A Squared: March 2016

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Pesto Pasta Salad

This pasta salad is full of flavor, a crowd pleaser, and could not be easier to put together. Serve it at your next party or make a big batch and enjoy it all week!


Pasta, quinoa, and farro salads are my go to recipes for easy lunches. I absolutely despise packing my lunch every night (I'm not totally sure why), but I also can't justify dropping $15/day to buy it somewhere either. So, recipes like these that are satisfying, refrigerate well, and are perfect for packing up and enjoying for lunch all week long. And especially during busy times at work or during my pregnancy when I've been especially tired in the evenings (and have opted for a couch nap over packing my lunch), a salad like this is key to keep me eating well at work. I also love a salad like this as an option for dinner on warmer nights-- make it meatless or add grilled chicken and it's a complete meal.


This pasta salad variation is one of my new favorites. And since it includes both pesto and toasted pine nuts (which my hubby is super allergic to), this pasta salad is all about me-- and my favorite flavors! It begins with a base of penne pasta-- and I use whole grain to up the healthy factor here-- and then I add tons of fresh tomatoes and peppery arugula. Roasted red peppers add a touch of sweetness (and I used the jarred kind to save prep time) and fresh mozzarella pearls, which are already perfectly bite sized and save even more prep time! It all comes together with a simple combination of prepared pesto and vinegar, which creates a delicious and tangy vinaigrette for the salad. A sprinkle of crunchy pine nuts finishes the whole thing off.


Ingredients:

  • 2/3 cup prepared pesto
  • 3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
  • 16 oz. penne, cooked according to package directions
  • 1 1/2 cups arugula
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
  • 2/3 cup roasted red peppers, diced
  • 1 cup fresh mozzarella pearls
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

In a large serving bowl, whisk pesto and vinegar together until fully incorporated.

Add cooked pasta, arugula, tomatoes, peppers, and mozzarella to the bowl. Toss to combine.

Top with pine nuts and serve chilled.



Monday, March 28, 2016

Baby Shower Snapshots + Invitations by Minted

It's hard to believe, but Baby C. will be making her debut in just a few short weeks! And in preparation for her arrival, my best friend Alexis and sister Emma-- with some help from my mom-- hosted a wonderful baby shower for me two weeks ago.


Me with my mom and wonderful sister Emma

I'm not big on some of the old fashioned shower traditions (no embarrassing games, please!) and luckily these ladies knew me well enough to host the perfect shower for me with close friends and family, a delicious brunch, cocktails (for those that could drink them), and the most adorable decor!


There was a DIY mimosa, cocktail, and mocktail bar. My sister found this grapefruit thyme spritzer recipe that she put together for me-- it was super refreshing and was nice for me to have a special bubbly drink to sip on too!


A beautiful brunch spread of pastries, two kinds of frittata, fruit, grilled vegetables, and yogurt parfaits from Goddess & Grocer was on the menu for the shower. The food was delicious and perfect for serving buffet-style since most of it could be served at room temperature. And Alex and I were happy to eat those leftovers after the party was over too!


And it wouldn't be a shower without a fancy party cake! Alexis picked out the most gorgeous pastel pink frosted cake from Bittersweet, finished off with a dusting of edible glitter. It was a vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream frosting, filled with lemon curd and raspberry puree-- the perfect springtime cake! I'm also a sucker for French macarons, so she picked up an assortment of their perfectly colored spring macarons too-- the bright lavender, pistachio, lemon, and raspberry macarons were the perfect complement to the rich cake.


And my crafty mom made the most perfect diaper cake for the shower! It was sophisticated and incorporated the gray and pink color scheme of Baby C.'s nursery perfectly (photos of the finished nursery coming soon, I promise!)-- complete with fresh pink roses with an adorable Pottery Barn bunny stopping to smell them! She also somehow managed to make each layer of this cake at home in Rhode Island and transported them all the way to Chicago via checked bag for reassembly at my house. Nice work, Mom!


And my guests were super generous too. Not only is Baby C.'s nursery fully stocked with all of the baby necessities, but she's also got a closet and dresser full of cute clothes now complete with skinny jeans, party dresses, and sunglasses!

