Tried-and-True Recipes for Weeknight Dinners

Most of us have the best of intentions when it comes to putting a healthy, appealing dinner on the table day in and day out. But, finding no-fail recipes can be a challenge. Moms and food editors Kathleen Brennan and Caroline Campion have come to our rescue with their new cookbook Keepers. A collection of quick and easy (but interesting) recipes, the book is also a friendly guide for the beginning cook that promises to reveal the secrets to happiness in the kitchen. 

Q: What is a “keeper”?

A: A keeper is a recipe that you turn to time and again because it’s foolproof, the best of its kind, and a crowd-pleaser. Most people have at least a couple keepers in their repertoire—their mom’s macaroni and cheese, a roast chicken they’ve perfected, a favorite brownie—but we wanted to give families a book filled with weeknight keepers to help them get from Monday to Friday, week after week.  And we paired them with lots of tips and advice to help them become better cooks in general, too.

Q: What are some tips for moms who are just starting to cook for families?

A: Start simple. Master the basics first: a balanced vinaigrette that you can use to dress a simple green salad, warm grains, or leftover roasted vegetables; a basic tomato sauce that you can make almost as quickly as opening a jar of tomato sauce (which generally has added sugar, unpronounceable preservatives, and excessive salt); a turkey chili that you can make ahead and keep warm on the stove on those nights when everybody is eating at different times. Mastering these basics will give you an amazing head start to feeding your family! 

Q: How can cooking at home help families who are on a budget?

A: This is a no-brainer: if you were to spend a week feeding your family a menu of take-out and frozen dinners and then compared the receipts with those from a supermarket shopping list for home-cooked meals (beef stir-fry, turkey tacos, chicken pot pie, pizza with store-bought dough), you would see how much you save by making dinner. Plus, you know EXACTLY what went into the food and chances are it will be healthier and more delicious. But we’re not saying that you shouldn’t ever order in pizza. In fact, we recommend giving yourself one night off from cooking Monday to Friday, whether that means serving pizza, leftovers, sandwiches, whatever.

Q: I love some of your tips, especially “season like you mean it” and “taste your food first”. Why are these so important?

A: There’s nothing worse than spending a ton of time and effort on a meal and then having it taste like sawdust because you forgot to add the salt—yet a very common mistake! And it’s easily avoidable if you taste the dish before you serve it. 

Q: What is your philosophy regarding buying organic?

A: For many families, buying organic is just not in their budget, so we say buy organic when possible, but also when it counts (so organic fruit and vegetables—yes; organic ketchup and Oreos—no). We also think that eating locally can be equally important as eating organically: supporting local farmers and shopping at farmers’ markets.

Q: Is it realistic to think that kids can help cook on a busy weeknight?

A: It depends on a few things: your mood, the kids’ interest, how much time you have. Base it on what works on that particular night. At the very least, maybe they can help set the table, toss the salad, or grate the cheese, so they are involved in the process of getting dinner done but no one is making anyone crazy. But there’s nothing wrong with saving the more involved cooking-together experience for lazy Sundays.

Q: What do you do find is the most challenging part of putting nourishing and appealing meals on the table day in and day out?

A: Probably time and scheduling. We think the best strategy is to try and sketch out a plan of what you’ll be making for the week ahead of time. So if Monday is going to be particularly hectic, plan on making one of our “lay-up” recipes like angel hair pasta with spicy tomato cream sauce, and if on Wednesday you know everyone will be eating at different times—what we call a “staggered” dinnertime—prepare something that holds well on the back of the stove, like our smoky turkey chili or Japanese “meat and potatoes”. If on Thursday night you have a bit more time, then make our roasted chicken breasts with sweet potatoes and kale salad. Another strategy that helps us deal with the week ahead is to try and make a few things on Sunday that you can serve during the week: roasting a few sheet pans of vegetables or making one our “lifesavers”, sauces and dressings such as magic miso-mayo and chimichurri, that keep for several days and make anything taste better, including store-bought rotisserie chicken or leftover grains and veggies. 

Q: Picture this: you’ve just made a healthy, from-scratch meal in 30 minutes. SUCCESS! And then your kids won’t touch a bite. What next?

A: Do not stress—children are unpredictable creatures! One day they will devour an entire plate of your homemade fish fingers and the next time you make the exact same dish they will tell you it “looks different” and refuse to take a bite. You can cajole them all you want—cry, beg, bribe—but once they’ve decided they don’t want something, that’s probably it. Rather than going into short-order cook mode (a habit worth avoiding) and not enjoying the meal ourselves, we say, “This is dinner. Mommy is not making anything else, and I would love for you to try it because I think you will like it.” And if this fails, we do what one experienced mom of grown kids taught us and put bread and sandwich fixings on the table and invite them to make their own sandwich.

Q: What is your goal with this cookbook?

A: There are so many resources these days for people looking for help in the kitchen. You can type the word “chicken breast recipe” into the computer and it will come up with a zillion choices. But how to find one that will actually work, not call for an ingredient you probably don’t have, tastes terrific, and can be ready before the kids start to revolt? It’s often a crapshoot. That’s where Keepers comes in: every recipe is tried-and-true, most can be made in about 35 minutes or less and none call for pricey or exotic ingredients. We share lots of advice about how to stock your pantry, how to shop, season your food, and improve leftovers. It’s meant to be your go-to resource for Monday to Friday dinners, and even better, it’s like having a knowledgeable, but fun friend alongside you in the kitchen. Now if the book could also do the dishes, you’d be all set.

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