It’s easy to get in a rut with menu planning, but with just a simple swap of seasonings, these easy chicken dinners will be your new go-to meals that can fill every weeknight for an entire month without getting old!
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Simple and healthy doesn’t have to be boring
I remember when I worked as a chef there was a server who competed in fitness pageants and took healthy eating to an extreme. Her idea of a splurge was to eat a strawberry. It honestly made me sad to see her eat her lunch of plain grilled chicken and steamed broccoli — Every. Single. Day.
When Brian and I decided to start eating healthier, at first I was worried that we would be sentenced to that same unflavored meal day in and day out. I wanted to stick with a lot of easy chicken dinners because they are inexpensive and quick, but I didn’t want it to get monotonous. I knew I had to do something about it, so I started playing around with different flavor combinations. About three times a week, we do eat grilled chicken with some kind of vegetable for dinner, but it never feels sad or boring with all of these flavors to choose from! Download your flavor guide now!
How to cook grilled chicken
Sometimes the simplest things are also the easiest to mess up. But that doesn’t have to be the case when you know what pitfalls to avoid. Here are a few tricks to make sure your chicken is delicious and juicy, not dry and flavorless:
- Thinner pieces of chicken cook faster and more evenly. Pound your meat or carefully butterfly it before cooking.
- Cook at the right temperature. Don’t ever put your chicken in a cold pan, or your end product might as well be blanched instead of grilled. You don’t want to burn your dinner, of course, but especially with nice thin pieces of chicken, you don’t have to worry too much about the outside getting overcooked before the middle is done. A medium-high is just right.
- Wait to flip. There is a long-standing debate about whether steaks, burgers, and other meats should be flipped only once or many times throughout the process. The fact is, if you cook it the right amount of time in total, it really doesn’t matter. However, when you flip frequently, it becomes a lot harder to tell how cooked your meat is in the middle. You are left to either guess (and end up with it undercooked), be “better safe than sorry” (and have dry overcooked food), or use a thermometer to get it right (I’m all for using thermometers, but that’s more effort than should be needed for a quick weeknight meal). Instead, it is best to cook it on the first side until it is almost done, then cook it on the second side just long enough to brown it. You will know it’s time to flip your chicken when it turns white around the edges and that whiteness starts to spread inwards.
- Season properly. The best time to season your chicken is after you put it in the pan but before you flip it. Always use a little salt and pepper, plus whatever other seasonings suit your fancy.
How to saute vegetables
I usually just cook my vegetables in the same pan as my chicken, so they get some of the same yummy flavorings. However, you do need to pay attention to cooking times and your own veggie preferences.
- If you are just making some frozen corn or peas, or a quick-cooking vegetable like asparagus, you can just cook it alongside the chicken without much extra thought.
- Crisper fresh veggies like carrots or broccoli will depend more on just how “al dente” you like them. Personally, I like my vegetables to still have plenty of bite to them. Just the extra flavor of the sauteing and the seasoning is all they need. If you are like Brian and prefer your vegetables softer, you could separately steam or boil them.
For more flavor and less clean up, use this trick for veggies that taste slow roasted in way less time:
- Put your green beans, sweet potatoes, or other vegetables in a skillet with a little oil and about half a cup of water. Cook on high until the water is all evaporated. For even softer veggies, cook with the lid on. Once the water is gone, turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook until browned.
- You can use this method and still keep it an easy chicken dinner all in one pan. Start by cooking your vegetables, then scoot them all to one side once the water has evaporated. Grill your chicken in the same pan while the veggies brown.
But there’s no measurements! What do I do?
Trial and error! I know, I know, that’s not the answer you were looking for when you came for an all-encompassing guide. But here’s the thing: it’s a lot harder to mess up cooking than people tend to think it is, at least when it comes to flavoring your food. There is a lot more risk of underseasoning than overseasoning.
The fact is, being a “good cook” just means cooking food that tastes good to you. Carefully following a recipe only ensures that you will end up with something that tasted good to the person who created the recipe. It is an important skill to learn to adjust a recipe to your own preferences.