Party hostess Alexis, me, and my other best friend Meghan who came in from NYC for the shower

When shower planning got underway, my friends over at Minted offered to supply the invitations for the event. We eagerly accepted, knowing that Minted would provide the perfect invitation look to to really set the tone for this baby shower. As I mentioned, I'm not big into traditional showers that are heavy on goofy games and cheesy baby decorations. And while most baby shower themes are based on the theme of the nursery, that proved a little more challenging for my shower since my nursery isn't animal or princess or nursery rhyme-themed... it's just a modern slightly sophisticated gray and pink room that happens to feature a crib. So, that's the kind of shower and invitation my hostesses were looking for as well-- and Minted was the perfect place to find a girly and sophisticated shower invitation!

customize it here

Emma and Alexis found several adorable invitation options at Minted.com. They had such a difficult time choosing!

customize it here

Many of them were perfect for our color scheme and were available in a few other color schemes as well-- so, no matter if you're hosting a shower for a baby girl, baby boy, or baby surprise, Minted has you covered!

customize it here

Ultimately though, they decided on the option below-- which was my favorite of all of these options too! The Starlight Foil-Pressed shower invitation by Saltwater Designs was absolutely perfect: Simple, modern, and sophisticated with the slightest amount of bling from the rose gold foil.

customize it here

Adorable designs aside, some of things that I love most about Minted is their exceptional customer service and the personal touches you'll find throughout the order process-- from learning more about the designers of each Minted piece to receiving your finished product signed by the Minted employee that packaged it for you.


And this is the final product! The photo doesn't do the rose gold foil justice, but these were some seriously cute invitations and I couldn't have been more pleased to receive my own in the mail:


Thanks so much to Alexis, Emma, and Mom for all your hard work on the baby shower. And thanks to Minted for letting us pick out the most perfect invitations for Baby's big day!


Editor's Note: Complimentary products were supplied by Minted in order to facilitate this post. All of the opinions expressed herein are my own.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What's for Dinner Wednesday: Baked Skillet Gnocchi

Before we get into this recipe, can we talk a little bit about the weather in Chicago? It was 65 degrees out yesterday and I walked Clery after work and got overheated in my spring coat. And tomorrow it's going to snow. I have no words. Except that this snow better be long gone by the time my maternity leave begins!


So in the spirit of snow, let's talk about comfort food-- and more specifically, a skillet dinner which has become one of my go to meals during this pregnancy. It's been a while since I have made gnocchi, but it's always one of Alex's favorite dinners so I pulled this ingredient out of the archives recently to make a hearty (and meatless) one pan dinner that satisfied us both.


Gnocchi is a great base for a skillet dinner. It's hearty and holds up to a variety of sauces (from thick to thin), melted cheese, baking, sauteing... it's super versatile. I decided to keep things simple, but flavorful with this meal and paired tender gnocchi with sauteed tomatoes and shallots in a flavorful broth accompanied by a combination of creamy mozzarella and salty Parmesan cheeses. It all comes together on the stovetop and then a quick transfer to the oven turns it into a melty, browned and bubbly skillet.


I have to say that I think melted cheese makes any dinner better. But the simplicity of the ingredients and the recipe here make this one a real winner!


Ingredients:

  • 16 oz. package of gnocchi
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 3 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 10 oz. grape tomatoes
  • 1 Tbs. garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 cup low sodium fat free chicken broth
  • 6 oz. fresh mozzarella pearls or mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan 
  • 6-8 fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cook gnocchi according to package directions. Drain and set aside.

Heat oil in a cast iron or other oven-proof skillet over medium high heat. When shimmering, add shallots and saute for 3-4 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure that shallots become golden and translucent, but not brown. Add the tomatoes to the pan and saute for 6-8 minutes, until tomatoes start to plump up and some may burst. Stir in the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Season with salt, pepper, and add red pepper flakes.

Pour the chicken broth into the pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and cook until the liquid has reduced by half. Remove from heat.

Stir the cooked gnocchi into the tomato mixture. Sprinkle the mozzarella and Parmesan evenly over the top of the gnocchi. Bake for 15 minutes until cheese is melted. If you'd like, broil for an additional 2-3 minutes to get the cheese extra brown and bubbly.

Remove from oven and top with basil. Serve warm.

Monday, March 21, 2016

College Basketball Season: Taste the Madness with Coke Zero & OREO

This shop has been compensated by Collective Bias, Inc. and its advertiser. All opinions are mine alone. #GreatTasteTourney #CollectiveBias


I don't get excited about many sporting events. However, after watching my school's basketball team win the national championship in my freshmen year of college The Big Tournament has always held a special place in my heart. I love making brackets for the office pool (and inevitably watching them fall apart), the upsets (except when they ruin said brackets), the fast pace of the tournament and the games, and of course, the game watching snacks! Today, I'm partnering with Coca-Cola Zero™ and OREO on a tasty idea to help you host the perfect college game day watching party!


