Dinner Tips

For many people, dinnertime is an eternal struggle. Figuring out what to make each night -- and finding the time to make it -- can become a real chore. But it doesn't have to be. These easy tips and time-saving ideas can help you bring the fun back into a family meal.

Easy Weeknight Meals Image Gallery

©2007 Photodisc
Dinner can be a fun and easy meal when you use our handy tips. See more easy weeknight meals pictures.

Check out these dinner tips to inspire you to regain the pure enjoyment of mealtime:

Family Mealtime Ideas
Stuck in a dinnertime rut? Find ideas to help you plan family dinners and save time in the process.

When Is Food Done Enough?
Stop guessing when it's time to pull that steak off the grill! With our guide to doneness, you can make sure that food is cooked to your specifications.

Get started on the next page with some great meal-planning ideas.

For more great information on meal planning, see:

Family Mealtime Ideas

Q. I need some new ideas for family dinnertime meals. Can you help?

slow cooker
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Use the slow cooker to make new and interesting meals that are ready when you get home.
A. Is dinner getting you down? It's not easy to get a tasty, healthful, hot meal on the table every night. Most of us find ourselves serving the same meals every week -- the "meatloaf on Monday" syndrome. That's why we compiled some easy meals to add to your repertoire:

  • Let the supermarket deli work for you. If you're making a salad, pick up some rotisserie chicken and prepared vegetables for the main course. If you've got the entrée, stop by the salad bar for greens. Need something to hold the kids while you put it together? Select some cubed cheese, raw vegetables, or olives.

  • Use leftover rotisserie. Any leftover rotisserie or roasted chicken can become chicken salad or a chicken casserole. Mix cubed leftover chicken with chopped vegetables and cream of chicken soup, pour into a casserole, and top with dumplings made fast with biscuit mix.

  • Broiling is probably the easiest and fastest way to prepare fish. While the broiler is preheating, sprinkle tilapia or salmon fillets with fresh lemon juice and freshly ground black pepper. Broil until fish flakes easily with a fork. Serve with a fruit salsa, shrimp cocktail sauce, or a sauce made from sour cream mixed with a little Dijon mustard.

  • Thinner fish fillets also cook up fast on a grill pan or skillet. Dredge tilapia or other whitefish fillets in seasoned bread crumbs or ground pecans, and sauté in an oiled nonstick skillet just 3 or 4 minutes on the first side, and 2 to 3 minutes on the second side, or until fish flakes easily with a fork.

  • Bring a little Baja California to your menus with fish tacos. Serve grilled or sautéed fish fillets in tortillas with shredded cabbage, tomatoes, and a white sauce made by stirring plain yogurt with a little sour cream, cilantro, and lime juice.

  • Pork chops don't require a long cooking time. In an oiled nonstick skillet, cook chops until browned; turn and cook just until no longer pink inside. Remove chops from skillet, and cover to keep warm. Over medium heat, add minced shallots or onions, and stir just until they're translucent. Increase the heat to high, and add a little wine, apple juice or cider, or chicken broth. Stir constantly, making sure to scrape up any browned bits. Cook until sauce is boiling, browned, and starting to thicken a bit. Melt in a little butter. Season with salt and pepper and pour over cooked chops.

  • Marinating adds a quick and tasty kick. Marinate boneless chicken breasts or thighs in Italian salad dressing; grill over hot coals or in a grill pan or indoor grill. Serve with fresh pasta and prepared pasta sauce.

  • Have an omelet night. Offer a selection of chopped vegetables and cheeses, and make omelets to order. Add a fruit or vegetable salad and some bread (or toast), and you've got a meal.

  • Don't rule out sandwiches. Make paninis in the indoor grill using sliced Italian bread, sliced meats and cheeses, sliced tomatoes, and lettuce and/or fresh basil leaves. When making grilled cheese sandwiches, first spread bread with mustard; add a slice of tomato. Dress up tuna salad with hard-cooked eggs, chopped cucumber, chopped or shredded carrot, minced celery, chopped green onion, and mayonnaise seasoned with a couple drops of hot sauce.

