Friday, September 28, 2012

Unique Dress-Up Toy for Girls

Harumika Style Starter Set: Surfer Set 

If you've read my post about Rory's Story Cubes, then you know I'm a fan of games and toys that spark creativity and have endless possibilities. Harumika sets were recommended to me a couple of years ago by a friend  when I was looking for something that my girls, then 7 and 5, could play together. These sets fit the bill and have become a staple for birthday gift-giving.

Each set comes with a miniature (roughly Barbie doll height) dressmaker form, a selection of fabric swatches and a "poker" tool to secure the fabrics to the form and create an outfit. Depending on which set you choose - and there are loads of different sets of varying sizes and costs - you may also have accessories like belts and decals. It's kind of hard to explain how this toy works until you show it. Check it out below:

Other reasons why this toy is so great: a starter set can be had for <$20. It is a totally portable toy, which makes it perfect for when you're on-the-go. It is a toy that promotes sharing and collaboration - my daughters liked to create fashion shows with each other and with play dates. And because there are so many extension sets, you can get a starter set and ask for add-ons from grandparents or friends for birthdays or holidays. Add this to your list of gift ideas!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Weekly Menu 9/24: Bust a Rut

Pictures of chicken tacos, gnocchi, chicken burgers and apple pie

This week, I'm coming off of an annual "Mystery Trip" that I take with some of my closest girlfriends (look for another blog post on that coming soon). One person does all of the planning, while everyone else just packs and shows up, ready for the surprises ahead. We all live in such controlled schedules in so many ways, that a trip full of unknowns is the ultimate break from the routine.

In this Weekly Menu, I was inspired to show you some dishes we've tried in our home that are definitely stretches flavor-wise, representing a break from the routine go-to meals that we love, but may show up on the table a tad too often. The exception in this line-up of course is the apple pie. No surprises needed there.

Enjoy and please tell me what's shaking up your meals these days.

Carne Asada Chicken Tacos

Chicken Tacos with Onions and Beans

The pickled onions sound like a big deal, but they are easy and add so much flavor. Don't worry if you don't have time to do the pickled onions, just add your favorite taco toppings and enjoy this killer chicken.

Sides: Refried beans or other favorite beans plus guacamole and chips

  • Use orange juice from a carton or bottle rather then squeezing fresh
Make Ahead Notes:  
  • Cut onions and pickle them
  • Combine dry seasonings
  • Toss chicken in seasonings and set aside in fridge for later

  • 1/2 cup fresh orange juice (about 1 orange) 
  • 1/3 cup fresh lime juice (about 2 limes)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 medium red onion, thinly vertically sliced
  • 1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into thin strips 
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Cooking spray
  • 8 (6-inch) corn tortillas 
  • 1 cup diced peeled avocado (about 1 avocado) 
  • 1/2 cup (2 ounces) crumbled Cotija cheese (this cheese will remind you of feta)
  • Combine first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl, stirring until sugar dissolves. Place onion in a small saucepan; cover with water. Bring to a boil; drain and plunge onion in ice water. Drain onion; add to juice mixture. Chill until ready to serve.
  • Heat a large cast-iron skillet over high heat. Sprinkle chicken with oregano, cumin, salt, and pepper; toss to coat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add chicken to pan; cook 4 minutes or until browned and done, stirring occasionally.
  • Heat tortillas according to package directions. Divide chicken evenly among tortillas. Drain onion; divide evenly among tortillas. Top each tortilla with 2 tablespoons avocado and 1 tablespoon cheese; fold over. Serve with lime wedges, if desired.
 Recipe from MyRecipes

Gnocchi, Corn and Arugula in Cream Sauce

Picture of gnocchi with corn, arugul and a cream sauce in a bowl

Use this recipe to enjoy the last corn of Indian summer.

Sides: Crusty Italian bread. Otherwise, this one-bowl meal can stand on its own.