Food is such a big part of game watching, but beyond the pizza, wings, and the nachos it is just as important to remember the beverages-- and a sweet treat or two too! I wanted to make sure that my game watching guests not only had plenty to drink and a little treat to end a day of savory snacking, but also to have a fun favor bag to take home with them too. And with that in mind, I headed to my neighborhood Jewel-Osco to stock up on all of the essential for my entertaining needs: And on this trip specifically, I was looking for Coke Zero and OREO cookies-- and they had a huge selection of exactly what I needed to host a Big Tournament viewing party.


For a game watching party, I always like to serve a dessert that's handheld and festive-- and these loaded OREO blondie bites are the perfect treat for this kind of occasion. It's my favorite blondie recipe individually sized, each filled with candy-coated chocolates and tons of OREO cookie pieces. To top it off, they're each frosted to look like little basketballs. The recipe could not be easier and these little bites are positively addictive.


Check out all the OREO goodness in that little package-- These are called "loaded" OREO blondie bites for a reason! Keep on reading for the recipe below...


And to make your party even more memorable, it's always a good idea to send your guests home with a goodie bag. This one is extra festive and all you'll need are a few key items to bring it together:

  • 8 small cellophane bags
  • 8-pack of 7.5 oz. Coke Zero cans
  • 8 packages of OREO cookies, 0.78 oz. (2 to a package), available in 18 count boxes
  • 2 cups candy-coated chocolates, in your favorite team's colors
  • 8 loaded OREO blondie bites (recipe below)
  • Ribbon, in your favorite team's colors

Each cellophane bag includes one of those homemade blondie bites, a refreshing (and perfectly sized) can of college basketball-themed Coke Zero, an extra package of OREO cookies, and about 1/4 cup of chocolate candies (in your favorite team's colors), all tied up with ribbon-- also in your team's signature colors.


Everyone could use a little Coke Zero pick-me-up the morning after a late night of basketball watching. And the blondies, OREO cookies, and candies are a sweet way to celebrate a big victory-- or to mourn a big loss! So, be sure to send your guests home with their own favor bag that will have them tasting the madness even after the tournament is over.


Loaded OREO Blondie Bites Recipe:

Ingredients--
 
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup OREO cookies
  • 1/2 cup candy-coated chocolates
  • 2 cups vanilla frosting, store-bought or homemade *Use my recipe here
  • Red and yellow food dye
  • 1 tube of chocolate-flavored decorative icing
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a mini muffin pan with cooking spray and set aside.

Melt butter in a large microwave safe bowl. Stir in the sugars until fully incorporated and allow the mixture to cool to room temperature.

In a separate medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt.

Beat the eggs and vanilla into the butter and sugar mixture. Whisk in the dry ingredients a little bit at a time until fully incorporated and a smooth batter is formed.

Place the OREO cookies on a zip-sealing plastic bag and seal well, removing excess air. Use a rolling pin or meat tenderizer to crush the cookies into smaller pieces. Fold the crushed cookies and the candy-coated chocolates into the batter.

Drop the batter by large spoonfuls into the mini muffin cups, filling each cup about 3/4 of the way up. Bake for 11-13 minutes, until golden around the edges and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Cool slightly and then remove from the muffin pan and cool to room temperature on a wire rack.

Meanwhile, mix 16 drops of yellow food dye and 8 drops of red food dye into the vanilla frosting until fully combined and the frosting is the desired shade of orange.

Once the blondie bites are completely cooled, frost the top of each with an even layer of orange frosting. Follow with the tube of icing to create the lines of a basketball on the top of each blondie: Make one straight line completely across the center of the round blondie top. Make another line from top to bottom directly down the center, forming four equal quadrants. Finish by making two curved lines (curved in toward one another) on either side of one of the center lines. Repeat on each blondie and refrigerate to set and until ready to serve.


  • Mondel─ôz International and Coca-Cola are Corporate Champion and Partners of the NCAA.
  • NCAA and Taste the Madness are trademarks of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
  • © Mondel─ôz International group © Coca-Cola Zero is a registered trademark of the Coca-Cola Company.

