Top 10 “Plan B” Dinners

I had this grand plan when I got home from my latest east coast trip that I was going to cook a nice dinner for my family the following day. I went to the store, bought all sorts of groceries, even did some of the prep. Then I took a nap since I was jet-lagged. And woke up at 7 PM.

So much for the nice dinner. Hence the need for a Plan B.

This sort of thing happens a lot around here. Something always comes up – I might get home really tired and not feel like doing much. I might be so busy during the day even when I’m at home that I don’t have much time to prepare dinner. Going out to eat or getting takeout food is always an option, but after a while that just gets expensive. (And having to go out again when all I want to do is curl up on the couch isn’t necessarily a viable option.) That’s why we have a list of Plan B dinners.

I keep certain foods around the house just for this purpose, so that I can throw something together at the last minute and not have to resort to a bowl of cereal for dinner. (I personally find a bowl of cereal for dinner incredibly unsatisfying.) So when you’re having One of Those Days, see if something from this list might be of help!

1. Hot dogs and fries.

I always keep a couple of packages of hot dogs (my favorite: Hebrew National, yes I’m a snob) in the freezer. My husband is very particular about his fries, so I ¬†always have a package of Extra Crispy Crinkle Cut Fries in the freezer. (I prefer Tater Tots, but hey, use whatever floats your boat.) We don’t bother keeping hot dog buns around; they just end up getting freezer burn. I roll the hot dogs up in a regular piece of bread – something that’s always here in the house. If I’m feeling gourmet, I’ll cook an Aidell’s sausage and have it with grainy mustard. (I have a monopoly on any and all mustards in my house; my family hates it. Their loss.)

2. Chicken Patty Parmiagiana with Spaghetti

This is actually one of my younger daughter’s favorite meals. This version is NOT for purists. Making real chicken parmiagiana takes time and care. This version is when you don’t have time and really don’t care. But it’s remarkably edible anyway. Make spaghetti. Use your favorite jarred spaghetti sauce. Heat up some frozen chicken patties. Top those with some sauce and some mozarella cheese during the last couple of minutes of cooking. Add a little steamed broccoli (we’ve always got broccoli around) and you have a complete meal that’s remarkably satisfying despite the lack of effort you’ve put into it.

3. Tuna Melt

I particularly like this when fresh tomatoes from my garden or the farmer’s market are available. Take your favorite canned tuna, mix in some mayonnaise and your favorite seasonings. Spread the tuna mixture on a piece of bread, top with sliced tomatoes and American cheese. Place the bread in the toaster oven and toast until the cheese melts. Ridiculously easy.

4. Pizza Bagels

I’ve always got bagels in the freezer. Just defrost however many you need in the microwave, split them apart, top with pizza sauce or spaghetti sauce, and top with mozarella cheese. Heat in the toaster oven until the cheese melts.

5. Caprese Salad

This is the perfect meal when the weather is so hot you don’t want to turn on the oven. Alternate layers of sliced tomatoes and mozarella, tear some fresh basil and scatter that on top, and drizzle with a little olive oil and some balsamic vinegar. Just don’t tell anyone you’re really being lazy.

6. Fried Rice

Actually I usually end up taking this for lunch to work as well. I make this anytime I have leftover rice, usually from Chinese takeout or if we’ve done a stir fry for another meal. I usually add some chicken apple sausage (broiled), some scrambled eggs, and some frozen mixed vegetables. Mix everything together in a large frying pan with a little oil, add soy sauce to taste, and stir fry the whole thing together. Bombproof. It’s also a great way to use up leftover vegetables.

7. Mac and Cheese and Tuna

I learned this one from my husband. You take your favorite boxed macaroni and cheese (we use the fluorescent orange-colored stuff). Cook as directed, but instead of adding milk, add enough mayonnaise to make it creamy. Then add a can of tuna, and something to add some crunch (e.g. chopped apple, celery, or onion). It’s another easy meal for hot days when you don’t feel like cooking.

8. Quesadillas

Who doesn’t love quesadillas? You can customize them with whatever ingredients you happen to have on hand. We’ve always got shredded cheese around, and I like to add vegetables, or leftover sliced chicken, or even cooked shrimp. The possibilities are endless. Put a tortilla in a skillet that you’ve sprayed with non-stick spray, top with your favorite toppings, and add a second tortilla on top. Smoosh together with a spatula. If you’re gifted or brave, flip the whole thing over to cook on both sides. (Makes for good entertainment value too.)

