Dinner at my house goes something like this-pasta one night, chicken another and maybe a big salad one evening. And pizza or leftovers on the nights that I am just too busy or disorganized to get a home cooked meal on the table.
Same routine week after week. To put it simply: We are in a major food rut.
I know that we are not the only family facing dinnertime monotony. With hectic schedules, picky eaters and limited budgets, many families find themselves shying away from any changes to the familiar food routine.
To expedite my meal planning and grocery shopping, I tend to stick with my tried-and-true recipes. I also find myself trying to accommodate the various needs and wants of my four eaters. My husband is a “foodie” who dreams of having a gourmet dinner every night. My 5-year-old daughter loves plain buttered noodles. My 3-year-old son happily devours his vegetables, but often leaves his meat untouched.
What’s a mom do to?
In an effort to shake up our dinner routine, I decided to devote a week to trying new things. I chose foods that were unfamiliar and out of our comfort zone. Some of the newcomers were main courses and others were side dishes. I even threw in a novel dessert.
The line up was as follows: tofu, quinoa, exotic mushrooms, artichokes, duck breast, lentils and rhubarb.
Armed with a new meal plan for the week, an adventurous grocery list and my (mostly) willing dinner companions, we embarked on our family culinary adventure.
These are the recipes I used and my family’s honest reactions to our foray into foreign food territory. Hopefully, our experience will inspire you to rethink your weekly meal plan. Maybe lentils or tofu aren’t for you. But on your next trip to the store, consider picking up something new to try (I bet your family will be glad you did).
So what did I learn after our week-long culinary experiment? It is not easy to teach a 3-year-old how to eat an artichoke and too much rhubarb crisp gives kids belly aches. But more importantly, it isn’t as hard as you might think to escape your dinnertime food rut.
1/4 cup olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 28 ounces whole tomatoes with juice, chopped 12 ounces firm tofu, drained 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg 1 egg salt and pepper 1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped 1 box rigatoni 2 cups low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella cheese, grated 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated The Basics
Tofu is an inexpensive and versatile source of protein.
The Recipe: Baked Tofu Rigatoni
Preheat over to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a large saucepan on medium heat. Sauté onion for five minutes. Add chopped garlic and cook for three more minutes. Add chopped tomatoes with juices. Season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a blender, combine tofu, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper and process until smooth.
Cook box of rigatoni in salted boiling water according to instructions on package and drain.
In a large bowl, combine rigatoni, tofu mixture, tomato sauce and chopped basil. Transfer to a 9 by 13 baking dish, lightly coated with olive oil. Sprinkle both cheeses over the top.
Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese is browning and bubbly.
Despite initial skepticism over the tofu, my family gave this dish a thumbs up. The tofu seemed very similar to the ricotta normally found in a baked rigatoni dish. We were off to a good start.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 small shallots, finely chopped
1 cup quinoa
2 cups chicken broth
Salt and pepper
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wha) is a protein-dense grain. It can be used just like rice, orzo or couscous.
The Recipe: Chicken Broth Quinoa
Rinse and drain quinoa in cold water before cooking. Put olive oil into a large saucepan. Add chopped shallot and cook on medium low until translucent. Add quinoa and toast for a few minutes. Add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and cook until all of the liquid is absorbed (about 10-15 minutes).
When quinoa is fully cooked, the grain will appear translucent and the germ ring will be visible along the outside edge of the grain. Season with salt and pepper.
Add roasted veggies or leftover chicken to turn quinoa into a main dish.
Another big hit! Quinoa is an easy side dish that packs a bigger nutritional punch than plain, white rice. This is definitely going to be a new dinnertime staple.
Wednesday: Exotic mushrooms
2 sheets of puff pastry, defrosted according to the instructions on the box
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/3 cup of white wine
4 ounces goat cheese
10-12 ounces mixed mushrooms
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped
1 Tbsp. milk
Salt and pepper
I am not talking about your basic button mushroom. I bought an exotic mushroom blend that contained some funky fungi, including alba clamshells, trumpet royales and forest nameko mushrooms.
The Recipe: Mushroom Tart
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the shallot and sauté for a few minutes. Meanwhile, clean the mushrooms with a damp cloth. Chop larger mushrooms if necessary. Add mushrooms to the pan and sauté until they give up their liquid. Add wine and cook until the liquid is reduced to a few tablespoons of sauce. Add thyme, salt and pepper. Place one piece of puff pastry on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Top with mushroom mixture and crumble goat cheese on top. Cover with another piece of puff pastry. Pinch edges together to form a seal. Whisk egg and milk together and then brush the top of the pastry. Bake until pastry is puffed and brown (about 30 minutes). Cut into squares and serve alongside a simple green salad.
