Category Archives: cooking

Cookie Time, Part 1: Let the Holiday Festivities Begin

We might be a little behind in holiday prep. I can’t tell. It is December 4 and we still have Halloween gummies decorating our front door (though I did take down the fake tombstones in early November). We have no tree, no wreath, no Christmas lists, no decorations, no presents stashed anywhere … yet.

We did donate to the school holiday sponsor-a-family giving tree. So there’s that.

And there’s gingerbread dough chilling in my fridge. Today will be the first of the season’s memory making, a happy afternoon rolling dough and choosing cookie cutters and cutting out shapes and baking fun cookies.

There will be nothing Martha Stewart about it. The dough will not be rolled out once, carefully, with a minimal of added flour. Those tips about not letting it get too warm, not overworking it, rolling from the center out, and so on? Forget it. We will smoosh the dough, adding more flour and rolling it out to an inch thick, rolling in all directions, rolling too thin. Then they will finally ask for my help, and I will try to roll the mess out to about 1/4″ thick.

They will then cut about two cookies, and we will have to mash up the dough again, roll it out again (queue the smooshing and the added flour and what have you) and start over. Two more cookies.

I’m finally (mostly) over the whole “don’t overhandle the dough” thing. We don’t make the most tender cookies around here. And I fancy myself as something of an efficiency expert, maximizing the rolled-out dough, selecting cutters to get as many cookies as possible.

Not my children. The rolled dough is more than a foot in diameter? Great! Let’s use the gingerbread man shape! Just once! Right in the middle!

I let it go. Let’s mash it up and start again!

While I might still have some personal growth to do in this area (because clearly I still think about the poor overhandled dough), when it comes to decorating, I love a free-for-all. I don’t care what the final result looks like as long as we all have fun doing it.

Everybody having fun? And yes, those are some sharks in there.

What I’ve Been Baking

This is the end of my third week of freedom — I mean, freelancing. I admit I took some much-needed time off, even though I was fielding calls from recruiters and had some interviews and landed a freelance gig. I have been running more. I have been blogging more. I have been reading more. And I’ve started baking again.

Right now in my oven are the vegan chocolate chip cookies I recently posted to FB about. The description on Food52 contained this phrasing, which caught my eye (talk about an understatement): “. . . its soft-bellied, chewy, caramelly-crisp-edged, rippled and ringed and puddled with melty chocolate, well-salted . . .” Why hello, cookie of my dreams.

But before we talk about them, here’s what else I’ve been baking:

  • A crumb-topped apple-pear pie. The apples were mostly local, the pears picked from a running buddy’s pear tree a few blocks away, the pie crust and topping recipes were from Peter Davis’s Fresh & Honest. If you want a cookbook of simple, honest food that’s about as New England as you can get, this is the cookbook for you. Despite my longstanding phobia about homemade pie crust, this came out ok. (Confession: I used my food processor. But I still had to roll it out!) The crumb topping was divine (it’s hard to go wrong with sugar and butter).
  • Parsnip-apple-raisin-walnut muffins. Like Morning Glory muffins, but with parsnips. I had one at a friend’s house and it was excellent. So I went home and found a recipe and made them (I mean, how many recipes can be out there for such a combo)? I accidentally shredded, rather than grated my parsnips, resulting in long thick tough strands. Did I let that stop me, or details like proper measuring of the shredded parsnips? No way! Did I bother to notice that the recipe made two dozen muffins instead of just one? Nope! Do they look like weird little porcupines with all the shreds of parsnip sticking out? Yup! Does anyone here besides me like them? Of course not. Would you like one? Please?
  • Gingerbread. The deepest, blackest, most gingery gingerbread ever, also from the Peter Davis book. It is excellent on its own or with whipped cream, and everyone here likes it, so that’s a win.
  • Vegan chocolate chip cookies. And this all brings us back to the cookies. I love chocolate chip cookies, and these sounded really good. I don’t care that they’re vegan. I mean, I fully support their vegan condition, but that wasn’t a draw for me.

