Easy Back-to-School Dinner Recipes
It’s the end of the day. Everyone has returned to the nest and the words, “I’m hungry!” quickly come out. With homework, after-school activities and tales of the day, there is often no time for elaborate, leisurely or even persnickety dinner prep.
Over the years I’ve come up with a list of don’t-go-bad pantry and freezer staples that are real food, and really tasty. They mix and match into a gratifyingly wide array of tasty dinners. They even include the veggies, and most create leftovers that work as a lunch the next day.
Below are a few basic recipes that can be mixed and matched. Use noodles or couscous or quinoa in place of the grains I’ve suggested to change things up. Try different sausage flavors. Try new sauces. And if you have time and fresh ingredients that seem like they might substitute in, go for it! These are simply starting points.
As well, I have included meatless and gluten-free versions of these recipes for families who are on the lookout for dinner food that works for them.
Dinner Quick! Recipes
Polenta with Sausage and Bruschetta Sauce
- 1 package precooked polenta (looks like a polenta sausage) – 1 tube serves 3-4 people; use 2 if you have hungry people
- 1 jar bruschetta sauce or other tomato sauce
- Italian flavored pre-cooked sausage, sliced into coins about finger width – 1 or 2 sausages per person
- Salt and pepper
Pop the polenta into a sauce pan with a few large spoonfuls of sauce and a small splash of water. Place it over medium heat. Stir to loosen it up and make it creamy. Place a sauté pan over medium-high heat with a splash of oil. Add a very small piece of sausage. When it starts sizzling, the pan is ready for the rest of the sausage. Sauté the sausage until it has crispy edges. Add the sauce at the end to mix with the sausage juices and heat it up. Taste the polenta and add salt and pepper if it seems bland.
Spoon the creamy polenta onto the plates and serve with sausages and the warmed sauce. Add some fresh sliced veggies on the side.
Meatless-Monday Variation: Sub in tofu or vegetarian sausage. Simmer it in the sauce a bit longer to add more flavor.
Gluten-Free: This one already is!
Rice with Spinach and Shrimp
- 1 package cooked rice in a vacuum pouch (90-second rice) – 1 pouch serves 3-4 people
- Frozen spinach – 4 oz. per family member
- Frozen shrimp – 4-8 per person
- ½ an onion (a whole one for a big or hungry family), chopped
- Teriyaki or another yummy sauce of your choosing
Count out the frozen shrimp you want to use, and pop them in a bowl. Let a small stream of COLD water run over your shrimp. It will fill up the bowl and start running out. This will thaw the shrimp quickly and safely.
Add a splash of oil to a sauté pan and place over medium heat. Add a small piece of onion. When it sizzles, add the rest of the onion, along with a pinch of salt. Let it cook away on the back burner, stirring occasionally until it turns golden. Bring ½ an inch of water to boil over high heat. Add about 4 oz. of frozen spinach to the pot for each person you are feeding. Stir the water about a bit, clap the lid on and steam over medium until the spinach is hot through (about 5 minutes). Take it off the heat and drain any excess water. Carefully add your sauce to the spinach until it is savory and delicious. Pop the lid on to keep warm. When the onions are golden, and heading toward brown, pull the (mostly) thawed shrimp out of the water. Pat dry on paper towels. Add to the onions and keep stirring and flipping until the shrimp are just cooked. Turn off the heat under everything, and get the rice hot in the microwave.
In large bowls spoon in some rice. Serve up the flavorful spinach and shrimp with golden onions on top. Dig in!
Meatless-Monday Variation: Substitute tofu in for the shrimp, heating the sliced tofu and the golden onions the same way.
Gluten-Free: Check your tofu and sauce ingredients. As long as those are wheat free, you are all set.
Pizza Toast and Salad
- Romaine lettuce
- Creamy Italian salad dressing
- 1 14 oz. can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 jar roasted peppers (optional), cut into strips
- Salami, sliced
- Mozzarella cheese, shredded
- Bread (what you have is fine)
- Tomato basil sauce
Pour the garbanzo beans into a salad bowl. Add a few tablespoons of the dressing and let the beans sit in there while preparing the rest of the meal. Pull a few peppers out of the jar and chop them up. Add them to the beans.
Layer sauce, salami, red pepper strips (optional) and mozzarella cheese on the bread. Toast or bake at 425˚F until the cheese is melted and a bit bubbly. Tear up the lettuce and toss it into the other ingredients. Add a bit more dressing if needed. Yummy!
Meatless-Monday Variation: Just leave the salami out, and be sure to use the red pepper strips. If you have some leftover grilled veggies from something else, or feel like sautéing some zucchini, it goes great here.
Gluten Free: Use the pre-cooked polenta, but pan-fry slices and then bake with the toppings in the oven. Or just make polenta-sauce-salami-pepper strip-mozzarella stacks, and microwave to get warm polenta and melty cheese. Good salami should always be gluten free.
Nachos – Your Style
- Tortilla chips (plain or gently flavored – maybe something baked?)
- Cheese (cheddar or a blend), grated – a large handful per person
- 1 14 oz. can refried beans (or Cuban-style black beans)
- Lettuce, cabbage or cucumber
Empty the prepared beans into a microwave safe bowl. Heat in 30 second intervals, with the lid resting on the bowl, but not closed tight (prevents messes). Stir each time until the beans are warm through. Cut your vegetables into thin strips.
Each diner should spread a thin layer of chips on a plate. Top with beans and cheese. Microwave to melt the cheese. Top with veggies and salsa. Go on, eat with your hands, just this once.
Meatless Monday Variation: All done!
Gluten Free: Yes!
More Variations: Feel free to sub in ground beef and onions for the beans.
Flip it around and make a “nacho salad.” Use lots of lettuce, and the cucumber, maybe a bell pepper, and serve the chips on the side. A ranch-type salad dressing spiced up with a few splashes of hot sauce works as a dressing.
Canned, sliced olives are always a nice addition.
Quinoa with Spinach, Onions and Sausage
- 1 C dry quinoa (you may also substitute pasta, couscous or another grain) – serves about 4 people
- 2 C water or broth
- 1-2 sausages per person (my favorite is a mix of chicken-apple and spicy Andouille flavored), cut into coins
- 1 box or half a bag frozen spinach
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 spoonful chopped garlic (to taste)
- Salt and pepper
- Balsamic vinegar, optional (red wine or apple cider work fine, too)
Put a splash of oil in a sauce pan over medium high heat. Drop in a small piece of onion. When the onion sizzles, add in the rest of the onion, and a pinch of salt. Stir the onion until it starts to turn golden. Meanwhile, heat up another splash of oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. When a small piece of sausage starts to sizzle, add the rest of the sausage (still partly frozen is fine), and stir it until the edges are crispy. When the onion is golden, pour in the water or broth and quinoa. Bring to a boil and return to a simmer. Clap on the lid and cook until the water is absorbed and the quinoa shows its little germ “tails” (about 10 to 15 minutes). When the sausage is done, set it aside on a plate and put the frozen spinach in the same pan (with all the sausage juice and bits for flavor) over medium-high heat. Add about ½ cup water or broth to the sauté pan. Stir the spinach until it starts to simmer. Let it cook for about 5 minutes, until tender. Taste. Add a little salt and vinegar if needed. When the quinoa is done, stir in the spinach. Taste for salt and pepper and add what is needed. Serve the sausage over the flavored quinoa.
Meatless-Monday Variation: Heat up some tasty prepared beans (baked beans, Cuban black beans, etc.) and serve over the quinoa. Or, choose a tasty frozen vegetable mix, cook according to the package directions, and use in place of the sausage.
Gluten-Free: Stick with a gluten free starch and you are all set. Good sausages should always be gluten free. Check your labels!
Helping parents, kids and new cooks navigate and enjoy fresh, local and sometimes unusual produce prodded Greta Hardin into writing Cooking Your Local Produce. She’s a science teacher, enthusiastic cook and mother of a 10-year-old son. She couldn’t find a cookbook to help people get started in the emerging landscape of local food, so she wrote this one. More information and recipes are available at www.gretahardin.com.
Food Items to Always Have on Hand
- Chopped spinach. Fresh spinach and other greens are good too, but can go bad while you are not looking. As other leaves show up in your freezer case, try them too!
- Pre-cooked sausages. I particularly like chicken sausages. Choose your favorite flavors, and keep them on hand.
- Pre-seasoned tofu. The flavoring of tofu takes time. For speedy dinners, take the short cut. After you purchase tofu from the fridge section, throw it in the freezer so it keeps well.
- Raw, shell-off shrimp.
- Meal-ready grains. And by this I mean fully cooked rice, par-cooked grains, quinoa, pre-made polenta, pasta, couscous, vacuum-packed gnocchi, and healthy tortilla chips.
- Onions. These are an important flavor element that boosts an entire meal.
- Boxes of broth for quick soup or to add flavor. Both chicken and vegetable are both super versatile. Have small snap-top containers to freeze leftover portions for later use.
- Canned beans. These are great for adding protein to salads.
- Prepared beans (e.g. refried, baked other flavored beans). Just heat and eat, and add a few things to the edges for a complete meal.
- Tomato sauces. They are great on pasta, polenta and toast “pizzas.” Look for ingredients that are food, with no added sugar.
- Roasted red peppers in a jar. The peppers add color and flavor to hot and cold foods – and it’s a vegetable!
- Flavorful sauces, for mixing into grains, pastas and vegetables, and giving oomph to a whole dish. Look for teriyaki-type sauces and other Asian inspired soy-ginger flavors.
- Jarred pre-chopped garlic. Sure, sure, fresh is best, but this is far superior to none.
- Salami, sliced or not. It’s not only super tasty, but made to have a long shelf life. Protein and flavor in one compact package.
- Salsa. It’s a jar of tasty vegetables. Lots of salsas are tasty rather than spicy. Look for mild salsas with intriguing flavors.