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The Cheap, Easy Family Dinners Chefs & Food Writers Rely On

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No matter what happens in the larger world, one thing at home remains as certain as death and taxes: The kids need dinner. With the economy slowing, child care rare, and grocery shopping fully transitioned from anticipated outing to anxiety-inducing expedition, the last few months have forced parents to come up with affordable, fast dinner options.

To help answer the eternal question “what’s for dinner?” we asked food writers and chefs around the country to tell us what they cook each night that keeps their family full and themselves fulfilled.

Gathering Ingredients And Inspiration In The Garden

Kenji López-Alt

New York Times recipe columnist and chef/partner at Wursthall, a California beer hall in San Mateo

If you’ve read my first book or my online column, The Food Lab, you probably think that my style of cooking is very prescriptivist and precise, but it’s not! Even before we had our baby, my day-to-day approach to cooking was easygoing and diverse, even more so now that the baby is a 3 1/2-year-old big kid who wants to help with the cooking.

Like any human being, she loves pizza, and we typically make one together once a week. (My upcoming children’s book, Every Night Is Pizza Night, out Sept. 1, is a nod to this tradition.) The rest of the time, we all discuss meal plans together as a family. Thankfully, her tastes tend to veer in the healthy direction — fish, vegetables, and tofu are her most common requests, and we let her eat as much of those as she desires.

These days my wife, Adri, and I split preschooling duties while we both try to work full-time jobs. I have Alicia to myself Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while Adri has her the other two days. We make up for missed days by working at night after bedtime.

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After a morning of activities, I like lunch to be fast. Frequently, that means stir-frying. Alicia is a tofu fiend, and our favorite way to eat it is as Japanese-style mapo tofu: I stir-fry a couple ounces of minced beef or pork with ginger, scallions, and garlic; season it with sake, soy sauce, and mirin; thicken the sauce with a cornstarch slurry; then fold in diced silken tofu. We eat this with rice and whatever fresh vegetables we have on hand. (She will never turn down cucumbers, snap peas, or steamed broccoli.)

A surefire way to get her to eat well during dinner is to ask her to go out and pick vegetables for a soup.

Living in California, we have a small vegetable garden in the backyard, which Alicia enjoys raiding. A surefire way to get her to eat well during dinner is to ask her to go out and pick vegetables for a soup. Right now, that usually consists of kale from our garden, and the zucchini and summer squash from my neighbor’s garden, along with whatever herbs she chooses (usually thyme or basil). I’ll saute some onions, garlic, and kale in olive oil; add sliced zucchini, squash, and chicken or veggie stock; simmer it down until the vegetables are tender; ask Alicia whether she wants it smooth or chunky (if the answer is smooth, I’ll hit it with the hand blender); then stir in the herbs.

Cooking From Crisper Drawer Chaos

Naomi Tomky

Freelance food and travel writer, author of The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook

In the panicked, early days of the pandemic, with my 2- and 4-year-old daughters suddenly underfoot constantly and our routine of farmers market visits and stopping at the grocery store on the way home from daycare untenable, I signed up for a CSA. Suddenly, cooking quickly and affordably meant finding the best way to convince my children to eat some sort of green thing — both for nutritional reasons and so that I made it through the week’s produce before it deteriorated in the fridge or the next load arrived.

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I soon landed on okonomiyaki as a solution because the Japanese-style pancake uses enormous amounts of whatever vegetable lingers too long — traditionally cabbage but also zucchini, brussels sprouts, kale, or carrots. The name literally means “what you like, grilled,” so I just grate and salt whatever threatens to go bad in the crisper drawer, let it drain for 10 minutes, then squeeze and stir it into stock, eggs, and flour before frying it up with bacon — a bastardized version of the dish, loosely based on this Serious Eats recipe. The kids especially loved it once we stocked up on the traditional topping of shaved bonito — or, as they call them, “dancing fish flakes.”

Okonomiyaki literally means 'what you like, grilled,' so I just grate and salt whatever threatens to go bad in the crisper drawer.

Another staple of **these times** is an old favorite: the spicy Sichuan sesame noodles called dan dan mian. Over the years, the dish evolved in my house, transitioning from a noun to a verb. “We can dan dan that,” I say, opening the fridge and pulling out whatever seems like it could benefit from a coating of the complex sauce with just enough resemblance to peanut butter to please younger palates. As noodles cook and mushrooms or broccoli jumps in the wok with preserved vegetables, I stir together two kinds of soy sauce, Sichuan peppercorns, and sesame paste, always looking remorsefully at the chili oil I have to leave on the side until the girls get a little older.

