What's For Dinner? 10 Strategies To Help Busy Parents Get Food On The Table
My husband and I once took great pleasure in preparing meals from scratch. We made pizza dough and sauce. We baked bread. We churned ice cream.
Then we became parents.
Now there are some weeks when pre-chopped vegetables and a rotisserie chicken are the only things between us and five nights of Chipotle.
Parents are busy. For some of us, figuring out how to get dinner on the table is a daily struggle. So I reached out to food experts, parents and nutritionists for help. Here is some of their (and my) best advice for making weeknight meals happen.
1. Try it cold. "I can put together a dinner in faster than half an hour," says Clement Chow, a geneticist at the University of Utah School of Medicine and father of 2 kids under age 4.
One of his strategies is to prepare his own take on this cold Vietnamese noodle salad recipe at least one night a week. He boils the noodles, chops the veggies, and mixes a simple four-ingredient sauce the night before. When he gets home from work, he dumps all the ingredients together, along with any leftover grilled chicken he has on hand. "It's a pretty easy dish," he says. "And our daughter who is 4 will eat the noodles, at least."
2. Slow cook for fast meals. "I use my slow cooker a lot," says Stephanie Walker, mother of two and managing editor of Rocket City Mom, a website for parents in Huntsville, Ala. "You think slow cooker and you think cold weather food, but in the summer I use it as well. It's an energy conserver because your oven isn't on." Plus, she adds, with the oven off, your house stays cooler.
Walker says there are many slow cooker meals that require almost zero prep. You basically throw all the ingredients in the pot without chopping or sautéing anything. But after a while, those recipes all start to taste the same.
"You can do a little more prep and that puts a little more variety in there. You have more options," she says.
And for those who want to save time on chopping, she has some advice: "If you're doing meat in the slow cooker, you can ask the butcher to cut the meat up however you want so you don't have to do that."
3. Reinvent. I recently adopted the art of cooking a meal once and then reinventing it multiple times. I might cook eight chicken breasts, for example. One night I eat the chicken with a couple of sides. I then shred the leftovers, refrigerate half, and freeze half. The refrigerated half becomes chicken salad the next night. The frozen half becomes a quick filling for this chicken enchiladas with salsa verde recipe the following week. (I also cheat and buy the salsa verde premade to save time.)
4. Prep quick under pressure. Mike Vrobel, food blogger at Dad Cooks Dinner, couldn't find the time to prep slow cooker meals for his wife and three kids in the morning before work. His solution: the pressure cooker. "Instead of cooking low and slow all day, it cooks at high pressure at the end of the day. That's a way of compressing the time when it works well for me," he says.
He uses the pressure cooker once a week to make rich taco dishes in about an hour. His recipes include fillings like braised lamb shoulder and boneless beef short rib — "the kinds of things that you would normally braise for hours," he says.
He also cooks a lot of dried beans instead of using canned ones. "The big thing for me is they taste so much better when you make them from dried," he says.
5. Take a holistic approach. "You have to have a holistic, global approach to getting dinner on the table every night," says John Donohue, the Brooklyn-based artist and writer behind the website Stay at Stove Dad and the anthology Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for Their Families.
For Donohue, part of that approach means staying relaxed. He says evenings can be stressful when you have working parents and children with schoolwork. His solution is drawing. Each night when the meal is through and the dishes are washed, Donohue sketches the dish rack. "The drawing of the dish rack every night became an exercise to calm myself down," he says. "What I love about the dish rack is that it's an automatic still life. It's almost always full of pots and pans, and it's always different."
Remaining prepared is the other major component of his holistic approach. "Cooking is not what happens when you come home from work. It's what happens all the time. You have to always be thinking about what you need so it's there for you when you need to use it," he says.
Donohue makes detailed menu plans each week and keeps a fully stocked pantry. "I always have nonperishable things on hand — capers, garlic, canned tomatoes, olives — so I can make a quick puttanesca if everything has gotten crazy," he says. (Check out his puttanesca recipe below.)
6. Cook once, eat all week. "We suggest that people commit to a couple of hours — and the weekend works best, late Sunday or early Saturday morning — to have a plan and to prep as much as you can before the week," says Kristin Chinosi, owner of the New Hampshire-based cooking school The Culinary Playground.
