Sometimes balancing budgets and time may seem to make really healthy family meals an impossible dream. However, here is a meal that used fresh foods on special and took hardly more time than waiting for a prepackaged microwave meal. I'll give you the method used for this menu and then provide some alternatives that can be used when other foods are the specials for the week and/or season. (The meat still has bones, so expect it to be finger food for all but the most formal of guests--Emily Post says that is acceptable!)
The recipes below are given with amounts for four servings but can easily be adjusted to serve more or fewer people.
First, the main dish.
Browned Chicken with Sweet Potatoes
2 large or 4 medium chicken thighs, with bone and skin still attached
2 large or 3 to 4 medium sweet potatoes
seasoning salt, to taste
black pepper (optional)
1. If using large thighs, cut roughly in half, along the bone so one side will be boneless. Heat a small amount of oil--just enough to barely cover the bottom--in a heavy skillet on medium high, until the oil begins to shimmer.
2. Place the chicken pieces in the pan, skin side down. Cover loosely and cook about 5 minutes, until the bottom is golden brown. Sprinkle with a little seasoning salt. Turn and cook another 3 to 5 minutes, until both sides are brown. Sprinkle a little more salt on this side.
3. Add about a tablespoon or so of water, use a spatula to be sure that all of the pieces are not sticking to the bottom of the pan, cover, and then turn the heat to medium low. Continue to simmer while you prepare the sweet potatoes.
4. Scrub the sweet potatoes and cut out any spots. (Did you know you don't have to peel sweet potatoes?) Slice about 1/2 inch thick. Place the slices in a single layer around the bottom of the pan. 5. Add a little more water if needed. Cover again and simmer for about 5 to 8 minutes, until both the chicken and the sweet potatoes are tender. For maximum flavor for the sweet potatoes, turn them after about 3 or 4 minutes. Serve with the pan juices over the chicken.
Barbecued chicken: Skip the seasoning salt. Remove the sweet potatoes from the pan when they are done and drizzle your favorite bottled barbecue sauce over the chicken, cover, and cook for a couple of minutes more, until the sauce has blended into the pan juices and have spread over the chicken.
Teriyaki chicken: Skip the seasoning salt. Remove the sweet potatoes from the pan when they are done and drizzle some bottled teriyaki sauce over the chicken. Cover and cook for a couple of minutes more, until the sauce has blended into the pan juices and have spread over the chicken.
Alterations to adjust for weekly specials:
Use drumsticks or chicken quarters instead of the thighs, cutting into serving sizes before sauteeing. If chicken breasts are on sale, use those with skin still on--without the skin, the result is likely to be quite dry and flavorless. (Since the rest of the meal is going to be pretty healthy, you can just resign yourself to having some fat here! You can--and should--cut the skin off before you eat this anyway.)
If sweet potatoes are out of season, thick slices of carrots can be substituted. You might want to sprinkle just a teaspoon or so of brown sugar over the carrots if you want to duplicate some of the sweet potato sweetness.
Then the salad.
If strawberries are one of those luxuries your tight budget can't handle most of the time, check out the spring prices right now, perhaps close to the cheapest of the year. Still, a growing family can easily eat up several dollars worth of the berries if served alone or as an ice cream or short cake topping. This salad stretches the berries a long way--and you can easily double the amount of berries if cost isn't a problem.
The cabbage adds critical nutrients and stretches the usually more expensive lettuce or spinach. For the greens, choose whatever is on sale for the week--and don't ignore iceberg lettuce if that is all you can fit into the budget. It is still a good way to keep kids learning to enjoy crisp green vegetables instead of all the other far less nutritious things they may otherwise fill up on.
As for the nuts: watch for sales, be ready to substitute whatever nuts are most reasonable (this season, almonds seem to be the most abundant, with their prices sometimes as low as peanuts). Sliced almonds are often much more expensive per pound than whole almonds. It doesn't take much time to roughly chop a few almonds for this salad, but you may make the trade off of added cost for the time you won't have to spend cutting the nuts.
Fruit Stretcher Salad3 to 4 c spinach, torn romaine, or torn iceberg lettuce
1 to 2 c shredded cabbage
4 to 5 medium to large strawberries, sliced or cut in coarse chunks
2 to 4 T sliced or chopped almonds
Parmesan cheese to taste
your favorite bottled dressing--vinaigrette, poppy seed, or Caesar are all good choices
freshly ground black pepper (optional)
1. Prepare the greens--Wash the lettuce or spinach if not pre-washed. Tear into bite sized pieces (a great place for kids to start helping in the kitchen!) and place in a large bowl.
2. Cut the cabbage in thin slices (or use pre-bagged coleslaw if desired) and add to the spinach or lettuce.
3. Wash and cut the strawberries and add to the salad along with the nuts.
4. Shortly before eating, pour enough dressing over the salad to just moisten. Toss lightly and then add the Parmesan cheese and pepper if used.
Apples or pears can be diced and used instead of the strawberries.
Raspberries could be used in place of the strawberries, but they tend to break up quickly and their tartness may need a sweeter dressing.
Replace the nuts with raisins or dried cranberries for a little more sweetness.
Use red cabbage if you don't have red berries in the mix.
Use all these amounts as estimates. You have a lot of greens? Use more of them. If you
To sum up:
This meal has two to three vegetable servings (depending on how much salad you allow per person). It only takes a few strawberries to make a fruit serving; if you are stretching the berries a bit, add fresh fruit for dessert, using whatever is in season and inexpensive. Better, you have a deep orange and a deep green vegetable and the berries, even in small amounts, are going to give you some good antioxidants.
You have plenty of protein even when cutting the thighs in half (and the nuts add even more), and glasses of milk for those still short of their daily dairy can be served instead of water.
What about carbs? By evening, many people--kids included--will have reached and probably surpassed their starches serving. If, however, you really need to get some kind of starch in--or you have growing kids who will be reaching for less healthy snacks if you don't build more calories into dinner, there are a couple of options to consider.
"Starchy vegetables" - corn, peas, maybe even (in some families at least) lima beans. Keeping bags of these unadorned veggies in the freezer can be a great time saver. Don't spend the extra money for the "steamers" versions. You'll usually pay the same for this "convenience" but the package will be only 12 instead of 16 ounces, 33% more, and I still haven't figured out what is really gained. For the "plain" veggies, pour into a microwave-safe bowl you can serve from, cover, and microwave just a few minutes--the bag will give you the time needed. (And, you won't be nuking your food in plastic--even if it is "safe," why take the chance!) If your kids aren't real crazy about these veggies, don't be afraid to dress them up a little with a tiny bit of French or another favorite dressing drizzled over.
Rice - Putting some brown rice in your rice cooker or just in a pan on the stove top right before you start the chicken will get you this side that can then be topped with those pan juices. However...if you have planned ahead when you had a little more time, you could have cooked up a double or triple batch of rice a few days earlier; then all you have to do is pull out enough for this meal, put in a covered dish, perhaps with a few teaspoons of water if a little dry, and microwave that.
Bread - This is always a good standby in many families. The options are endless, from the very home-y fresh baked bread out of the bread machine to any kind of rolls to garden variety whole wheat slices.
However you supplement with starches, just look at the basic parts of this meal--colorful and appealing even in its simplicity. No soda, no artificially colored juices, relatively healthy fat and not too much of that either. All this and I guarantee, you should be able to put it all together in 45 minutes or less. Try it and let me know how it works--and let me know if you have some other frugal and fast meals that you have found to be healthy too.