Fall is an emotional roller coaster. Its beautiful colors and crisp air can put you in a good mood, only to be brought down by the fact that summer is over and life’s pressing responsibilities, like school and any number of extracurricular activities, are just beginning.
While I don’t have to tell you that this year is different (to say the least), perhaps there’s some comfort in knowing that the challenges of figuring out what’s for dinner remain largely the same — time is short and dinner still needs to happen.
Of course, the solutions also remain the same. There’s always takeout, and while it’s never been more important to support our local restaurants, our wallets and our waistlines keep it from being a sensible option on a daily basis. And though a bowl of cereal will do in a pinch, it’s not particularly satisfying.
The good news is that there are a few things we can do to help ourselves get a warm, nourishing, home-cooked meal on the table any night of the week.
Plan ahead. Meal prepping tips are all over the internet. Some require complex menu planning with little room for calling a midweek audible. I admire people who can stick to a rigorous schedule; I’m just not one of them.
My meal prepping tends to revolve around making more time-consuming dishes or elements of a dish on the weekends that I can incorporate during the week whenever it makes sense for me.
A large batch of Bolognese sauce could come in handy for a fast pasta bake, polenta topping or French bread pizza. If I’m using that sauce to make a more elaborate dish, like lasagna, on Sunday, perhaps I’ll make two (which only takes a minimal amount of extra work) and bake the second one later in the week.
Roasting a chicken might not be in the cards on a busy Tuesday night, but if I’m making one for dinner on Saturday, popping a second one right beside it on the roasting pan will provide me with delicious protein for a salad, sandwich or casserole when I need it most.
One of my go-to make-ahead timesavers is roasted vegetables. Peeling, cutting up and roasting a variety of vegetables can take time, but having them ready to go in the fridge means I can use them in a quick soup, either chopped up or puréed. I can toss them into couscous, along with a can of rinsed and drained beans, pine nuts, feta cheese and a balsamic vinaigrette, for a light, Mediterranean-inspired meal. Or perhaps they will find their way into a baguette, with a little fresh mozzarella and pesto, for a fast, satisfying sandwich.
At the very least, I know I will be getting in my veggies, which isn’t always an easy task on a weekday.
Make it fast. Scrambled eggs, a PB&J or cheese and crackers are all fast meals most of us have found ourselves turning to on those crazy nights when there’s so much to do and no time to do it. While those options can be lifesavers, they don’t necessarily feel like dinner.
So, for those evenings when you’re craving a warm, satisfying meal, it’s good to have a repertoire of quick and easy pantry-friendly dishes you can turn to any night of the week.
I like to keep ingredients on hand like onions, garlic, potatoes, canned tomatoes and beans, pasta and rice, frozen shredded chicken and/or beef, cartons of broth and a cupboard stocked with an assortment of herbs and spices.
If my pantry is well-stocked, I can almost always throw together a quick soup, stew, casserole or pasta dish in less than 30 minutes.
One of my family’s favorites is Chicken Paprikash. When I have loads of time, I use bone-in chicken thighs that are slow-simmered in a paprika-infused liquid before adding a generous amount of sour cream and spooning over homemade spaetzle.
It’s the ultimate comfort food, but it doesn’t always fit into our busy schedules. Luckily, a quick and easy version can give us all the comfort we need whenever we need it. I just make the sauce and let it simmer long enough to marry the flavors, add shredded rotisserie chicken and spoon over extra-wide egg noodles. Creamy and deeply flavorful, this is a stress-free meal that will warm the soul on the frostiest fall night.
Take it slow. Yes, there are a plethora of fancy small appliances on the market that can help you get a meal on the table quickly, but none of them can take the place of my trusty slow cooker.
I know, a slow cooker isn’t going to let you start a meal at 6 and eat at 6:30. On the other hand, it will let you start a meal in the morning and slowly cook it all day, allowing inexpensive but flavorful meats to gently stew until they’re fork-tender, or beans to quietly simmer until they’re soft and yielding. All the while, your home is perfumed by their tantalizing fragrances.
An iconic slow cooker meal, like Tomato, Navy Bean and Ham Hock Soup, lets you work — either at home or in the workplace — without requiring anything of you until you’re ready to eat, when it rewards you with a steaming, hearty bowl of creamy beans, smoky ham and tomatoey broth.
No matter how challenging our schedules get, a few simple strategies can help you and your family get off the fall roller coaster long enough to sit down and enjoy a hot, delicious meal together.
Roasted Vegetable Medley
Note: Roasting vegetables that have relatively the same density and are cut the same size helps to ensure even cooking. These roasted veggies are delicious to eat on their own, but they’re also handy to have on hand for soups, salads and sides on busy nights. From Meredith Deeds.
• 3 lb. vegetables, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-in. pieces (see lists below; group the same types of vegetables together so they all cook in the same amount of time)
• 2 tbsp. olive oil
• 1/2 tsp. salt
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray two large rimmed baking sheets with cooking spray.
In a large bowl, combine the vegetables, oil and salt. Toss to coat thoroughly.
Divide vegetables between the two baking sheets.
Roast until vegetables are tender and beginning to brown, 40 to 50 minutes for dense vegetables, 20 to 30 minutes for crucifers, and 15 to 20 minutes for soft vegetables, tossing them and rotating sheets from top to bottom halfway through. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Root or dense vegetables: Carrots, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, winter squash.
Crucifers: Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts.
Soft vegetables: Zucchini, summer squash, bell peppers and cherry tomatoes.
Easy Chicken Paprikash
Note: Sautéing the onions until lightly browned and simmering the sauce to allow the flavors to blend give this 30-minute meal its slow-cooked flavor. From Meredith Deeds.
• 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 2 medium onions, thinly sliced
• 3 cloves garlic, minced
• 3 tbsp. Hungarian sweet paprika
• 1/4 tsp. cayenne
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
• 2 1/2 c. low-sodium chicken broth
• 3 c. shredded cooked chicken (from store-bought rotisserie chicken or home-roasted chicken)
• 2/3 c. sour cream
• Egg noodles, cooked
• Fresh herbs such as oregano or parsley, for garnish, if desired
Melt butter in a 4-quart saucepan. Add onions and cook, stirring frequently, over medium heat until softened and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic, paprika, cayenne, salt and pepper and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in the broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the chicken and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes, until hot. Remove from heat and stir in the sour cream. Serve over egg noodles or spaetzle and garnish with herbs as desired.
Slow Cooker Tomato, Navy Bean and Ham Hock Soup
Note: Adding canned diced tomatoes to this hearty classic soup gives the broth a bright flavor that balances well with the smoky, rich ham hock. From Meredith Deeds.
• 1 tbsp. olive oil
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 2 medium carrots, chopped
• 2 medium ribs celery, chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 4 c. low-sodium chicken broth
• 3 (15- to 16-oz.) cans navy beans, drained and rinsed
• 1 (14.5-oz.) can diced tomatoes, undrained
• 1 smoked ham hock or shank
• 2 bay leaves
• 3 tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley
In 12-inch skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, carrots and celery; cook and stir 5 to 6 minutes or until vegetables soften. Add garlic, thyme, salt and pepper; cook and stir 1 minute. Transfer to a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker.
Add broth, beans, tomatoes, ham hock and bay leaves to slow cooker.
Cover; cook on low-heat setting 8 to 9 hours or until meat on ham hock is tender and easily separated from bone.
Remove ham hock and bay leaves. Let ham hock cool and separate the meat from the bone and skin. Discard bone, skin and any excess fat and tendon. Shred ham; return to slow cooker and stir. Discard bay leaves.
Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Stir in parsley and serve.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Instagram at @meredithdeeds.