I did what I was told, mostly, except I used half white, half whole wheat flour instead of all white, because I always do. I tossed the chocolate chips into the flour. The flour didn’t coat them, and it looked like an awful lot of chocolate chips. I beat the oil, water, and sugar. I combined everything thoroughly but minded the warning not to overmix. I tried not to be concerned that it looked like a sandy mix, like pastry dough before you add the few teaspoons of ice water to hold everything together. I dutifully refrigerated it overnight.

Scoop this?

After my second run today (don’t ask), I took it out, hoping to follow the next step and scoop it onto a parchment-lined tray. You cannot scoop loose sand that’s littered with chocolate chips. I added more water and (if you’re a diehard vegan, don’t read this part) a beaten egg.* While I still think there were about 1/4 cup too many chocolate chips, at least the batter held together this time.

Onto the cookie sheets it went! The recipe suggested freezing the trays with the scooped batter for ten minutes before baking, but — oh-so-hilarious to discover after I’d emptied a shelf in our freezer — my baking trays are too wide for our freezer shelves. A quick grind of sea salt on top (Himalayan pink, if you must know) and into the oven they went.

They certainly smelled good. And they taste really good. You don’t get the butter and vanilla flavor you might be used to, but they’re still really good. And they look fine — not like the picture in the recipe, of course, but fairly normal.

Yes, I said they look “normal” because my chocolate chip cookies always look like this. They’re never lovely and round and flat. They’re baked lumps, always.

Would I make them again? Definitely. Would I add an egg next time, too? If I needed to. Would I add vanilla next time? Hell yes. Will this be my go-to chocolate chip cookie recipe? Probably not. The one I used before was just fine. But these would be handy if I were out of butter or wanted to make delicious vegan cookies. I don’t love the 12-hour lag time, because I am a fairly spontaneous baker.

But these are a good, butter-free cookie, and next time I will pay extremely close attention to the measurements instead of just eyeballing the water, and next time I will not add an egg. I swear. And also now I will stop eating them so that my family can actually enjoy a few, too.

*Also we had one egg left in the carton, which always seems ridiculous to me, so I was happy to add it to the cookie batter.

Note: I am aware that I am a terrible photographer. One day I might work on that. Or I might not.

A CSA On Demand: Peapod’s Farm Box Review

Wouldn’t it be great if you could get a CSA farm share box…but just now and then instead of weekly?

Peapod Local Farm Box

Do you know what a CSA is? “CSA” stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it’s a way to support small and local farms while ensuring you get really fresh, local produce (or meat, etc.). Usually, you sign on with a farm, usually paying the farmer in the winter, and in exchange for your money you get a portion of the harvest, usually in weekly increments during the harvest season (though meat-only CSAs tend to be monthly). You can do this for fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, or a combo.

I have been a CSA member for 10 years. My first year, I split a small share with a friend (in which we received — and were totally mystified by — our first kohlrabi). While I love being part of a CSA farm (obviously), signing on with a CSA does take a certain amount of commitment, especially if you’re super-busy or live alone. Plus, you really need to stay on top of what’s in your produce drawers, because next week’s share pick-up will be here before you know it! It can also make meal planning a little tricky, if you are a die-hard meal planner, because you never quite know what you’re going to get.

(Of course, when you’ve been a member for a long time or grew up on a farm or just know the seasons, you have some idea of what’s going to be ready when: early June pickups that make for, quite literally, “salad days,” kale and beets in July, plenty of tomatoes and corn and potatoes in August, and the heavier stuff — winter squashes — coming as the temperatures cool.)

But maybe you don’t want the weekly commitment, or there’s no CSA near you. And you can’t get to the farmers’ market every week. Maybe you wish you could have a CSA on demand.

