serve that bread with a skillet of smoky Spanish potatoes and eggs, bringing in flavors inspired by patatas bravas and huevos rotos.

Recipes: Pork Meatballs and Cucumber Salad, 3-Ingredient Garlic Herb Chicken Wings

As the weather begins to warm, I find myself drawn to crunchy cucumbers-and there are so many ways to incorporate them into a simple meal. One favorite dinner: these easy sheet-pan pork meatballs with cucumber salad. The quick-cooking meatballs are juicy and flavorful, but the salad is the unsung star here, piled on a flourish of Greek yogurt. Consider doubling the recipe so you can have extra meatballs for stuffing pita the next day-or freeze some for a dinner down the line.

If you need a break and a deep breath outside, though, consider firing up the grill. Cut your cucumbers into spears and serve them alongside these simple 3-ingredient garlic herb chicken wings.

Another valid Tuesday move? The no-cook snack dinner. Set out cucumbers and/or carrots or bell peppers for dipping, your favorite hummus or lemony yogurt, and whatever other snacky foods are your go-tos: cheese, olives, bread, jammy eggs. Toss a drained can of white beans with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and whatever herbs or spices you like, pile into lettuce leaves or eat with a spoon. Let everyone go to town.

Once summer arrives, you can swap your produce of the moment. Do a few weeks of Tuesday Tomatoes, or focus on making it through a zucchini haul, one Tuesday at a time.

Recipes: Grain Bowls with Chicken, Spiced Chickpeas, and Avocado, Any Way Niçoise, Sesame-Scallion Chicken Salad, Sausage and Greens Sheet-Pan Dinner, Double-the-Mustard Chicken with Potatoes and Greens, Sheet-Pan Chicken with Tomatoes and Mozzarella

Even passionate home cooks can get to Wednesday and want to wave a white flag. So let's make sure that dinner is a breeze.

Stop by the market for rotisserie chicken, put on a pot for quinoa or farro or rice, and take a can of chickpeas out of the pantry to toss in spices and oil and crisp up on the stovetop (or in the oven) for chicken grain bowls. No chickpeas on hand? White beans like to get crispy too. Toasted sesame seeds are nice on top, but you could toast some walnuts or pine nuts to add instead.

Not feeling the grain bowl? Use that chicken in this flexible salad template and let each person in the family assemble their own plate. (Or use the cooked chicken instead of poached chicken breasts in this hearty sesame-scallion dressed salad.) Consider grabbing two chickens if you're going to make pasta option two tomorrow.

Sheet-pan suppers also exist to ease the middle of your week. Case in point: this sausage and greens dinner requires just 15 minutes of hands-on prep, and you can use whatever kind of sausage your family prefers. For the greens, Tuscan kale or collards work equally well. If you roast a few extra sausages, you can slice them up for breakfast in the morning (or toss with pasta for lunch.)

Here are a few other sheet-pan staples to plug into your Wednesday plans: Double up on mustard for a tangy honey mustard chicken with golden potato coins. Or roast boneless chicken breasts with mozzarella and tomatoes for all the flavors of chicken Parm without the fuss. (Leftovers are excellent in sandwiches or over spaghetti.)

If all else fails, nachos never disappoint. A sheet pan ensures evenly topped chips, and you hardly need a recipe. Pair creamy refried beans or drained black beans with shredded cheese, dollops of sour cream or yogurt, pickled jalapeños, and add avocado or guac if desired.

Recipe: Baked Rigatoni with Red Peppers and Green Olives, Sheet-Pan Pasta Bake With Chicken and Kale

Let's first consider option one: The beauty of this dish of bubbling rigatoni, all red and saucy in peppers and olives, with pools of melted cheese is that you're actually also prepping ahead for Friday night's dinner-an altogether winning proposition. Double the sauce and save yourself work on Friday, shaving off time and effort at the end of your work week. This dish gets concentrated flavor from smashed olives and a tube of tomato paste.