  • Use quality pre-grated Parmesan cheese
Make Ahead Notes:
  •  Fill pasta pot with water and set on stove for later
  • Cut basil, or if you have a kid who's handy with scissors, have them cut the basil for you
  • 3 medium-sized fresh sweet corn on the cob
  • 3 C fresh arugula (or substitute fresh spinach)
  • 1 pound potato gnocchi
  • 3/4 C half and half
  • 3 oz light cream cheese
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t garlic powder
  • 1 t fresh basil, julienne
  • 1/4 t black pepper
  • Pinch of crushed red pepper (optional)
  • Parmesan cheese for sprinkling

  • In large pot, boil water and cook gnocchi according to package directions, adding in the corn on the cob in the last 5 minutes. Remove corn, transfer to cutting board. Drain gnocchi, but make sure to reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water. Don't rinse your gnocchi.
  • For the cream sauce, combine half and half, cream cheese, salt, garlic powder, fresh basil, and pepper in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium for about 10 minutes, stirring until cream cheese has evenly dispersed throughout sauce. Stir in reserved pasta water.
  • Slice your corn off the cob.  
  • In a medium bowl, combine pasta sauce, corn, gnocchi and arugula. Sprinkle with additional salt, pepper, basil, and crushed red pepper if desired. 

Recipe from Better Homes and Gardens

Chicken Basil Burgers

I have to note that the presentation you see here, while lovely, was impossible to eat. Too messy to pick up, too thick to cut up nicely. But the taste is great, so skip the thick bread seen here and instead use good burger buns. Also, leave the mayo sauce off if you have picky eaters and offer ketchup or whatever else sounds good.

Sides: Trader Joe's Teeny Tiny Potatoes and steamed green and yellow beans, also from TJ's

Make Ahead Notes:
  • Cut basil, or if you have a kid who's handy with scissors, have them cut the basil for you
  • Cut up pickles and green onions
  • Mix up mayo mixture and put in fridge for later
  • Combine burger mixture and put in fridge for later
  • Slice tomatoes

  • Olive oil (for brushing)
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1 cup chopped fresh basil plus 8 large leaves, divided
  • 1-2 tablespoons chopped drained cornichons or dill pickle plus 3 teaspoons of brine from jar
  • 2 green onions, finely chopped
  • 1 1/4 pounds ground chicken
  • 4 good burger buns
  • 4 1/3-inch-thick slices from large red or orange heirloom tomato
  • Brush grill with oil; prepare barbecue (medium heat). Mix mayonnaise, 1 cup chopped basil, cornichons, brine, and onions in small bowl. Season basil mayonnaise with salt and pepper.
  • Mix chicken and 1/2 cup basil mayonnaise in large bowl. Using wet hands (this is key - ground chicken will stick to your hands otherwise) shape chicken mixture into four 1/2-inch-thick patties. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brush bread with oil.
  • Toast buns and transfer to plates. Grill burgers until firm to touch and cooked through, about 5 minutes per side.
  • Spread bread slices thickly with basil mayonnaise. Top each bread slice with tomato, 2 basil leaves, burger, and dollop of basil mayonnaise. Garnish with remaining chopped basil.

Adapted  from Epicurious recipe

Extra Credit: Apple Pie

Freshly baked double crust apple pie

Confession: I cannot make a decent pie crust from scratch, but I can unroll a mean pre-made crust. There's no shame in my game.


  • 7 apples, peeled, cored and sliced
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest, finely grated
  • 2 tablespoons butter, softened 
  • Pastry for double pie crust - homemade or store-bought (I like Trader Joe's)
  • Preheat oven to 450°F. 
  • Combine sliced apples with sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and lemon rind.
  • Line pie plate with unbaked pie crust, trim pastry, crimp to edge of pie plate. Fill pie crust with apple mixture and dot with softened butter.
  • Brush crust edge with water and place pie crust top on top of pie, crimp to the bottom crust. Make some slits in the top crust for steam to escape. Bake for 10 minutes. Turn oven down to 350°F and bake for 45 minutes longer.
  • While baking, cover outer rim of crust if it's browning too fast.

