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UglyYummies Top 5 Dinners for Beginners

Easy Family Dinners for Tired Cooks

By UglyYummiesPublished 3 years ago 10 min read
CYLC from the mind of the Lazy Genius

If you're a tired home cook, this one goes out to you. I'm a mom of two (though one is still in the oven) in the throes of pregnancy fatigue, struggling to feed my small family a fresh meal at the end of every day. While the small details of my situation don't apply to everyone, I know many of you are in the same boat of finding it difficult to put another hot meal on the table that isn't Hamburger Helper or Digiorno pizza. Hopefully, this list can help you get a head start on changing that, even just a little.

First, here are a few "rules" for throwing together easy dinners on or off this list:

  • You can customize anything. Most recipes have a few basic requirements, but outside of those, change anything you don't like. If your 3-year-old won't eat peas, ditch the peas. Try swapping for corn instead. Use greek yogurt instead of sour cream. Are you out of apples but have some pears? That's fine! Recipes are not set in stone and they only work if they're working for you. Maybe follow the recipe closely the first time, but always feel free to shake things up and do it differently. You can turn "Yeah dinner was fine," into "Can we have this again next week, please?" with some tweaks based on what you know about your family.
  • You can make a double batch. With the exception of items that have a particular exterior texture, like chicken with crispy skin, you can freeze almost any meal to enjoy again later. Once you know something is a hit, make a double batch and store the extra in your freezer for an even easier dinner next time it's on the menu. If you need tips for freezing food, I would highly recommend Kate Strickler's blog/Instagram: Naptime Kitchen. She's the freezer queen and has an affordable and very useful freezer guide!!
  • Fresh is best. If you can plan for and find fresh herbs, aromatics, etc. rather than dehydrated, powdered, or frozen, you'll get a lot more flavor for the same amount of ingredients. Kate Strickler also has tips on keeping herbs and other produce fresh for longer!
  • Good salt and pepper are your best friends. With the right balance and quality, salt and pepper are often all you need for a simple meal. If you use iodized salt in your cooking, please, for the sake of all who eat at your table, stop. You're likely getting enough iodine in your diet without it, and it just doesn't taste right. Using a pure salt without additives, preservatives, or anti-caking agents (like most pickling, canning, or kosher salts) tastes much better. The larger granules will also help you get a better visual of how much salt you're using and how evenly it is dispersed.
  • Garlic herb butter. Yep, that's a whole rule for itself. One of the easiest ways to dress up a meal is to use garlic, herbs or seasoning to match what you used for the main meal, and butter for some sides. I like to mix the garlic, herbs, and/or seasoning into softened butter then spread over sourdough bread or rolls and stick that in the oven, and it also goes well over roasted vegetables and potatoes. This is a huge winner in our house whenever we have a hearty main meat like a standalone beef or pork dish.
  • Cooking in oil rarely means you HAVE to use oil. Most households have olive or avocado oil on hand, but if you're searing/browning meat, sauteing or roasting vegetables, or preventing something from sticking, any fat is fine. Find what you like the flavor of and make that your olive oil sub. I like butter most of the time, but you can use ghee, coconut oil, bacon grease, beef/pork tallow...the possibilities are endless!
  • Give your aromatics some time. Most recipes say to saute aromatics (onions, garlic, ginger, peppers, carrots, leeks etc.) for two to five minutes. While this will work in a rush, more time in the pan will do them some good. I'm talking anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes! The flavors of aromatics are brought out by heating, cutting, and crushing. The more you cut an onion, the more you cry (if you're a crier like me) because there are more openings for the flavor and aroma to be released. The same goes for heat and crushing. The more the aromatic can be exposed to these methods, the more flavor and aroma you'll get. Let a crushed aromatic sit on the cutting board for a while or give them that extra time over heat!

Now let’s get cooking!

1. Change Your Life Chicken by The Lazy Genius

I can't take credit for this one, unfortunately. I got this recipe from Kendra Adachi, The Lazy Genius. This meal is simple, all on one pan, and totally flexible based on your tastes. Essentially, it's just chicken thighs (bone-in and skin on) on top of vegetables with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Kendra recommends using more salt than you think you need, but I'm Puerto Rican, so I have to use some self-control. Pop it in the oven at 500 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes, and there's your meal! The skin is perfectly crispy, as long as you remember to pat it dry first, and everything is cooked through. For veggies, we always do potatoes and red onions, then either carrots, green beans, brussel sprouts, or a combination of those. Broccoli would be a great option as well. One of the best things about this meal is that you can use just about any veggies you like best! The only modification you would need to make is possibly keeping any quickly cooking veggies (like mushrooms or broccoli) separate and adding them to the pan closer to the end of the cooking time. You could also use drumsticks since they'll cook similarly and are usually a lot more fun for kiddos to eat!

2. Air Fryer Chicken Wings

Brace yourself for a lot of chicken. Cody loves chicken, so we eat it far more than any other protein. Plus, it's cheap and hard to mess up! Before I got pregnant with kiddo #2, Cody asked for these wings WEEKLY and would go to the store to purchase them himself if they didn't end up on our menu for the week. He usually stays out of the kitchen, but he would mess up my meal plan with zero hesitation to get his wings. For such a favorite, they are SO easy. Ready?

Right out of the package, pat the wings as dry as possible. Dry skin is key to crispy instead of soggy skin. For a little extra crisp, you can also toss the wings in a teaspoon or two of baking powder. That will draw moisture out of the skin. Cody prefers his without bp, so we usually skip it. Sprinkle the wings with salt and pepper. If you're not really into sauces, this would be the time to season them with dry rub or seasoning of choice. Stick them in the lightly oiled air fryer basket with enough space between them that air will be able to circulate around each wing. It's probably less space than you think it is. They only need 20 minutes at 400 degrees, then they're ready for a quick toss in your favorite wing sauce! The only downside for us is that our air fryer is relatively small, so we have to make multiple batches to sufficiently feed us.

Cody is perfectly content to eat wings for dinner with no sides, but I like to cut a couple of potatoes or sweet potatoes into thin fries and stick them in the oven with olive oil, salt, pepper, and sometimes cumin or paprika depending on how much extra flavor I want. At 400-425 degrees, thin enough fries shouldn't take much longer than the wings in the oven as long as they're not laying on top of each other.

3. Burrito Bowls

If you like Chipotle or similar restaurants, this is the simple, at-home version! It's so easy, it's one of the few meals I almost always have the ingredients to make on short notice. Burrito bowls are very straightforward and only require three components: rice, beans, and meat. Again, we usually use chicken for these, but any fajita meat will do. We LOVE pre-seasoned fajita chicken thighs from HEB. I almost always prefer thighs over breasts because they're juicier and more flavorful. I usually buy a big package or two, separate them into a few gallon baggies, and freeze them in groups of three or four thighs. That's the perfect amount for the two of us for dinner and leftovers for lunch. The chicken is also great to add to quesadillas! I like to cut it up and throw it in the skillet to cook while I assemble the other components.

I usually just throw the rice in our instant pot. I don't measure anymore, but I always make sure the water covers the rice by about a half-inch before sealing the pot and using the rice function.

For beans, we always use canned black beans alongside Ro-tel (generic is fine) in the same pot. We use two cans of beans to one can of Ro-tel and the ratio stays the same no matter how much you need to make. Ro-tel is available in mild, original, and hot, so you can decide how much of a kick you like. These cook fairly quickly since it's really just heating it all up. I always do that on the stovetop in a small saucepan.

After that, it's as easy as the in-store buffet assembly with your choice of toppings. I usually just stick some cheddar cheese on top, but Cody likes sour cream and avocado if we have those on hand. My mom’s favorite extra topping is spring onions. If I have absolutely nothing planned, chances are, this is what we'll be eating.

4. Korean Beef Bowls

Cody has a thing for chicken, and I have a thing for bowls. I first made these bowls with a Hello Fresh box, but they were so easy and simple that I kept the recipe card and make a pared-down version when we're a little chickened out. Now, I'm not claiming that this has any sort of authenticity to it, but it's quick, and it tastes good. Sometimes, that's all I really care about.

This one is as easy as browning the ground beef and tossing in sauce ingredients. I've made it a few different ways, but you just need soy sauce (or coconut aminos if that's more your thing), a sweetener, garlic, and ginger. You also have a couple of options here in terms of prep. One way isn't inherently better than the other - the best way to make it is what works best for you and matches your tastes. You can add red pepper flakes if you're feeling ~spicy~. You can use brown or white sugar, honey, or even a little maple syrup for the sweetener. Some days, I mince the garlic and ginger to put in the pan along with beef. Other days, I just mix it in with the sauce before adding it to the pan. However, if I'm using the second option, I will also crush the ginger and garlic a bit so the flavors will be drawn out more effectively.

Again, at this point, I don't really measure, but we usually make 2 lbs of beef to have plenty of leftovers. A little bit of sesame oil definitely tastes best, especially if you want the garlic and ginger in the pan before browning the beef. Once the beef is mostly browned, I add in some broccoli, then work on mixing the sauce while the broccoli gets tender. I would estimate that I use about a tablespoon of sweetener (usually honey) per 1/4 or 1/3 of soy sauce. Personally, I prefer a little bit of a thicker sauce, so I whisk a teaspoon or two of cornstarch into the sauce before adding it to the pan. Once I'm happy with how well the beef and broccoli are cooked, I pour the sauce in, stir everything well, and let it reduce and thicken. Then, I spoon it over rice from the instant pot. Voila!

5. Turkey Taco Quinoa Skillet

Don't let the quinoa scare you off! Cody is not normally a fan either, but he doesn't complain about this dinner. The best thing about this dish is that it is a true one-pan meal, like the CYLC (#1), with carbs, protein, and fat. Danae of Recipe Runner, the author of this recipe, recommends using it on top of veggies or in tortillas, but we just plop it into bowls and eat it alone.

You start with diced onions in the skillet over medium heat. The recipe, as most do, says to saute for two minutes before adding in the meat and some garlic. What I would do is add in the minced garlic about five minutes after the onions, turn the heat to medium-low, and saute them together for at least 10 minutes. Remember the rule about aromatics from the beginning? This is where it comes into play. You just have to watch and stir them often to prevent burning. If that's not doable, stick the garlic and onion in together for the two to five minutes and move on!

Brown the turkey in the same pan with the aromatics once they're ready, then pretty much the rest of the ingredients follow. Remember, you can customize anything, so don't let a single ingredient turn you off. The original recipe calls for green chiles, frozen corn, Ro-tel, canned black beans, chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper, salsa, and quinoa. Let everything simmer until the quinoa is cooked and soft, then top with your choice of cheese. That's it! This is a great meal for cooler weather or evenings where you eat in front of the tv. It would also be great with tortilla chips on the side. Get creative!

Like these ideas and want more? Suggestions and feedback are always welcome at [email protected]. Follow me @uglyyummies on Instagram for more day to day food tips and related content!


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