When brisket — like yeast before it — became a hot commodity, we impulse bought 13 pounds of flank steak on sale instead. We separated and froze it, pulling a little slab out for tacos every once in a while — just grilling the steak (medium-hot for about three minutes a side). As with so much over the course of social distancing, the dinner routine went from one controlled by impulse to one of practicality, reversing my thought process from “what do I want to eat?” to “what should I make with all this?” and forcing me to think in a new way. But when it gets hard, I just envision myself on a soundstage, competing in a Top Chef challenge: Cook these 17 zucchini in a way that pleases four hungry people before they become four hangry people.

Whole Roasted Everything

Angela Davis

Private chef and food blogger

As the food blogger behind The Kitchenista Diaries, I’m no stranger to hearty comfort food, Sunday suppers, and other family-style meals. But with my teenage son out of the house, it’s just my 6-year-old daughter and me at home during lockdown. As grocery shopping became infrequent, I’ve had to rethink my game plan for meals.

A whole roasted chicken is something I don’t have to think about and we both agree on.

Much of my freelance work still revolves around recipe development for brands, so I always have random odds and ends in my veggie bins and a variety of specialty ingredients in the pantry. Grain bowls are a quick go-to solution for lunches. At the beginning of the week, I prepare a bulk grain, something like quinoa or brown rice. Then I’ll grab whatever cooked protein I have in the fridge, which is usually some chopped up chicken but, in a pinch, I use canned tuna. I’ll build the bowls with the cooked grains, protein, a handful of leafy greens like baby spinach or lettuce, and drizzle with whatever dressing we have on hand. Customizing our bowls is the fun part: I like to add pickled onions, olives, and spicy harissa paste or a cool chutney. Raven gets to pick out her own kid-friendly toppings and condiments from the fridge.

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A whole roasted chicken is something I don’t have to think about and we both agree on. I’ll rub a spatchcocked bird down the night before with whatever spice blend I’m testing out, leave it uncovered on a sheet pan in the refrigerator, and the next day slather it with avocado oil or duck fat — any kind of oil suitable for high heat. Then I pop it into a 500 degrees Fahrenheit oven (or my Traeger grill) until the skin is crispy and the meat is cooked through. I’ll roast a pan of seasonal veggies at the same time — just tossed with oil, salt, and pepper, and finished with chopped fresh herbs and lemon. We’ll eat half the chicken for dinner that night and use the rest for lunches, or sometimes I’ll turn it into a soup. I save all my bones for stock in the freezer, so it’s really a gift that keeps on giving.

Whole roasted salmon is another favorite. I’ll do a quick 15-minute saltwater brine, pat it dry, and lightly season it with lemon pepper or all-purpose seasoning. Then it’s drizzled with olive oil and baked in the oven at a low temp, around 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This only takes about 20 minutes and the salmon finishes to a medium-rare texture. Leftovers are amazing when flaked into omelettes or cold salads. Raven loves salmon cakes, which are just leftover flaked salmon tossed with minced shallot, spices, herbs, breadcrumbs, an egg, and just enough mayo to hold it all together. We pan-fry them until crispy, then eat with a little lemon and tartar sauce. Easy proteins that are adaptable as leftovers for other meals are definitely a lifesaver these days!

Mini Burritos And Mega Flavors

Claudette Zepeda

Award-winning chef and Top Chef contestant (Mexico and Colorado)

I have worked in professional kitchens for the last 18 years of my life, since the year before my son was born. For the last five years I’ve been dedicated to examining Mexican cuisine through the immigrant perspective, examining what and why we eat. It revealed to me that Mexican food is one of the most diverse global cuisines — not a fusion but an adaptation of cultures through time and history, and that is the way that I have always cooked at home, instinctively — a constant and beautiful reminder that I am just keeping with the trend of Mexico and the matriarchs that came before me.

At the beginning of the current “situation,” I was motivated to stay on task as the domestic goddess that I had never been able to be as a working single mother of two. I baked breads and cakes; I smoked meats, vegetables, butter, and sugar; I tended to figs and berries from our backyard as tiny cartoon birds dressed me each morning. Now, I’m back to what feels like a more feasible routine: Sometimes we cook together, other times I slide plates through the door to James (17) and Hailey (15), like a prison warden.