Recipe from

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Busy Woman Toolkit: Apps, Tips & Other Links

Throughout the week, I often post links on the Easier Simpler Better Facebook page about apps, news stories and other helpful tips that can help get us in the game or ahead of the game. In case Facebook isn't your thing or you haven't been there lately, here is a round up of what's been on my radar.

A rubber band is wrapped around a cut apple to keep the inside from being exposed and going brown.

Apple Rubberband Trick. Love apples? Don't like the extra step of putting cut apples in a lemon-water bath to prevent browning? This clever little tip gives you some serious lunchbox Kung Fu.

The Two-Second T-Shirt Fold. It feels nerdy to tell you all how much I love this trick. If you wash and fold lots of t-shirts, this video is a must.

Apple Passbook. Just the way Apple made us all start touching screens, it looks like they'll change the way we use our mobile devices - get ready to start tapping and waving your phone. Passbook is an app coming with the next release of the Apple mobile operating system and it will let you use your phone to store and use plane and event tickets, hotel loyalty cards and more.

Get Your Info Off of Spokeo. How disturbingly eye-opening is this site? Protect your privacy and follow the very short (I promise) steps to remove your personal information.

Snapperific. If only you could get prints of all those awesome photos on your iPhone... wait, you can! This app makes it easy. The prints are a little pricier, but apparently the quality is high.

Artkive. Here's another great mom app. Snap pics of kids' school artwork, Play-Doh sculptures or whatever else is making their creative juices flow and save the art "portfolio." File by kid and school year or age, then share with doting grandparents.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Weekly Menu 9/17: Prep Once, Eat Twice

Prep once, eat twice. I think we can all get behind that math.

Last week, I challenged you to menu plan, shop for and cook at least three homemade dinners. This week, I challenge you to double down and get twice the dinners out of your shopping and preparation time by prepping two quantities. One quantity you'll eat now, one you'll freeze for a future dinner. Speaking from experience, I've frozen these dishes before and they cook up AOK later.

If you do prep once so you can eat twice, remember to adjust the recipes for double the quantities and have sturdy Ziplocs handy for all of the dishes when they're ready for the freezer.

Other good freezable meals are the Homemade Mac and Cheese and the Italian Meatball Sliders from previous Weekly Menus. To freeze the mac, assemble all ingredients except the breadcrumb topping in a freezable dish, cool completely and cover tightly with plastic wrap and foil. To freeze the meatball sliders, cook the meatballs, cool completely and freeze flat in a Ziploc.
Now on to the good stuff...

Roast Sticky Chicken

This chicken never disappoints. If the seasonings seem too intense, cut down on the salt or the peppers. But please note - this seasoning is enough for two chickens. The chicken roasts sloooooowly at a low temp. There's little hands-on time, but plan this one for a day when you'll be home for several hours before dinner.

Sides: Biscuits and a simple tomato, onion and cucumber salad

Make Ahead Notes: 
  • Mix up seasoning blend
  • Rub chicken(s) with seasoning blend and allow to marinate before roasting
Ingredients (Recipe is for Two Chickens):
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 onions, quartered
  • 2 (4 pound) whole chickens
  • In a small bowl, mix together all seasonings. Remove and discard giblets from chicken. Rinse chicken cavity, and pat dry with paper towel. Rub each chicken inside and out with spice mixture. Place 1 onion into the cavity of each chicken. Place chickens in a resealable bag or double wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate overnight, or at least 4 to 6 hours.
  • Preheat oven to 250 degrees F. (This cooking time is not an error!)
  • Place chickens in a roasting pan. Bake uncovered for 5 hours, to a minimum internal temperature of 180 degrees F, basting occasionally. Let the chicken stand for 10 minutes before carving. 
  •  TO FREEZE: Rub chicken with seasoning blend, but do not place onion in cavity. Place uncooked, seasoned chicken in a heavy, large Ziploc and seal to freeze. You may need to double bag the chicken if one bag doesn't seem strong enough. To prepare later, thaw completely and cook as directed above.
Recipe from Allrecipes

 Korean Style Pork Tenderloin 


The cooking technique for this pork dish pretty much guarantees it will be juicy. A little pink in the center is okay, and be sure to give the pork a few minutes to rest before slicing.

