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3 Family Dinner Secret Weapons

“What’s for dinner?”

This question evokes a range of responses, from “I’ve got this covered” confidence to full-on panic mode. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. The truth is, getting dinner on the table is a huge challenge in most homes, even though it’s a meal that everyone happily eats.

My goal is to help you successfully navigate dinner dilemmas, and along the way learn some easy recipes that your family will love. Yes, I know some evenings are just tough—busy schedules, homework, sports and activities; grumpy and tired kids and adults. But my hope is that some nights the stars will align, and you’ll experience a relaxing family dinner that everyone enjoys.

One secret weapon: Make a double batch. No real-life parent has time to cook every night.

Over many years as a mom and owner of a prepared dinner business, I developed strategies that shape how I feed both my clients and my own family. I’ve worked both inside and outside the home, I’ve tried every technique to get my kids to eat, and I’ve had successes and failures. And I know that those well-meaning Monday-to-Friday meal plans in every family magazine just don’t work. Why? Because no one has the time to make a complete meal from scratch every night.

I have three secret weapons to share with you, and I guarantee that if you follow these guidelines dinner will become less of a challenge and much more enjoyable.

Secret weapon No. 1: Recipe essentials.

Each recipe has to meet four criteria: delicious, affordable, simple and healthy. If a recipe ticks all of these boxes, I know I stand a good chance of everyone liking what I’m putting on the table. By giving myself this structure, I avoid getting sucked into a recipe that has too many specialty ingredients, takes too much time or is just too fancy for a weeknight. I love to try new ideas and play with new ingredients, but I save that for the weekend.

Secret weapon No. 2: The double batch.

Always make a double batch of food. Why? Because you already have the ingredients and pots and pans out, and in real-life no parent has time to make dinner every night. So let’s be real and set yourself up for success—create a little dinner insurance. This idea works for roast chicken on a Sunday that becomes chicken quesadillas later in the week, a big pork loin that transforms to a noodle or grain bowl…the list is endless. And even if all you do is take leftovers out of the fridge and let everyone make a plate, in my house we call that “Makeshift Dinner” night. Guess what? You’ll have happy kids because they get to choose what goes on their plates and no dishes!

Secret weapon No. 3: Delicious dressing.

Cooking for kids can get a little boring for adults. We want to have a little more zing in our food, maybe even some fresh herbs that you can see. My kids love all types of vegetables, but revolt with sneaky herbs. By adding a dressing to the meal, the grown-ups have a dipping sauce and can make a salad. And then the magic happens—leftover dressing becomes the marinade for another dinner later that week.

My Panko chicken tenders recipe is a dinner home run every time. It also makes a lot of chicken, so you should have plenty for leftovers. Looking for some sides to go along with it? Check out my roasted redskin potatoes and oregano dressing recipes. They’re sure to become family favorites!


Panko Chicken Tenders

Serves: 6-8

3 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, trimmed and sliced into 2-inch strips (see note)

1½ cup Panko breadcrumbs, divided (see note)

½ cup butter (1 stick) melted

½ cup shredded Parmesan or cheddar cheese, divided

2 teaspoons garlic powder, divided

1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spray baking sheet with cooking spray (I use canola spray). Trim chicken breasts into 2-inch strips.

Melt butter in a shallow dish in the microwave for about 1 minute. Mix half of the Panko, cheese, garlic powder and kosher salt in large Ziploc bag. Then repeat with the second half of all four ingredients. This is helpful so your dry ingredients don’t get clumpy when you start adding the chicken dipped in butter.

Coat chicken breasts with butter. Drop each chicken breast one by one in the Panko mixture, shake gently to cover and place on the baking sheet.

Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, until chicken registers 160 degrees. It will progress to 165 degrees while resting on the baking sheet.

(Note: Never buy pre-cut chicken tenders; they have those nasty ligaments in them. Save yourself money and time and buy skinless, boneless chicken breasts, and trim them and slice them yourself. As for the Panko breadcrumbs, they have a light and airy texture that makes it much easier to get a crispy crust—especially helpful when you are oven roasting.)

Kate Walker Wagner is a food writer, cooking instructor and personal chef. She’s a mom to two boys, ages 14 and 11, and an 8-year-old daughter. With her fiancé, she shares a blended family of eight children, ages 8 to 22, so she knows firsthand how busy dinnertime can be. Visit her website for healthy and delicious recipes and follow her on Facebook: for daily dinner inspiration.

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