Peapod (the pickup and delivery service from Stop&Shop) now offers a Local Farm Box. It’s a multi-farm produce CSA that you can buy when you want it instead of committing to a season (or year). On the Peapod site, choose your region: Midwest, New England, Mid-Atlantic. For the New England Farm Box, Peapod partners with an organization called Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a  nonprofit that supports local farms, provides nutrition education, and has some other great programs.

I chose New England, of course. The site is really informative about the partner farms, how close the farms are to you, what’s available based on season, what to do with those vegetables, and a recipe that uses one of the week’s vegetables. The site also tells you what is in that week’s box and which farms the produce came from, which is handy information: I didn’t want a particular week’s box, because it contained a lot of green peppers. I’m the only green pepper eater in my house.

So I ordered the box the following week: kale, spaghetti squash, leeks, purple and white carrots, cabbage, and zucchini. Five. I should mention I also received zucchini earlier in the week from my farm share, and had (why??) bought some the previous weekend at the store. So that brought my household zucchini total to 14, but we love the stuff (and oh, time to make zucchini bread!).

Fresh and bright and local

The box arrived at the specified delivery time (which was super-handy; I had it arrive in the morning, before we all left for the day, but maybe evenings or weekend work better for you). It was big, cold, and a nice weight. Inside were beautiful fresh vegetables: a spaghetti squash (yum!), leeks, dark-green kale, purple and white carrots, medium-sized zucchini, all looking very much like what I pick up on Tuesdays from my own CSA: fresh, bright, delicious. And carefully packed, of course, the heavy stuff on the bottom, kale, and leeks on top. In the box was an informational sheet about Farm Fresh Rhode Island, the produce in the box, and the farms the veggies had come from. It also had a recipe (for my particular box, for Spaghetti Squash with Marinara, which was really good).

I will remain a loyal CSA member of my favorite local farm, Parker Farm in Lunenberg (I’ve been a member for so long that my newborn firstborn, now in second grade, nearly fell out of his ring sling into a crate of zucchini once when I was picking up my share). But I really like the Peapod Local Farm Box option. It is the perfect solution for anyone and everyone for whom a traditional CSA isn’t a good fit, or for someone who loves eating locally and seasonally but can’t get to the farmer’s market, or really for anyone who loves good fresh produce and supporting local farms.

Brilliant move, Peapod!

Wondering what to do with your produce and how to store it? Read How to Manage Your Summer Produce.

Disclosure: Peapod provided me with the Local Farm Box and some other groceries to facilitate this review. All opinions are my own.

Late July Chips and Stonyfield Dip: You Don’t Need a Party

Late May/early June is a pretty busy time around here, with several family birthdays, including my own kids’.

We’d prepped carefully for Ben’s birthday party, planning out all kinds of activities plus, of course, a lot of healthy snacks. And cupcakes. The boys worked hard to decorate them in a madness of sugar (it was a birthday party, people).

Busy cupcake decorating team. One is all chocolate all the time, the other one wanted vanilla with blue frosting. Sure!

My mother made a beautiful pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game.

Just as the party was about to get going, a delivery truck dropped off a package: Late July chips! As a Stonyfield blogger, I was to create a yogurt-based dip to go with them. (I mean, I didn’t have to do it right then, but the timing was perfect!)

Ready, set, make a dip!

No problem. I always have a big tub of Stonyfield yogurt in the fridge (plain, whole milk). I put some into a bowl and began to mix in grated Parmesan cheese, sea salt, garlic powder, dried parsley. Onion granules, green goddess dressing base. Mix and taste, mix and taste.

Some of what I mixed to make my dip.

More Parmesan, a little more salt. It was pretty good.

I set them out on the table next to the veggies and hummus and the fruit platter and began to help set up the seltzer can bowling (hint: weight the cans with a little water if it’s a breezy day).

While the dip could have used just a little more oomph, it disappeared fast. So did the chips. In fact, when I first opened the package of chips, all I heard was, “Oh, I love Late July chips!” Seriously, the chips kind of stole the party.

