Feeding the Family: Weeknight Chili with Lots of Leftovers

Food writer and Simple, Good, and Tasty favorite Mark Bittman recently wrote his last Minimalist column for The New York Times, followed by what sounds to be the first of many pieces for the Opinionator section instead, "A Food Manifesto for the Future." In it, he offers nine ideas to improve modern growth, sale, preparation, and consumption of food, including this one, related to the home:

Encourage and subsidize home cooking...When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.

I know cooking for my family is the best thing for us, both nutritionally and socially. Yet by the time 5 o'clock rolls around, I rarely feel energized to make supper, or I'm under pressure to make something quickly before the evening activities start. End-of-day fatigue and time constraints are two big obstacles. For other people, especially those in their early 20s, a lack of confidence in the kitchen also results in fewer cooked meals. The negative result isn't just not cooking dinner, though. If I don't cook something at night, that often means my family won't have whole foods for lunch that week, either. Not cooking dinner leads to bad eating habits throughout the week.

It's easiest to cook when I don't have to haul out a cookbook or fussily measure ingredients. A dish based on pantry ingredients, like chili, is the perfect opportunity for this kind of improvisation. Traditionalists might say the chili needs to cook slow and low for hours. But a chili can be put together quickly, its leftovers used in various ways for lunch, dinner -- even breakfast -- over the next several days.

Mark Bittman and his cassouletMark Bittman and his cassouletWhat follows is more of a guide than a recipe. The amounts and ingredients below are suggestions, and can vary depending on what you're in the mood for, what you have on hand, and dietary restrictions. Chili is a marvelously adaptable base, taking on new flavors and personalities depending on what you serve over, under, or beside it. You can also set aside one-cup portions of it to freeze for later.

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Easy Weeknight Chili

(serves 6 to 8)


2 Tablespoons oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

1/2 pound beef, turkey, chicken, other meat, crumbled tofu, seitan or tempeh

1 to 2 Tablespoons chili powder and/or cumin

1/2 to 1 teaspoon basil and/or oregano

1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

3 to 4 cups chopped vegetables: mushrooms, carrots, celery, zucchini, cubed uncooked or pureed cooked squash, bell peppers, hot peppers, potato, sweet potato, eggplant, fresh or frozen corn kernels, etc.

1 28-ounce can diced, whole or crushed tomatoes, or 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes

15 to 28 ounces canned beans, rinsed and drained, such as kidney, black, and pinto

32 ounces water or broth

Optional: 1/2 cup beer or wine  


  1. Heat oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Saute onion until soft, about five minutes. Add garlic and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  2. If using meat, brown until done. If using meat alternative, add and stir thoroughly to coat. Add seasonings. Stir to combine.
  3. Add vegetables: let firm ones cook for a few minutes (like carrots, celery), then add medium for a few minutes more (mushrooms and zucchini), and finally soft (chopped spinach or frozen vegetables).
  4. Add tomatoes, beans, and liquid. Bring to a boil. Lower to simmer. Cook at least until vegetables are soft and all items are heated through, about ten minutes.
  5. Top with grated cheese (cheddar or jack, usually), sour cream or plain yogurt, crumbled tortilla chips, grated carrot, chopped avocado, red onion or scallions, radishes, kalamata or black olives, mango, fresh tomato, hot or bell peppers, or anything else you like.
  6. Alongside, offer lime wedges, corn bread, corn muffins, or tortilla chips.
  7. Serve over rice, pasta, scrambled eggs, a baked potato, tortilla chips (for chili nachos), French fries, grass-fed hot dogs, or roll it up in a tortilla.


Kristin Boldon is a frequent contributor for Simple, Good and Tasty, who also writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter on health and wellness, and for her own blog Girl Detective. Her last post for us was "Amici Pizza and Bistro: Good Food in the NE Neighborhood."