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Getting a nutritious, tasty dinner on the table is a challenge, especially when you work full time. Getting a nutritious, tasty dinner that four people living in my house all want to eat tonight…THAT’S Mission Impossible. I’ve tried sheet-pan meals, slow-cooker meals, and frozen casseroles, but they all get a big NO from my crew. They aren’t impressed by Insta-pot. Maybe I’m just bad at braising, but every time I try a recipe that a friend insists her family LOOOVED…it’s an instant ‘yuck’ at my house. And you can just forget serving leftovers…I’m always happy to have a second day of a favorite meal, but nobody else in the family shares my joy. (Oh well, at least packing my lunch is always easy!) Over time, I’ve developed a few kitchen hacks that help me stay a little bit ahead, and still please my family. Most of the time.

Since my family turns up their noses at ‘freezer meals,’ I get tricky and just freeze part of the meal. The frozen elements speed up the time between I’m-hungry and dinner-is-served, and including fresh elements keeps it from seeming like a ‘freezer meal.’ Having a chest freezer is helpful, but not necessary. I prefer to freeze foods in glass containers instead of plastic, but plastic zipper bags will work as well. (I use Pyrex with silicone lids, or even canning jars.) Be sure to leave a little room in the container to allow for expansion. Voice of experience — you would not believe how hard it is to remove frozen, spilled soup that has cascaded down inside of the door of your side-by-side…

My ‘get dinner on the table without crying’ freezer hacks

1. Double the protein (and freeze half). I never cook up just one pound of seasoned ground turkey for tacos, or chicken Italian sausage for pasta. Buy two, cook two, freeze one, and you have a meal at the ready for those days you’re running late.

2. Use after-dinner time to prep and freeze grains for another day. My rice cooker is super-basic and has been with me since college, but it still makes perfect brown basmati rice. The only problem is it takes 45 minutes, and THAT isn’t going to work on a weeknight. Instead, I set up the rice cooker after dinner (which takes 2 minutes), put the rice aside to cool for ½ hour when it’s done, I package up a few ready-made side dishes before bed. Brown rice, wild-rice blends, and even quinoa are great re-heated out of the freezer for grain bowls, side dishes, or soups.

3. Make sauces in bulk and freeze in one-meal containers. These days we’re in love with a simple sauce that uses Spanish chorizo, onions, tomatoes, smoked paprika, and a bit of thyme. One batch of sauce makes enough to top off grilled fish, chicken, or grain bowls for three meals. Enchilada sauce, marinara, with or without meat, or more pungent garnishes like pesto or chimichurri are all great candidates for freezing. (Cream sauces are not as forgiving – I don’t recommend!)

4. Stretch your budget and cooking effort with salmon cakes. Sometimes my kids will eat grilled salmon, but these salmon cakes are a reliable hit – crispy on the outside/tender inside and good for you too! I can easily get two meals out of the 4 salmon portions I typically would serve for a ‘salmon dinner’ at our house. Topped with a lemon and green tea flavored mayonnaise sauce, these salmon cakes make it easy to add healthy fish oils to your diet.

Salmon Cakes with Lemony Green Tea Aioli

4 (4-oz) frozen wild salmon portions (or 1 pound filet)

1 small onion, finely diced

½ cup bread crumbs or panko (I use gluten-free)

1 egg

¼ cup mayonnaise

¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese

¼ cup very finely shredded kale

2 Tb minced fresh basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Bake the salmon filets at 300° F, until opaque and firm. Allow to cool enough to handle, then flake into a large bowl. (Full disclosure – I wear food-service gloves to mix and shape the cakes!) Add the other ingredients, and mix gently. Take care not to over-mix and make a paste. Form cakes that are about 3 inches across and ½ inch thick.

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, and cook the cakes in batches, flipping the cakes when they are golden brown. (About 8 minutes per side.). Serve hot with Lemony Green Tea Aioli. Allow extra cakes to cool, then package in an airtight container and freeze. To reheat, microwave until heated through, then crisp in a hot pan with a bit of olive oil.

Lemony Green Tea Aioli

½ cup mayonnaise

Juice and zest of one small lemon

¼ tsp powdered sencha

Blend all ingredients thoroughly. Keeps for several days, refrigerated in a covered container.

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