Sides: Trader Joe's Vegetable Fried Rice and steamed green beans drizzled with sesame oil

  • Use pre-trimmed, washed green beans
  • Use jarred, minced ginger and garlic
Make Ahead Notes: 
  •  Assemble marinade in large Ziploc and add pork to marinate in the morning
  • Place green beans in a steamer bag to microwave later
  • 1/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons sugar 
  • 1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
  • 3 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper (optional)
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin, trimmed 
  • Cooking spray 
  • Combine first 7 ingredients in a large zip-top plastic bag; add pork. Seal and marinate in refrigerator 8 hours or overnight, turning occasionally.
  • Preheat oven to 425°.
  • Heat a large ovenproof skillet coated with cooking spray over medium-high heat. Remove pork from bag, reserving marinade. Add pork to pan; cook 6 minutes, browning on all sides.
  • Place pan in oven; bake at 425° for 15 minutes or until meat thermometer registers 160° (medium) or until desired degree of doneness. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing.
  • Bring reserved marinade to a boil in a small saucepan. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes.
  • Cut pork into 1/4-inch-thick slices; serve with sauce.
  • TO FREEZE: Assemble marinade in Ziploc and add pork. Freeze immediately. While thawing, the pork will have plenty of time to marinate. Just be sure to give the bag a few good squeezes to mix up the marinade again. To prepare, thaw completely and cook as directed above.
Recipe from Cooking Light

Big Spicy Meatballs 

It might be hard to tell, but the meatball under there is about the size of a large plum. The only thing spicy about the meatballs is the amount of black pepper called for, so scale that back if you like less heat.

Sides: Caesar salad and crusty Italian bread

  • Use high quality grated Parmesan from the deli section
Make Ahead Notes:
  • Chop parsley or if you have a kid who's handy with scissors, let them cut the parsley over a bowl
  • Combine meat mixture and form meatballs. Place on a prepared tray, loosely cover and place in fridge for later. 
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef 
  • 2 pounds ground pork
  • 1 medium onion, minced 
  • 2 slices soft white bread, crusts removed and torn into pieces 
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/4 cup olive oil 
  • 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 cups freshly grated Parmesan
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • Warmed pasta sauce and prepared pasta  of choice
  • Preheat oven to 400° F.
  • In a large bowl, combine the first 12 ingredients. Mix just to combine. Shape the mixture into 16 to 18 large meatballs (each should be about ¾ cup of meat). Place on a baking pan and set aside.
  • Bake the meatballs for 20 minutes in upper third of oven or until cooked through. Serve the meatballs with your favorite jarred marinara sauce and cooked pasta.
  • TO FREEZE: Place the baked meatballs on a baking sheet or in the cups of muffin tins and freeze for at least 1 hour. Transfer to resealable freezer bags and return to the freezer. Store for up to 3 months. 
  • To Reheat: Thaw the meatballs overnight in the refrigerator or thaw partially in the microwave. Place them in a baking dish, cover with foil, and heat in a 350° F oven for 20 minutes. Serve with warmed pasta sauce. 

Adapted from this recipe on MyRecipes

Extra Credit: Homemade Cereal Bar Cookies

Great lunchbox item. Although the consistency of these wasn't quite what I expected based on the recipe, they tasted *so good* and my kids inhaled them. I even froze and defrosted them as a test, and they tasted just as good.  There is a video on preparing them in case you need to troubleshoot the consistency and prep.