Are you serving Coke Zero or OREO cookies to your guests while you watch The Big Tournament? Click here for a chance to win NCAA prizes!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

#RanaRavioliChallenge: Chicken Marsala & Mushroom Ravioli Skillet

This delicious baked pasta dish combines the flavors of classic chicken Marsala with the decadence of creamy cheese and portobello-filled Giovanni Rana ravioli.


Before we get to the recipe, let's talk a little bit about this ravioli. I'm picky about my pasta-- especially the prepared kind-- but I have to say that the Giovanni Rana brand is my go to. So, when the folks at Rana reached out and asked me to participate in the Rana Ravioli Challenge, I was totally on board! I created this ravioli recipe as delicious inspiration for all of you to go out and create your own as well. Every time one of you makes a ravioli dish and shares a picture of it on your social media account using the hashtag #RanaRavioliChallenge before March 20 (National Ravioli Day), Giovanni Rana will donate 1 lb. of pasta to local food banks like The Food Bank for New York City, Northern Illinois Food Bank and Bay Area Food Banks. Last year 4,000 lbs. of pasta was donated after just one day, so get to cooking (and hashtagging) for a good cause!


I frequently use Rana ravioli when I need a quick and easy homemade dinner option on a weeknight. But for National Ravioli Day I wanted to create something a bit more special. So I used Rana Mushroom Ravioli as the basis for this chicken Marsala-inspired skillet dinner. A traditional chicken Marsala includes breaded chicken cutlets and mushrooms served in a Marsala wine-based sauce. This dish includes many of the same elements: lightly breaded chunks of chicken, tender baby portabella mushrooms, and a flavorful sauce made from Marsala wine with hints of onion, lemon, and pancetta, all tossed with Rana Mushroom Ravioli, which is filled with a smooth and creamy cheese filling and savory chunks of portabello mushroom. It's all topped with a little shredded fontina cheese and baked until brown and bubbly. This is pure comfort food-- and a fun way to enjoy an old school classic!


Not only are the flavors here bold and wonderful, but this one dish dinner is a real showstopper too. It's skillet presentation is rustic, elegant, and different-- a perfect dish to serve to your family or if you're entertaining friends. So, make a skillet of this ravioli and don't forget to post it online with #RanaRavioliChallenge!


Ingredients:

  • 1 bag Giovanni Rana mushroom ravioli
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and cut into 1-inch dice
  • 1/3 cup all purpose flour
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 oz. pancetta, diced
  • 4 oz. cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/4 cup yellow onion, diced
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tsp. tomato paste
  • 1 cup Marsala wine
  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 cup grated fontina
  • 2 Tbs. grated Parmesan
  • 1 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped

 Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Cook ravioli according to package directions. Drain well and set aside.

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a large cast iron skillet or other oven-proof skillet.

Place the flour in a shallow dish. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Toss chicken in flour until evenly coated. Remove chicken from flour mixture with a slotted spoon, shaking off any excess. Transfer to the skillet and cook until golden brown on all sides. Once cooked, remove from pain and transfer to plate.

Reduce heat on the skillet to medium-low and add pancetta to the pan. Saute, stirring occasionally until the pancetta is crispy, about 5 minutes. Use the slotted spoon to transfer pancetta to a paper towel-lined plate.

Bring heat in the pan back up to medium and add mushrooms and onions. Saute for 6-8 minutes or until the liquid released by the mushrooms has evaporated. Add garlic, tomato paste, and pancetta, stirring to combine. Cook for 1 minute and then carefully pour in the Marsala.

Increase heat to medium-high and bring mixture to a simmer, scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often until mixture is reduced and thickened. Remove from heat and whisk in butter and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.

Carefully add ravioli and chicken to the pan and stir to coat with the mushroom and sauce mixture. Evenly sprinkle fontina and Parmesan over the top of the ravioli and chicken mixture. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, sprinkle with parsley and serve.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Tropical Granola

I'm one of those people that absolutely has to eat breakfast in the morning. I love the idea of shaving a few minutes off my morning routine by grabbing something quick or waiting until I get to the office to eat, but there's no way I can last that long-- my stomach feels like its practically eating itself by the time I get to the train. And that's especially true these days when I'm eating for two!


In the interest of time, my weekday breakfast is usually something really quick and easy like oatmeal, cold cereal, or an English muffin and fruit. The options are limited though and I often find myself in a breakfast rut. You know those-- where you wake up and NONE of those breakfast standards sound at all appealing. So, I've been looking for some other healthy options to change up my morning eating routine and came back to one of my tried and true favorites: granola.


