Pick-and-choose dinners

FamilyFun magazineMay 27, 2014 

Catering to a multitude of food preferences in your household or at your next gathering?

Let each diner have it his or her way by setting out the fixings for one of these four customizable feasts.

You provide the easy main dish, then let the do-it-yourself spirit take over as family members from the finicky to the food-forward assemble their meals exactly as they please.


A spread of Mediterranean mezes (the Greek word for snacks or tastes) is ideal for family-style DIY dining. Tender, herb-flecked meatballs can be tucked into pita pockets and topped as desired with tzatziki (yogurt dip), feta, and other flavorful options.

Greek Meatballs

20 meatballs

1 pound ground lamb or turkey

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon cumin

Zest of 1 lemon (reserve the lemon for the tzatziki, recipe below)

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.

In a medium bowl, combine all the ingredients and stir well. Working with 1 tablespoon at a time, form the mixture into 1 1/2-inch balls, arranging them on the prepared baking sheet.

Bake the meatballs until they reach 160 degrees at the center, about 15 minutes. Brown them under the broiler for about 5 minutes. Serve them warm.


1. FETA Buy it whole, then crumble or cube it for the freshest flavor. Try drizzling it with honey, then adding a dash of fresh oregano.

2. PITA BREAD Soften it by warming it in the microwave.

3. STUFFED GRAPE LEAVES Look in the deli or hummus section of the market for these tasty rice-filled bites.

4. TOMATOES Dress wedges with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. You can also offer cherry or grape tomatoes, if your kids prefer them.

5. KALAMATA OLIVES This zesty variety is as classically Greek as the Parthenon.

6. TZATZIKI Mix a cup of plain Greek yogurt with a diced 3-inch length of English cucumber, 3 minced cloves garlic, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or mint. Season with salt and pepper.

7. GRILLED SUMMER SQUASH Brush slices with olive oil and cook them in a grill pan.


Here’s how to do stir-fry minus the work (and wok)! Cook up a large batch of rice, then set it on the table along with delicious mix-ins in a medley of salty, sweet, and savory flavors.

Tangy Stir-Fried Beef

6 servings

1 to 2 tablespoons Asian garlic-chili sauce

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 pounds flank steak, sliced very thinly across the grain

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1/2 tablespoon cornstarch

Sliced scallions

Whisk together the first five ingredients, then add the sliced meat and let it marinate for 10 minutes.

Warm the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the steak (reserving the marinade) and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.

Stir the cornstarch into the marinade, add the mixture to the skillet, and cook for another minute, continuing to stir. Sprinkle on the scallions and serve.


1. ASIAN HOT SAUCE A squirt of Sriracha will liven up the bowl for spicy-food fans.

2. SCALLIONS Slice them on the diagonal for chef-style flair.

3. BEAN SPROUTS Served raw, this delicate legume is crunchy and slightly sweet.

4. PINEAPPLE CHUNKS Go for fresh – it has more toothsomeness and flavor than canned.

5. EDAMAME Buy them whole in their pods, then steam and toss them with coarse salt.

6. SWEET-AND-SOUR CARROTS Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil on medium-high. Add 2 cups sliced carrots and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Whisk together 2 tablespoons each soy sauce and rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon ketchup, 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce (such as Tabasco), and 3 tablespoons apricot jam. Add the sauce to the carrots. Stir them until the sauce thickens, then sprinkle with sesame seeds and serve.

7. CRUSHED PEANUTS Seal shelled nuts in a zip-top bag and whack them with a rolling pin – a fun job for kids.

8. BROWN RICE To cook it with a minimum of measuring and monitoring, add a cup of long grain brown rice to a large pot of boiling salted water. Simmer for 25 minutes, then strain and serve.


Jazzed up with a luscious broccoli topping and other yummy picks, split baked potatoes make a hearty veggiecentric meal. Have your crew just mix and mash the fixings into the tater’s flesh and enjoy.

Creamy-Smoky Broccoli

4 servings

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

3 cups broccoli florets

1 medium yellow onion, diced

1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Add the broccoli and onion, then cook, stirring often, until the vegetables start to brown, about 4 minutes. Cover and cook for another 4 minutes.

Remove the skillet from the heat and add the paprika, cumin, and cream. Return it to low heat and cook until the sauce is warm and the broccoli is coated, about 4 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.


1. BAKED POTATOES For perfect spuds (crispy outside, fluffy inside), never wrap them in foil. Instead, pierce them several times with a fork, rub them with olive oil, sprinkle with coarse salt, and set them on the oven rack for 50 minutes at 400 degrees.

2. SHREDDED CHEESE Pick your family’s fave – we mixed white and yellow cheddar.

3. SOUR CREAM Sub in plain Greek yogurt for more protein.

4. SWEET PEPPERS The jarred Peppadew or banana varieties are perfect toppers.

5. DRESSED CORN Heat frozen or canned kernels in the microwave, then toss them with sour cream and a dash of Italian seasoning.

6. CHIVES Finely chopped, they’re a potato’s best pal.

7. BACON Zap it in the microwave, then crumble.

8. FRUIT SALSA A bit of peach or pineapple flavor adds brightness and spice.

9. RED ONION Dice it for diners who like a pungent kick.


Fish sticks are fine fare for everyone, no matter your age, when served Mexican style, with a drizzle of zesty lime crema sauce. Here, they’re wrapped in soft corn tortillas, but flour ones or hard taco shells work as well.

Kids’ Fave Fish Fingers

6 servings

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/3 cup Dijon or yellow mustard

1/3 cup ketchup

1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs

1 1/4 pounds cod, haddock, or other firm white fish

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with foil, then coat it with cooking spray.

In a wide, shallow bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. Place the bread crumbs in a second bowl.

Cut the fish crosswise into pieces roughly 1 inch thick. Thin sections can be folded to create similar-size fingers. One at a time, dredge the fish pieces in the mayonnaise mixture. Shake off any excess (the coating will be thick). Roll them in the bread crumbs to coat evenly.

Arrange the fish on the prepared baking sheet, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the coating is lightly browned and the fish flakes easily.


1. LIME CREMA SAUCE Mix 1/4 cup chopped cilantro, 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, and 3 tablespoons sour cream. Add a teaspoon lime zest, then squeeze the lime’s juice into the mixture. If needed, thin the sauce with milk to drizzling consistency. Season with salt and pepper.

2. SHREDDED CHEESE Choose cheddar or Monterey Jack.

3. JALAPENOS The jarred ones are vinegary and very spicy.

4. GREEN CABBAGE Sliced in ribbons, this customary fish taco topping lends essential crunch.

5. CILANTRO Let kids pluck the leaves off fresh sprigs.

6. OLIVES Chop them coarsely or serve them whole.

7. AVOCADO A spritz of lime will prevent browning.

8. RED ONION For milder flavor, soak diced onion in cold water for a half hour, then drain.

9. QUESO FRESCO Serve this soft Mexican cheese in crumbles.

10. CORN TORTILLAS Wrap them in a damp kitchen towel and warm them in the microwave.

11. BLACK BEANS Heat canned ones with a pinch of cumin.

12. SALSA Get the fresh-chopped variety from the market’s refrigerated section.

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