We all have ambitions. I wrote here about the dissonance between ideal meals imagined and the reality of meals cooked and eaten. There are plenty of nights when we eat interesting, delicious, even impressive and photogenic meals, but there are also plenty of nights—heck, plenty of weeks—where we are coming in the door at the last second or running off to band practice or cake decorating class or whatever after dinner, and dinner just needs to happen, and not necessarily dirty every pot in the house or inspire new tastes in the kids. Dinner just needs to take place.
So like many generations of parents before me, I have evolved a loose weekly meal plan of sorts, with parts that can be mixed and matched. Call it rote dinner. I don’t even have to think—I can just throw it all together and know that there will be dinner.
Given a 5-day workweek, that means:
1 night: Some sort of roasted thing. This can mean: Roasted chicken legs & thighs. At the very least, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast at 375 until cooked through, usually about an hour. To jazz things up, sprinkle the chicken with: Pimenton; Old Bay; oregano and paprika, and then finish up with a squeeze of lemon before serving (thank you, Maria Raptis, and all the amazing Greeks in your family who taught this one to me); Chinese Five-Spice Powder; you get the idea. Pairs well with: Roasted potato wedges (particularly if you roast them in the pan with the chicken–potatoes in drippings! Nom nom nom. Also a green veg and some salad. BUT it can also mean a roasted fillet of fish rubbed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, such as salmon (then douse the cooked fish with stir-fry-sauce, see below), or haddock or sole, roasted on top of lemon and/or fennel slices. I do fish at 375 too, and it usually is done after 15 minutes, depending on the thickness.
1 night: Pasta. Can be a quick tomato-garlic sauce; Marcella’s tomato-butter sauce; some pesto or other leftover sauce from the freezer; sauteed shiitake mushrooms and cherry tomatoes with garlic; broccoli rabe with sausage (sautee the sausage out of the casings and toss the broccoli in with the pasta to boil, then strain and throw together); garlic and oil; cacio e pepe; you get the idea. Pairs well with: Bean or lentil salad, green veg.
1 night: Stir-fry. This is great for any piece of meat or fish you have on hand that might not feed the whole family if served whole—cut it up into bite-sized pieces and supplement with sliced onion, mushrooms, shredded cabbage, julienned carrots and/or celery, broccoli, etc. Remember! The key to stir fry is to do EACH ITEM SEPARATELY in FRESH HOT OIL and then REMOVE IT from the wok (or skillet) before you add the next. Save anything that might need a little extra cooking time until the end, then toss it in with some flavorful stir-fry liquid (at its most basic, try 1/4 cup soy sauce and 1/4 cup water, a big teaspoon of sugar, a splash of fish sauce; if you’ve got it on hand, some minced garlic, julienned fresh ginger, or a splash of Chinese wine would be nice too; in a pinch, skip it all and use some watered-down oyster sauce) and close the lid for a few minutes to tenderize whatever it is. Finally, add all the sauteed stuff back to the wok and stir together to re-warm through. Serve with: steamed rice.
1 night: Some sort of big-piece-of-meat dinner. This can mean grilled steak, or sauteed pork chops or chicken breasts (try sauteeing in a skillet large enough to contain them, brown on each side, then take out and add some sliced mushrooms and garlic. Add white wine, then add chops back in and simmer on low until they’re cooked through). Serve with: Baked potatoes or rice.
1 night: Something beany. This can mean a bean soup, quick chili, rice and beans, etc, but I like to have another meatless night and a regular shot at keeping beans from becoming a foreign food. Serve with: cornbread or crusty bread, green veg, and salad.
And what are some of those green veg ideas that I talk about that are rote, that I don’t even have to think about? Boiled-til-al-dente broccoli with butter, roasted brussels sprouts, roasted asparagus, sauteed spinach or swiss chard, kale with bacon, etc. etc. There. I’ve just gotten you through the week.
None of it is reinventing the wheel, and none of it requires a long shop or long simmer times. Those things can be saved for the weekend, or whenever you have more time (I do love daydreaming with a cookbook on my lap and a shopping list in front of me). But it will get everyone fed. Please, weigh-in with your own weekday tried-and-trues!