Adjusting to life in a pandemic has had its challenging moments. My well-established habits and routines have been tossed aside to accommodate a new way of living. Mask wearing and 20-second handwashes have become standard operating procedures for me, as have been daily checks of COVID morbidity and mortality numbers.
The pandemic has converted our empty nest household into a residence of 5 adults, only one who is working. The reality of our increased population has forced many changes, including the return of a nightly family dinner. Eating dinner with my wife and three of my children has been a joy. However, it has also included the additional stress of making dinner for five regularly.
When our kids were younger, my wife was a stay at home mom and our principal cook. She returned part-time to the paid workforce when the kids were in middle school, and I started to cook some of our family dinners when she was working late. Being a multi-tasker, I decided to teach my kids how to cook and began “Cooking With Dad Thursdays.” Every Thursday, the kids and I planned, purchased, cooked, and ate dinner. Naturally, we also cleaned up our mess. My goal was to make my kids competent in this vital life skill. Little did I know that I would call upon their services in 2020.
As I noted above, all of us try to eat dinner together. My wife continues to make several meals a week, and we usually order carry-out on Fridays. That leaves 3-4 dinner preparations that I commit to making. When the kids and I did “Cooking With Dad Thursday,” the sky was the limit. Steak with all of the trimmings? No problem. I was working 60 hours a week, and I didn’t flinch with expensive grocery bills. However, things have changed. I am no longer a wage earner, my kids are adults, and grocery prices have escalated. Meal planning and preparation could be an expensive and time-consuming chore. Luckily, I have wonderful and adaptive kids who almost always help me cook. Cooking with them is fun, but meals need to be simple and reasonably priced. I have a secret weapon to accomplish these goals. I grew up in the 60s, and my mom cooked for seven people. She was a great cook, and I have fond memories of the meals that she made. Many of her meals were designed to feed a crowd efficiently and economically.
Sixties cooking does not comply with the eating standards of 2020. If your family only eats salads, stop reading now.
The secrets of 60s cooking
Using basic ingredients
In the 1960s, most cooks had a larder filled with basic ingredients. Flour, sugar, eggs, and the like. Basic ingredients allow for maximum flexibility when cooking. Cooking from scratch can be nearly as efficient as making prepared foods once you have gained some experience.
Using prepared foods
In the 1960s, packaged foods were also popular. Cake mixes, tubes of crescent rolls, canned condensed soups, and many other items were (and are) relatively inexpensive. Thoughtful use of these foods can ease your cooking burden.
Don’t want to make a white sauce? Try a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup. Need to make a quick dessert? A brownie mix is cheap; you don’t have to remember if you have baking chocolate on hand. Want to boost a boring main dish? Crack open a tube of crescent rolls. The options are endless.
Using frozen foods
Some frozen foods, like vegetables, are cheap and good. Take advantage of them. The more “prepared” they are, the more expensive they are. Buying frozen broccoli is dirt cheap, but it is more expensive if it has a “butter sauce.” Forgo the latter and add your own pat of butter to save some money.
Substitute when needed
In the 60s, it was common to modify a recipe based on what you had on hand. If you didn’t have one ingredient, it was perfectly OK to substitute a similar item. No green onions? Try some finely chopped regular onions. You don’t have a particular spice? Try another one that compliments the meat that you are using. No fresh garlic? Try some of the stuff in a jar or use garlic powder. Don’t have tomato sauce? Try using a can of tomato soup. Your results will vary with the number and types of items that you switch out, but with reasonable care, you will end up with a good dinner.
Keep it simple
In the 1960s, it was common to eat one-pot meals. Casseroles, soups, stews, and the like were easily augmented with a simple side dish. Combination foods are also cheaper to make as they use less meat.
Clean as you go
I mentioned that my mom was a great cook. However, she was a messy cook who seemed to use every pot, pan, and bowl to prepare a meal. If you want to ease your cooking stress, clean up as you go.
By the time that we are ready to sit down for dinner, all of our preparation dishes are washed and put away. When we are done eating, everyone clears the table, one person washes the table, and someone else loads the dishwasher. A clean kitchen is a happy kitchen.
I thought that I would share some of my classic recipes with you. Although I have modified many of them, most were created by other cooks. Thank you to those individuals!
Breakfast for dinner
Making breakfast food for dinner is quick, cheap, and delicious. Ham and eggs, pancakes with sausage, or waffles, and bacon are some breakfast foods that we sometimes have for dinner.
Waffles and Bacon
We usually make our bacon on a jelly roll pan lined with aluminum foil. Place the bacon in single slices on the sheet and bake at 400 F for 15-20 minutes, or until done.
You can use Bisquick or a pancake mix for waffles, but I think these scratch ones are easy to make and taste better. If you don’t have a waffle iron, you can probably pick up one cheap from a resale shop (like Goodwill). Ours is over 25 years old, but it still does the trick. Here is my waffle recipe.
2 cups flour
½ cup melted butter
One ¾ cups milk
1 T sugar
4 t baking powder
¼ t salt
Heat the waffle iron and spray with cooking spray. Mix the ingredients into a batter and add enough mixture to the hot waffle iron to fill the cavity (but not so much that you are dripping everywhere). Waffles are done when less steam comes off of the iron. You can keep them hot in a warming oven until serving, or pass them out as they are made.
