Fast Dinner Recipes: When Life is Busy

by Liza Graves

As CEO of StyleBlueprint, Liza also regularly writes for SB. Most of her writing is now found in the recipe archives as cooking is her stress relief!

When is life not busy? It seems to be a badge of honor of our times, and I fall victim to it all the time as well. With that backdrop, it’s no wonder that there has been a surge in delivery food options. It’s no longer just Chinese or pizza that can be delivered to your door; practically every place in town has contracted with a delivery service, making dinner easy. But, what are we giving up? I would say quite a bit.

Everyone is different, but for me, when I take the time to cook — even these “non-recipes” that I’m about to share with you —  it’s meditative. It’s something I can do with my hands, with purpose, and give to my family. Or, when I find myself solo, do just for myself. It’s my zen. I like making dishes that don’t require much thought, where I am on auto-pilot, as I find it a time when my kids will gather around me and talk. And, when they aren’t there, the dog is at my feet, music is playing or the news is on … all things I can enjoy, but if I didn’t take the time to cook, I’d likely just be working instead.

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This article is different from StyleBlueprint’s other recipe articles, as it’s really about inspiring us all to live outside of the cookbook. These are basic meals. Cooking dinner does not have to be complicated! Also, I tend to cook lots of “one-pot” or “cast iron skillet” meals as it makes for fewer dishes to clean. Seriously. I don’t like to clean up after cooking and this strategy makes for less mess!

Here is my food diary for a week of dinners, purposefully all prepared without looking at a recipe. I do always cook with one major philosophy at hand: if I branch out too much and it’s terrible, we’ll just order a pizza. This takes all the pressure off and only leaves me with the guilt of wasted food if it actually comes to delivery pizza (which has happened a couple of times …).

(These are iPhone photos taken at night in my kitchen … they do not live up to the typical StyleBlueprint photography, but this is real life!)

Black Beans with Ground Beef (and Cauliflower!)

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This is basic, but I did cook it in two pans and then combine it into one for presentation, as I do think presentation matters, even at home. While I will sometimes cook black beans in a crockpot (super easy), I usually just use canned black beans, as they are so quick to warm up. I will cook them with some added onion powder, chili powder and black pepper. Sometimes I’ll cook them with sauteed onions, sometimes with garlic … it’s really how I’m feeling. These were out of the can and warmed up.

Then, I cooked ground beef while I warmed up some riced cauliflower in the microwave. Once the ground beef was finished and the fat drained, I mixed it with half the bag of riced cauliflower and added approximately two tablespoons of taco seasoning mixand some salt and pepper to taste.

Then, I moved the ground beef/cauliflower mixture to the side, added the black beans to the other side of the pan and topped with some shredded cheddar to melt. I chopped up some tomatoes, onions and cilantro, and mixed in a little lime juice and placed it on top, along with some chopped avocado and some adobe sauce I bought at a farmer’s market in Columbia, South Carolina.

Black Beans with Ground Beef (and Cauliflower!)

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Zucchini, Mushrooms, Onions (with leftovers from the night before)

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Here, I heated olive oil (I prefer California Olive Ranch) in one of my cast iron skillets and, once hot, sautéed half of a sweet onion, sliced up. After a few minutes, I added sliced shitake and baby bella mushrooms, and three zucchinis, sliced up. As this cooked, I chopped up half of a red bell pepper and jalapeño pepper and added them to the dish. Then, I added the leftovers from the Black Beans & Ground Beef recipe mentioned above. I salt and peppered to taste and topped with a sprinkle of shredded white cheddar cheese and a sliced heirloom tomato.

Zucchini, Mushrooms, Onions (with leftovers from the night before)

Big Salad with Vegetables on Hand

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I do try to have at least one big salad each week for family dinners.

I like salads, as I can place the vegetables around the salad in such a way that I know I can please everyone. Cucumbers on this side, avocado on that side, tomatoes in the middle … Everyone pick a side with veggies you like and please don’t complain!

This is just some fresh bibb lettuce topped with cucumber, different colored grape tomatoes, avocado, thinly sliced red onion, cilantro and goat cheese. I usually just whip up a simple vinaigrette dressing, but you can use a favorite bottled dressing as well.

I served this with Alaskan Silver Salmon, which we actually caught on a recent trip! But, many times, I will top this type of salad with shrimp, chicken or grilled flank steak.

Big Salad with Vegetables on Hand

Broccoli, Mushroom & Chicken One-Skillet Meal

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I love broccoli, but not everyone in my family does. Like many families, we are in lots of directions on some nights. When it’s just me and one of my daughters, I get the green light to cook a meal like this. On this same night, we also microwaved some brown rice, and had black beans and some sliced up chicken sausage, which was waiting for the rest of our family when they returned.

