Back to School, Back to Cooking
Easy meal ideas for getting back to term time routines from Have a Hart Fitness
Written by Joanna Burchartz
BSc(Hons) Nutrition & Food Science
Enjoying our summer break
Who doesn’t love summer? Even in the UK, especially down here in Eastbourne on the sunny East Sussex coast, we can enjoy warmer, sunnier days where you don’t have to worry about taking a coat when you go out, and I especially love the early morning light and the long evenings. Now that school’s out, the kids are sleeping in (if you’re lucky), no morning rush, no evening jobs to do to prepare for tomorrow – everything is just that little bit more relaxed during the long summer holiday even if we are tearing our hair out trying to keep the kids occupied!!
Getting back to routine
As the Bank Holiday weekend will soon be upon us, our thoughts turn to summer being over and getting ‘back to normal’. In many ways, I don’t like this thought, but on the other hand, there is something nice about the idea of getting back into a routine, having the day mapped out with the kids back to school, going to work, getting back to fitness classes, getting the house cleaned… oh no – maybe it’s not such a nice thought!!
What are we going to eat?
As our busy daily schedules ramp up again we now have to think about fitting in time to prepare and cook meals. It’s always best to keep things simple, don’t try a new gourmet recipe on a weeknight! But it can often be difficult to come up with something to eat that is easy and quick to make but at the same time healthy and tasty and NEVER straight from the freezer to the microwave. The best advice I can give here is to always ‘prepare and plan ahead’.
Preparation and planning are key
If you have a good plan in place then some of the pain of cooking dinner is taken away as you already know what you’re going to make and should hopefully have all the ingredients ready in your cupboard, fridge and freezer. Knowing what you’re going to make each day also gives you the opportunity to prepare some things ahead of time which really takes the pressure off when you’re rushing in from work or after collecting the kids from school or clubs.
But WHAT am I going to make?
As parents, employees or business owners we all have busy schedules and sometimes thinking what to cook for dinner is way down our ‘to do’ list, which is why if we have some ideas to work on it can make this part of our lives a little bit easier and meal times stress free. I have 5 meals ‘types’ that I like to vary throughout the month which can really help with time management. These are:
- 30-minute meals
- Crockpot/slow-cooker dinners
- One-pot dinners
- Two meals in one
- Frozen/fresh combos
The last of these is really intended for those days when you have zero preparation time and just need to get your hungry family fed! When we have a busy day it’s okay now and then to grab a quick meal from the freezer, we’ve all done it, but don’t make it a habit. Although some ready meals can be quite nutritious it’s just not the same as a home-cooked dinner. So have a few nutritious ready meals in the freezer, but just the ‘main dish’ such as a lasagne or other pasta dish or prepared chicken or fish, that you can throw in the oven or microwave as soon as you get home, then while it’s cooking prepare a fresh salad or some stir-fried vegetables. This way you don’t have to spend a lot of time preparing or cooking but you still get the feel of a ‘homemade’ meal and the benefits of some fresh ingredients.
It’s always a good idea to have a few quick meal ideas up your sleeve that you know you can throw together easily and don’t require a lot of preparation or cooking time.
Top Tip – Always add on an extra 15 minutes when trying out new recipes.
From my experience when trying out new recipes I’ve found online, they ALWAYS take longer than the time stated, so keep this in mind when planning your menus.
The following recipe was originally just for vegetables, but it goes great with chicken and makes it a more complete meal.
Balsamic Rosemary Chicken & Vegetables
Time: approx. 30 minutes
3 chicken breasts or 8 boneless chicken thighs
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary (or 1 tbsp dried rosemary)
4 tbsp. olive oil
- Whisk together all the ingredients for the dressing.
- Cut the chicken breasts into small pieces or open out the thighs and brush both sides with the dressing.
- Heat a char-grill pan or a frying pan, add the chicken and cook on medium heat. Brush on more dressing then turn the chicken pieces every 3 or 4 minutes.
- Remove the seeds from the peppers and cut into chunks.
- Slice courgettes diagonally.
- Chop the onions into large pieces.
- Brush all the vegetables with the dressing and add to the pan. Turn occasionally and continue to brush with the dressing.
- Cook for about 10 more minutes until the vegetables are tender and the chicken cooked through.
This dish goes great with rice or noodles which can be easily cooked at the same time.
Slow Cooker Dinners
Slow cookers or crockpots (same thing, different name) are an amazing invention. You can cook a full meal in the pot so everything can be prepared the night or morning before and then by dinner time all you have to do is dish it up and eat. Alternatively you can cook a nice piece of meat in the slow cooker and then just concentrate on the side dishes when it comes to meal time. Most recipes have two cooking time options depending on whether you cook on high or low. If neither of these fit your schedule just plug your slow cooker into a timer so it comes on when you need it to start (just don’t forget to turn the switch on your cooker to the appropriate cook level!)
Top Tip – Check the liquid quantity in your recipe.