Make Ahead Notes:
  • Combine all dry ingredients and set aside for later
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1.5 cups oats, ground (or oat flour)
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • About 1.25 cups (9 ounces) organic jam (I used blackberry and strawberry-apricot)
  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients except the jam together in a large bowl. It is easiest to do this with your hands. Once it is mixed well together (all dry ingredients dust should be incorporated), add half of the mixture to each of 18 muffin tins. 
  • Press the mixture into the muffin tins creating a bit of a lip as you would for a pie. Add in 1 tablespoon of jam on top of each “crust.” Next, with the remaining mixture create 18 equal size balls. Smash each of the balls into a circle large enough to cover the top of each “cookie”. Add the disc to the top of the “cookie” and press the edges to meet the sides of the bottom dough. 
  • Bake for 20-25 minutes until slightly browned. Remove from the oven, allow to cool for 5-10 minutes and then gently remove to a cooling rack. 
  • TO FREEZE: Follow directions above, but allow cookies to cool completely. Add to a gallon freezer bag and freeze. To serve: Allow to thaw overnight or place in a microwave and heat for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Be careful as the jam inside will be very warm.
Recipe from Once a Month Mom

Monday, September 10, 2012

Weekly Menu: 9/10. 5-Ingredient Dinners

 Pictures of entrees inlcuding salmon, a beef taco, parmesan chicken and blueberry muffins

Welcome to the Weekly Menu! Each Monday, I'll post a selection of easy-to-make, delish main dishes, along with suggestions for sides. I've kitchen-tested every one, so look for my shortcuts and make-ahead tips.

A good five-ingredient main dish may seem as elusive as a chupacabra, but I swear it isn't so. I tried two out of three of the recipes below for the first time last week and got thumbs up around the table. When I count the five ingredients, I'm looking at things you probably don't have on hand, like the protein, fresh herbs or cheese. What doesn't figure into the count are basics like olive oil or cooking spray, salt, pepper and butter, which you probably have. Just remember, since you're using so few ingredients, there's nowhere for inferior ingredients to hide. Use the best you can.

At the bottom of this post, there's a place to comment. Tell us if you have a 5-ingredient dish to recommend!

Salmon with Hoisin Glaze

The kids are stuck on salmon as the fish of choice, so I keep trying to find new salmon recipes.

Sides: Steamed edamame beans and pan-fried pot stickers (I like Trader Joe's). Serve pot stickers with soy sauce seasoned with a few drops each of sesame oil and rice vinegar.

Make Ahead Tips:
  • Combine the sauce for the salmon; marinate the salmon
  • Combine the dipping sauce for the pot stickers

  • 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon dark sesame oil
  • 4 (6-ounce) skinless wild salmon fillets
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 teaspoon sesame seeds
  • Preheat oven to 400
  • Combine first 3 ingredients in a shallow dish, such as a pie plate. Add fish to dish, turning to coat. Marinate at room temperature 8 minutes, turning occasionally
  • Remove fish from marinade; discard marinade. Place fish on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle fish evenly with sesame seeds. Bake at 400° for 8 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork.
  Recipe is originally from MyRecipes

Parmesan Chicken

The original recipe calls for roasting romaine leaves with the chicken. Hot lettuce is not my thing, so I just went for the chicken and it was great. Be sure your chicken pieces are deck-of-cards size. Bigger pieces will dry out by the time they cook through to the center.

Sides: Romaine hearts with Caesar salad dressing and shaves of Parmesan cheese

  •  Use high quality pre-grated cheese

Make Ahead Notes:
  • Chop up parsley or if you have a kid who's handy with scissors, let them cut up the parsley into a bowl
  • Combine cheese, panko, oil, parsley and garlic and refrigerate for later

  • 4 (7-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, Pecorino, or Asiago cheese (about 1 1/2 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped, divided
  • Preheat oven to 450°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with foil. 
  • Season chicken with salt and pepper; place on prepared sheet. 
  • Combine cheese, panko, 2 tablespoons oil, parsley, and 1 garlic clove in a medium bowl; season with salt and pepper. Pat panko mixture onto breasts. 
  • Roast chicken until crumbs begin to turn golden. Loosely cover pan with foil to prevent crumbs from burning and cook another 5-8 minutes or until cooked through.