Option two: Use any leftover chicken (or a second bird) from Wednesday in this extra-crispy pasta meal. Mozzarella adds milky, creamy flavor and texture, but you can use whatever cheese you have on hand. Kale cooks quickly-and this dish only spends a couple of minutes in the oven-but you could sub in any leftover cooked vegetables you have on hand, or a little steamed broccoli.

Recipes: One-Pot Spiced Shrimp and Rice, Vegetarian Three-Bean Chili, Super-Moist Yellow Cake, Mochi Cake

Shake off the work/school week with some cozy comfort food. If you made the baked rigatoni last night and doubled the sauce, you've already done most of the prep for this one-pot spiced shrimp and rice dinner. Pour a glass of wine or sparkling water and give yourself the gift of a dinner that's as simple as stir, simmer, and serve. (With the sauce in hand, you can skip ahead to Step 2 in the recipe.)

While we're talking comfort food, here are a few more fuss-free options. Stir together a big pot of this savory (but meatless) three-bean chili in just half an hour, and serve with tortilla chips, chopped onion, and chunks of avocado. Or steam or boil some frozen dumplings to serve with sautéed greens, black vinegar, and chile crisp.

You saved time on dinner-meaning there's time, if you like, for baking dessert. Yellow cake doesn't need much fuss. Our rich chocolate frosting is fun, but you could also top cake slices with simple gussied-up fruit. Macerate berries or nectarines with a tablespoon of sugar and a dash of spice (cardamom or a few scrapes of fresh ginger are both nice). Scoop on with a dollop of whipped cream if you like.

Or make the end of the week sweet with chewy gluten-free mochi cake that can be baked full size, or into cute cakelets in muffin pans. The recipe is a two-bowl stir-and-bake treat with a variety of flavoring options.

Recipes: Food Processor Pizza Dough, White Pizza with Shaved Vegetables and Pesto, Cast-Iron Pizza with Fennel and Sausage, Trenton Tomato Pie

If pizza-and-a-movie night is a tradition at your place, it won't take long to nail our food processor pizza dough (make a double batch to freeze and defrost later-your future self will thank you). Store-bought pizza dough works too. Parbake it for white pizza with shaved vegetables and pesto. Eight different types and textures of greenery adorn the top of this verdant pie. Using a vegetable peeler strips asparagus and zucchini into ribbons that crisp up as they bake. The ricotta, mozzarella, pesto, garlic, and lemon zest mix would also be a terrific filling for grilled sandwiches.

Can't quit red sauce? Grab your cast-iron skillet for fennel and sausage pizza with a perfectly blistered crust. The anise flavor of fennel is a classic with sausage, while using fresh fennel adds unexpected texture. Or simplify for those "just cheese, please" kids-Trenton tomato pie is a crowd favorite.

Recipes: Butternut Squash Sandwich with Cheddar Cheese and Pickled Onions, Vegetarian Muffulettas with Pickled Iceberg, Make-Ahead Crispy Chicken Cutlets, Grilled Bacon BLTs, Double-Stack Mushroom and Chicken Burgers, Egg Salad With Grilled Broccoli and Chili Crisp

The ideal Sunday is a day of rest but also one of planning for the week ahead. Dinner can be crowd-pleasing and assemble-it-yourself, with an element that'll serve you during the week to come.

The sandwich theme can be really tailored to each eater's taste: Roast some veggies-planks of butternut squash are great-and offer cheese, pickled veggies, or cured meats if desired for stacking onto bread. Some want mustard, some want raw onion, some want a swipe of Calabrian chile paste-and anything goes. This olive-caper mayo is a great addition to any sandwich, meatless or not, so it is worth doubling the batch for future lunches.

Make-ahead crispy chicken cutlets are good sandwiched between brioche buns today with any other favorite sandwich fixings; freeze extra cutlets for reheating later on.

Have you ever tried grilling bacon? It's the star in grilled bacon BLTs-and you can make some extra to crumble over a salad tomorrow. If you're craving burgers instead, make these double-stack chicken burgers, which get extra juiciness and flavor from minced mushrooms. While you're grilling, throw some broccoli on to eat on the side-and to save so you can make this creamy egg salad with grilled broccoli and chili crisp for lunch (or dinner) during the week to come.


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