Make School-Night Meals Special

Extra touches keep dinner fun for everyone! “Read More” to get the recipe for this Southwestern Casserole. (Photo: Christy Rost)

Football games, ballet classes, soccer and track practices, parent-teacher nights. Back-to-school schedules are demanding not only for children, but for parents, too. Add family dinners to the mix, and it can be a real challenge for any household.

So what’s the secret to sitting down to delicious, nutritious meals now that summer’s relaxed schedules are history and the school year is underway?

An arsenal of quick, family-friendly recipes and a bit of flexibility can go a long way to solving the nightly dinner dilemma without resorting to fast-food drive-ins or pizza delivery three nights a week. Add a touch of creativity, and dinnertime can become a cherished family tradition.

A study by the National Center on Addiction and Drug Abuse at Columbia University demonstrated how critical dinnertime can be to family health and dynamics. The study found that families who frequently share mealtimes experience a lower incidence of teen smoking, drinking, and drug use. But demands on young families can pose an ongoing threat to dinner gatherings.

Gathering around the table each night was a tradition when I was growing up — one I continued from the time our sons were born. As they grew older and extracurricular activities took on greater importance, dinnertime became a vehicle for staying connected as a family.

[pullquote-left]“When cooking dinner each night starts to feel routine, it’s time to get creative.”[/pullquote-left]

It required flexibility in mealtimes to accommodate everyone’s schedules, but that was a minor inconvenience in exchange for the time we spent together. These meals provided opportunities to celebrate moments great and small, from the first day of school to the completion of a school project to every minor holiday on the calendar. Using family-favorite recipes, seasonal place settings, and simple table decorations, I took advantage of every trick up my sleeve to ensure our family looked forward to nightly dinners around the table.

When cooking dinner each night starts to feel routine, it’s time to get creative. Perk up mealtimes with inexpensive placemats and napkins in seasonal colors. For variety, pair these with decorative accessories or clever containers of fresh flowers from your garden or supermarket.

Menu themes like “Meatless Monday” can also inject a sense of fun into weekday meals. Change the status quo with an occasional Italian night, Tex-Mex Tuesday, dinner-at-the-beach night, indoor picnics, Friday in France, or cowboy cookin’ to make dinnertime fun for everyone, especially when accompanied by theme music, place cards, or accessories.

One of my family’s favorite meals centers around my recipe for Southwestern Casserole — a mouthwatering, savory Tex-Mex ground-beef recipe served with flour tortillas, chopped lettuce, tomatoes, shredded cheese, and a dollop of sour cream. This nutritious, make-your-own soft-taco recipe is quick and easy for the cook, and makes dinnertime fun for kids of all ages. Served straight from the skillet or baked in a large casserole dish and topped with melted cheese, this recipe from my first cookbook, The Family Table, will probably become a favorite on your dinner table, too!

Christy Rost is an author of three cookbooks, a public television chef on PBS stations, and a longtime resident of the Park Cities and Preston Hollow. Visit christyrost.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @ChristyRost


Southwestern Casserole:

Ingredients
• 1 ½ pounds ground chuck
• 1 cup sweet onion, peeled and chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
• 1 ¼ cups medium or hot salsa
• 1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
• 1 15-ounce can kidney or black beans, rinsed and drained
• ¼ cup shredded Longhorn cheddar cheese
• 1/3 cup crushed tortilla chips
• ½ cup shredded Longhorn cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, for garnish
• 1 20-count package flour tortillas, warm
• 1 ½ cups shredded lettuce
• 1 large tomato, rinsed and chopped
• 1 cup sour cream

Directions:
Sauté meat and onion in a large skillet over medium heat until the meat is brown and the onion has softened.

Drain the fat, reduce the heat to low, stir in garlic, and cook 1 minute more. Pour in salsa and tomato sauce, and stir to mix. Add kidney beans, ¼ cup of the shredded cheese, and crushed tortilla chips, and stir well.

Cook the mixture until it’s hot and bubbly. Serve immediately or spoon into a casserole dish, garnish with remaining cheese, and cover.

Casserole may be baked immediately or chilled several hours or overnight.

Shortly before serving, bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, or until it’s hot and bubbly. To serve, spoon casserole into warm flour tortillas, garnish with lettuce, tomatoes, and a dollop of sour cream, fold in half, and enjoy.

Yield: Six to eight servings

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