The evolution of dinner

In my book Family Feasts for $75 a Week I share actual recipes and talk up the virtues of meal planning.  The truth?  I do plan.  Sometimes. OK, often.  But some dinners at my house are so wildly impromptu that I could write a blog post about one meal alone.

So I did.  Here goes.  Hang on.  (Or not, depending on how interested you are in kitchen improv.)

This evening it was 5:30 before I started really thinking about what to make for dinner.  I had seen lots of swiss chard in the greenhouse earlier in the afternoon, so I started by sending one of my daughters out to pick a large bowl full.  Potatoes are often a useful beginning when I don’t know what else to make– they can go so many different directions.  I set a couple kids to peeling and cubing potatoes.  Then, for lack of a better plan, into the Actifry they went, with a few sliced cloves of garlic,  an onion chopped roughly, and a dab of bacon grease leftover from yesterday morning’s bacon.  The ActiFry (more about it here) takes SO little fat, it’s amazing– I used a tablespoon for 8 potatoes!  In half an hour or so, we’d have some nice crispy cubed potatoes.  I only hoped that the onions wouldn’t be black by the time the much-larger potato pieces were cooked through.

My son, in the process of grabbing potatoes from the pantry, had found three acorn squash that I’d gotten from our Bountiful Baskets portion over the weekend.  I cut those into thick slices, tossed them with oil and salt, and put them onto a cookie sheet to roast in the oven for 20 minutes or so.  The seeds from the squash looked exactly like pumpkin seeds.  Seemed a shame to waste them.  Maybe I should roast those too?  My first thought was the oven.  But then impulsively I decided to toss them in the Actifry with the potatoes and onions that were currently rotating there.    About then I also spotted a sprig of fresh sage that I’d broken off the plant while weeding the day before and brought in.  I minced it and tossed that in with the potatoes too.  Smelled lovely. Either this would work, or the seeds and sage would burn right along with the onions.  We’ll see.

But, hmmm… that didn’t answer the question of what to do with the chard.  I also needed something meat-ish.  I hunted the freezer for some already-cooked chicken.  Nope.  I did find some cooked ground beef AND some already-cooked lasagna noodles (overage from a cooking project last week that I’d tossed in the freezer)  AND some grated cheese.  How about lasagna, with raw (de-stemmed) swiss chard instead of ricotta cheese?  This was looking promising.

Ten minutes later I had a lasagna assembled in my biggest pan.  By then the squash in the oven had gotten some nice dark brown bits and was soft and yummy.  I pulled it out of the oven and stuck the lasagna in.  A few minutes later my son wandered through the kitchen and asked if we could have applesauce too.  Perfect.

Half an hour later we were sitting down to an extra-nice dinner of lasagna, sage-fried potatoes, roast squash, and home-canned applesauce.  The chard had gotten good and soft in the lasagna, rendering it almost painless even for picky kids to eat.  The sage-fried potatoes were crunchy and yummy, with the golden-brown squash seeds and crisp-but-not-burned onion bits adding a nice extra bit of crunch.  All the kids liked the applesauce, of course, and most of the kids even enjoyed the squash.

Meal planning may be the best way to get a good dinner on the table.  But there’s nothing like last-minute improv to keep cooking interesting.

Done any last-minute kitchen experimenting lately?  How’d it work out?


  1. Jennifer says:

    My latest in-the-kitchen brain child is this:

    On Monday, a particularly busy day in our house, I throw a sliced onion, some carrots and celery in the slow cooker and stick a whole chicken (often frozen) on top. Run on low all day. Seek out any random almost-off veggies from wherever and fix them, served with the “roasted” chicken – its one of our favourite meals.

    I put the carcass back in the slow cooker, cover with water, add spices (its always different) and set on low overnight. In the morning, I strain, and there’s my stock.

    Some sort of soup is made with the stock. I recently found an AWESOME tomato soup recipe, it only took 8 years, but I think I’ve replicated Panera’s creamy tomato soup. If its that soup, it requires the slow cooker again and a roux is made at the end with the stock. Sometimes I make your cheesy potato soup and add cooked, diced chicken.

    The soup always makes heaps and heaps, so I have tonnes of lunches or weekend dinners in the freezer.

    We live in Australia and food is extremely expensive here. I’m always looking for ways to reduce our grocery budget and/or stock up when I can. In fact, it was only two weeks ago when I found 4 kilo (8 pound) tins of chopped tomatoes at a local market for $5.99. I was there today so inquired to find out if these are now a regular item, or a once-off (its a discount market that gets many one-off items, so if its a great deal, I stock up). Turns out they had unloaded the last half pallet that morning, and weren’t getting more, so I bought 7 tins for me and 2 for a friend. Yup, 28 kilos of chopped, tinned tomatoes. We’ll be set for awhile!

  2. I have never hear of an Actifry before. I tried to link through and see what it was but I couldn’t get the link to come up. I am going to have to check it out sounds interesting. My favorite through together meal is to take leftover rice, toss in a can of kidney beans (rinsed) fry in some hot oil in a pan. Toss in a can of enchilada sauce and at the last minute a handful of cheese! for a yummy mexican type refried rice.

  3. Angela Mayer says:

    Being lovers of Indian food and tacos, I decided to try to combine them. Last night, we (hubby and I) made taco meat but seasoned it with curry spices. Instead of lettuce and tomato we cubed avocado and mango to eat on our tacos with a little sour cream in place of the cheese. With a side of black beans this was amazing! Even the little ones loved it.

  4. This sounds so good. I, too, have never heard of an Actifry. The link won’t pull up for me, either. What is it and what does it do? Our last minute go to meal is usually some sort of pasta. The one I use most often is spaghetti, but the sauce is loaded with veggies that need to be used up. I found it’s a great way to get the kids to eat squash that they wouldn’t otherwise eat. 🙂

  5. Some of my best meals are last-minute-improv….which unfortunately I can never reproduce!

  6. Yum! I’ll be over for improv dinner at your house anytime. Around here, improv = spaghetti. I like the way you create!

  7. I too never heard of an Actifry- WOWZA expensive! I regularly plan at the last minute (so bad!), but have lots of meals I can pull together in <1 hour, which is all I need. Tonight, I think we're doing chicken fajitas. I always have chicken in the freezer, always have onions and seasoning, and always have tortillas (my 4yo loves PB&J roll-ups). Just need the peppers and sour cream/salsa. Check, check, check!

  8. Unbelievable!!! I can barely handle making dinner that is planned! You are a master indeed!

  9. Impromptu is definitely a regular thing around here, especially the last few days before a grocery run!
    Last week, I was halfway through making stovetop (not boxed!) mac and cheese when I realized I didn’t have an egg. Or evaporated milk. Some flour, butter, and a dollop of heavy cream later, we ended up with a gooey, cheesy pasta that we all agreed we liked better than Alton Brown’s recipe!
    Now, if only I could duplicate it…

    • Elizabeth says:

      Mary has a great homemade mac and cheese recipe here on her site. I bet it’s close to what you created last week. We love it! 🙂