Two of my favorite cookbooks are 30 Minute Meals by Rachael Ray and Desperation Dinners by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross. I love the idea of getting an entire meal to the table in 30 minutes or less.
But honey, you don't know desperate until it's 6:15 on a weeknight and you've still got a hungry husband and two food-allergic children to feed. In a household with combined allergies to wheat, dairy, eggs and nuts, I used to be a short-order cook. Who has time for that? I've come to rely on a handful of "safe" and versatile standbys for dinner.
It may not be exciting, but chicken is a mainstay. One night it may be grilled or barbecued chicken breasts (I make a "safe" homemade BBQ sauce by combining 1 cup Coke with 1 cup ketchup); another could be store-bought rotisserie chicken (skin removed) with canned corn and steamed broccoli; followed the next night by a homemade rotisserie soup made with gluten-free chicken broth, carrots, celery and rice.
My favorite product is Trader Joe's frozen Just Grilled Chicken Strips. They're free of the top eight allergens and taste delicious. I heat them through on the stove top in a little olive oil, sprinkle with a wheat- and dairy-free seasoning mix such as Cavender's Greek seasoning or Penzeys Mural of Flavor seasoning, and serve them with rice cooked in chicken broth and a side of black beans.
Other times I marinate the defrosted strips for 20 minutes in 1/4 cup lime juice, 1/4 cup orange juice and gluten-free taco seasoning. I sauté pre-cut or frozen peppers and onions, and heat the strips through for fajitas served on corn tortillas. The strips are also great for on the fly stir-fries or when defrosted for salads.
Another quick idea is to brown seasoned pork chops in olive oil and pair them with jasmine rice and canned green beans. Dinner is done in 15 minutes.
My kids can eat fish, and they love it when I bread mild white tilapia in Zatarain's corn-based Crispy Southern Seasoned Fish-Fri. I can fry four pieces and microwave steamed veggies, beans or rice in about 20 minutes. Delish.
I asked moms with NC FACES (North Carolina Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely) for their quick meal fixes.
Cathleen Lemoine's son is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, eggs, sesame and chickpeas. Her go-to faves include Ian's chicken nuggets or cheese quesadillas with avocado. "Steam-ready bags of broccoli are great to keep in the freezer, and bags of sliced apples can shave a few minutes off of my prep time," she says. "Pre-cut anything is a must. In less than 10 minutes, I can have dinner on the table."
Caper Lauver's 2-year-old son Shane and 4-year-old daughter Lindsay are allergic to milk and eggs. Lauver likes to serve anything-goes pizzas made with dairy-free prepackaged pizza rounds or a plain bagel topped with Ragu Pizza Quick Sauce, shredded dairy-free cheese and leftovers (corn, ground beef, pineapple tidbits) from the fridge. Bake for 10 minutes and you're set.
Lauver also likes to toss corn or black beans (you can't taste them in sauce, she says) with a jar of Barilla Tomato & Basil pasta sauce to serve over fun-shaped pastas.
Jessica Siracusa and Stephanie Smith favor the speed of spaghetti, too. Smith's son is allergic to wheat, so she pairs corn spaghetti noodles with Hunt's traditional pasta sauce.
Siracusa's son Jacob has allergies to peanuts and milk. She makes a big batch of homemade sauce (many store brands include dairy) once a month and freezes it in individual containers that can be used on busy nights.
For variety, Siracusa's family likes to serve Trader Joe's Lemongrass Chicken Stix—small frozen spring rolls—with soy sauce, or Dr. Praeger's Spinach or Broccoli pancakes served with a chicken or fish. You can find them at Earth Fare.
Of course, there's always breakfast for dinner. Lauver uses Bisquick pancake mix without an egg or an egg substitute. "It turns out perfect every time, and the kids love them," she says.
At my house, I try to keep homemade, allergen-free blueberry pancakes (find the recipe on our Big Bite blog) stocked in my freezer, as well as Van's frozen gluten-, dairy- and egg-free waffles or frozen French toast sticks. Pair them with freshly fried bacon and orange juice, and you'll have dinner in flash.
Joyce Clark Hicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.