Recipe is originally from Epicurious

Slow Cooker Shredded Salsa Verde Beef

Sides: Corn bread, guacamole and any other toppings you like, such as shredded cheese, salsa, sour cream, hot sauce and lettuce

  • 2 lbs boneless beef chuck roast (or any humble beef roast)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 cups salsa verde (I used Herdez Salsa Verde)
  • Tortillas
  • Place roast in crock pot. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic salt. Pour salsa verde over roast.
  • Cover, and cook on Low for 8 hours. When done, the roast should shred easily with a fork.

Recipe from

Extra Credit: Oatmeal Banana Blueberry Muffins

I've been packing these in the lunchboxes (theirs and mine) and they've gone over well. I love that the only sweetener in the recipe is honey. Sorry, this one has more than 5 ingredients :)

Make-Ahead Notes:
  • Combine dry ingredients in food processor, blend and set aside for later. I was able to fit all the dry ingredients in my mini-chopper.

  • 3/4 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 1/4 cup white whole wheat flour or all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 cup mashed ripe banana (from two medium bananas)
  • 1/3 cup canola oil
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk (or substitute milk with
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup frozen or fresh blueberries tossed in a tablespoon of flour
  • Preheat the oven to 375.
  • Put the oats, flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse for 10 seconds. Set aside.
  • In a large mixing bowl, stir together the egg, banana, oil, honey, buttermilk and vanilla. Make sure that the honey is dissolved and not hiding out anywhere in a big clump. Add the flour mixture to the banana mixture and stir to combine. Add the blueberries and fold them in gently.
  • Pour batter into a greased muffin tin. Fill the cups 3/4 full. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the biggest muffin comes out clean.
Recipe from the Fix Me a Snack blog

7 Steps to Weekly Menu Planning

Honestly, I geek out on menu planning a little bit. Looking at all the pretty pictures, pinning the good ones, planning a full menu and mapping out a shopping scheme is like the perfect intersection between a creative outlet and an exercise in control.

It took me a while to start menu planning for dinners, and I get why it feels so daunting. The research and the planning seem intimidating and time-consuming. There’s good stuff on Bravo to watch. And there’s good carry out in town. Why would you menu plan?

If that’s your mindset, I challenge you to try menu planning for one week and see if the food is better and the planning, shopping and cooking take less time than shopping daily and spending time trying to come up with an idea on the fly for dinner. And we know it should cost you less than carry out. To get you in gear, here are seven steps to help you get organized and motivated.

Write down complete menus (main + sides) that your family already likes

A list on a phone showing main dishes plus side dishes that take little time


That way,  if you’re ever stuck for an idea, you can trust your go-to’s. Even write down your “fastest dinners.” In my case, a “fastest dinner” is something like store-bought rotisserie chicken, garlic bread and salad. I find the best place to store a list like “fastest dinners” is on the phone for handy ideas in the store.



Have recipe sources and apps at the ready 

Picture of a weekly menu planning paper pad and a recipe app called Paprika


To plan, you may need some new, good recipe sources. My personal favorite is, in particular their Dinner Tonight feature, which has 45-minute healthy menus with main dishes plus sides. You also need a way to document your menu. Writing it down makes you more committed to the process! I buy these weekly pads (at left) from the dollar bins at Target and use them to jot down meal ideas.

If you want to take your game up a notch, I highly recommend (and am obsessed with) an app called Paprika, which is a recipe browsing, storage and weekly meal planning tool. It functions as a universal recipe box, allowing you to grab recipes from pretty much anywhere, save them, add them to weekly menus and even pull the ingredients into a shopping list. Brilliant app! Well worth the $4.99 price tag.

Plan dinners that work for your household schedule

If you know you won’t be home all day, marinate in the morning so you can grill quickly at dinner time. Or if you know you need to run kids to a team practice at 5pm, plan something like a slow cooker chicken tortilla soup that can be ready when you are.