I didn’t measure anything when I made my dip. For a more surefire dip, try one of the great recipes at Stonyfield: http://stonyfield.com/recipes/all/dips. You can’t go wrong.

Disclosure: This post was created in partnership with Stonyfield. As a Stonyfield Blogger, I received free product from Stonyfield and Late July for this post. All opinions are my own.

Immediate Recipe Turn-Offs: Quick Easy Cheesy One-Pot Skinny Moist Chicken

I love food. I love to read about food. I love to make food, and I love to eat it.

But mostly, it seems, I love to read about it.

Lately I’m also trying out some meal-planning. It works great for some people but not so much for me. It has, however, really helped clinch what menu or recipe words immediately turn me off to the food, no matter how taste it might be.

moist: Come on, that’s a no-brainer.

easy: I’ll decide that. But usually “easy” involves a can of cream of mushroom soup. Blech.

skinny: I’m not eating anything skinny or anything that promises to make me skinny or keep me skinny or whatever. I like food that tastes good. I do not care about skinny.

quick (see also: one-pot): This usually involves chicken. I am so tired of seeing “quick easy cheesy one-pot chicken recipe” that, I am promised, I will love. I will not love it. I will feel sad that I’m not eating something more interesting.

cheesy: No. Just no. I like cheese. I don’t like something that has to call itself “cheesy.” And it’s probably way too heavy to enjoy.

congealed: Are you kidding me? I just saw this while I was browsing ideas for Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner—or any dinner, ever—should not include anything boasting about its own deliberately congealed condition, as in “cranberry congealed salad.” I don’t care if it tastes amazing. It needs a new name, stat.

one-pot: Could be easy (see above), could be cheesy (see above). Might end up not being one-pot, or involving an extra plate or bowl (or several) even though, yes, technically only one pot is used. Sometimes it is easier and better to use two or more pots. Go big or go takeout, I say.

What about you? What words in a recipe name turn you off?

Need Dinner? Start with Canned Tomatoes and a Slow Cooker

Recently, my husband has started making dinner once a week. It’s great for many reasons, including the fact that our older son is interested in helping (not sure why it’s less fun to help when  cook, but maybe it has to do with the fact that the menfolk cook on a leisurely weekend, whereas I’m throwing meals together at the end of a busy workday/weekday, when the children are tired and having to do homework and practice the piano and we’ve just walked in the door and dinner needs to be on the table in 15 minutes and Leave your brother alone!

Yeah. I should take some tips from my husband, actually, because you know what his secret is? He uses the slow cooker. The first time, I tipped him off that you can put frozen chicken breasts in the slow cooker. Yes, you can. He added chopped onion, a can of black beans, a big can of crushed tomatoes, and some other seasonings. He may have added frozen corn at some point.

The house smelled great by early afternoon. At dinnertime, I clued him in that he could just shred the chicken in the pot using two forks. Meanwhile, I sliced some green onions and shredded cheese.

The resulting black bean and chicken chili was delicious.

Since then, his dinners always use the slow cooker and a big can of tomatoes. The rest varies. It’s always good.

We’re not otherwise big on using the slow cooker, but for tomato-based soups and stews, I love it. And it is handy on weekdays, if I can take the time in the morning to load it up, so we can come home to a hot meal ready to serve.

Redgold Tomatoes (makers of RedGold, RedPack, and Tuttoroso canned tomato products) is running a slow cooker giveaway right now (actually, it ends TODAY! Don’t delay!). Go to their Facebook page to enter.

If you prefer a more formal recipe, here’s one provided by Redgold:

Rustic Italian Chicken

Servings: 6    |    Preparation Time: 20 minutes    |    Cook Time: 360 minutes

12 boneless skinless chicken thighs, about 2 pounds
2 large carrots, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 medium red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 (14.5 ounce) can Redpack® Diced Tomatoes In Juice
1 (28 ounce) can Redpack® Crushed Tomatoes In Thick Puree
3 cups pasta of choice, cooked and drained

•    Spray slow cooker with cooking spray.  Place chicken in slow cooker and top with remaining ingredients, except pasta.