Don’t worry, I won’t leave you completely to your own devices, here are some ways to practice this skill:
- Use your nose. The sense of smell and the sense of taste are very closely related. If you are unfamiliar with a seasoning, just open the container and take a whiff. If you dont like the smell, there’s a decent chance you won’t like the taste. However, keep an open mind to new flavors, because you just might be pleasantly surprised.
- Taste as you go. This is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of cooking that somehow everyone has forgotten about. Now, it’s true that you can’t take a bite of the raw chicken to test it, but there are workarounds. You can try the seasonings themselves by sprinkling some on a plate or in a bowl, touching your dry finger to it, and tasting it. You don’t want too much of pure spices, because the flavors will be very strong, but this is a good way to get a feel for the proportion of different spices. Essentially, you can make your own spice mix then sprinkle that on the chicken. Another great way to practice balancing flavors is to test on rice. Rice is a blank canvas that goes with any cuisine — Mexican, Italian, Asian, you name it, they use rice. Rice will go beautifully alongside any of these meals anyway. If you make it first, you can practice your flavors before adding them to your chicken and vegetables.
- Start with a pinch, and add “to taste.” There is a reason that I am giving these suggestions on this particular “recipe.” I would never leave you high and dry on a complicated stew or sauce recipe where you could easily use too much of the wrong spice and throw off the whole meal. In these meals, whatever flavor combination you choose, you’re just going to be sprinkling a bit directly onto the chicken. Trust me, you really can’t go wrong here. A good rule of thumb is to add the other spices just as you would salt and pepper. Just like you don’t pull out a 1/8 teaspoon measuring spoon to precisely measure the salt you add to your meal, you really don’t need to be that exact with other flavors. If it doesn’t quite meet your expectations, you can add more spice after it’s cooked or the next time you make it.
The only exceptions (on the method, not on the likelihood of failure) are the teriyaki, the sweet and sour, and the blackened.
With the teriyaki and the sweet and sour you can use just a splash of each ingredient if all you want to do is flavor the chicken itself, or you can scale it up indefinitely to make more sauce. With the teriyaki, you can thicken it with cornstarch if desired.
For blackened chicken, mix a nice hearty amount of all the spices (just beware of the cayenne depending on your heat tolerance) all together in a plate or bowl and coat the chicken with it just like you would with breadcrumbs. (You can see here why it would be hard to “overdo it” on the spices — more flavor = more delicious!)
Easy chicken dinner flavor combinations:
- Teriyaki — 2 parts soy sauce, 2 parts sugar, and 1 part vinegar
- Thai satay — brown sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, cumin, and turmeric
- Mediterranean — green or kalamata olives, garlic, and lemon
- Sunnie — sun-dried tomatoes and parmesan cheese
- Lemon herb — lemon juice, garlic, and ANY herb, fresh or dried
- Honey garlic — LOTS of crushed garlic, plus 1 part vinegar, 2 parts soy sauce, and 4 parts honey (notice that’s seven parts total, so you’ll want each “part” to be pretty small, just a teaspoon or two)
- Blackened — onion powder, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne, and oregano
- Chipotle — chipotle powder, chili powder, honey, and lime juice
- Honey jalapeno — honey, lime juice, soy sauce, garlic, cilantro, and minced jalapenos
- Pesto — olive oil, garlic, fresh basil, and a little lemon juice
- Moroccan — coriander, cumin, paprika, garlic, and cinnamon
- BBQ — brown sugar, chili powder, paprika, cumin, and dry mustard
- Tomato balsamic — whole cherry tomatoes (cook along with the chicken until they start to “burst” open and split) and balsamic vinegar
- Maple dijon — maple syrup and dijon mustard
- Chinese five spice — cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and nutmeg
- Sweet & sour — equal parts ketchup, sugar, and vinegar (this also makes an amazing salad dressing when you add an equal part of oil as well!)
- Ginger soy — ginger, garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, and a little honey
- Fruity — apricot or raspberry jam
- Tandoori — chili powder, paprika, ginger, coriander, cumin, and allspice
- Jerk — sugar, allspice, garlic, cayenne, onion powder, and parsley
Feel free to keep experimenting and expand this list even further. These flavor combinations can also be used for whole roasted chicken or even a fillet of fish. The options are endless and the effort is minimal, so get cooking!