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.