  • Pull out that slow cooker. For simple Salisbury steak with a twist, layer sliced carrots, cubed potatoes, sliced celery, and chopped onions in the crock. Place round steak on top; pour a can of tomato sauce over the meat. Cover and cook on low 6 to 8 hours. Serve with steamed rice.
See the next page for more meal ideas, and tips on knowing when food is done enough.

For more great information on meal planning, see:

Is it Done?

Q. How do I know when food is done enough?

A. The great success or ultimate failure of any cook is determined by the quality of the finished product. Foods cooked to proper doneness result in a delicious dish, while overcooking or undercooking often results in tough and dry foods that no one particularly enjoys.

grilling meat
©2007 Photodisc
Getting the right degree of doneness is important when cooking meat.

"Doneness" means being cooked to the desired degree, measured by external qualities including appearance, texture, and optimum flavor. For many foods, there are easy ways to tell when they're done.

For cakes and quick breads:

  • Use the toothpick test. Insert a toothpick into the center of the cake or quick bread, and check to see if it has come out clean. If batter is
    sticking to the toothpick, bake a few minutes longer and try again.

  • Use the fingertip test. The cake or quick bread should feel springy in the middle when you touch it. If your fingertip leaves an impression,
    continue baking a few more minutes.

  • Use the eyeball test. The edges of the cake or quick bread will start to darken and pull away from the pan. In addition, the crusts should appear golden-brown in color.

For cookies:

  • Use the fingertip test. If cookie crusts are not firm enough, and the cookie collapses, continue baking a little longer.

  • Remove cookies shortly before they look totally done and golden brown. The residual heat from the hot cookie sheet will continue to bake the cookies for at least 1 to 2 minutes after they're removed from the oven.

Foods need to be "done" not only for appearance and texture, but also for safety reasons. That means foods should be cooked to recommended temperatures. Cooking a food to a safe temperature ensures that any bacteria inside the food are completely destroyed.

Use an accurate food thermometer to help take the guesswork out of safe cooking. A cooking thermometer can be inserted into meats and chicken before you place them in the oven. Or use an instant-read thermometer to check meat temperature before serving. Many of today's ovens offer thermometer attachments, which shut off the oven when the meats reach the desired temperature.

Different meats have different cooking recommendations for individual safety, but in all cases, the best way to test for doneness is to use a meat thermometer. A good meat thermometer allows cooks to accurately test foods and determine that proper recommendations for safety have been met. Whatever method you use, be sure your meat dishes are "done" -- it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Proper Internal Cooked Temperatures:

Cut of Meat Temperature (degrees F)
Visual Signs
Ground beef
no pink color inside
juices run clear
Chicken/turkey breasts
juices run clear, no pink color inside
Chicken/turkey thighs
juices run clear, no pink color inside
Ground poultry
no pink color inside
flakes easily when poked with fork, flesh is opaque in color

Degrees of Internal Temperature for Doneness of Beef, Lamb, Pork, Chicken, and Turkey

Rare125 to 130 degrees F
140 to 145 degrees F
150 to 160 degrees F; 160 to 165 degrees F (pork only
165 to 170 degrees F
170 to 190 degrees F

Q. What are some good summertime recipes that satisfy the whole gang?

A. Chilled summer dishes and an outdoor grill will keep you and your kitchen cool as the proverbial cucumber. And since you aren't overexerting yourself over a hot stove, you may find more time and energy for some healthy exercise. Whether you're splashing in the pool or counting fireflies during an evening stroll, every little movement is another step toward better health.

Another road to good health is to follow the latest dietary guidelines. This includes more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables as well as an emphasis on "good" fats, like the monounsaturated fats found in olives.

When you add black ripe olives to your recipes you have a colorful, flavorful, and tasty way of getting monounsaturated fat into your diet. And as if that isn't good enough, California Ripe Olives are cholesterol-free and trans-fat free. Plus, an extra-large California Ripe Olive has only 7 calories.

For more great information on meal planning, see: