11 Shortcut Items This Mom of 4 Can't Live Without, Plus Recipes for Using Them
I love cooking for my family. Mostly fresh. Usually from scratch. Sometimes ethnic. But as a mom of four small kids (seriously, the oldest one is 7), my energy is limited. Plus, it’s a bit of a betting game at this stage. Will the kids appreciate all of my effort when I set their food on the table? Yes, everyone’s clear on the expectations: Try everything and be a good sport about it.
But will they actually enjoy it? In order to keep the cooking requirements and expectations in check, I take advantage of a few shortcuts for getting meals on the table quickly, easily and deliciously. Check them all out below.
Jarred Items: Olives and Sundried Tomatoes
Ounce for ounce, sundried tomatoes may have the most flavor of any single ingredient in your pantry. It takes a mere handful of ingredients to pull off Giada De Laurentiis’ Penne with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto (pictured above), which boasts a stellar 5-star rating.
Green olives create an almost instant sauce for either pork or chicken, giving either one a signature tang in seconds. Two of my favorites are Pork Tenderloin with So Many Olives and Chicken Mirabella: Chicken with Prunes & Olives.
Canned Items: Beans, Tomatoes and Stock
Not only can a can of beans transform regular tomato soup into creamy tomato soup, but it can instantly create an after-school dip my kids love with veggies. But don’t underestimate the humble can of white beans as star of their own show. With just a few other ingredients, it’s easy to whip up Food Network Kitchen’s recipe for Tuscan White Beans as a simple side everyone likes.
Canned tomatoes are pretty much the most-versatile ingredients there is. You can throw Ree Drummond’s Mexican Chicken Soup into your slow cooker in the morning and come home to a piping-hot meal at the end of the day. Or make Marcella Hazan’s famous Bolognese sauce in just under an hour.
If there’s one thing that’s made cooking from scratch simpler, it’s keeping chicken stock in my pantry. There’s the obvious shortcut to soups; Tyler Florence’s Chicken Noodle Soup and a 15-minute Spinach Tortellini Soup are two must-try picks. But you can use a handy can of stock to put together a rich and satisfying meal like Rachel Ray’s Chicken with Wild Mushroom with Balsamic Cream Sauce as well.
Freezer Items: Spinach and Berries
Frozen spinach is the one veggie I’m never out of. Use it as a side dish, paired with olive oil, garlic and a little lemon juice. That’s my kids’ favorite side — ever. Or make frozen spinach part of your main dish. Dinner is done in 15 minutes with this recipe for Sausage with Spinach Over Rice; it’s a hit every time.
When it comes to berries, the opportunities are seemingly endless. They can transform Frozen Fruit Smoothies and yogurt parfaits, from meh to magical in seconds. Or put them to work in dessert by making this Berry-Oatmeal Bake, which is surprisingly healthy.
In the Refrigerator: Baby Carrots, Fresh Lemons, Pesto and Sliced Cheddar Cheese
With so many uses, I constantly wonder what I ever did without ready-to-eat baby carrots. My kids can’t resist a good dipping contest, where each of them dunks a carrot into one of three different dips, comparing notes and declaring a winner. For dinner, you can whip up Rachel Ray’s Baby Carrots with a sweet glaze in 15 minutes. Or roast a whole bag of carrots on a sheet pan in your oven for a side dish (pictured above) so reliable that I almost always make it for guests too.
There’s simply no faster way to add flavor to a meal than a squeeze of fresh lemon. Without any extra salt or calories, a quick squeeze of lemon juice finishes this top-rated recipe for Coconut Fish Sticks. But lemon juice is also the perfect way to dress up to sauteed veggies, including our family’s favorite take on asparagus and peas. (Let the kids add the lemon on their own and you’ll immediately raise their chances of liking any dish every time.)
With more flavor than the pre-shredded stuff in a bag, sliced cheddar at the ready keeps me from getting out the grater when I’m in a hurry. I use it melted over Sausage and Bell Pepper Sliders, and I’ve been known to place a piece right over a bowl of my Easiest-Ever Broccoli Soup.
Bonus ingredient I always have on hand: fresh baby spinach
Chef Name: Giada De LaurentiisFull Recipe Name: Turkey and Spinach TaquitosTalent Recipe: Giada De Laurentiisâ Turkey and Spinach Taquitos, as seen on Giada at HomeFNK Recipe: Project: Foodnetwork.com, Back to School/Sandwich Central/Dinner and a Movie/SidesShow Name: Giada at HomeFood Network / Cooking Channel: Food Network,Chef Name: Giada De Laurentiis Full Recipe Name: Turkey and Spinach Taquitos Talent Recipe: Giada De Laurentiis’ Turkey and Spinach Taquitos, as seen on Giada at Home FNK Recipe: Project: Foodnetwork.com, Back to School/Sandwich Central/Dinner and a Movie/Sides Show Name: Giada at Home Food Network / Cooking Channel: Food Network
Renee Comet, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved
Charity Curley Mathews is the mom of four small kids and lives in North Carolina on a mini farm in the making. She’s a contributor to InStyle, The Huffington Post and eHow Food and the founder of Foodlets.com, a food and parenting blog where every recipe is full of fresh ingredients, simple to make and kid-tested x4. You can follow her on Facebook.