Dinner plans for back-to-school

  • Article by: JANET K. KEELER , Tampa Bay Times
  • Updated: September 4, 2013 - 3:09 PM

It’s back-to-school for the cook, too, as dinnertime once again collides with activities.

The new school year is here, and that means more homework, more sports practices, more dance classes and music lessons, more drama. More, more, more.

But unfortunately, the 2013-14 academic calendar doesn’t come with any more time. And when all those activities collide around the dinner hour, meals often get the short shrift. Time is part of our problem, but so is a lack of ideas. Add to that the fact that we don’t do a lot of planning (why not make menus and shopping lists while watching Mary Sue practice her backflips at the gym?), and we’re not always great at keeping cabinets and refrigerators stocked with staples that make whipping up a quick meal easier.

The following simple meal ideas should help get you out of your dinnertime doldrums. You’ll see that there are no recipes because these suggestions are meant to juice your imagination and build on what you are already making. Tucked in the list are meatless meals and plenty of dishes that the kids can help with. Remember to augment main dishes with fresh vegetables and fruit, and use whole-wheat pasta and breads when you can.

So, no more excuses.

1. Tangy apple tuna melts: We’re dressing up tuna salad tonight with Tangy Apple Tuna Melts served with fruit salad. Make the tuna salad however you like (mayo, celery and a bit of lemon zest for me) and scoop it onto whole-wheat bread that has been buttered on one side. Add thin slices of Granny Smith apples and Cheddar cheese; top with the other slice of bread and do the grilled-cheese thing.

2. Chicken chef’s salad: Load up plates with ice-cold lettuce and veggies (tomato, cucumbers, shredded carrots), about 1/4 cup of shredded cheese or 2 tablespoons of crumbled blue or feta and 1 tablespoon of sunflower seeds. Layer on shredded rotisserie chicken, skin discarded. Dress lightly with vinaigrette.

3. Black bean soup: Get takeout from a favorite restaurant or open a few cans. Serve soup over a scoop of rice and garnish with chopped green onions and sour cream. Accompany the soup with buttery, toasted bread for dipping and a refreshing salad of sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with an herby vinaigrette.

4. Hash-browned eggs: This quickie dinner can be set on the table between soccer practice and homework. To start, you’ll need a bag of frozen shredded hash browns. Sauté chopped onions and garlic in a large skillet for about 5 minutes. Then add the hash browns and cook according to package instructions. Remove from skillet and keep warm. Fry eggs — one per person — and top each portion of hash browns with an egg. Serve sautéed spinach on the side.

5. Chicken thighs with chunky tomatoes: Salt and pepper chicken thighs and brown in an oven-safe skillet, then drain off fat. Add cans of drained Northern beans and diced tomatoes with herbs. Cover and pop into a 350-degree oven for about 25 minutes. Serve with egg noodles and steamed broccoli.

6. Crusty French bread pizza: Split the bread and toast in the oven slightly. Remove and slather with pizza sauce, mozzarella cheese and toppings of your choice. Bake at 350 degrees until cheese is melted, 10 minutes or so. Load up a green salad with veggies and a favorite dressing.

7. Sausage and mushroom fettuccine: While water boils and pasta cooks, make the sauce. Brown a pound of bulk Italian sausage, then add sliced mushrooms and scallions plus red pepper flakes. Cook until veggies are soft. Add 1 can of diced tomatoes. Drain pasta and add to the sauce. Add black pepper if you want more kick.

8. Quick shepherd’s pie: In an ovenproof skillet, brown a pound of ground beef, drain, then add ½ cup of ketchup and 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. Add 1 cup of frozen mixed vegetables and heat through. Cover with heated microwavable mashed potatoes and a handful of grated cheese. Put under the boiler until the cheese melts.

9. Crunchy chicken legs: Chicken legs are cheaper than other parts and are kid-friendly. Make them spicy by coating with smooshed barbecue potato chips or even Pringles spicy Szechuan chips. Crush the chips, then dredge the legs in milk or beaten egg first. Roll in the chips and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 to 40 minutes. Steamed broccoli and carrots to accompany.

10. Barbecued chicken quesadillas: For each quesadilla, mix about ½ cup of shredded rotisserie chicken, ⅓ cup of cheese, some chopped onion and a tablespoon (or more to taste) of barbecue sauce. Spread it on a flour tortilla and place in a hot, dry skillet. Top with second tortilla. Cook until tortilla is golden and cheese begins to melt. Flip and repeat. Serve with melon slices.

11. Tuscan grilled cheese with tomato soup: For the sandwiches, brush sturdy country bread with olive oil, then layer on thin smoked mozzarella slices, fresh basil leaves, ripe tomatoes and a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette. Grill as you do a regular grilled-cheese sandwich. Open a box of organic tomato soup. Eat pineapple with vanilla ice cream for dessert.

12. Cajun red beans and rice: To make the beans, sauté 1 small chopped onion, ½ bell pepper, 2 minced garlic cloves and 2 ribs of celery in olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add 2 cans drained and rinsed red beans and 1 can of diced tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and stir in 1 ½ teaspoons Cajun seasoning and ½ teaspoon dried oregano. Cook on low for about 10 minutes, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with cooked rice and hot sauce. Oh, and a slab of corn bread.

13. Garlic shrimp: Mince plenty of garlic and have the mouthwash ready. Melt ½ stick of butter in a large skillet. When it starts to foam, dump in about 2 pounds of peeled shrimp and 4 to 6 minced garlic cloves and sauté for about 4 minutes. Toss in some chopped parsley and the juice of 1 lemon. Serve with rice studded with chopped green onions.

14. Grilled mojo chicken: Toss boneless, skinless chicken breasts into store-bought mojo marinade in the morning. To make the chicken cook quicker, split the breasts crosswise so they are thinner. Serve with beans and rice and a salad of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers with vinaigrette.

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