It is hard not to like anything tucked between two sheets of buttery puff pastry. My husband loved this meal. My kids ate most of their servings, picking out a few mushrooms along the way.
4 sprigs parsley 4 sprigs thyme 4 garlic cloves 2 bay leaves 2 lemons, halved 1/2 cup white wine 2 Tbsp. olive oil 1 quart chicken broth Salt and pepper 2 whole artichokes 1 Tbsp. melted butter per person Juice of a lemon The Basics
An artichoke contains only 25 calories and is packed with 16 nutrients, including magnesium. Artichokes are also a good source of fiber.
The Recipe: Steamed Artichokes
Simmer the herbs, garlic, bay leaves, lemons, wine, oil, salt, pepper and broth in a large pot. Wash artichokes under water.
Using a heavy duty knife, cut off the stems close to the base. Pull off the lower petals that are small and tough. Cut off the top inch of the artichoke with a serrated-edge knife and rub with half a lemon to preserve the green color. Place the artichokes in the steaming liquid, bottom up. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes. Artichokes are done when you can insert a knife into the base and there is no resistance.
To eat, pull off a leaf and scrape the meat off the tender end with your front teeth. Dip the ends of the leaves in lemon juice and melted butter.
This dish was not our favorite. Although the steaming liquid did impart nice flavor, my kids quickly lost interest in the somewhat complicated process of eating the artichokes. On the whole, I found that this dish was too much work for only mediocre results. This recipe might be better suited to a romantic dinner for two.
1/2 pound lentils 1/4 cup olive oil 1 large yellow onion, chopped 1 cup of leeks (white and light green parts only), chopped 1 Tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped 2 tsp. salt 1/2 tsp. pepper 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped 1 cup celery, chopped 1 cup carrots, chopped 2 or more cups chicken broth 1/3 cup white wine 2 Tbsp. tomato paste The Basics
Lentils are an excellent plant-based source of protein and iron.
The Recipe: Lentils
Bring four cups of water to a boil. Pour over lentils in a heat-proof bowl. Let sit for about 15 minutes and drain. Heat oil in a large sauté pan. Sauté onion, leeks and thyme for 10 minutes. Add the celery and carrots and sauté for five more minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another two minutes. Pour in the white wine and let most of the liquid cook off. Add the lentils, chicken stock and tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. (Adapted from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris)
This recipe is a great way to introduce your family to lentils. I served this rich and flavorful dish alongside grilled salmon and my kids scooped up every last bit with their spoons.
Saturday: Duck breasts
Four skin-on duck breasts 2 peppers (red, yellow or poblano) 1 onion 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil 2-3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro 1 cup Monterey jack or queso fresco Flour tortillas Your favorite salsaSpice rub: 1 Tbsp. paprika 1 Tbsp. dry mustard 1 Tbsp. cumin 1 1/2 Tbsp. salt 1 tsp. ground coriander 1/2 tsp. chili de arbol The Basics
We were all skeptical about the duck. I chose to make fajitas because the duck could easily be substituted for our usual chicken or flank steak. If you are concerned about the higher fat content in duck, use skinless breasts.
The Recipe: David’s Duck Fajitas
Sprinkle the rub on the skin side of the breasts. Grill or sear, skin side first, for about 10-12 minutes, flipping halfway (depends on the size and thickness of the breasts).
In a separate pan, sauté peppers and onions together in olive oil. Let the breasts rest for a few minutes and then slice very thinly.
Serve with warm tortillas, sautéed onions and peppers, cheese, cilantro and your favorite salsa.
Everyone ate literally every bite on their plate. The duck was flavorful and blended well with the other components of the dish.
8 Tbsp. chilled (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
2 pounds (six large stalks) rhubarb, cut into 1/2-inch pieces(six cups)
1 tsp. grated orange or grapefruit zest
Juice of one orange or grapefruit
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
Rhubarb is commonly paired with sugar or other sweeteners to make jams, pies or sauces.
The Recipe: Rhubarb Crisp
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and oats. Mix in the chilled butter until mixture comes together into clumps.
In a large bowl, stir to combine rhubarb, zest, juice, sugar, cornstarch and vanilla. Pour rhubarb mixture into a small casserole dish and cover with the crumb mixture.
Bake until the rhubarb is tender when pierced with the tip of a knife, about 40-45 minutes. Serve warm (ideally over vanilla ice cream). Adapted from www.marthastewart.com.
Ever since we had this dessert, my son has been asking for more. We now have plans to make a strawberry-rhubarb pie.