We’re thrilled to welcome Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, authors of two of our favorite family cookbooks, Keepers and their recent release, The Dinner Plan, who are sharing tips, ideas, and recipes to make life as the family cook easier. Check out their idea for a new — and better — way to serve family dinner, and these handy tips to turn salad into a dinner that even the kids will eat.

It used to be, when I floated the idea of eating a big salad for dinner to my husband and kids, they would look at me like I was a nuts. What do you think we are, a family of rabbits?

Point taken.

But I couldn’t let it go. I’ve always loved huddling up with a giant bowl of tossed greens for any meal of the day, plus salads are perfect for when you crave something healthish and don’t want to turn on the stove. Which is pretty frequently. So, I made it my mission to get my family on the lettuce train along with me.

Related: A new — and better — way to serve family dinner.

I learned quickly that to make a salad worthy of calling a  “family dinner,” it had to have more heft, flexibility, and flair (shredded kale, meet pomegranate seeds); but that it could be done with some clever planning and tasty additions. Here are some good tricks I learned along the way.

1. Wash your lettuces as soon as you bring them home. No one wants to tackle cleaning the soil and grit off of a head of dirty lettuce after a long day of work or watching kids, so do it as soon as you return from the store. Wash and dry the leaves in a spinner and then wrap them loosely in paper towels before storing in your crisper drawer. The greens should stay fresh for several days, and even better, you will have eliminated an entire step when you next have that salad hankering.

2. Having a jar of homemade dressing ready in the fridge is like discovering liquid gold. Plus, even the simplest homemade salad dressing is better than any pre-made version you can buy at the supermarket. I like to use an empty mustard jar (bonus if there’s still a little mustard left at the bottom) to concoct a “house vinaigrette” of finely chopped shallots, maple syrup, dijon mustard, 1 part vinegar (white whine, red wine, apple cider) and two parts grapeseed or vegetable oil, salt and pepper. Shake well to combine, and make sure you taste it before using in case it needs more seasoning. The fresh zing it will bring to your salad cannot be beat, and you’ll have a dressing that’s not loaded with hidden preservatives, sodium, and sugar.

3. While you’re at it, make your own croutons. Like the dressing, homemade croutons will always be better than store-bought, and making them is also a terrific way to use up those stale slices of bread or pita in the bottom of the bread drawer. Just tear the bread into small pieces, coat in olive oil, salt, and pepper (dried thyme and rosemary are nice too), and toast in a skillet over medium heat until golden brown and crispy, about 6 minutes. You can eat them right away or store them in a plastic baggie for up to 3 days.

4. Have an arsenal of toppings to add at a moment’s notice to provide crunch, texture, and eye-candy. In my pantry, I always have several mason jars filled with the following: toasted sunflower seeds, toasted sesame seeds, toasted pumpkin seeds, toasted shredded coconut, nutritional yeast (if I don’t want to add cheese), sheets of toasted nori, chow mien noodles, and olives. You can even leave these out on the counter so that everyone can add whatever they’d like, DIY style (which goes a long way to getting kids excited about salad for dinner).

Other wonderful things to add to a salad include: aforementioned pomegranate seeds, clementine wedges, shredded raw beets and Brussels sprouts, cubes of sweet soppressata, and warm grains like quinoa or farro.

5. Plan — and shop — for your salad nights strategically. Dinner salads are ideal for serving on busy weeknights when you can set all the components out on a counter top and allow everyone to help themselves; identify nights like this ahead of time and plan on salad for dinner, making sure that you have the toppings we talked about above and an easy protein that can be added in.

Dishes like the Chinese Chicken Salad in our new cookbook are perfect for this because it’s a complete meal, utilizes store-bought rotisserie chicken for ease, has a super flavorful homemade dressing that gives the salad wow-factor, and can be prepped and on the counter in minutes. We recently made this for a family with three kids who all practice sports at different times and in different locations during the week, and it was perfect as as “staggered” meal. Even better, they were eating something good for them rather than another delivery pizza.

Related: 5 surprising ingredients that will instantly upgrade your salad.

Chinese Chicken Salad recipe from The Dinner Plan Cookbook by Caroline Campion & Kathy Brennan, photo by Maura McEvoy | featured at Cool Mom Eats

Chinese Chicken Salad

From The Dinner Plan cookbook
Serves 4

This salad, which is way more American than Chinese, was inspired by a restaurant version that really knocked our socks off — so much so that we had to run home and figure out how to make it ourselves. The combination of flavors and textures is what makes it so addictive. You can use rotisserie chicken, leftover meat from our Go-To Roast Chicken on page 47, or bake/poach about 1 pound (454 g) of boneless, skinless breasts and/or thighs. It would also be good tossed with thinned Peanut Sauce (page 25) or Citrus-Soy Dressing (page 112). Look for chow mein noodles, which add a nice crunch to soups, salads, and other dishes, in the Asian ingredients aisle.

1 small head of romaine lettuce, cut into bite-size pieces
1 small head of radicchio, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise
1 small English cucumber, cut into ½-inch (12-mm) cubes
Large handful of snow peas, thinly sliced
2 scallions, sliced on the diagonal
3 cups (340 g) shredded chicken, skin discarded
Hoisin Dressing (recipe follows)
2 clementine oranges, peeled and segments separated
1/3 cup (30 g) toasted sliced almonds (optional)
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
Large handful of chow mein noodles

1. In a large bowl, toss together the romaine, radicchio, cucumbers, snow peas, scallions, chicken,* and enough of the hoisin dressing to lightly coat. Divide the salad among plates, top with the clementines, almonds (if using), sesame seeds, and chow mein noodles. Serve with the extra dressing.

Make-Ahead: Proceed to * and keep the undressed salad and dressing, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Store the other ingredients separately at room temperature.

Staggered: The salad can sit, undressed and covered, for up to 2 hours at room temperature. Toss with the dressing and add the toppings as needed.

Hoisin Dressing

Makes about 2/3 cup (165 ml)

This sweet and tangy dressing is versatile enough to use in a variety of ways, including on salads
and grilled chicken, meat, or fish, or as a dipping sauce for Okonomiyaki with Shrimp and Crunchy Pork Cutlets.

3 tablespoons grapeseed or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
¼ cup (60 ml) unseasoned rice vinegar or distilled white vinegar
3 tablespoons hoisin sauce
Salt and pepper

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the vegetable oil, sesame oil, vinegar, and hoisin sauce, then season with salt and pepper. (Or, in a 12-ounce/360-ml or larger jar with a lid, combine the ingredients, cover, then shake vigorously.) Check the seasonings. Quickly dip a piece of lettuce in the dressing, shake off any excess, and check the seasonings again.
Make-Ahead/Staggered : Keep, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Read more from Kathy and Caroline at their site, KeepersCooks.com and be sure to pick up their fantastic cookbooks, Keepers and The Dinner Plan at your local indie bookstore or our Amazon affiliate to get the rest of the recipes mentioned here. You can also find Kathy and Caroline on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Top photo by Travis Yewell on Unsplash. Chinese Chicken Salad photo by Maura McEvoy from The Dinner Plan by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion, published by ABRAMS c 2017