Dinner Makeover: Ideas for a Flexible Dinner Menu
"I’m Always Winging It"
Amy Gray, 46
When it comes to deciding on dinner, Amy, a middle-school English teacher and a divorced mother of two, tends to wait for inspiration to strike. “Growing up, I was exposed to lots of different foods. My family wasn’t the type to eat roast beef every Tuesday,” she says. As a result, Amy likes to throw together eclectic, last-minute menus for her sons, Noah, 17, and Evan, 14. “We might have fettuccine primavera one night and shrimp curry another,” she says. Problem is, Amy usually doesn’t have the ingredients that she needs, so she is forced to do a grocery-store run most weekdays around 4 p.m., when she leaves work. And even with all those trips, she often discovers that she’s missing staples—say, onions or olive oil—while making dinner. Her disorganization takes a toll in other ways, too. “I like to take an exercise class before dinner,” says Amy. But, she laments, there’s no time to hit the grocery store and the gym if she wants to put a meal on the table. Her sons are old enough to help her out, but Amy worries about kitchen safety. “I don’t want either of them to lose a finger,” she says. “Still, I realize that they should know how to fend for themselves.”
Real Simple staff food editor Dawn Perry showed Amy how to shop for a week’s worth of meals at one time—without cramping her improvisational style. Then she gave the mother of two an arsenal of quick recipes that she could pull off on the days when she exercises. Since Noah and Evan are interested in cooking, Dawn gave them a tutorial in kitchen basics so they can help prep the meal on busy nights. Finally, she left the boys with some tasty after-school snack ideas to hold them until dinner.
Make a Flexible Shopping List
“Every day, I decide what I want to cook,” says Amy, who lets her cravings guide her menu planning. However, she’s less enthused about making daily grocery-store runs. Dawn explained that Amy could cut down on supermarket trips without sacrificing spontaneity if she made a flexible weekly shopping list. Here’s how she can do it.
- Create a standing list of staples that the family uses every week—think fruit, cereal, milk.
- Sit down with the boys and decide on one or two recipes that they would like to have that week. (She can leave the rest of the meals open.) Add the ingredients for those recipes to her list.
- Add one protein and one vegetable for each of the remaining dinners in the week. “You don’t need to decide how to use them or in what combination until later,” Dawn told Amy. “But this way you’ll have plenty of options on hand.”
Keep a Cache of Easy Recipes
“I always equated great food with a lot of labor,” says Amy. But no longer. Dawn showed her that even fast (and nearly effortless) dinners can be loaded with flavor. These three recipes take just 20 minutes each.
Get the recipe for Chicken Milanese With Arugula Salad.
Get the recipe for Spicy Pork and Soba Noodles.
Get the recipe for Roasted Curry Salmon With Tomatoes.
Teach the Boys the Basics
Noah and Evan were eager to help out in the kitchen, but Amy wanted to make sure they had a little Culinary 101 first. Dawn gave them some pointers.
See the Cooking Basics checklist.
Add Pizzazz to Snack Time
“The boys come home from school starving,” says Amy. “Then they end up eating an entire bag of microwave popcorn, which isn’t healthy.” To keep them sated until supper, Dawn introduced them to some snacking staples and came up with three nutritious options for each.
Get 12 recipes for easy snacks.
Amy was skeptical when Dawn handed her a stack of cookbooks. But when she saw a picture of roasted eggplant with pomegranate seeds on the cover of one volume, she got excited. “We have pomegranates on our backyard tree, but I never think of using them,” she says. And that was Dawn’s point: “Use cookbook photos for inspiration. They can give you ideas for ingenious combinations.” Here are three interesting books worth looking at.
Two Weeks Later…
“The biggest takeaway is that I need to think things through and plan—at least a little,” says Amy, who is hopeful that her new flexible shopping list will cut down on trips to the grocery store even when the school year is in full swing. The boys were excited by their cooking lessons, too, she reports. “Evan insists on doing everything himself now,” she says. “And now that I trust he isn’t going to hurt himself, I can let him. I’m more confident about delegating to my boys. I’m sure that there will be mistakes, but that’s the only way to learn.”