Katleho Seisa, Getty Images

For mini burritos, I make a big-ass batch of chorizo with a ton of spice and herbs, sauteing it with the random onion petals that seem to grow in my fridge door. I put a sad tomato that I had every intention of using for a beautiful salad (that the kids wouldn't eat) in a blender with some droopy vegetable drawer victims that once had all the potential in the world, creating a sort of sofrito sauce for the meat. I squish beans with the back of a spoon, crack several eggs, add in a handful of quesadilla cheese, fold until it scrambles together, then wrap it all up in a tortilla.

Other times, I marinate chicken thighs by blending ingredients I always have on hand: soy sauce, my homemade chili-oil based salsa macha, honey, and cilantro stems. I try to let them sit overnight, or I at least prep after breakfast and pop it in the fridge.

I put a sad tomato that I had every intention of using for a beautiful salad (that the kids wouldn't eat) in a blender with some droopy vegetable drawer victims that once had all the potential in the world, creating a sort of sofrito sauce.

I grill them over charcoal, splitting it between inferno and cooking temperatures, taking them off when I see blackened caramelized bits around the thighs. I serve my garlic-butter creamy jasmine rice on the side and do another refrigerator scan and see what’s in the vegetable drawer: usually a combo of bell peppers, onions, green onions, broccoli, or cauliflower that I saute with olive oil, sea salt, and minced cilantro leaves that I finish with butter and lime (a lot of lime).

It only takes about 25 minutes to pull together, not accounting for charcoal heating. But I have a trick for speeding up the grill: I heat the coals with a hair dryer. My hair dryer that now spends more time blowing coals than hair. I can’t remember the last time I blow dried my hair — or hell, even brushed it.

Pork Chops, Patience, And Pad Thai

Angela Garbes

Author of Like a Mother and erstwhile food writer

During this pandemic, I am never alone; I am a writer who does not write. Mostly, I wash dishes. I stand at the stove and shuttle food and oily silicone placemats back and forth between the dining room table and kitchen sink. Our carpet sports a worn path, matted and dark, a monument to all the days and meals that dissolve into each other.

Generally, I’m an enthusiastic home cook who relies less on recipes than on improvisation and a well-stocked pantry. My kitchen sensibility lives at the intersection of indulgence and thrift, tipping toward the latter the longer quarantine goes on. Gazing at the imported cheese counter at the gourmet grocer thrills me, but buying cans of chickpeas 16 at a time at Costco brings a more tangible, lasting joy. Leftovers are never detritus, but a head start on the next meal.

Leftovers become a topping for sheet pan nachos that we eat on a sour-cream-stained blanket in the living room while watching My Neighbor Totoro (again).

Without the child care that gives me the required break from the sweet constancy of my daughters’ needs, I am unable to show up for them with as much patience and grace as I’d like. But living under a stay-at-home order has renewed our animal closeness. I understand their fears, delights, smells, and appetites intuitively. How my 2-year-old really only ever wants sausage and will eat anything offered in soup form. How my 5-year-old craves, in her quiet smoldering way, olives straight from the jar and oily tinned fishes.

Catherine Falls, Getty Images

Lunch is a duty, a means to an end, a simple meal to replenish calories burned at the park. I make more of an effort for dinner, a way to celebrate that we survived another day.

My spouse grills a 6-pound family-pack of pork chops for nearly a week’s worth of dinners. First, we’ll eat pork chops and vinegary coleslaw (made “KFC style” with finely diced cabbage, red onion, and carrot). The next evening, the meat is cubed and becomes a topping for sheet pan nachos that we eat on a sour-cream-stained blanket in the living room while watching My Neighbor Totoro (again). The night after, I’ll slice the pork into thin strips and make pad thai, stir-frying it in a sauce that perfumes the house with tamarind and fish sauce. I cook the entire package of noodles, ensuring the next day’s lunch, maybe more.

I worry all the time — about money; about how best to explain systemic racism; about the countless losses, big and small, accumulating around us; about all the things I will continue to not write as I oversee Zoom kindergarten this fall. But when the mountain of pad thai is served and my daughters cheer, for a moment all I can do is cry at such abundance.