A typical weekday evening in my house goes something like this: pick up the kids at 6:15 p.m. Commence whining. (Them, not me. Though sometimes me.) Home by 6:30 p.m. Put water up to boil/turn oven on/get rice going in the rice cooker while attempting to fend off rapid-fire requests for snacks that will escalate in pitch over the next half hour. At 6:45 p.m., give in to snack request. (Carrot sticks and grape tomatoes on a good day; an entire box of Cheerios plopped onto the table on a bad one.)
Dinner is usually on the table by 7:15 p.m., and most days it is simple: a plate of pasta with roasted broccoli, broiled chicken thighs and baked potatoes, rice and beans with sliced cucumbers. And the only reason it comes together at all is thanks to a small but mighty list of dinner-saving food staples that I try to always have on hand. ("Try" being the operative word here.)
#1. Pre-chopped bags of broccoli
Turn the oven up to 450 degrees, rip open a bag of pre-chopped broccoli or cauliflower, toss it onto a sheet pan with a healthy drizzle of olive oil and a good sprinkling of salt, and you have a foolproof side dish ready in less than 20 minutes. For grown-ups and kids with more sophisticated palettes, finish the dish with lemon zest and a handful of grated Parmesan. Or for an easy one-pan meal, lower the heat and add some salmon to the pan before putting it in the oven.
#2. Box of rainbow fusilli, or other pasta
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: there's no shame in feeding your kids buttered noodles for dinner. A box of multi-colored farfalle in the pantry or a bag of "rainbow" tortellini in the freezer is a must for simple, ultra-quick meals.
#3. Canned black beans
Or pinto beans. Or cannellini. Or lentils. But especially black beans. I love to cook beans from dried when I have the time and foresight, but most of the time, I rely on canned. We eat beans and rice at least once a week in my house — sometimes on its own, sometimes in tacos, sometimes in quesadillas. But I always make extra: Leftovers are perfect for kid lunches and second-day salads for the grown-ups.
#4. Frozen chicken gyoza
Every time I go to Trader Joe's, I stock up on bags of their frozen chicken gyoza. My kids love them, and since they contain both protein and carbohydrates, I can just add a side of sliced cucumbers and/or edamame, and dinner is done. Your kids don't like dumplings? Find a similarly not-terribly-unhealthy convenience food that they do like, and turn to that on particularly harried nights instead.
#5. Sushi rice or jasmine rice
There are few things more satisfying than having a pot of freshly cooked rice ready to dig into come dinnertime. Plus, my kids love rice — they'd eat happily make a huge bowl of it their dinner. Have leftovers? Try making a 22-minute chicken fried rice the next day.
#6. Ground beef
Ground beef in almost any form is always a winner in my house: meatloaf, burgers, meatballs, and especially these little sliders I make in big batches and freeze to eat throughout the week.
#7. Canned whole San Marzano tomatoes
I try to keep a few cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes in my pantry at all times. (Unlike the rest of my coworkers, I swear by the U.S.-grown ones that come in the white cans.) Most of the canned tomatoes I buy end up in the tomato sauce I use to make a super-fast spaghetti and meatballs, but I also add them to soups, braised chicken, and other quick dishes.
#8. Grape or Sungold tomatoes
It wasn't until I became a parent that I learned a wise and time-saving truth: it's perfectly acceptable to serve raw vegetables as a side dish, even if they're not in salad form. Especially when they're in season, a pint of sweet, ripe cherry tomatoes is every bit as good — and good for you — as steamed green beans or roasted eggplant. Just maybe wash them first. And if you want to get fancy and, you know, cook them, throw them into a skillet with seared lamb chops or crispy chicken cutlets.
#9. Block of cheddar cheese
One of our real-talk rules about feeding kids is to appreciate the power of cheese. Put a small bowl of shredded cheddar (or Monterey Jack, or Parm) next to each child's plate and let them sprinkle it on whatever they want. Or serve one of my favorite meals: snacky dinner. Set out a large platter of cubed cheeses, cured meats, whole-grain crackers, dried fruit, and any crunchy veggies you have on hand. Boom: dinner.