Store bought granola can be expensive and filled with ingredients that aren't necessarily that great for you so I love the idea of baking my own at home. It's more cost effective and it can be customized with any ingredients you like! This time around, I was reminiscing about an amazing tropical-inspired granola that I ate almost every morning on our Hawaiian honeymoon a few years back. The Grand Wailea on Maui served this delicious granola packed with macadamia nuts, pineapple, and coconut everyday and I seriously couldn't get enough of it. It was the perfect quick way to start a day of fun in the sun and I bought three bags in their gift shop to bring home with me. It took no time to eat all of them. Inspired by that breakfast memory, I did a little research and then created my own homemade rendition that's a pretty good copycat, filled with wholesome ingredients and tasting like the tropics. Add a little fresh fruit and yogurt and breakfast is served!

Ingredients: 

  • 2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 3 Tbs. melted coconut oil
  • 2 1/2 Tbs. light brown sugar
  • 2 Tbs. water
  • 2 1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract
  • 2 1/4 cups old fashioned oats (not instant oats)
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seed kernels
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 2/3 cup halved macadamia nuts *If using pre-salted nuts, omit the 1/4 tsp. salt above
  • 1/2 cup flaked unsweetened coconut
  • 1 cup dried pineapple, diced
  • 1/4 cup dried papaya, diced *If you can't find papaya, substitute additional pineapple. I do not recommend using dried mango here.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.  In a large bowl, whisk together the cinnamon, ginger, salt, honey, oil, brown sugar, water, and vanilla extract. Add in the remaining ingredients and toss well to make sure the mixture coats completely. 

Spread the granola out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until crispy, but not yet browned-- about 40 minutes, stirring once or twice in between. Allow to cool completely and store in an airtight container.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Spicy Hungarian Beef Stew

I haven't had too many weird cravings during my pregnancy, but the one thing that I have eaten so much more than I ever did before is beef. Maybe it's the iron or the protein, but I seriously can't get enough red meat these days. Most of the time I'm ordering it when we go out-- burgers, steaks, or anything involving short ribs-- but I've also been cooking with beef a lot more at home too. So, when I saw this Hungarian Beef Stew recipe in a recent issue of I jumped on it.


Having told you earlier this week about my tips for making dinner at home easier, this one totally fits the bill: It's a one-pot dinner, can be made ahead, and I saved half of the batch in my freezer to thaw out in a pinch for a future dinner. And if that weren't enough, this is also a totally comforting dinner that is full of rich flavor and just the right amount of heat. The original recipe came from Cooking Light courtesy of healthy chef Ellie Krieger, but I took this recipe and made it my own with a few edits and additions. The result was totally delicious.


This stew is an entire meal in a bowl-- tender beef, hearty potatoes, and tons of vegetables in a thick flavorful broth. The combination of dry red wine and paprika (both smoked and regular) lends great flavor to the stew and the Hungarian hot pepper adds some nice spice as well. It cooks for a few hours on the stovetop, so make sure you set aside enough time for cooking it! It could also be easily adapted for the slow cooker as well.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 lbs. lean boneless chuck roast, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper, divided
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 2 medium yellow onions, chopped
  • 2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 Tbs. paprika
  • 1/2 Tbs. smoked paprika
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 2 cups water, divided
  • 2 cups unsalted beef stock
  • 1 lb. fingerling potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 2 red bell peppers, sliced
  • 1 Hungarian hot pepper, sliced
  • 1 dry bay leaf

Sprinkle beef with 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium high heat. Add beef to the pan, cooking for 6 minutes or until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to a plate. Repeat procedure in batches, if needed.

Reduce heat to medium, and add onions to pan. Cook for 5 minutes or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add flour, paprikas, and garlic and cook for 1 minute while stirring. Add wine to the pan and cook for 2 minutes or until thickened. Stir occasionally and scrape the browned bits from bottom of pan.

Add 1 cup water, stock, and beef to the pan. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1 1/4 hours. Stir in potatoes, carrots, celery, peppers, bay leaf, and remaining 2 cups water. Simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes to an hour or until meat and vegetables are fork-tender. Season stew with remaining salt and pepper and remove bay leaf.


Editor's Note: Inspired by original recipe by Ellie Krieger c/o Cooking Light.



