Preparing a healthy dinner for four people in half an hour — on just a $10 budget — sounds like a challenge straight out of “Top Chef.” This set of constraints is a daily reality for many families on food stamps.
“But it’s not as hard as you’d think,” says chef Ming Tsai of Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Mass. He’ll prove it tonight at the Omni-Shoreham, where he’ll be joined by three other James Beard Award-winners, including “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio, for the Great American Family Dinner Challenge.
Although Tsai can’t spill the beans on what exactly he’ll be serving, there’s a high probability of chicken thighs. “I eat them all of the time. It’s a delicious piece of meat,” he says. So it’s a bonus that if you buy them in bulk, bone-in, you can get them for next to nothing. Other ingredients he recommends for getting a ton of nutrition and taste for your buck: Greek yogurt and quinoa, both of which he always has in his home kitchen.
Nothing will be prepped ahead of time for the challenge, so 30 minutes is all the chefs are going to get. That’s critical for Tsai, who wants the families judging the food to realize they can make these same meals at home. “You don’t have to be an incredible chef, and you don’t need two hours. I don’t have two hours,” he says.
Tsai suggests using lazy Sundays to lay the groundwork for a week of dinners. “Get a bag of onions, dice them up and caramelize them. Add some garlic, cool and store,” he says. Then when you’re making tomato sauce on Tuesday, you don’t need to get out a cutting board. He’s also a fan of making too much. For Thanksgiving, for instance, he buys a turkey twice as big as necessary so he can use leftovers for sandwiches, soups and other meals.
In recent years, he’s found simple ways to make his own family celebrations healthier. “I used to be more excessive with fats, and did three to four proteins for a big meal. You don’t need to do that. It’s all about the sides anyway,” says Tsai, who’s also managed to tweak some of the standard dishes. His stuffing’s made with whole-grain bread, and the rice is now a 50/50 brown and white combo. “No one notices. You just have to soak the brown rice for an hour after you wash it,” he adds.
He’s also backed off the butter and salt, opting for lemon juice, olive oil and vinegar. Tsai’s secret weapon: soy sauce. You’ll end up adding less sodium than if you’d used salt because soy sauce has more flavor, he promises.
Deliciousness is essential to Tsai, who says chefs must teach others that healthy food can taste good — even to children. “The easiest way to get kids to eat broccoli, cauliflower or spinach is to start a pan with olive oil and sliced garlic. That smell in a pan has kids running. They don’t care what’s in it,” he says.
If parents take that lesson to heart, it’s clear to Tsai who will come out on top tonight. “When families learn they can do this, too, that’s the real win-win,” he says.
The Great American Family Dinner Challenge is part of the Partnership for a Healthier America’s inaugural (and already sold-out) “Building a Healthier Future” Summit, which will feature keynote speaker Michelle Obama. The chefs in charge of tonight’s banquet face another challenge: The meal will cost just $4.50 per person, the amount the average family spends on dinner.