•    Cover and cook on LOW for 6 to 8 hours.  Serve chicken over pasta and garnish.

Garnish Options:  Parmesan cheese and chopped fresh basil

[Disclosure: Redgold provided me with tomatoes for review.]

* I promise that this blog is not becoming “All food, all the time” but I did write this while eating pumpkin ice cream and while baking banana chocolate chip muffins, and I just came from a restaurant I’m going to say. What can I tell you? I like food. And I’m not running right now, so it’s not like I can dish out the race reports.

Blueberry Sour Cream Ice Cream with Hood Sour Cream

Ice cream that’s fast, eggless, and homemade? Yes, please! Plus, it’s blueberry season!

And it’s sour cream season. Just kidding: sour cream is always in season. I was recently asked by Hood to come up a recipe incorporating sour cream as the main ingredient. Well, I think they asked me to share a recipe, but I’ll confess I don’t usually cook with sour cream. My cooking/our eating is all veggies and lean meat and whole grains and minimal dairy….except, well, for ice cream.

I love ice cream. I love to eat it. I love to make it. However, it’s hard to make creamy ice cream at home unless you make a custard base first. Who has time for that? Whenever I get the urge to make ice cream, I need to make it now. I don’t want to patiently separate eggs and make the custard and thoroughly cool it, etc., before making the ice cream. No. Need it now.

Sour cream is a great base for homemade ice cream, because it’s rich and thick and tangy and wonderful. And it’s fast. Just add your ingredients, turn on the ice cream maker, sit down to dinner (or clean up from dinner, or whatever) and half an hour later you have wonderful homemade ice cream.

We recently went blueberry picking and went overboard, coming home with ten pounds. Ten pounds of blueberries! We ate a lot of them fresh, but I also washed, dried, and froze most of them. Those fresh blueberries add a wonderful flavor to this ice cream, but you could substitute any fruit. Or leave out the blueberries, cut the lemon juice down, and increase the vanilla. Or hey! A few tablespoons of brown sugar mixed into the ice cream at the last minute would be amazing. Or brown sugar and banana slices!! Considering how many people told me they liked a bowl of sour cream with sliced bananas and brown sugar, I have to try making that in ice cream form.

But for now, it’s blueberries.

Blueberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

This tangy, rich ice cream is fast—no need to make and cool a custard base!—eggless, and delicious. I don’t use much sugar, because I don’t like very sweet ice cream, but if you prefer a sweeter dessert, increase the sugar by a half-cup.

 Ice Cream:

16 oz sour cream
1½  cups whole milk
½ cup sugar (you can use up to one cup if you want it sweeter)
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 T lemon juice

Blueberry Sauce:

2 cups blueberries (fresh or frozen)
½ cup sugar

Equipment: Ice cream maker

Blueberry Sauce: Make blueberry sauce first. Combine blueberries and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil, covered, over medium-high, stirring occasionally. Lower heat to medium and cook uncovered until slightly thickened. Cool. [NOTE: To cool quickly, divide into shallow bowls or other dishes and place dishes into fridge or freezer.]

Ice Cream: Combine all ice cream ingredients in a bowl and mix with a whisk (or put them all into the blender). Pour into ice cream maker. About 15 minutes later, add half of the blueberry sauce. Let the ice cream maker run until the ice cream is done (usually about half an hour total; ice cream will have increased in volume and frozen to a soft-serve consistency). Pack ice cream into a freezer-safe container, drizzling in remaining blueberry sauce. Eat immediately if you like a soft-serve consistency or freeze to let the ice cream harden. [NOTE: If it gets very hard, remove from freezer 20 minutes before serving.]