Tuesday, March 1, 2016

10 Tips for Making Dinner at Home Easier

While a lot of A Squared's content is dedicated to great Chicago restaurants, interesting travels, and showcasing fun products, the core of it is really all about recipes. And cooking at home is something that I grew up appreciating and has become even more important to me in my adulthood: it helps me budget, keeps me eating healthy, and provides a perfect opportunity for connecting with friends and my growing family. I also have fun and feel most creative in my kitchen, which is why I love sharing recipe posts with you.

Orzo Salad with Corn, Arugula & Tomatoes

All that said, I know that cooking at home is not always a fun and relaxing experience for everyone out there. And frankly, I have started to feel some of that myself during my pregnancy too-- and over the past few months we've ordered takeout considerably more often than I would care to admit! I'm trying my best to make sure that we make dinner at home most nights of the week, but it's not always easy. So I've been trying to practice a few key rules to make cooking at home as painless as possible. And by following these 10 tips, I'm hopeful that you'll find making dinner at home a little easier, a little more fun, and a little less intimidating!

Prosciutto, Provolone & Basil Stuffed Chicken

1. Meal planning. This is one of my favorite ways to take the stress out of making dinner during the week. Knowing what I'm buying when we go to the store and knowing what I'm making when I get home from work really takes the guess work out of cooking-- especially at a time of the day when I'm at my most hungry and tired. And it's a great way to save money by avoiding impulse shopping and takeout ordering!

2. Prep ahead of time. Taking a little time to meal prep on the weekends can save you a ton of time making dinner later in the week. Whether it's assembling a full meal on Sunday so all you have to do is bake it on Tuesday or doing small things like trimming and marinating chicken breasts or pre-chopping your vegetables, you'll thank yourself later when you have less to do to get dinner on the table.

Slow Cooker Buffalo Chicken Baked Potatoes

3. Use your slow cooker. The slow cooker was sometimes the only thing that guaranteed Alex and I would be eating a homemade dinner during my exhausting first few months of pregnancy. Coming home to find dinner completely made-- or very close-- was such a sigh of relief. I try to use mine at least once a week. I prep the ingredients the night before (usually on a night when I've made an easier dinner) and set it and go before work in the morning.

4. Utilize (healthy) prepared foods. There is no shame in using prepared foods to get the job done faster-- as long they're not filled with preservatives and weird ingredients! I love a rotisserie chicken breast for making easy dinners like salads or wraps. I also love using the grocery store salad bar to pick and choose cleaned cut vegetables to roast or stir fry. All the hard work is done!

Caprese Pasta with Honey Roasted Balsamic Tomatoes

5. Go meatless at least one night per week. This is good for your wallet, good for your body, but will typically save you some time too. I love making vegetarian quesadillas, cheesy pasta bakes, or fancy grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner at least one night/week. Without having to prep and cook meat (and then clean it up when you're done), the dinner making process becomes much more simplified. Give it a try!
6. Stretch one major ingredient through multiple meals. This tip works especially well with protein. Roast several chicken breasts and use them throughout the week in pastas, sandwiches, or on salads. Saute ground beef or turkey and do the same-- fold it into a pasta sauce or barbecue for sandwiches or season it and fill tortillas on taco night. You could even cook a large batch of pasta and use in a salad one night and in a hot pasta dinner another. It's a great way to eliminate cleanup, but also to cut your cooking time down for any of the subsequent nights you're using this pre-cooked ingredient.

Beef & Spinach Lasagna

7. Double the recipe on freezer-friendly meals. This is an awesome trick-- especially if you're a smaller family like us. Recipes for meals like lasagna or enchiladas are often difficult to make for just 2-- or even 3-- people. I split the recipe up into two smaller pans-- one for now and one to wrap and freeze for later. If your family is larger, just double the recipe and do the same! It's the same amount of work, but will yield two separate dinner-- including one that you can have on hand for a night when there's no time to do anything but pop a pan in the oven.

8. Limit the number of ingredients you're using. A tasty dinner doesn't need to be complicated-- an some of the best dinners are the least complicated ones. Limiting the number of ingredients you're using makes cooking feel more approachable, limits your cleanup time, and can even take the thought and stress out of planning your meal.
9. Embrace one-pan recipes. Whether it's a casserole or a skillet dinner, cooking your entire meal in one pan is a fantastic way to cut down on cleaning multiple pots and pans post-dinner.

10. When all else fails, order dinner and don't beat yourself up about it. Seriously, sometimes it's just too hard to come home and cook dinner from scratch. I've been there-- and more than once lately!
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