When you have a few extra mouths to feed and need to set last-minute places at your kitchen table, there's no need to panic or place a takeout order. You can pull off a deliciously simple and satisfying meal with the ingredients you have on hand the next time your teenagers have friends over or your relatives stop by out of the blue.
Two nutrition experts gave WebMD some suggestions for easy-to-make meals when you have unexpected dinner guests.
Six Fast and Easy Meals
"Having a well-stocked pantry with healthy convenience foods helps you get to the table quickly," says Liz Weiss, MS, RD, co-author of No Whine with Dinner, a family-friendly cookbook. She also likes to get a big colorful salad going, start water boiling for pasta, and ask kids to lend a hand in the kitchen. Here are her main dish ideas when you're short on time and feeding more people:
1. Ravioli Lasagna. To avoid pre-cooking pasta, use frozen cheese ravioli. Line a baking dish with spaghetti sauce, then add a layer of frozen ravioli. Next, add either fresh sauteed spinach or frozen chopped spinach. Top with more sauce and shredded part-skim mozzarella. Repeat these steps for a second layer and bake until the sauce is bubbly. "Frozen chopped spinach is nutritious, versatile, and always great to have at the ready," suggests Weiss.
2. Squash Risotto. Pureed winter squash is another nourishing vegetable that Weiss keeps in her freezer. She makes a risotto with it by adding thawed squash and broth (chicken or vegetable) to arborio rice. For extra flavor, toss in chopped bacon, and top rice with freshly grated Parmesan. Serve this golden-colored risotto with a salad and Italian bread.
3. Hearty Chili. "Kids prefer foods with a smooth consistency," Weiss tells WebMD. So when making chili, she uses a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes. She sautes onion, garlic, and diced carrots; mixes in pinto or black beans and sometimes frozen corn; then seasons with chili powder and cumin. Besides beans, you can put in any protein you have in the fridge, like cooked chicken or shrimp, a leftover hamburger, or precubed firm tofu. Allow chili to simmer until carrots are tender. Serve topped with shredded cheddar cheese plus a salad and cornbread -- if a mix is in your cupboard.
4. Ziti Bake. Pasta is filling, inexpensive, and well liked, so it's a great choice when cooking for a crowd. Prepare some whole wheat ziti and combine it with a low-sodium spaghetti sauce. Add any green vegetable you have, whether it's sauteed spinach or broccoli florets. Place this mixture in a casserole dish and top with grated mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Bake until bubbly. Round out this meal with a salad and crusty bread.
5. Crowd-Pleasing Sandwich. A favorite of Weiss', she prepares this sandwich by pounding a chicken breast thin and grilling it. Then grill or carmelize onions sliced into half-moon rings. Next. spread a layer of basil pesto, which you can buy ready-made, on a bulky or ciabatta roll. Add chicken and onion, and top with either arugula or baby spinach. "It's a real crowd pleaser," says Weiss. "You get the smokiness of the chicken, pepperiness of the arugula, and sweetness of the onion along with a garlicky pesto sauce."
6. Nicoise Salad. Adults will go for the flavors of this French-inspired salad. On a base of lettuce greens, add diced cooked potatoes, sauteed or blanched green beans, olives, sliced tomatoes, and chunks of either Italian-style tuna (canned in oil) or boneless, skinless pink salmon. Drizzle with vinaigrette dressing.
Stay Calm and Be Creative
"It doesn't take a lot to extend a meal, add a chair, or bring good nutrition to the table," says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, nutrition advisor to the Golden Door Spa in San Diego and author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet . "You can be creative with a few key ingredients from your pantry, freezer, and fridge." Her suggestions:
Repurpose the original meal. Take what you were planning to eat and rethink the ingredients. If you already thawed out fish, meat, or chicken, these protein foods will serve more people if you slice them into small pieces, explains Bazilian. You can turn it into taco night or make-your-own burritos by adding some beans and fresh chopped vegetables.
Extend the meal on either end. Soup to begin the meal or dessert to end it can stretch a meal. Keep some lower sodium canned and carton soups in your pantry. Make them a little homemade by adding dried herbs and spices or more filling by adding vegetables and canned beans, says Bazilian. For a fruit-based finale, bake some apples in the microwave or create a quick crumble with frozen berries, sugar, and oats.
Make a stir-fry. Cook some rice, season your wok or pan, then use any fresh or frozen vegetables you've got. Add in frozen shrimp or small pieces of chicken, plus some dashes of your favorite sauces for flavor.
Go for comfort. For a fresh spin on grilled cheese, Bazilian suggests an open-faced version: Toast whole-grain bread and sprinkle on a strong-flavored grated cheese, such as asiago or Gruyere. Place this under the broiler, and then serve with fresh tomato slices and tomato soup. If you have frozen pizza dough, you can make a homemade pie with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and any available toppings.
Try a Med Spread. When there's an impromptu gathering of adults, this Mediterranean-influenced meal is easy to pull together and pairs well with a glass of wine. Take out some olives, cheeses, nuts, fresh or dried fruits, hummus (put canned chickpeas in the food processor), and arrange this finger-food spread on a serving platter. Add pitas or crusty bread alongside a dish of rosemary and olive oil for dipping. "It's fun and celebratory in a simple way," Bazilian tells WebMD.