Taco Night, Simplified (Like, Really Really Simplified)
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
Taco night has evolved considerably since posting this recipe five years ago. Back then, I was grinding the chicken meat at home, grating the cheese by hand, mixing the taco spices, pickling the onions, and making the salsa. Sometimes I even made the tortillas.
I titled the post: “Simplest Chicken Tacos.”
Are you laughing? My how things have changed.
It didn’t happen overnight, but rather very gradually, one small change leading to another until I had slipped right down that slippery slope, landing at present-day taco night, where the taco shells are hard (and stand upright!) and purchased at the store along with the bag of grated “Mexican-style” cheese, the packet of taco seasoning, and the pound of ground beef.
I often buy the salsa, too: you know the fresh salsa sold in the produce aisle? That’s the one!
My prep list on taco night now amounts to dicing an onion, browning the meat, and slicing up a head of Romaine lettuce. I warm the taco shells in the toaster oven, dump the cheese and lettuce into bowls, and when the taco filling is cooked, which takes about 20 minutes total, the assembly line is ready.
I had wanted to title this post: “Taco Night 2.0”, but that would have implied some sort of culinary advancement, which is not exactly what has happened here.
But do you know what? The reception of my mostly effortless taco night has never been better. No one seems to miss the freshly ground meat, the hand-grated cheese, and the homemade taco seasoning. The tacos, in fact, have never disappeared faster.
Friends, this is not easy to admit. If you’ve been reading for a while, you know I’m a proud DIY-er: I’ve made the case for buying chickens whole and cutting them up yourself (and then making stock with the carcass!); I extoll the virtues of cooking dried beans from scratch. I don’t think twice about making homemade ricotta, and I encourage you to do the same.
I like to cook. I LOVE to cook! Foods made from scratch so often taste better. Plus there’s less waste; you get more bang for your buck.
Knowing all this, if I confess to stocking packets of taco seasoning, bags of grated cheese, and tubs of salsa, what will come next? Endorsing a brand of bottled salad dressing?
I think this is my fear. That slippery slope I mentioned earlier. The trouble is that sometimes all of this DIY pride (madness?) prevents me from actually getting dinner on the table. Since adopting a more semi-homemade approach to taco night, it happens more regularly. And no matter the day of the week, it always feels doable.
I want to be better about this, and I’ve made strides over the years, namely accepting that canned beans work just fine, that boneless, skinless chicken thighs make souvlaki night a walk in the park, that Trader Joe’s pre-cooked lentils and bruschetta sauce unite into a most magical salad, and, most recently, that a packet of taco seasoning somehow makes taco night feel like a complete and utter breeze.
Friends, have you ever let your high standards prevent you from getting to the task at hand? Are you ashamed of anything in your fridge or pantry? Please share. This is a safe space.
While the spirit is moving me, here’s my full confession:
10 Items I Never Imagined Stocking
This confession stems from the most recent taco night, when I found myself staring at all of the outsourced components — numbers 1-5 below all make appearances on taco night.
- Pre-grated cheese
- Taco seasoning packet
- Jarred tomato sauce
- Fresh salsa
- Stand-up taco shells
- “Baby” carrots
- Pre-formed burger patties (very convenient)
- Chicken in parts (very convenient)
- Cheesesticks (at this point I’m more addicted than the children)
- Sliced bread (this one’s the hardest to admit)
How to Make Truly Simple Tacos
Step one, gather your ingredients:
Dice an onion.
Sauté the onion for about 4 minutes; then add the packet of taco seasoning and cook for 1 minute.
Add the ground beef, and stir constantly until the meat is browned, 1-2 minutes.
Add the tomato sauce and water.
Bring the mixture to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes or until…
… much of the liquid has reduced down.
Cut up a head of Romaine lettuce, and …
… dump it into a bowl. Dump the cheese into a bowl, too, and place your taco shells on a sheet pan. Toast them in the oven or toaster oven for 1 to 2 minutes.
Your assembly line is ready. Assemble away! I do this order: lettuce, meat, cheese, salsa.Print
Taco Night, Simplified
- Total Time: 35 minutes
- Yield: 4 to 6
Recipe simplified from this other mostly simple recipe for beef tacos.
- Taco Seasoning: I like the Whole Foods 365 brand, and if you have one you recommend, please share in the comments. Update: Three recommendations from commenters include The Spice House, Penzey’s, and Siete Foods. My experience with taco seasoning packets is that they tend to be saltier, so if you have a heavy hand (as I do) when seasoning meat and onions, etc., consider holding back a bit.
- Ground Beef: I look for grassfed ground beef or humanely raised (for reasons I discuss here and here) and look for 20% fat.
for the taco filling:
- 1 tablespoon grapeseed or olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped to yield about a cup
- 1 packet (1 oz | 28 g | about 3 tablespoons) taco seasoning, see notes above
- kosher salt to taste
- 1 pound ground beef, see notes above
- 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 teaspoons white balsamic, cider (or other) vinegar
- tortillas, hard shell (stand up or otherwise), soft, or whatever you like
- shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, or a blend
- shredded Romaine lettuce
- salsa, homemade or purchased, I like the La Mexican brand sold in the produce/refrigerated aisle
- sour cream, optional
- diced avocado, optional
- Make the taco meat: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat until hot and shimmering but not smoking; add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add spice packet; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add ground beef and cook, stirring often, until it is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. (Note: you may need to use a spatula to break up the block of meat into smaller pieces before you can stir frequently.) Add tomatoes or tomato sauce, water, and vinegar; bring to simmer.
- Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, until liquid has reduced and thickened (mixture should not be completely dry), about 10 minutes. Taste, adjust seasonings with salt. This can be done up to 5 days (or longer actually) in advance and reheated slowly before serving.
- For taco night: If using hard tortilla shells, you can toast them in the oven or toaster oven at 350ºF for about 2 minutes. If using flour tortillas, wrap the tortillas in foil, and place in a 350ºF oven for 15 minutes or until warm. Sometimes I just toast them in the toaster. Remove from oven, and transfer to tea towel to keep warm. Place shredded cheese, lettuce, salsa, sour cream (if using), and avocado (if using) in bowls. Start assembling as you wish.
- Prep Time: 15 minutes
- Cook Time: 20 minutes
- Category: Dinner
- Method: Stovetop
- Cuisine: Mexican, American
Keywords: simple, beef, tacos
This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.
148 Comments on “Taco Night, Simplified (Like, Really Really Simplified)”
So good and so easy. I bought a hard and soft taco kit for variety. And, you know, using the taco seasoning with the tomato sauce and vinegar was so close to what I was doing anyway; now, it’s just streamlined a bit. They were the best tacos!
Oh yay! So nice to hear this, Jen. Thanks for writing 🙂 🙂 🙂
Love this “confessional.” I actually prefer Old El Paso soft/hard shell taco kit and use the seasoning packet AND taco sauce in the ground beef mixture. I also heat the hard shells with the ground beef mix in the shells. I’m not sure why, but this is just better. Thx for keeping it real!
I need to try this! Can’t believe I’ve never thought to heat the shells with the ground beef mixture in them … easy and delicious! And thank you 🙂
Yes this is our exact taco night. I’ll add better than bouillon, pepperidge farm butter bread, Rao’s tomato sauce and all manner of shredded cheeses to your list. In addition to fish sticks, frozen tortellini and ravioli, frozen chicken pot pies and frozen meatballs…. Oh and mashed potatoes from a box to go with said frozen meatballs.
Haha, Bates! Love this so much. I grew up on fish sticks! Can’t believe I haven’t tried them on the kids yet. Soon. I thought of another one to add to the list: nonstick spray.
Yep!! I understand completely. A lovingly prepared from scratch meal is simply wonderful but there’s just not always the time or motivation to go though every required nuance, and I agree, they hardly even notice or appreciate the difference. Loved this post!
So true, Gini 🙂 🙂 🙂 Thanks so much for writing 💕💕💕💕💕
Love this! Here’s how I make fish tacos—Bake some Trader Joe’s fish nuggets, make a sauce with part, mayo, sour cream and mustard (San Diego style). Assemble the usual fixings, and heat up some tortillas. Yummy, we’re having them tonight
Love this, Lynn 🙂 🙂 🙂 Brilliant! Thanks for writing and sharing.
Haha. You are so funny ….the pandemic and lock downs have made many of us hard core cooks a little weary. Just go with it, Tuesday is Taco Tuesday. … Friday is take out pizza night ….. Sunday a big lunch and cheese and crackers for dinner. That gives you plenty more nights to cook!! PS. I put the cheese and the meat in the taco shells and bake them till the cheese melts ….YUM
I need to try this taco heating method … it sounds sooooo good! Thanks for writing 🙂 🙂 🙂
Hi, Would you please share the size of the All-Clad pan you use in this recipe (Taco Night, Simplified (Like, Really Really Simplified) I’m not seeing it on the all-clad website. Thanks for your help. Tom
Hi Tom, Unfortunately, I think the pan has been discontinued, which is a shame, because it is a great pan, and I get questions about it all the time. You might be able to find something on Ebay of Facebook Marketplace. Mine is 13 inches across and it’s 5 qt capacity. I’ll report back if I find something similar!
Thank you very much
I once read: “ The dinner party of take-out Chinese food is better than the elegant dinner that I never host.'” – Gretchen Rubin quoted in Brene Brown
Sometimes, time with family and/or community far outweighs our desires to be master chef of every meal. Keep it real, Ali. This was a refreshing read. Good on you for posting it.
Love that quote so much! Thanks so much for writing and sharing it, Nathan. I adore Gretchen Rubin and Brene Brown. Going to print this and plaster it on my wall! Thank you again.
I made this with ground chicken. So fast and delicious.
Wonderful to hear, Christine! I love how fast this one is, too. Thanks for writing 🙂
Loved this easy recipe.
Im feeling the need for more of these. We live out of town a ways. And there aren’t many options for good To go food. And some nights I just don’t feel like cooking. Can’t even start to think of being creative. What is your go to easy but nummy in these situations?
Mine is usually pasta carbonara or homemade pizza. But those don’t always sound good.
