Back-to-School Dinners You’ll Have Time to Make — and Enjoy

The kids are back in school, and glory be! They’ll return home exhausted from their day, and ready to eat — in quantity. What you really need now is a few good go-to recipes that are mindful of your busy schedule and allow your family to sit down to dinner, no matter who is doing the cooking. Make it a family affair! Someone chops, someone sets the table, another does the dishes. Many hands make light the work and leave more time to enjoy a meal today before spinning off to do homework, go to practice, or binge-watch something on Netflix.

Smitten Kitchen’s Cacio e Pepe

cacio de pepe
Photo Courtesy of Smitten Kitchen

Is there a kid alive that doesn’t love buttered noodles with grated Parm? My kids ate it by the bucketful. Upgrade that old standard to Cacio e Pepe, a noodle’s highest calling. Spaghetti noodles graced with the perfect blend of Pecorino cheese, freshly ground black pepper, and a ladleful of pasta water. The best part? It’s. So. Darn. Easy. Make a salad while the water boils or put together a “fancy” crudité plate with baby carrots, peapods, celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, and your family’s favorite dip. A piece of fruit for dessert, and off you pop!

Angry BBQ’s Grilled Chicken Shawarma with Creamy Green Harissa Sauce

grilled chicken shawarma
Photo courtesy of Angry BBQ

Chicken doesn’t have to be boring. Marinate boneless, skinless chicken thighs in the morning or whenever you find time during the day; when ready to cook, throw on a preheated grill, then slice or chop. Serve with warm pita bread, thin slices of cucumber, tomato, and onion, and a good glob of the accompanying Green Harissa Sauce, which comes together in a snap. Everyone makes their sandwich just how they like! I serve hummus and tabbouleh on the side, but you do you. Be sure to check out the recipe byline (wink-wink)!

Taste of Home’s Fajita in a Bowl

taste of home fijita in a bowl
Photo by Taste of Home

Salad for dinner? Sure, when it’s this substantive. You’ll love the Southwestern flavors and appreciate the ease of preparation. Rub a quick spice mixture onto the steak and let sit while you grill peppers, onions, and tomatoes. Grill corn and flank steak, turning occasionally. All will be quickly cut up and served on a bed of fresh greens and drizzled with vinaigrette. Sprinkle with some grated cheese and serve with warm tortillas, some fresh guacamole, and a cool glass of limeade. Great for a late summer/early fall supper.

She Likes Food’s Gnocchi, Broccoli, and White Bean Bake

5 Ingredient Gnocchi, Broccoli and White Bean Bake
Photo Courtesy of She Likes Food

If you’ve got 30 minutes to make dinner, and want to keep it vegetarian, you only need five ingredients: fresh broccoli, packaged gnocchi, cannellini beans, a jar of tomato sauce, and your favorite grated cheese (I’m voting for either mozzarella or the scrumptious cheddar from Trader Joe’s). Preheat the oven while boiling the gnocchi and broccoli together. Drain and combine with remaining ingredients, pop into the oven to heat through and melt the cheese, and voilà! Dinner is ready. Maybe a salad and some garlic bread on the side, and you’re good to go.

The Modern Proper’s Asian Salmon Sheet Pan Dinner 

Sheet pan dinners are my kind of meal, and this one is no exception. What better way to get dinner on the table on a busy weeknight? And this one is heart-healthy to boot, but you’d never guess it because it feels indulgent. Make a marinade with tamari or soy sauce, cilantro, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, sesame seeds and some brown sugar (I like to add a few chopped scallions as well). Place salmon filets, carrots, and broccoli on the sheet pan and coat with some of the marinade, then roast in your preheated oven. Serve over brown rice and drizzle with remaining marinade. SO good.

The Girl on Bloor’s Buddha Bowls

buddha bowls
Photo courtesy of The Girl on Bloor

Buddha bowls are all the rage, and it’s easy to see why, as they’re a feast for the eyes as well as the tastebuds. This is another sheet-pan inspired dinner, where you roast cubed sweet potatoes and beets along with canned, drained chickpeas tossed in oil and spices. Artfully arrange the veggies and chickpeas on a bed of quinoa (or whatever leftover cooked grains you have around), some shredded kale, and half an avocado, drizzle with an easy turmeric-tahini dressing, and you’ve got a quick, nutritious, and filling vegan meal. 

Molly Yeh’s Taco Hotdish

taco hot dish
Photo by Molly Yeh

Leave it to my favorite Girl on the Farm to come up with this crowd pleaser, a cross between old-school gringo tacos and a Midwestern hotdish. You’ll be using all the yum: bell peppers, jalapenos, onions, ground beef, black beans, salsa, corn, queso fresco, and — the pièce de resistance — Fritos (okay, you can sub in fancy tortilla chips if you prefer). Veggies and meat are sauteed with taco seasoning, then stir in the beans and salsa. Transfer to a casserole dish and cover with corn chips, then bake for 20 minutes. I’d serve this with a simple salad of shredded romaine or iceberg lettuce, chopped scallions and tomato, and maybe a chipotle ranch dressing.

Martha Stewart’s One-Pan Pasta

Martha coming in like clockwork with another genius recipe, a truly one-pan wonder that (bonus!) uses up a good chunk of the cherry tomatoes that have exploded in your garden this summer… and it’s ready in about 10 minutes. Place dry linguine in a pan with tomatoes, thinly sliced onions and garlic, some red pepper flakes, torn basil, and a good glug of olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, add water, and bring to a boil. You’ll need to stay nearby to stir and turn the pasta as it absorbs the water, and the other ingredients create a delicious sauce. Top the finished dish with grated Parmesan cheese and enjoy. I like this with a Caesar salad (use the bagged kind; no one will tell or care), and maybe buy a roasted chicken at the store and shred on top of the pasta. Pour yourself a nice rosé or a light red and dinner is served.


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Julie ChernoffBetter’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.