I'll be completely honest: Being a food writer and photographer means my family is used to eating odd food at even odder times of the day. During the summer holidays, this is not much of an issue – my daughter will happily eat breakfast for dinner if I've been shooting pancakes in the bright afternoon light, or sit down for supper at 8 p.m. after I've taken advantage of the soft evening light to get a nicely shadowed shot.
But come September, the start of the school year means it's time to get everyone back in a regular routine. I need a repertoire of simple meals that I can make within 45 minutes (at most!) with only a little planning and prep work. I always fall back on meals inspired by my ethnic background — things like quick curries, stir-fries in the wok, and bowls of lentil dal with easy roti on the side.
Raising an Adventurous Eater
My daughter will pretty much eat anything these days (as long it doesn't have mushrooms in it, sigh!), but it has not been an easy journey. There was a time when she was younger when she would scarf down pretty much anything you put in front of her, but around the age of three, she started realizing she didn't have to eat everything; she had choices. (Oh, you have an opinion, child? Um, nope!)
We fought over this almost constantly, and I did sometimes give in and just put toast in front of her. But most of the time, I made it a point to prepare just one meal at dinner time, and it was pretty much a take-it-or-leave-it situation for everyone at the table.
I tried, as far as I could, to accommodate her preferred meals, but I can only eat vegetarian lasagna so many times before my spice-seasoned palate started screaming out for some ethnic food. To start introducing her to spices and help her develop a taste for them, I often disguised it in quinoa and rice. Slowly I moved our dinners to the ones I was used to while growing up, and while we still have lasagna a lot, we've now moved on to at least trying out food on the table before the melodramatics start.
A lot of people wonder, as a food writer, if I have an adventurous eater for a child, and while I wouldn't go so far as to claim that, I can finally heave a sigh of relief that at least I won't have to fight constantly with her about her diet.
My Strategy for Quicker School-Night Dinners
The key to fast dinners on school nights is organization and prep. I normally do my big shopping trips on Saturdays with a few quick trips during the week to stock up on fresh produce. Having a rough meal plan in my head makes shopping much easier, as I can plan to hit the stores I need without having to travel all over the city. I normally start with the farmers market, move on to the grocery store, and finish with either the Indian or the Chinese grocery for ethnic ingredients.
On Sunday, I take a couple of hours to make a few things ahead, like rotis to go with Monday's lentil dal, or pizza dough to freeze for Friday's dinner. I also chop or shred any vegetables that will keep for a few days to save time when making each night's meal.
I've found that staying flexible is also crucial to keeping on track with our weekly meal plan. If I don't have a certain ingredient on hand or forgot something on my grocery list, I swap it for something else to save a trip to the store. If there's not time to make a side dish on any particular night, I just make sure to include plenty of vegetables in the main course itself.
The Power of Leftovers
Besides being quick to make, one of the other bonuses of this particular collection of meals is that the leftovers can be easily turned into lunch the next day — lunch, as every mom knows, can be a minefield, so it helps to have these leftovers as a fall-back plan. Our school allows students to heat meals on-site, so I can rely on my child getting a reasonably healthy, hot meal to add energy to her school days.
5 Fast Weeknight Dinners
- Vegetarian Indo-Chinese Hakka Noodles
- Serve with Indian Chili Chicken, if you'd like more protein in the meal
Your Meal Plan
What to Do Ahead
- Make a batch of rotis, if making.
- Make the pizza dough for Friday's dinner and freeze it until needed.
- Make the cucumber salad for Monday's dinner and refrigerate.
- Prep any vegetables that will keep for a few days in the fridge.
- Boil the eggs for Wednesday's curry.
What to Do Each Night
- Wrap the rotis in foil and put them in the oven to warm.
- Cook the lentil dal soup.
- While the soup is simmering, prep the cucumber salad (if you haven't already made it).
- If cooking the chili chicken, get this going first; it will take about 25 minutes total.
- Prep all of the ingredients for the hakka noodles before cooking.
- Stir-fry the hakka noodles and serve.
- Make a double batch of rice, some for tonight's meal and some for tomorrow's fried rice dinner.
- Boil the eggs, if you haven't already done so.
- Make the curry.
- If making the curry, start that first; it will take about 30 minutes total.
- Prep all of the ingredients for the fried rice before cooking.
- Cook the fried rice.
- Take the pizza dough for tomorrow's meal from the freezer and place in the fridge.
- Marinate the chicken for tomorrow's meal.
- Remove the pizza dough from the fridge and let it warm on the counter while you prep the ingredients.
- Roast the chicken thighs, and shred.
- Prepare and bake the pizzas.
Your Shopping List
This list reflects just the ingredients for the main dishes; please see individual recipes for the ingredients for the optional side dishes.
To buy at the store:
- Garlic (5 cloves)
- Yellow onion (2 small)
- Red onion (1 small)
- Carrots (2 medium)
- Tomato (1 medium)
- Ginger (1-inch piece)
- Snow peas or green beans (1 cup)
- Green onions (1 small bunch)
- Red or yellow bell pepper (1 medium)
- Green cabbage (1 small head)
- Beet greens, spinach, or Swiss chard (enough to make 6 cups chopped)
- Cilantro (1 bunch)
- Thai basil leaves (1 bunch)
- Large eggs (5)
- Firm tofu (3 1/2 to 4 ounces)
- Feta cheese (3 1/2 ounce)
- Pizza dough (1 1/2 pounds, if not making homemade dough)
- Plain yogurt (2 tablespoons)
- Boneless, skinless chicken breasts (3/4 pound)
- Tomato sauce (1 cup)
- Dry lo mein noodles (10 ounces)
- Dry red lentils (1 1/2 cups)
- Basmati or jasmine rice (2 cups)
- Bread flour (2 cups, for the pizza dough)
- Italian 00 flour (1 cup, for the pizza dough)
- Instant yeast (2 teaspoon)
- Tandoori spice blend (1 tablespoon)
- Dried turmeric (3/4 teaspoon)
- Garam masala (1/4 teaspoon)
- Dried coriander (1/4 teaspoon)
- Ground cayenne (1/8 teaspoon)
- Cumin seeds (1/2 teaspoon)
- Ground white pepper (1/8 teaspoon)
- Chili sauce (3 tablespoon)
From your pantry (check to make sure you have enough):
- Neutral cooking oil, like canola oil
- Light soy sauce (5 tablespoons)