Variations: You don’t have to make blueberry ice cream. With the sour cream ice cream base, you can make any flavor.

  • Strawberry: Substitute strawberries (fresh or frozen) for blueberries. Proceed as directed.
  • Vanilla: Skip blueberry sauce. Increase sugar to ¾ cup. Increase vanilla to 1.5 tsp. Decrease lemon juice to 1 tablespoon. Add scraped vanilla beans, if desired.
  • Chocolate Swirl: Skip blueberry sauce. Increase sugar to ¾ cup. Decrease lemon juice to 1 tablespoon. Drizzle in ¾ to 1 cup of chocolate sauce at the very end.

Enjoy!

[Disclosure: I was invited by Hood to participate in their Sour Cream Meal Makeover (there’s an actual cookoff tomorrow night–check out the final recipes on the Hood site!). I was compensated for my participation. All opinions are my own.]

Home After a Week Away

We’re home again! We were gone for almost a week, out near St. Louis, at a state park for a family wedding celebration for my niece: the niece I’d never met before! (She’s delightful!) We got to spend time with the “other side of the Mississippi” part of my husband’s family, whom we very rarely get to see. My kids were thrilled to spend some time with their grown-up guy cousins and uncle and aunt. It was wonderful to have some time with my in-laws.

Plus, we went out on a boat, swam in a lake, rode in a golf cart (fun for kids!), played with dogs, had a late-night campfire with s’mores, and I saw fresh bear prints in the woods (alas, I didn’t have my camera with me). We saw the Arch (but did not go up in it), swam in a hotel pool, and in general had an excellent trip.

Then we had a three-hour weather delay, got home at nearly 2 a.m., and the kids didn’t get to school until 11:30 a.m. Yes, that means the little one will be at school for a whole hour and a half today. We’re all tired and out of sorts and the laundry pile is up to here and the fridge is empty.

I might cheat and make pasta and meatballs tonight, but I’m also turning to my meal-planning sources hard. Why? They provide grocery lists! And tell me what to make for dinner! And offer variety! I’m sick of making the same old lunches every day, and we’re all tired of the same old dinners.

What I’m craving is a Chopped Kale and Roasted Corn Salad with Cilantro Lime Vinaigretteposted on my pal Melanie’s blog (go check it out right now—-aren’t you craving it now, too??).  I think that salad needs to happen here tonight.

Then I grabbed the free sample lunch menu (with shopping list, yay!) from MOMables, because damn if I am going to throw out one more turkey sandwich or scrape any more uneaten hummus into the trash. Maybe there’s only a few weeks of school left (yikes—only ONE week left for my older son!!), but we need some fresh ideas around here.

Next up, eMeals. I’ve posted about them before, and here too. Honestly, I haven’t been using the site as much lately. Even though they send me a weekly meal plan, and I still change it up sometimes (Mediterranean, Clean Eating, Low Calorie, Kid-Friendly), I kind of got out of the habit.

But today, I’m happy to go through my inbox, find the one from eMeals with the comforting subject line of “Your Mediterranean Plan for Two provided by eMeals” (we do the 2-person plan, usually, instead of the family plan, because I found that since half of our family consists of very small children who may or may not eat much dinner, we had too many leftovers). In a few minutes I’ll print out the menu and shopping list, and over the next week we’ll be eating Honey-Lemon Grilled Salmon, Zucchini and Tomato Pasta with Olives, and so on….with everything I need right in my kitchen, thanks to the shopping list.

(I realize I’ve said “shopping list” or “grocery list” about eight times in this post, but it’s such a lifesaver. Right now I have the energy to feed/dress/clean up the kids, keep the kitchen clean, get the laundry done, and meet my work deadlines. I don’t have time for meal planning and grocery lists. Thus, eMeals!)

So here I go. Print, work, pick up Ben from preschool, and hit the grocery store….with a little help from my online meal-planning friends (and food bloggers–because I cannot WAIT to have that kale salad!!).

