The Power of Dinner Templates: Plus 5 of My Favorite Templates

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Faith Durand)

Some people just hate recipes. As a recipe lover and recipe developer, I try not to take this fact too personally. And I get it: especially on a weeknight, reading and following a recipe can require more concentration and focus than you have left. I have those times, too, and it’s then that I like to be on kitchen autopilot, making something so familiar to me that the few steps are programmed in my muscle memory.

A recipe is definitely not a part of this picture, but to get to the place where you can turn out a good meal without thinking, you need at your disposal a collection of what I call “dinner templates.” Without them, I would be going out to eat or ordering take out much more often. With them, I can keep my health and weight loss efforts on track.

What’s a Dinner Template?

It’s a simple meal formula you know by heart. There are variables and ingredients that you can swap or omit depending on what’s on hand, but that doesn’t throw you. You’ve made versions of this dinner before. It’s something you already know you and your family will like.

Taco night is perhaps the ultimate dinner template. You know the requirements: soft or crunchy corn or flour tortillas or perhaps lettuce; a meat, bean, or vegetable filling; garnishes like chopped onion and cilantro; a sauce like guacamole or salsa. It’s a meal you toss together without much fuss with ingredients you already have. The variations are endless, so it doesn’t get dull.

You probably already have some other dinner templates in your life. It’s the invisible software that guides you through meal prep at the end of a long workday. Once you’ve identified one dinner template, you are likely to spot more of them already at your fingertips. Soon you can program yourself with new ones at will, based on successful experiments and new recipes, to expand your repertoire.

In an effort to help you identify dinner templates, I want to share some of mine!

(Image credit: Nick Evans)

5 Favorite Dinner Templates

Sautéed Chicken Thighs

This is when I sizzle a few chicken thighs in oil until brown on both sides and then finish cooking them in a low oven with flavor boosting ingredients and a vegetable. I love using a lot of garlic, anchovy, chili flakes and a ton of shaved fennel. Another variation I’m partial to smothers the chicken in tomato sauce and a modest sprinkling of mozzarella cheese. That one is like a breading-less chicken parm. Or, I can take it to Mexico with corn, jalapeños, black beans, and salsa.

Free-form Sausage and Vegetables

I make patties out of pork, turkey, lamb, or beef and season them liberally. I might add harissa for something a bit Moroccan or cooked leeks and fresh tarragon leaves to give it a French feeling. Then I serve it alongside salad, slaw, or some steamed or roasted veggies and call it dinner.

Twice Baked Potatoes

Bake some spuds, scoop out the flesh, mix with some other tasty ingredients, refill the potato skins with that mixture, top with some cheese and broil. I’ve made a “pizza potato” with finely diced pepperoni, spinach, and mozzarella and a “taco potato” with leftover rotisserie chicken, pepper jack, cilantro, and hot sauce.

An Asian-ish Noodle Bowl

Combine shaved scallions, a bit of grated ginger, soy sauce, rice vinegar, a pinch of sugar and sesame oil with whatever shredded vegetables you have (carrots and cabbage are great). Boil some Asian style noodles (soba, rice, ramen), run them under cold water, toss it together with your vegetables and dressing. Do you have sliced steak or leftover chicken? Bonus. Top with sesame seeds. Serve with Sriracha.

Pasta Skillet

Cook some turkey or pork sausage in a big skillet. Add plenty of vegetables (broccoli rabe is my favorite but kale, spinach, chard, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini are all good choices), and just a little cooked pasta or another grain. Add a splash of the pasta cooking liquid, a drizzle of olive oil, and a little Parmesan. This can be bulked up with chickpeas or white beans and enhanced with fresh herbs if you have them.

Loving Food While Losing Weight

Is it possible to talk about the fraught space of food, body, and weight in a healthy, thoughtful way? We think so, and we’re presenting a monthlong column exploring one food-lover and food writer’s journey towards finding her own personal balance. Joy Manning is joining us this month with her own stories, practical tips, recipes, and perspective on the real-life struggle between loving food and loving your body.