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Faster-Than-Takeout Dinners

Whip up a weeknight meal quicker than you can pick one up.

Faster-Than-Takeout Option 1: The Potato Bar

I discovered this awesome weeknight dinner option one day when I decided to use that 5-pound bag of potatoes sitting in the corner of my kitchen, and I've never looked back. We do this about every other week. Fitting for a family with an Irish name, don't you think? Here's my timeline for a potato bar dinner (see more specifics in the recipe below):

Starting Time: 6:05 p.m.: I threw four potatoes into my microwave/convection oven and set it to sensor cook for "hard vegetables." Then I preheated the oven to 400 degrees (I'll explain why later). I ran to the grocery store while they were cooking and bought a few items I was missing (shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese; fat-free sour cream; and green onions). When I got back, the potatoes were tender and the oven was preheated. I rubbed a wee bit of canola oil on the outside of each potato, set them on a baking sheet, and let the outside crisp up a bit in the oven for 15 minutes.

I opened the bag of cheese, put a spoon into the nonfat sour cream container, chopped the green onions, and set out the pepper grinder and whipped butter and less-fat margarine (either has less fat per tablespoon than stick butter or margarine). I even had time to steam a little broccoli and sauté some pre-sliced mushrooms, in case anyone wanted to get a little fancy with their potato.

About 20 minutes after I got home from shopping, I was yelling, "Dinner's ready!" Then we all sat down at the table to enjoy our personalized potatoes. I will definitely be repeating "Potato Bar Night" in weeks to come (that 5-pound bag of potatoes is now a 2 1/2-pound bag).

End Time: 6:40 p.m.
Total Time: 35 minutes (20 minutes if you don't crisp the potatoes in the hot oven)
Total Cost for a family of 4: $12

Faster-Than-Takeout Option 2: Pick-a-Pasta Night

It takes most types of pasta about eight minutes to cook -- pretty handy on a busy weeknight. I always have ravioli or tortellini in my freezer, along with dried pasta in my pantry, and I end up serving a pasta dish at least once a week.

If you try this option, try to find a whole-wheat blend or multigrain pasta that your family likes to up your fiber intake. You can choose from several convenient sauces, too -- bottled marinara, frozen or bottled pesto sauce, all in various flavors. You can even toss up a main dish pasta salad using a light bottled vinaigrette dressing.

Starting Time: 6:30 p.m. Start water boiling in large saucepan for the pasta. Meanwhile, prepare whatever ingredients you will be featuring in your pasta dish. If you'll be serving your marinara sauce with a healthier sausage (like less-fat, diagonally sliced turkey polska kielbasa) start cooking it in a nonstick skillet coated lightly with canola cooking spray. If you'll be adding cooked shrimp, diced tofu, or shredded chicken instead, get it ready now.

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