Always ensure there is sufficient liquid in your crockpot. You’ll find that with slow cooking a fair amount of liquid will come from the meat and vegetables so even if the added liquid doesn’t look alot, it should be sufficient. However, crockpot sizes vary so check what size your recipe is made for – if your crockpot is bigger you should add a little extra liquid to prevent drying out, especially if you’re going to be out all day and can’t keep an eye on it.
Here’s a great slow cooker dinner to try.
Sweet and Sour Pork Chops*
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 2-6 hours
4 – 6 bone in pork chops
1 red pepper
1 large can of pineapple pieces (drained)
30g brown sugar
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
- Place the pork chops in the bottom of a large slow cooker.
- Slice the red pepper and onion and add on top of the pork chops along with the drained pineapple.
- Mix together the remaining ingredients then pour over the pork chops and vegetables.
- Cook on LOW for 4-6 hours or on HIGH for 2-3 hours.
Serve with wholegrain rice.
As the name suggests, this meal type is when your entire dinner, or the majority of it, is prepared and cooked in one pot in the oven. This covers your typical casseroles, stews and bakes which you can either make from scratch or there are a good variety of sachet mixes available which are easy to mix up with a few extra ingredients to make an easy, tasty meal. Like with slow cooker dinners, one-pot meals can be prepared ahead of time and put in the oven when you get home.
Top Tip – Check the cooking time for your one-pot dish
Unlike the slow cooker meal, you will likely need to be home to pop your one-pot dish in the oven. Many casseroles etc require at least an hour’s cooking time so be sure to check you’ll be home in time to get it in the oven.
Here’s a fairly quick and easy pasta bake recipe that requires only a little bit of preparation and just 20 minutes in the oven.
Tuna Pasta Bake**
Prep. time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
400 g pasta
3 tbsp butter
1 onion peeled and chopped finely
50 g plain flour
600 ml semi-skimmed milk
250 g cheddar, grated
Salt and pepper
320 g canned tuna (albacore tuna if possible) drained and flaked
330 g canned sweetcorn drained
150 g frozen petit pois
Large handful chopped parsley
- Heat oven to 180°C (160°C fan or gas 5)
- Boil a large pan of water, add the pasta and cook for 10 minutes.
- Whilst the pasta is cooking, melt the butter in a saucepan, add in the onion and cook on low for 6-8 minutes until the onions are very soft. Turn up the heat to medium and stir in the flour. Cook for 1-2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, using a whisk to stir it in (just stir, don’t whisk). Once all the milk is incorporated, continue to heat whilst stirring until the sauce thickens. Then stir in 2/3 of the cheese until melted. Season with black pepper and a little salt if required (the cheese is quite salty though).
- Drain the pasta and pour into a 20x30cm baking dish. Pour over the white sauce, then add the tuna, sweetcorn, petit pois and all but 1 tbsp of parsley. Mix together, then sprinkle on the remaining cheese.
- Bake in the oven for 15-20 mins until the cheese is golden brown. Top with the reserved parsley before serving.
Serve with a fresh salad.
Two Meals in One
Another way to reduce preparation and cooking time is to think about meals that share ingredients. For example, if you have a traditional Sunday roast, buy a large chicken so that you’ll have leftover meat that can then be used as the basis for another dinner the next day. Just remember that some foods must be reused within a couple of days and cooked meat should only be reheated once, and thoroughly when used in the second meal.
Here’s a great recipe for using up that leftover chicken.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
6 chicken breasts or left over roast chicken
1 tbsp olive oil
6 rashers smoked streaky bacon, chopped into lardons
3 leeks sliced into rounds
45g plain flour
225ml skimmed or semi-skimmed milk
200ml chicken stock
100g petits pois
1 tsp wholegrain mustard
Bunch of parsley, roughly chopped
1 pack puff pastry
1 egg, beaten, to glaze
- If you don’t have leftover roast chicken, then season the chicken breasts, add olive oil. Cover with foil and roast for 1 hr at 180°C (160°C fan or gas 5)
- In a large, non-stick frying pan, heat the oil, then fry the bacon. Once browned, reduce the heat, add the leeks and cook until they have softened.
- Mix the butter and flour into a paste and add to the pan, stirring to coat the bacon and leeks. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly to ensure the mixture doesn’t get lumpy.
- Add the chicken stock and petit pois, cook for 2 mins, then add the mustard and remove from the heat. Once the chicken is cooked, remove from the oven, leave to rest briefly and cut into pieces. Add this to the pan along with the parsley.
- Spoon the pie filling into an oven proof dish.
- Unroll the pastry, brush with egg and lay over the top of the pie filling. Bake at 200°C for 20 minutes until the top is golden brown.
Serve with some boiled new potatoes and steamed carrots or broccoli.
Free eBook for more Back to School meal ideas
Once you start thinking ahead and get into a routine of planning your meals you’ll find getting back into the term time routine is not so bad. Download the Have a Hart Fitness Back to School, Back to Cooking eBook below for these and more recipe ideas. Once you get started you’ll be able to add more recipes and ideas of your own for quick, healthy and nutritious meals.