For a simple family meal during this busy time, punch up the allure of familiar comfort foods. Give grilled cheese sandwiches a makeover by tucking in smoked meats, crisp apple slices and favorite condiments before cooking. Top your favorite canned tomato soup with fresh herbs, peppers and a creamy garnish. Take a break from the familiar to encourage conversation and shared memories.
Hot paninis make ideal spur of the moment meals, requiring easy assembly and only 2 minutes to cook in a panini press or indoor electric grill. Set out ingredients for family members to create their own masterpieces. For sandwiches with a crisp exterior and soft, chewy center, choose a crusty Italian loaf and slice it about a half-inch thick. Brush melted butter on the sides that face out. For the filling, offer sliced cheeses—a smoky Gouda or a sharp cheddar appeals to grown-up tastes. Round out the offerings with crisp bacon strips, deli turkey or prosciutto, sliced apples or pears, and fresh spinach or basil leaves. Spicy spreads—pesto, chipotle mayonnaise and gourmet mustards—impart bold flavors.
While sandwiches are coming together, have a pot of tomato soup simmering on the stove, ready to dish up. Top each bowl with a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt. Dress it up by sprinkling on bacon crumbles, finely chopped nuts, fresh basil or a pinch of crushed red pepper.
Granola Pumpkin Parfaits, above, are a nourishing alternative to pudding-based desserts. Layers of spice-laced pumpkin puree combined with cream cheese, vanilla Greek yogurt, low-fat whipped topping and nut-studded granola provide ribbons of contrasting color and texture. These parfaits can be put together at mealtime or made ahead and chilled for a few hours.