Some food, some drink.
Bring your family back to the table for dinner: Tips for a Terrific Taco Night.
Nothing brings our family together for dinner like a meal we can all agree on. In our house, that meal is Taco Night. Along with a recipe for a top-notch home-blended taco seasoning, I've included some pointers for the kitchen and the table that'll be certain to help make your own Family Taco Night a raving success. Eating with your family should be a celebration; and it wouldn't be much of a party without great food.
You can also click here to check out the video companion episode to this recipe for additional tips from yours truly!
Now that one of my kids is out of the house and in school, I'm really starting to see the importance of family time at the dinner table. We might not always agree on what to have for dinner, but we're all still good for an evening sit-down without distraction most days of the week. It's important to me that we have proper family dinners, and there are (by my reckoning) two elements that are needed to ensure that dinner is an event that the family looks forward to: The first part is to make something that everyone likes (duh). The second part is to get the family involved in what's being prepared. No single meal in our house hits these chords of family harmony quite as well as Taco Night.
To get you started on your own family Taco Night, here's a recipe for an easy taco seasoning blend that's not all that spicy (my kindergartener eats it), and that's all flavor and no fillers; which few Americanized taco take-out places can say with confidence. This is probably the hardest part of a crazy-simple meal that's off-the scale re: bang for the buck.
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Combine it all and store in an air-tight contianer until ready to use (as easy as tearing the top off a packet, huh?).
If you're using your seasoning for ground beef - Add 1 lb ground beef to a hot skillet (cast-iron is best) over medium-high heat. Spread the beef out in the skillet so as to maximize surface area. Sprinkle the seasoning over the beef, and let all cook untouched for 3 - 4 minutes. Beat the crud out of the beef with the blade-end of a metal turner to crumble, and then add 1/2 cup of your favorite beer (or water if you must teetotale) to deglaze the pan. Turn your heat to medium low and let simmer for 5 - 7 minutes or until most of the liquid has cooked off. While the mixture's simmering, continue to crumble the beef with your turner to a desired texture. Drain off any unwanted grease and keep warm until ready to serve.
It takes more than just a kickass seasoning blend to make Taco Night a success. Here's what works for us.
- Blending seasonings when you're expeditiously trying to throw chow on the table can be tedious, so scale-up this recipe and make a bunch ahead of time. Store your seasoning blend in an air-tight container and be sure to give it a good shake before scooping out 2 Tbsps per pound of ground beast that you wish to season. Because of the bulk nature of a pre-mix, you may have to adjust the salt a bit to taste before serving.
- Throwing together a seasoning blend shouldn't be expensive either. For some reason, the spices and seasonings in the Latino foods section of the supermarket are cheaper, and they're usually just as good. Likewise, it's a helluva lot cheaper to buy whole ancho chiles, remove the seeds, and grind your own powder.
- Ok, one more thing re: the seasoning; It ain't just for ground beef. I've used this seasoning blend on fish, chicken, and shrimp and it's all good. Try tossing chicken breasts in olive oil and coating liberally with seasoning before throwing 'em on the grill.
- On the subject of the ground beef, I'm not gonna get preachy here, but if you've got access to single-source ground beef (i.e. beef from one critter), you're gonna notice a difference in quality. It actually took me a while to understand why y'all city-slickers went to the trouble of grinding beef from whole cuts at home until I connected the dots.
- If you've got a little time a day or so before, you can really make things special and roll your own salsa. It's easy, and it's better than most anything you'll get from a jar.
- It wouldn't be a proper taco night if there wasn't plenty of that "orange rice" to go with it. I'd wager that there are some nights that the rice wins out over the meat at our house, so if you're budget-minded, you'll definitely wanna include this dollar-stretcher.
- I know that Iceberg lettuce is pretty standard where tacos are concerned, but we actually prefer Romaine. Roll up a leaf lengthwise and cut it up chiffonade-style for a perfect balance of crispy, crunchy, delicate and green.
- Crunchy corn shells can be a polarizing subject for taco purists (I'd personally take a soft corn shell over a crunchy one any day). To avoid malcontent, put out a variety of things to load with fixings. It opens the door for creativity and involvement. Put out tortilla chips and folks think nachos. Flour tortillas on the table bring burritos, sanchos and quesadillas to mind. It all translates into your kids eating better.
- A toaster oven is as necessary to taco night at our house as a griddle is to pancake night. It's swell for making quesadillas and melting cheese over nachos, but its highest and best use is probably keeping shells and chips warm 'till you're ready to pile 'em high.
To those of you that would argue that the whole idea of keeping all of these spices and seasonings is a bit too fussy for how you roll, I would ask you why they're not in your pantry already if you're serious about putting good meals on the table for your family. Most everything I've listed is pretty standard for a spice cabinet, and if you find yourself using them once or twice, then you'll begin to understand how these seasonings play together, and you'll use them more. Translated: your [already spectacular] cooking's going to get better. I've professed my distaste before for the pre-packaged seasoning blends I was raised on, and I can't argue that purchasing a seasoning packet is usually cheaper than buying all those spices and seasonings separately. However, I'd also like to point out that salt sugar and starch are cheap. I'd almost bet that there's more money used for the packaging than for what's inside; which if you ask me is a Taco Night travesty.
Taco Night is an important institution in this household. I think it's one of the few things that everyone can come to quorum on for dinner, and I think most of that stems from the fact that the presentation makes the whole thing feel like a party (and who doesn't like a party?). Even the picky eaters are free to choose what they want, and if there are any leftovers, you've got the same flexibility to prepare a bevy of second-string meals.
If I can get on my soapbox for a moment, the American Dietetic Association recommends eating as a family at least a few times a week, as supporting research shows that family meals instill healthy eating habits in your kids that stick with them after you toss them out into the world to fend for themselves. They also include some great ideas for a proper family dinner to make that time with your kids really count -
- Set a regular family mealtime. Pick a time together.
- Enjoy more table time, less cooking time. Make quick, simple meals (even a sandwich, fruit and milk) to give more table time together. - I'll add a corollary to this and say that cooking time should be an opportunity to involve your kids; so if it takes a little more time to make that simple meal, that's ok if everyone's helping. At the very least, someone's gonna have to set the table.
- Turn off the TV. (That's my emphasis.) Turn on the phone answering machine. This is the 21st century. Put away anything that begins with an "i" , has a "droid" in the middle, and/or ends with a "berry". Focus mealtime on family talk.
- Keep table talk positive. Everyone gets to talk and to listen. Sitting around a table, not side-by-side at a the counter, helps. We have a bar, but we never eat dinner there; you ever see a round-table discussion held at a counter?
- Keep table time realistic – not so long that the pleasure goes away. This is pretty nebulous, so I'll add that for young kids that seem to take forever to eat, we like to make sure they've at least tried a couple bites of everything on their plate before being excused. On the other end of the spectrum, for those of you with adolescents that are trying to turbo thru dinner to get back to "more important things" ...yeah, I got nothing for ya (but, I'll be asking for your advice in a few years).