Write down your menus for the week and plan the shopping list

If you want to be hard core and really streamline your grocery shopping, make your list according to the categories and layout of your store. As you write your list, group it by dairy, cleaning items, produce, etc. so that you don’t miss anything as you move through the aisles.

Do one substantial shop per week if it can yield at least three dinners

To make your shopping trip work harder for you, think about prep-once-make-twice options such as pork tenderloin, flank steak or boneless, skinless chicken breasts. For example, if you’re marinating those items, prep one quantity to cook now and put the rest in a bag with marinade to freeze for another time. The marinated "Unbelievable Chicken" and Asian Flank Steak from earlier Weekly Menus would work well.

Get your pantry stocked with staples 

A display of flavorful pantry staples to have for cooking, like sesame oil, maple syrup and canned tomatoes


Think about the 5-10 meals your family tends to enjoy most and make sure you’re stocked up with key ingredients. You’ll find those ingredients will tend to be the flavor and texture powerhouses like sesame oil, brown sugar, diced canned tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, brown rice or quinoa, maple syrup and soy sauce.




Challenge yourself to try something new

Even though you may have those 5-10 favorite dinners in rotation, try one new thing per week. If you’re working with picky eaters, try a variation on something they already like. For example, if your family likes spaghetti and meatballs, try something like Greek Pasta with Meatballs.

Are you up to the challenge?? Please tell us what’s on your menu plan this week!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How to Reuse Stuff: Bedding Bags

Here in Southern California, a mandatory back-to-school item for each kid is an earthquake kit. Similar emergency kits may be required in other parts of the country where natural disasters can happen. What I've found from packing them over the years is that a standard Ziploc isn't big enough, but the storage plastic bags (the kind you suck the air out of) are ridiculously big, and there isn't really an in-between size.

Then one year I had the bag handy after buying a mattress pad and realized it was the perfect size. Most of those bedding bags, even the ones from large sheet sets, are sturdy and close with a zipper, which make them perfect for school emergency kits or a kit for the trunk of your car.

A zipper-closed bag from a mattress pad is used as the bag for an emergency kit

Monday, September 3, 2012

Weekly Menu: 9/3. The Go-To Dinners

Photos of pasta with bolognese sauce, salmon with leeks, asian grilled chicken and pumpkin bread

Even if you enjoy the process of cooking, there are those weeks when all you can handle are the "go-to's." We all have go-to's:  those meals that you can shop for without a list, that are relatively uncomplicated and will be eaten happily by all without raised eyebrows and whiny protests.

Since we spent the last few days away on an annual last-hurrah-of-summer camping trip and are now in back-to-school mode, I need no-fail, kitchen-tested dinners. These are family faves that have already passed muster, and I just have to be careful not to put them into rotation too many times. I've had to give the oven fried buttermilk baked chicken a rest because it became such a staple at our table.

The Bolognese sauce? Comforting, low maintenance and even better reheated a day later.  The salmon? Easily prepped in the morning and cooked later when you're ready. It's like spa food and equally popular with adults and kids, in my experience. The chicken? Super juicy and quick. And the pumpkin bread? Well, I know we're barely into September, but you can get canned pumpkin anytime, and this insanely tasty bread is great sliced in lunchboxes, plus it freezes well. Take the second loaf and freeze it for another week when you need your go-to's handy. You know that week will come.

What are your no-fail dinners? 

 Weeknight Bolognese

  Pasta with a tomato and meat sauce, topped with Parmesan cheese

Other than chopping the basil, you can get away with NO chopping for this recipe, so the prep is easier than you might think. Consider making it earlier in the day and reheating when you're ready. The flavors will only deepen. Yum.

Sides: Caesar salad  made of hearts of romaine with shaves of Parmesan cheese and your favorite Caesar dressing, plus good crusty Italian bread

  • Buy good pre-grated Parmesan cheese from the deli section
  • Use jarred, minced garlic

Make Ahead Notes:
  • Fill the pasta pot with water and set it on the stove for later
  • Rinse, dry and chop the basil. If you have a kid who's handy with scissors, have them cut up the basil over a bowl.