You can try eMeals for 15% off. Click the picture below to save yourself time and hassle. You know you’ll probably be traveling this summer. Wouldn’t this be nice to come home to?

Let eMeals Do Your Meal Planning–and Holiday Menus!

Listen, just a short post to remind you that meal planning can be time-sucking and tedious. Wouldn’t you rather just, mid-afternoon or at the end of the day, know what’s for dinner and — even better — know that you have all the ingredients you need to make dinner happen fast?

Every night?

eMeals is having a sale right now: 30% off! Click the link below or the link on the ad in my sidebar. Also, if you sign up now, you get a FREE holiday meal plan! Paleo Thanksgiving? No problem! Classic Thanksgiving? Sure! Clean Eating Thanksgiving? Got it!

Click the pic!

And yes, I am in the eMeals Blogger Program, and yes, I am an eMeals affiliate, meaning if you sign up through my link I get a small commission, I think. But seriously, that is not why I am encouraging this.

I’m pushing it because making dinner night after night after night after bloody night is HARD. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not great at grocery shopping unless I have a list. And if I don’t have everything on that list that I need, then midweek I find myself saying, “Oh, crud, we can’t have that or that for dinner because I forgot to buy [key ingredient].” It’s no longer a problem! In fact, last weekend, when I had to work, I printed out the list and sent my husband to the store with both children to buy the week’s worth of groceries. It’s all organized by department, so shopping was pretty easy for him—no running all over the store looking for things!

Plus, I’ve seen all the holiday meal plans. They are good. I made the kale salad the other night and it was so much better than my own kale salad! Next up is their Brussels sprouts recipe, because I love Brussels sprouts.

Try this for a holiday treat:

Sign yourself up. Or sign up a friend. Happy no-more-thinking-about-meal-planning!

Meal Planning? eMeals Saved the Day!

It is 5:30 p.m. You’ve just walked in the door with four grocery bags and two hungry children…at dinnertime. You hand each child a tiny snack, look at tonight’s menu, realize it’s not possible…and yet less than half an hour later you have a tasty meal on the table that your children actually eat and like.

That was me, tonight, thanks to eMeals. I’ve attempted (and failed at) meal planning in the past, having an approach much like the spontaneous Melanie in the Middle. Unfortunately, the pour-a-glass-of-wine-and-wing-it approach doesn’t work when my small children need dinner around 5:30 p.m. and I get home with them at 5:15.

Despite some posts that indicate the contrary, I don’t just throw frozen stuff into the microwave for them. First of all, they generally hate that stuff, even if it is organic and such. Second, I like to cook and want to make them (and us!) tasty meals.

Here’s a problem: I live in a wonderful neighborhood full of small children just the same ages as my children, and sometimes late in the afternoon, I’d rather my kids be outside playing with friends than indoors while I’m making dinner. Or we get home and see all their friends outside, across the street, and go over to play instead of going inside so I can cook dinner. It’s a trade-off, for sure, but I’d really rather they be outside, even if we end up in nightly dinner hell.

Anyway, I recently signed onto eMeals. eMeals is a meal-planning service that sends you a weekly menu, with recipes and shopping lists. The great thing about eMeals is they have several different meal plans: Classic, Clean Eating (what we do), Natural and Organic, Gluten Free, Paleo, Mediterranean, Simple Gourmet, Low Fat, and so on. You can also plug in the grocery store you normally shop at, and they can match a meal plan to the store. In addition, you can indicate whether you want meals for 1-2 people or 3-6 people. Our first week, I’d signed us up for 3-6 people. Way too much food for us (2 adults, 2 kids). This week, I’m shifting to the 1-2 person plan.

We get the Clean Eating meal plan. It’s sent to me on Wednesday, but I didn’t manage to print out the most recent one until the weekend. I spent a little time going over it. The plan includes seven meals plus side dishes. I knew we’d have leftovers one night and might want to use up a freezer meal another night. So I crossed off two meals that I thought my family would be less interested in.