So nice to hear this, Judy 🙂 And I hear you: sometimes you just. don’t. feel. like. cooking. I often make myself a poached egg over toast in these situations. I also recently made this tuna-artichoke salad melt that was featured on Food52, and it was so fast, and my husband and I love it, and I feel like I’ll be making it often because it was so speedy and comforting.
Simplified in a factory—thanks but no thanks.
I realize there is a market for this kind of Survival cooking, but I read a food blog for actual recipes, healthier/tastier versions than factory made food, and using packets of stale pre-packaged high salt with garlic powder (yucky) containing spice mix is going a step too far. Why not make a batch of taco spice ahead—ground ancho peppers, cumin, oregano, salt, a little smoked paprika—store in a jar and no time required on taco night. Add the garlic fresh to the onion, toast the spice with the meat and done, and get the kids to grate the cheese. Making a fresh salsa takes only the tiny effort of chopping a tomato, onion, cilantro–drop in some brine from pickled jalapenios–but it tastes 1000X better than factory made. And your oldest can totally handle this.
I am not judging, just stating that your blog is no longer relevant to me.
Alexandra has been a gracious host for so many years here, sharing recipes that have never let me down nor the many others I’ve shared them with. She has taught countless people how to have more confidence in the kitchen and shown to have a deep bench of recipes that are the epitome of “from scratch” cooking.
This is one recipe out of hundreds that goes against an abundance of ones featuring seasonal, local, and ethically sourced ingredients. One! I wonder what is going on in your life that would cause you to write such an unkind comment as a result? One of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve heard is this phrase: “Good for her! Not for me.” Might I suggest you use it the next time you come across something you disagree with done by someone who from all other indications is someone you normally agree and respect?
We are nearly into a third year of this incredibly stressful, scary, and heartbreaking global pandemic. If there was a time to extend grace and understanding to others — especially those with young children and aging parents — it is now.
And in closing, while I believe deeply in the need for us to be ethical consumers, I am also someone who is recovering from an eating disorder. This rigidity about what we put in our bodies is not healthy. In fact, in looking at the broader scope of what makes up the social determinants of health, our diet and exercise combined are a mere 20–30% of the pie. The privileges of a safe place to live, clean air, and a lack of stigma overwhelmingly determine our health. Fearing a packet of taco seasoning does more harm to your health than simply having flexibility in your diet.
Alexandra, last night I made your crispy chickens thighs (normally with preserved lemon but I was out, so I settled for a mustard pan sauce). That recipe is one of dozens of yours that I make all the time. Thank you for being such a wonderful presence in my kitchen, especially when I finally got help for my disordered eating and found that I couldn’t keeping reading many of the food blogs that I used to because of their own disordered approach to food. You have, without fail, been a guiding light in finding joy and connection with food. Thank you!
Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response here. It means so much. I have learned over the years that it’s better if I don’t engage with these sorts of comments, but that doesn’t mean they don’t sting a bit. And I of course appreciate all of your thoughts and sentiments here. Thank you 🙂
I don’t know if you learned the “Good for her! Not for me.” phrase from Cup of Jo, but she called attention to it a few years ago, and it really really stuck with me. I find it helpful both to prevent me from being judgmental of others but also to be kinder to myself.
I’m so sorry to hear about your eating disorder, but of course am so happy to hear you are recovering and that you are finding joy and connection with cooking and food. I know how hard it can be.
Thank you again for all of your kind words and for taking the time to write here. Sending you lots of love 💕 💖 💘
Those tacos sound amazing! Sometimes you just need to have a heat and eat meal that you can depend on, in grad school mine was seven can taco soup!
I love taco soup 🙂 🙂 🙂 So true, Laurel 💕
Nothing is better for kids and the family than enjoying a meal with their relatively calm parents. I say relatively, because, as a mom of 3, calm is relative 🙂 Thanks for this post- I make a ton of your recipes, including your bread (which is my husband’s favorite bread in the world) and your birthday cake for my kiddos bdays, but I also enjoy taco seasoning and a super chill taco night. MUCH LOVE!
So nice to hear all of this Annie 🙂 🙂 🙂 Chill parents are the best parents 🎉 Thank you for your kind words 💕💕💕💕
Great post! I, as well, love to cook and serve others great food. And when a relative came to live with us and wanted Taco Tuesday, I dutifully researched. Tuesday prep got easier, but on a weeknight after a long day at work. Go easy and enroll the troops (feeding just one of them each night is feeding a linebacker!) to assemble the lettuce plate, the cheese plates, guacamole and sauces. While we do grind our own beef, for this recipe it’s ground chicken or turkey. I still roll my own spice mix – got to have smoked paprika! But otherwise? The easy route offers a load of economy and makes this menu very fun and satisfying
– dare I say a treat! You are not on a slippery slope. Sometimes we all need just a bit more practicality in our weeks. Great post. I identify with all you describe. Keep up your absolutely awesome work!
Thank you, Elisabeth 🙂 🙂 🙂 Means a lot to read all of this. You are amazing to grind your own meat. One day I’ll get back there 🙂