Dinner Strategies: Easy Family Meals from Melissa d'Arabian

Fish and veggie pouches
Photograph by Carl Tremblay
Make mealtime a success with this inspiring collection of strategy-focused dinners from mom and celebrity chef Melissa d'Arabian.
Melissa cooks in her home kitchen with her girls Oceane, Margaux, Charlotte, and Valentine; Photograph by Ericka McConnell
Melissa cooks in her home kitchen with her girls Oceane, Margaux, Charlotte, and Valentine; Photograph by Ericka McConnell

Recipe Rescue

People may know me as a television personality, but first and foremost, I am a mom to four growing girls.
Like many parents, on weekdays I find myself running around town, balancing the soccer car pool with robotics club pickup and dance class drop-off. And sometime between managing the kids' activities and doing my job, I need to get dinner on the table each night.

My dinnertime challenges are the same as those most moms and dads face: I'm always trying to prepare meals that are quick, healthy, affordable, and creative without going overboard. I've found that having a repertoire of foolproof recipes that resolve our most frequent dinner dilemmas can make family meals less stressful, which in turn creates more opportunities for trying new things. I've included a number of my favorite examples here -- healthy recipes that help me get food on the table fast, often from what I already have on hand. Try them yourself for a satisfying meal any night of the week.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Carl Tremblay
Photograph by Carl Tremblay

Meal #1: Break Out of Your Rut

Just because you're feeding kids doesn't mean you can't spice things up. I've found that the secret to introducing new flavors is to do it in small steps, giving my kids a blend of something familiar with a little something surprising. Introducing this pad thai (see recipe below) to my pickiest eater, for instance, was a success because she loves all things noodle!

Starter Swaps for Selective Eaters: If introducing a recipe with lots of new ingredients is likely to be overwhelming for your kids, try a more limited approach. Trade, say, your go-to pasta for couscous or serve quinoa in place of rice.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Carl Tremblay
Photograph by Carl Tremblay

Meal #2: Make It Quick

When time is short, I turn to a simple sautéed chicken dish. The ingredients vary, but the method stays the same: I dredge chicken cutlets in a little flour and brown them, then add aromatics (garlic, onion, or shallots), veggies, a flavorful liquid to make a sauce (broth, juice, or wine), and a finishing touch like a pat of butter, a dollop of creamy mustard, or a sprinkle of fresh herbs or capers. Dinner's always on the table in less than 30 minutes. See below for the full recipe.

Taste It Further: You can use this technique for all sorts of variations. Start with the same amount of chicken and use one of the ingredient combinations below.

Irish: 2 strips cooked bacon, chopped + 1 cup shredded cabbage + 1/2 cup chicken broth, 3 tablespoons apple cider, and 1 tablespoon cider vinegar + 1 tablespoon butter

Italian: 2 garlic cloves, minced + 1/2 cup each beef broth and marinara sauce + 1/3 cup mozzarella melted on top (cover the pan for the last few minutes)

Mediterranean: 1 medium onion, chopped + 8 ounces sliced mushrooms and 2 garlic cloves, minced + 1 1/2 teaspoons dried tarragon, 14-ounce can diced tomatoes (drained), and 1 cup chicken broth + 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Carl Tremblay
Photograph by Carl Tremblay

Meal #3: Eat on the Cheap

A great way to see savings in your grocery bill is to work in some inexpensive dinners that feature cheaper proteins. By including just one in your weekly rotation -- like these tasty lentil burgers (see recipe below) -- you can create a meal that satisfies both your family and your budget.

More Low-Cost Ideas: Keep this list of ingredients (some of my go-to staples) on hand for building budget-friendly dinners that don't scrimp on taste.

Eggs: Clean out the crisper drawer and make a veggie frittata, a simple scramble, or an omelet. Serve with a fresh green salad tossed in a tangy dressing.

Quinoa: Bought in bulk, this grainlike seed becomes quite affordable when you consider how much protein it delivers! Use it as you would pasta or rice in combination with hearty veggies.

Salmon: The canned form of this omega 3-packed protein costs way less than fresh fish. Use it to make salmon cakes or to top a main-course salad.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

Photograph by Carl Tremblay
Photograph by Carl Tremblay

Meal #4: Cook Fast, Fresh, and Healthy

I like to make the healthy choice the easy choice at my house. That way, when I'm tired or pressed for time, I'm not tempted to opt for less nutritious dinner options. Fish en papillote (en papillote being a fancy-sounding but straightforward steaming technique) is the perfect low-effort dish. It's quick and versatile -- and cleanup's a snap. See below for the full recipe.

Get Hooked: Don't stop at pesto and veggies. This healthy, low-mess fish dinner has endless flavor possibilities, including the following family-worthy variations. For each, simply mix up the ingredients listed and divide the result among 4 fish portions, then cook as instructed in the recipe.

Red sauce: 1/2 medium zucchini, sliced + 1 1/2 teaspoons each minced shallot and oregano + 1 cup marinara sauce

Ginger broth: 5 thinly sliced button mushrooms + 1 garlic clove, minced + 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger + 1/2 cup mirin + 8 cilantro sprigs

Mild curry: 1 sliced red bell pepper + 1 garlic clove, minced + 1 heaping tablespoon Thai curry paste + 1 cup light coconut milk + 6 thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

Best-selling author and mom Melissa d'Arabian is an expert on affordable and healthy family home cooking. She also hosts the foodnetwork.com series The Picky Eaters Project and serves as a judge on Guy's Grocery Games. Her new cookbook, Supermarket Healthy, is available now.

Originally published in the February 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

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