This week on RRG has been all about the family dinner — its rewards, its challenges, and how I strategize to be able to pull off a homecooked meal every night of the week without going insane.  I feel like I’ve said so much about family dinners, and yet, there’s still so much to say.  For today, I wanted to be able to give you all a truly useful post with a definitive blueprint, more or less, for getting dinner made no matter what.

There are two things to consider in trying to be completely prepared for making family dinners every night: the pantry and the methods.  In other words, if you have the right kinds of things on hand at all times, and you have nailed a few basic concepts in cooking, you can always pull something together.  This is not about recipes.  Family dinner doesn’t have to be about recipes, honestly.  It’s about understanding the cooking techniques and relative make-up of different dishes, so you can improvise as needed.

It might sound scary, but in fact, this is the way most of our great-grandmothers and grandmothers cooked — they didn’t have to consult recipes to make soup, or fried chicken, or vegetables.  They just understood enough about HOW to cook that they could make what they wanted to make.  And that’s how I do it, 99 percent of the time — I figure that I know the basics well enough to just grab those raw ingredients and make them into something resembling dinner.

Speaking of raw ingredients, here’s what you should always have on hand, more or less, if you plan to feed a family:
Cooking oil(s) of your choice — I can make do with extra-virgin olive oil almost exclusively, though I do keep canola on hand as well
Pasta, rice, and/or cous cous
Canned tomatoes (I particularly like the crushed ones)
Broth or stock
Garlic and onions
Fresh vegetables, especially leafy greens
Fresh fruit
Frozen vegetables and fruits (good not only in a pinch, but also for making smoothies and packing in lunches)
Whole-grain bread of some type — pitas, rolls, bagels are all good substitutions for regular bread
Cheese, if your family eats dairy
Canned beans, especially chickpeas
An “emergency” stash of some sort of meat that is easy and quick to cook, and is also versatile.  Boneless chicken and ground turkey breast are two good examples. 
Basic spices — whatever your family likes best.  While my spice rack is extremely well-stocked, the truth is that I could probably get by on just basil, oregano, crushed red pepper, cumin, paprika, and herbs de provence most of the time.

That’s it.  With those 15 or so ingredients, you can make an incredible variety of dishes.  And even if you’re like me, with a solid meal plan in place, there are nights when you’ll find that you have to deviate from the plan for one reason or another — in which case, the above staples will save you.  For example, last night we were supposed to be having fish cakes for supper, but I didn’t get to the seafood market.  I had to come up with a last-minute substitution.  Luckily, I had my emergency stash of ground turkey; onions; cheese; whole-wheat bread; fresh fruit; and carrots on hand.  In under 20 minutes there were turkey patty melts, steamed carrots with honey butter, and sliced fruit on the table.  Thank goodness for the well-stocked pantry!

Once you’ve got your stash of ingredients set, if you can master a few basics, you’ll always be able to cook a great meal for your family (and by “great,” I don’t mean fancy or complicated — last night’s patty melts were tasty and healthy and wonderful, a huge hit with the kids, but not fancy by any stretch).  I think if you can master the art of making these few items, you’ll be pretty well set:

A quick marinara sauce.  Olive oil, garlic, crushed tomatoes, and a few herbs and spices — what could be simpler?  Plus, you can pour it over pasta, use it to make pizza, ladle it over chicken or eggplant, use it as a dip for veggies, or use it as the base for a soup.  The marinara is your friend.
Go-to vegetable preparations.  In general, you should have two or three quick and easy vegetable dishes that you’re comfortable making, and your family likes to eat.  In our house, steamed carrots with honey butter are always welcome, as are cinnamon sweet potatoes and roasted broccoli.  Also, if you’re not sure what to do with a vegetable, I think you can almost never go wrong with roasting it.  Just toss the veggies with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and stick in a 400 degree oven.  Aside from green beans, I think I’ve pretty much roasted every vegetable there is, and they’re all good.
The “wing-it” pasta toss.  If you’ve got pasta and a few other things on hand, you can make dinner in less than 30 minutes.  As a rule of thumb, 1 pound of pasta + 2 tablespoons of olive oil + 4 cloves of garlic + any vegetables or protein you have hanging around = dinner.  The sauce can be made either by adding 1-2 cups of stock to your veggies and protein, or by adding 1 cup of the water you used to boil the pasta.
The grilled sandwich-type creature.  This could be grilled cheese (either plain or fancied up with any vegetables or meats or spreads you might like to add); a panini-style sandwich (which is really just that fancy grilled cheese, but squished); quesadillas; or toasted sub sandwiches.  Any and all are good starting points for dinner, and can be made with whatever you’ve got on hand.
Soup.  Homemade soup is actually very easy, and there are several varieties you can make in under an hour.  A good method for quick soup is to start by sauteeing 1 medium onion, chopped, with a few cloves of garlic and some celery or carrots if you’ve got them; once the vegetables are softened, add whatever other ingredients you plan to put in the soup (like fresh veggies, leftover cooked meats, etc.) and about 6-8 cups of stock (or stock mixed with water, if need be).  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes, and you’ve got soup.

You could add to this list, I’m sure, but in the most basic sense, being able to make just these few items — and vary them according to the ingredients you’ve got on hand — can go a long way towards making the family dinner more possible on even the craziest weeknight.  It’s easy to fall back on take-out or fast food or frozen convenience foods, even if you have ingredients in the house, if you don’t know what to do with the stuff you’ve got on hand.  But in as much time as it would take for the pizza delivery guy to get to your house, you could use your pantry staples to make pasta marinara with a fresh green salad; cheese quesadillas with beans, rice, and fruit; or an easy vegetable soup.  It’s just a matter of expanding the way you think about food.  You don’t need a “recipe” to cook; you don’t need extremely specific ingredients and seasonings; you just need the confidence to work with what you’ve got.  And I bet if you looked in your fridge, pantry, or cupboards right now, you’d suddenly find that you’ve got quite a lot.