  • 2 tablespoons good olive oil, plus extra to cook the pasta
  • 1 pound lean ground sirloin
  • 4 teaspoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 1/4 cups dry red wine, divided
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 pound dried pasta, such as orecchiette or small shells
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves, lightly packed
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

  • Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Crumble and cook the ground beef for 5-7 minutes, or until browned. Stir in the garlic and oregano and cook 1 minute. Pour 1 cup of the wine into the skillet and stir to scrape up any browned bits. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper, stirring until combined. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil, add a teaspoon of salt, a splash of oil, and the pasta, and cook according to the directions on the box.
  • While the pasta cooks, finish the sauce. Add the nutmeg, basil, cream, and the remaining 1/4 cup wine to the sauce and simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened. When the pasta is cooked, drain and pour into a large serving bowl. Add the sauce and 1/2 cup Parmesan and toss well. Serve hot with Parmesan on the side.

Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa recipe

Five-Spice Salmon with Leeks

  Salmon baked with Chinese 5-spice powder and leeks and baked in parchment 
This is a spa-food-like dish since the ingredients are so simple.        

Sides: Green salad and garlic naan bread from Trader Joe's (found in frozen foods)

Make Ahead Notes:
  • Prep salad ahead of time, loosely cover and store in fridge until later
  • Cut off stem ends of leeks, take off a couple of outer layers, cut lengthwise once and soak in water for 5 minutes to remove grit hiding in layers. Rinse again, pat dry and chop.
  • Cut salmon into fillet portions 
  • Combine seasonings
  • Fully assemble salmon packets with seasonings and leeks, seal shut and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Store in fridge until ready to bake.
  • 2 teaspoons Chinese Five Spice Powder (such as McCormick's)
  • 1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
  •  4 (6-ounce) skinless salmon fillets 
  •  2 leeks, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
  • Preheat oven to 425°.
  • Combine dry seasonings in a small bowl.
  • Cut 4 (12-inch) squares of parchment paper. Place 1 fillet in center of each square. Sprinkle evenly with salt and spice mixture; top fillets evenly with leeks. Fold paper; seal edges with narrow folds. Place packets on a baking sheet. Bake at 425° for 20 minutes or until puffy and lightly browned. Do not cook longer! 
  • Place on plates; cut open. Serve immediately.

Adapted from this Cooking Light recipe

Glazed Grilled Chicken

  Grilled chicken thighs with sesame noodles and roasted broccoli

Though the sesame noodles play a supporting role in this menu, don't skip them. Make a double batch and eat them for lunch or send in kids' lunchboxes as a sandwich alternative.

Sides: Sesame noodles from the Pioneer Woman site and broccoli florets tossed with a couple teaspoons of sesame oil, S&P and roasted at 450 for 10 minutes, then toss and roast another 5 minutes or so until lightly browned and just tender.

  • Use jarred, minced ginger (usually found near jarred garlic)
 Make Ahead Notes:
  • Combine sauce ingredients ahead and refrigerate until you're ready to cook

  • 1 tablespoon grated peeled fresh ginger
  • 3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon lower-sodium soy sauce
  • 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs (about 1 1/2 pounds) 
  • Preheat grill to medium-high heat.
  • Combine first 4 ingredients in a medium bowl; stir well. Add chicken; toss to coat.
  • Place chicken on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 4 minutes on each side or until done. Remove from grill; cover.

Originally from Cooking Light recipe

Extra Credit: Pumpkin Bread

  Thickly sliced pumpkin bread

Consider making one loaf and using the rest of the batter for muffins. For muffins, bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes.

  • 1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 3 cups white sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • Grease and flour two 9x5 loaf pans.In a large bowl, mix together pumpkin puree, eggs, oil, water and sugar until well blended. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. Stir the dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture until just blended. Pour into the prepared pans. 
  • Bake for about 50 minutes in the preheated oven. Loaves are done when toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Original recipe from Allrecipes