I debated about posting this recipe, as it is so simple. However, there may be people out there who have never cooked, and this recipe is easy, filling, and delicious.
Boil spaghetti following the package directions. When done, drain and return to the pot. Add a tablespoon or two of butter to the drained spaghetti to keep the strands separated.
While you are making the spaghetti, brown about a pound of hamburger (or other ground meat) in a separate pot, drain off the fat while carefully retaining the browned meat in the pot. Add a jar of spaghetti sauce to the ground meat and heat. We tend to go with inexpensive brands like Ragu and Prego. You can be as creative or straightforward with your sauce as you like. Add some parmesan cheese, a little red wine, a bit more oregano, a small can of mushrooms, whatever suits your fancy.
We dump the sauce into the cooked spaghetti pot and mix it up like a casserole.
Along with the spaghetti, we will serve a tossed salad and some garlic bread. Commercial garlic bread is good, but it is easy to make some from scratch. Just melt some butter and mix in some chopped garlic (or even garlic powder). Brush the mixture on some decent bread and “toast” the bread butter side up on a cookie sheet in the oven (350F-400F), removing the bread when it is nicely toasted.
Beef Tips in the Instantpot (or any pressure cooker)
Beef tips usually use sirloin, but we go cheap and use stew meat. You can also use cut-up round steak or pot roast.
In a large Ziplock bag add:
3 T flour
2 t steak seasoning (optional)
2 t garlic powder
1 t onion powder
½ t salt
½ t pepper
Add 1-2 pounds of cubed steak and shake to coat the steak in the mixture.
Place the Instantpot in saute mode, add some oil, then brown the steak in batches. Remove the meat.
Add to the hot Instantpot:
1-2 T oil
One chopped onion
Lightly brown the onion
Three cloves chopped garlic (or some garlic powder)
⅓ cup red wine (or water)
12 oz beef broth (you can also use low sodium bouillon and water)
1 T Worcestershire sauce
½ t ground thyme (No thyme? Try oregano).
Return the meat to the pot and cook under high pressure for 35 minutes. Let the pressure come down for 10 minutes after 35 minutes of cooking time. Carefully release the pressure and open the lid. Place the pot back into saute mode and wait until the mixture is bubbling. Take a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch and mix with a couple of tablespoons of water. Stream this mixture into the Instant pot whisking as you go. Cook for a few minutes and then adjust seasonings. I usually have to add more salt, garlic powder, and pepper. A squirt or two of hot sauce doesn’t hurt either.
I often serve this dish with bread/rolls, a vegetable, and a starch. If I’m using rice as my starch, I’ll make a lot more to use it for the next recipe.
Mike’s “Sort Of” Chinese Fried Rice.
The secret to good fried rice is to use cooked rice that is a few days old. Freshly made rice will result in a sticky mess. I tend to keep leftover rice uncovered in the fridge and use it about 2-3 days later.
Fried rice is a recipe that you can modify to your heart’s content.
Heat a wok or large frying pan and add some oil. Saute 3-4 sliced green onions and then add chopped ginger root (1t to 1 T), and chopped garlic (3-4 cloves).
Add some meat (½ to 1 lb), cut into small pieces. I like using chicken. Cook in small batches while you continuously stir and flip the meat using a wide utensil. Make sure you don’t overcook the meat. Remove the meat from the pan.
Add more oil if needed, and then add your cooked rice. How much? Around 4-6 cups are about right. Keep the rice in motion until it is heated.
Push the rice to the pan’s sides and add a couple of scrambled uncooked eggs in the center of the pan. Cook the eggs until they are almost done and then mix them with the rice mixture.
Take a bag of frozen vegetables (peas/carrots, stir-fry mix, etc.), and heat in the microwave for about ½ of their cooking time. Add the vegetables to the rice mixture and stir to distribute. Return the chicken and heat a bit more. Mix in some soy sauce until the rice is the color that you like.
Add salt and possibly pepper to taste. Personally, I also like to add a shot or two of hot sauce.
Super Easy Quiche
One large pie crust
Six large eggs
3/4 cup milk
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup cooked ham cut into small cubes
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese divided (any meltable cheese, but not mozzarella)
Four tablespoons chopped green onions
Mix liquids and seasoning together. Put green onions, ham, and 1 C of the cheese into the pie crust. Pour the liquid mixture into the pie crust and top with remaining ½ C of cheese. Bake at 375 F for 35-40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let rest at least 10 minutes before cutting. I like to serve this quiche with homemade bran muffins and a green vegetable.
1/2 cup oil
1 cup of sugar
2 cups buttermilk (or 2 T vinegar into a scant 2 C milk-let it sit for a few minutes before adding to the dry ingredients)
4 cups Raisin Bran cereal
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
Mix ingredients and let the mixture stand for at least 45 minutes. Spoon into greased muffin tins and bake at 400 F for 12-15 minutes (or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted into the muffin’s center). Cool for at least 10 minutes before removing muffins from the tin.
I hope that these ideas reduce some of your cooking stress and turn the drudgery of cooking into a fun activity.