9. Baked Potatoes

When my elder daughter was on her high school dance team, one of the best aspects of going to the football games was not only getting to see her dance, but having the amazing baked potatoes that were sold by the music boosters. They must have sprinkled magic on those potatoes. Mine are never that good, but adding toppings to a baked potato can form a really satisfying dinner. Try butter, sour cream, bacon bits, chili, cheese, broccoli….be creative!

10. My Version of Scott’s Friday Night Dinner

My friend, Scott, has a family tradition of putting together whatever’s on hand or easily attainable and somehow turning it into a gourmet meal. My version varies depending on what I have around, but tends to consist of: dry salami or ¬†broiled Aidells sausage, cheddar or Havarti cheese, a baguette or crackers, some fruit (even canned pears will do in a pinch), and some raw or pickled vegetables. Add a nice glass of wine or a beer and you have a lovely dinner. No real cooking required.

Think about a Plan B dinner before bailing and going out to eat. You’ll save money, and you might like it just as well. And you can have it in your pajamas.



Mostly Guilt-Free Meatloaf

Everyone’s got a particular meatloaf recipe that they love. It might be passed down from Grandma, or found online, or from a much-loved cookbook. I never really liked meat loaf much when I was growing up; I don’t know what recipe my mother used, but it was merely ok. I vaguely remember a tomato sauce over the top of the whole thing.

Mom hasn’t made meatloaf in a zillion years, mostly because she and Dad had to worry about fats and cholesterol in their diets. I’m no different; I’ve got my own stash of statin drugs that I have to take. But I will NOT consume foods that may be healthy for me that don’t taste good. Meatloaf is a staple in my household, and I am not willing to compromise on its flavor. So I’ve experimented to come up with something that I don’t have to label “heart attack on a plate.” (And don’t tell me to use ground turkey, I HATE that stuff.)

Trick #1: I got one of those loaf pans that’s actually 2 pans in one, where the inner one contains holes on the bottom so that fat can drip through.

Trick #2: Use egg substitute instead of eggs to bind the ground beef mixture. In a meatloaf, egg substitute works just fine; you can’t tell the difference between that and regular eggs.

Trick #3: I use extremely lean ground beef. Foodies may take issue with this, because fat=flavor. Yeah, well. Fat also equals heart disease in my family, so I try to reduce fat without sacrificing flavor. My current favorite ground beef packages contain 96% beef, 4% fat. I can deal with that. (Your typical ground chuck is 80% beef, 20% fat. ‘Nuff said.)

My recipe is adapted from the one in the Pillsbury Kitchens Cookbook. I love tweaking recipes to suit my needs! Here’s what I’ve done:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. (Note that my oven runs about 25 degrees cold, so I’ve got mine at 375. Maybe someday I’ll get this fixed…)

Take a large onion and chop it coarsely. Saute the onion in a frying pan in about 1/2 Tbsp. of olive oil over medium-high heat, until the onion is somewhat carmelized. Set aside to cool slightly.

In a large bowl, mix ground beef, egg substitute, ketchup, corn flake crumbs, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, and carmelized onions together. I use my hands to get it mixed together well; the squeamish can use a spoon or farm it out to another member of the household. This was always popular with my girls.

And after mixing, it looks like this:

Spray a loaf pan (or special meatloaf pan like I described earlier) with non-stick cooking spray. Note that I like to use the “grilling” version for everything except baking. It works just as well if not better as the standard version, but it’s designed for high heat. Have you ever had your pans gunk up from cooking spray when you’re doing some sauteing? Now you know why I use the other stuff! Does spraying the pan really make a difference in sticking? It does. It especially makes cleaning the pan later a LOT easier. Trust me. And then you don’t have to soak the pan to get all the stuck-on bits off – which looks absolutely revolting the next morning.

Place the meat mixture into the pan. I typically round the top so that it looks like a loaf and fat that could accumulate on top will run off (and down through the pan).

Bake the meatloaf at 350 for about an hour. Let rest for about 5 minutes before serving. I particularly like the crunchy bits on the top…

Variant: If you really love the tomato sauce glaze, take about 1/4 cup ketchup mixed with about 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce and spoon that over the top the last 15 minutes of cooking. Can you tell I’m a big Worcestershire sauce fan? It causes magic to happen in the oven. Really.

Robin’s Mostly Guilt-Free Meatloaf

2 lbs. lean ground beef
1 large onion, diced
1/2 cup corn flake crumbs
1/4 cup egg substitute
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf or meatloaf pan with non-stick cooking spray. Saute the diced onion in about 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil until carmelized. Let onion cool slightly. Mix all ingredients with the cooled onions, and place in the prepared pan. Bake for about 1 hour, let rest for 5 minutes before serving. (If using a glaze on top, add that for the last 15 minutes of baking.)