Chinosi teaches a class that shows parents how to prepare four weeknight meals in two hours over the weekend. "We often will do a casserole, a crockpot, maybe something for the grill, and a meatless meal in there as well," she explains. A recipe for cranberry apple stuffed tenderloin (at the bottom of this page) is an especially popular one.
Making four meals at once requires creative use of multiple cooking tools simultaneously, hyperattention to planning, and a trial and error period where parents figure out what does and doesn't freeze well.
7. Make your own takeout. For Heather Mangieri, the biggest barrier to a home-cooked weekday meal is that no one is home. Mangieri, a dietitian and nutritionist at Nutrition Checkup, works with families like her own who have kids involved in sports and other activities most nights of the week. "A lot of times, the entire evening is spent on a ball field or on the go, so loading food up and taking it with you is a practical option," she says.
Mangieri advises families to prep as many meals as possible over the weekend and then store them in to-go containers that can easily be thrown in a cooler. "Make it a part of your lifestyle," she says. "If you know you're going to be somewhere like a ball field, you need to make sure that the food doesn't need to be reheated. Sandwiches, yogurt, salad, crackers, tuna salad, chicken salad — I'm a big fan of those." For activities at schools or other indoor spaces, she often finds microwaves available.
Since dinner is on the go, Mangieri's family eats breakfast together every morning. "It's important to come together as a family to share a meal, but it doesn't have to be dinner," she says.
8. Stick to a shopping schedule. "When people come to see me, they think I am going to tell them to eat more kale, but I focus first on food planning," says Diana Sugiuchi, dietitian, nutritionist and founder of Nourish. "Not having the food in the house is the biggest hindrance."
Sugiuchi recommends that families commit to doing their grocery shopping at the same time each week. "It's like exercise," she says. "If you think you're going to do it whenever you get a spare minute, you're never going to get that spare minute."
She says parents could consider coordinating shopping with a child's activity, like always going to the store while a kid is in a dance class or sports practice.
9. Let the kids cook. "Getting kids involved is a great way to get more accomplished," says Chinosi. She and many of the other experts I spoke with said that welcoming kids into the kitchen both saves time and leads to more healthful eating habits. "The more hands-on they are, the more likely they are to want to expand their palate and taste more things," she explains.
Some parents even teach young children to chop vegetables with training knives.
Even before Donohue's two girls were old enough to work on knife skills, he let them participate by washing produce in the sink. Now, the 9- and 11-year-olds regularly help in the kitchen. "We were just on vacation, and my older girl helped make some of the meals for the big group we were with," he says.
10. Go ahead, eat out. There may be some nights that every strategy fails. Don't feel guilty, says Mangieri. Just make smart choices when you sit down at the restaurant or step up to the fast-food counter.
"There is always something you can get, as long as you don't use eating out as an excuse to eat something unhealthy," she says. "Even gas stations and convenience stores have options." For instance, many will carry string cheese or yogurt. "The main point that I share is that whatever you would choose at that restaurant is something that you would prepare at home," she says.
If, of course, you could find the time.
John Donohue's Puttanesca Sauce
Heat some olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the garlic and anchovies and chili pepper. Saute until garlic is soft, add tomatoes and reduce.
When the sauce thickens (in about 15 minutes), add capers and olives and any herbs.
Serve over the pasta of your choice.
The Culinary Playground's Cranberry Apple Stuffed Tenderloin
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Butterfly the roast by first cutting lengthwise about halfway through the roast.
Open it up like a book and place the meat between two pieces of plastic wrap.
Pound it with a flat-bottomed glass or meat pounder until 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
In a bowl, combine the mushrooms, apples, cranberries, toasted walnuts, shallots, garlic, rosemary, parsley, salt and pepper to taste, and maple syrup or honey (if using).
Spread the mixture over the opened pork loin. (Extra stuffing can be placed alongside the pork once in pan.)
Roll up tightly, starting with shorter side of pork, and secure the pork with kitchen string.
Place the stuffed pork loin in a roasting pan and cook in the oven for 45 minutes until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
Let rest for 10 minutes, then remove string and serve.
To make up to two days ahead: Prepare stuffing and refrigerate. Prepare tenderloin, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate. Stuff pork and cook on day you will eat it, letting it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.
Or you can stuff it ahead of time, tie it up and keep it wrapped in the refrigerator until ready to cook. Be sure to let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking.
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