Thursday, April 26, 2012

Convenient dinner for busy families

Someone tell me that I am not the only mom running around like a chicken with my head cut off.  Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am.not.compaining,  I am blessed to have active minis, and I truly enjoy and embrace this stage in our family's lives.  However, between end of the year school projects, concerts, performances, baseball practices, swim meets, doctors and therapy appointments, golf lessons, birthday parties, etc etc etc.....the McGhee house is insanely busy!  I mean, I am so busy I haven't even had time to worry about the current mad cow crisis in California.

Now, remember how we just talked about things we said we would never do as parents?  Well, one thing I always said I would never do it over-schedule my minis.  I think kids need a stress-free life where they have copious amounts of time to explore, play, and enjoy being a kid.

Well, wouldn't you know it....I have minis that want love being in scheduled activiites.  And because of this, my minis are pretty darn over-scheduled.  The problem is my minis love sports.  In fact, their back up plans to their dreams of working in a smoothie shop and living in an RV are to be a professional baseball player and an Olympic swimmer.

My oldest mini has therapy appointments, yoga, weight-lifting, golf, and swim team.  He's a one legged swimmer who beats two legged swimmers.  Ask him about it, he'll happily tell you.  He also has plans for smashing all  of Michael Phelp's records.  And who am I to stop that from happening?

My middle mini is in soccer, baseball, and swim team.  He wants to grow up and play in the major leagues.  He is concerned that if he gets drafted by a team other than the Chicago Cubs, that Mr. McGhee won't cheer for him.  We have assured him that his team is our team.  He has assured us he will be so good that the Cubs will be begging him to play for them.

Thank God, I've got this mini, who currently excels at maintaining her hair, painting her fingernails, and keeping mommy company.

(Photography from Jeff Anderson)

Needless to say, dinner has been difficult lately, and it won't get any easier until school is out for the summer.  Getting home at 6:30 with three hungry minis to feed, do homework, bathe, do therapy stretching and bracing, and get into bed in an hour is tricky.  So, I have been working hard to come up with dinners that can be made very quickly or even prepared ahead of time.

I find that baked pasta is an easy dish to prepare ahead of time and something that everyone in our house will eat.  I combined two recipes to come up with my own.  I want to say this about this's nothing fancy and impressive, but it is a convenient dinner on a busy night.  If you're having company over for dinner that you want to impress, don't make them this pasta bake.  Unless you're a terrible cook, then make the pasta bake because you don't want your guests leaving hungry.

Step one is to make your pasta sauce.  You can omit this step and buy a jar of pre-made pasta sauce.  Nobody will judge you if you do that.  I make huge batches of this sauce and then freeze it, which saves me lots of time.

Pasta Sauce

  • 1 lb sweet italian sausage (my local market makes their own, which on one hand is repulsive, on the other pretty cool)
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 2-4 cloves minced garlic
  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes (Remember a while back when we talked about tomato packaging....try to stick with the brand names I suggested.  For the sake of honesty, I have to tell you, I didn't have the time to make an extra trip to an additional store, so my pasta sauce was made with tomatoes filled with BPA.  Sad, I know.  The good news is I am too busy right now to worry about it.)
  • 12 oz tomato paste
  • 13 oz tomato sauce
  • 2 tbsp white sugar (I forgot this, oops!)
  • 1 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seed
  • 1 tsp italian seasoning
  • salt and pepper to taste
1. Slice the sausage into 1 inch slices.  I removed the casings from each piece.
2.  Cook the sausage and onion in a pot over medium heat until browned.  Drain fat.
3.  Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce.  
4.  Mix in seasoning.
5.  Reduce heat to low and simmer an hour, stirring occasionally.  

Now that you've got your sauce done, you are ready to assemble your pasta bake.  This can be done ahead of time, say at 5 am when you are up packing lunches before you sneak out for an early morning spin class.  Or, you could easily do this the night before.  Just remember to stick it in the fridge overnight.

Pasta Bake
  • one box of pasta (I prefer organic, whole grain penne)
  • one jar of pasta sauce (store bought, or homemade)
  • 2 cups frozen vegetables (I used peas, you could easily throw in spinach or zucchini)
  • gruyere cheese, shredded
1.  Cook pasta in salted water until cooked al dente.  Drain, rinse with cold water.
2.  Put pasta in a large bowl.  Add pasta sauce and frozen vegetables.
3.  Spread in a baking dish and topped with shredded cheese.
4.  Cook at 400F until cheese is melted.  Or, stick in the fridge until you are ready for dinner.

I tried gruyere cheese on the recommendation of this recipe.  You could easily substitute mozzarella cheese.

I served my pasta bake with zucchini tots.  We have been eating zucchini patties for years, and I have been trying to come up with a way to make them easier and quicker to prepare, so I tried baking them in mini muffin tins, and voila!  It totally worked!

Zucchini Tots
  • 2 cups grated zucchini
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese (I was way fancy and used fresh mozzarella)
  • salt to taste
  • 2 tbsp oil (if pan frying, not needed if baking in muffin pan)
1.  In a medium bowl, combine the zucchini, eggs, onion, flour, Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, and salt. Stir well enough to distribute ingredients evenly.

2 (option #1).  Heat a small amount of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Drop zucchini mixture by heaping tablespoonfuls, and cook for a few minutes on each side until golden.

2 (option #2).  Fill greased mini muffin tins with zucchini mixture and bake at 375 for 15-20 minutes, until brown.

Now, you're probably reading the ingredient list and thinking, "wow Heids, that's a lot of shredding and prep work".  I am blessed to have this amazing new food processor, so all that prep work literally took me about 90 seconds.  I chopped the onion, changed the blade, shredded the zucchini and mozzarella, changed the blade, grated the parmesan, threw in the eggs and flour.  Done.  So, if you don't have a food processor, I highly recommend getting one.  Tell your Mr. it will make your life easier.  A smart Mr. knows what makes his Mrs.' life easier, makes his life easier.  Happy wife, happy life.

I made my zucchini mixture ahead of time and stored all day in the fridge.  

option #1, the patty

Option #2, the mini muffin pan.  Tell your kids they're tator tots.

Enjoy your easy, prepare-ahead dinner with your amazing family.  Encourage your minis to talk about their dreams at dinnertime.  There's nothing that makes the heart swell more than hearing the dreams of your minis.  Especially when all you can do is sit there and think, "maybe, just maybe, one day".....because dreams do come true!