Then I went through the included grocery list, crossing off any items that we already had or that we wouldn’t need (items for the meals I’d crossed off). The list and a pen went into some reusable grocery bags.

Could this get much easier?

However, being our spontaneous selves, we ended up going apple-picking instead of grocery shopping. You know how it goes!

Tuesday I picked up Max from school, zoomed over to the grocery store, got everything on the list, wove through traffic to go get Ben, and got home. Naturally, all the neighbor kids were outside, so outstayed we…until 5:30, when we finally got in the door.

5:30, remember, is dinnertime.

Did I panic? Actually, for a second I did. Then I went to my menu. Tonight was supposed to be Juicy Chicken Sliders, with a side of Parmesan Oven Fries. “Kid-Friendly,” it was noted. But the total time: 50 minutes. Too long! Pot roast? Nope — that’s a slow-cooker meal. Roasted Chicken: a 50-minute cook time. Penne? I’m sick of pasta — last week we went off our plan a little, in an attempt to clean out the cupboards, and ate a lot of pasta.

Taco Salad: “Super Fast,” it said. OK!

One problem: It called for ground round. Our ground beef was all frozen. But I had just brought home chicken breasts for the sliders that we wouldn’t be having tonight! I scanned the recipe and decided to go for it.

Taco Salad

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced (I completely forgot to add the garlic!)
3/4 lb ground round (or sliced boneless, skinless chicken breast; fish or tofu would also be good!)
½ teaspoon chili powder
1/4  teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper
4 cups whole-grain tortilla chips
5 cups chopped Romaine lettuce
2 tablespoons low-fat plain Greek yogurt

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat; add garlic, ground round (or chicken), chili powder, cumin, salt, and pepper. Cook 8 minutes or until beef (or chicken) is browned, stirring occasionally. Divide tortilla chips evenly among 2 plates; top with lettuce, ground beef mixture, Corn Salsa (see below) and yogurt.

Corn Salsa

3/4 cup frozen whole kernel corn, thawed
2 plum tomatoes, chopped (I used grape tomatoes instead)
1 small jalapeño, minced (I omitted this on purpose)
1 clove garlic, minced (forgot again! sprinkled garlic powder [not garlic salt] on instead]
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper

Combine corn, tomatoes, jalapeño, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl; chill until ready to serve. (I also threw some leftover edamame into the corn salsa, because why not?)

To serve it, I put things in separate piles on the kids’ plates, because they are ages three and five, and sometimes it is best if things don’t touch each other. They ate the chicken and asked for more. Then Max noticed how my plate was one big mixed-up salad, and he wanted his that way. So of course then Ben wanted his that way, too. So we all ended up with these big mixed-up taco salads on our plates, and Max loved it. Ben preferred to fly his alien spaceship tomato-and-cucumber combo. But he did eat all his chicken and some of the corn salsa.

Remember those grocery bags at 5:30? Yeah. I could have been done with dinner even sooner, but I decided to slice up some cucumbers and tomatoes, too. And clear the breakfast dishes off the table because….you know.

Who feels like a rock star? I do.

My plate. Blurry but tasty.

What’s awesome is that we had a great new meal (I never make taco salad!!) on the table fast, and we all enjoyed it. Plus, thanks to the grocery list and the quick shopping trip, I now have the ingredients in my fridge for the rest of this week’s meals, and now I know how long the others will take, so I can plan those nights.

Want to try it? Here’s a discount code for 15% off DINNER15. Considering that the plan is pretty inexpensive even without the code, and the grocery savings are nice, and the knowing what’s for dinner is priceless, the extra 15% off is icing on the cake! Click the link (image) below to sign up!

Disclosure: I am a member of the eMeals blogger network program and am also in the eMeals affiliate program. I was not compensated for this post, and all opinions are mine.