This is one head of broccoli, sliced up, about a cup of baby bellas and shitake mushrooms, sliced up, and one whole yellow onion, sliced up. First, heat up the cast iron skillet with olive oil. Once hot, add the onions and broccoli. Once they soften (maybe 3-4 minutes), add the mushrooms. Add in a cup of shredded chicken (I usually pick up a rotisserie chicken at Kroger each week, which provides meat for a couple of family meals), a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes, a tsp of ginger (I use dried, fresh and crushed from a jar. If you don’t have fresh, dried is a completely fine way to do ginger), salt and pepper. I did add some soy sauce to my portion of this (my daughter doesn’t like soy sauce, so I did not add that to the entire dish.).

Broccoli, Mushroom & Chicken One-Skillet Meal

Make Your Own Tacos

This was what I made for my birthday dinner. I know many people go out to dinner for their birthday, and some years we do, but this year I just wanted to cook something healthy and tasty and sit around the dining room table with an extended conversation … on a Tuesday night, no less! My family obliged me and it was lovely.

This meal is a little more labor-intensive …

Pico: Chop tomatoes, yellow onion, a seeded jalapeño and some fresh cilantro, and mix. Add the juice from half a lime and some salt and pepper.

Guacamole: Scoop out the fruit from two ripe avocados and mash with juice from half of one lime, a little cilantro, a little green onion, and salt and pepper.

Zucchini, poblano, corn vegetable mix: The full recipe is here, but basically, warm some olive oil in cast iron skillet. Once hot, add onions, peppers and corn. After a few minutes, add zucchini and continue to cook until done. Add a little salt and pepper along with some taco seasoning.

Yellow and red bell peppers: To save on dishes to clean up, move the zucchini vegetable mix to a bowl and cover with foil to keep it warm. Then, heat up a little more olive oil. Once hot, add sliced peppers and cook until soft.

Ground beef: Cook in a skillet until done, drain fat and then season to your preference.

Black beans: Again, to save on dishes to clean up, move the ground beef to a bowl and cover with foil to keep warm. Then, open two cans of black beans and heat it in the same skillet. Season to your preference.

Now, place everything in separate bowls. In addition, I had a bowl of spiraled zucchini (which my daughter spiraled, but you can buy it from Kroger this way … Green Giant even has some in the freezer section that you could quickly heat up) and a bowl of shredded cheddar cheese. I served it with corn tortillas and a variety of hot sauces.

Make Your Own Tacos.

Spiraled Sweet Potatoes with Spinach

I just mentioned spiraling vegetables above, and I do have a spiralizer. But just like the zucchini noodles, you can typically buy shredded sweet potatoes in the vegetable section of Kroger or you can buy frozen spiraled sweet potatoes in the freezer section. For this, we spiraled two sweet potatoes.

I roasted these sweet potato spirals in the oven, but simply sautéeing them would yield very similar results and it would be faster. If you roast them, add some olive oil, place on a cookie sheet and cook at 385 degrees for 20-22 minutes (until some sides are just starting to turn black).

Toss the cooked sweet potato “noodles” with two cups of raw chopped spinach, some red pepper flakes, a diced half bell pepper, some very thinly sliced jalapeño peppers (I actually sliced them on a mandoline to have them be super thin), some slivered almonds and grated pecorino romano cheese, salt and pepper.

Spiraled Sweet Potatoes with Spinach

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Zucchini with Rao’s Arrabbiata Sauce

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This was for one night when I found myself eating solo for dinner. I cook something like this almost every night that I’m by myself, and many times I’ll run home from work and cook this for lunch.

All I did was sauté some zucchini, mushrooms and onions in olive oil. Once cooked, I added some heated Rao’s Arrabbiata sauce (which I heated in the microwave in the same bowl that I used to eat from), shredded cheese (I can’t remember if I used shredded cheddar or pecorino romano cheese) and black pepper. Sometimes I’ll serve something like this over rice or riced cauliflower, but many times, I just eat it like this. YUM!

Zucchini with Rao’s Arrabbiata Sauce

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That’s my seven nights of meals. I hope it inspired you to cook more and not worry so much about what’s in the cookbook … fresh food cooked with love will always win the day!

Here is a list of “pantry staples” and foods that I try to keep on hand so that I can always cook something fairly quickly and without much thought:

  • black beans

  • garbanzo beans

  • quinoa

  • onions

  • zucchini

  • broccoli

  • tomatoes

  • baby bell peppers

  • spicy peppers (jalapeño, poblano, Thai)

  • mushrooms

  • fresh cilantro

  • green onions

  • some sort of fresh meat

  • a variety of chicken sausage links

  • shredded or grated pecorino romano cheese and cheddar cheese

  • chicken and vegetable broth

  • salt-free taco seasoning (usually handmade)

  • frozen riced cauliflower

  • frozen corn

  • eggs

  • soy sauce

  • Rao’s Tomato Sauce (I like all flavors but I always have an Arrabbiata on hand)

  • corn tortillas

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