We’ve known each other a long time. Can you handle it if I just point out one teeny thing? Not a criticism. An observation. Don’t look so worried.
You know how some people make things more complicated than they need to be? Well, you’re like that with some things. Like dinner. You know how every year, Christmas sneaks up on you even though it’s always December 25th? Dinner’s like that. And you know how you ask your son why he stopped using his planner to write down all his assignments when that was clearly working for him? It’s bewildering, right? Why would someone just stop doing something when it works?! You see where I’m going with this? I’m writing to remind you of the strategies that worked for you this past year. I’m asking you to consider using them regularly. Consistently. They make your life better and easier.
1. Planning ahead really does work. In life and in family dinner. Winging it on occasion is fine, but really, you don’t have time to be running to the store the day of the meal at hand. With one little baby you were able to shop like a European. With three growing kids ages 7-15 and two busy, overextended adults you must enter the week prepared. Believe me when I tell you this: When you know what you’re having for dinner, you’re more than halfway there. Plot out your dinners Monday through Friday. Look at the calendar and see what’s going on that week. If you’re working Wednesday evening, well then, that’s a night for a one-dish dinner made ahead. If it’s an afternoon you’ll be home, then you have time to cook/assemble dinner while everyone does homework.
2. Get real food in them whenever the opportunity presents itself. Instead of them filling up on pretzels, have real food and fixings for hearty snacks. Dinner, even. Dinner at 4pm is ok. Feeding older kids is a very different beast than feeding young children. They go to bed later and require more than one meal between 3pm-10pm. Quantity is the key word. You don’t have to make everything. Stock the refrigerator with things they can put together easily. Be flexible about your definition of dinnertime. The first thing my kids say when they walk through the door, while flinging their backpacks on the floor, is “I’m starving!” Though I aim for (and succeed most nights) in getting everyone sitting at the table, eating something together, at a time generally considered dinnertime, for at least fifteen (five?) minutes, I’ve lowered my expectations significantly. Often they’re so hungry when they come home that they eat everything in sight and don’t need much by dinner. That’s okay. By dinnertime, my teenager has often eaten his “main course” because he was so hungry. He’ll sit with us and eat his salad.
Some things you’ve had on hand so there’s always “real food” for them to eat when they walk through the door:
- Hummus with carrots and pretzels/pita crisps
- Greek yogurt, berries, granola with honey
- Fruit smoothies
- Guacamole and Chips
- Avocado, halved, sprinkled with Maldon salt, eaten with a spoon
- Apples and peanut butter/almond butter
- Turkey meatballs for sandwiches
- Chicken cutlets for sandwiches
- Leftover black bean soup used as a dip with chips (kids melt cheese on top in microwave)
- Leftover frittata
- “Ingredients” for BLT’s
- “Ingredients” for Grilled Cheese and Avocado
- Frozen Amy’s low sodium Spinach Pizza
- Beef Empanadas (I used to make and freeze, but now Whole Foods does just as well)
3. When you’re cooking, keep cooking. Cluster your cooking efforts when you can. Tamar Adler’s book was about cooking ahead ALL AT ONCE. I knew a woman who cooked for the entire week on Sunday. I’m not that kind of a rock star, but there’s something to the time/effort/clean up economics of this that makes sense. Examples: When making turkey meatballs and sauce, make extra meatball mixture. While your meatballs are simmering in the sauce, chop up some onions, garlic, celery, and carrots, fry them up, add broth, simmer. Then add mini-meatballs, baby spinach, and ditalini pasta, and voila you have Italian wedding soup for another night. While you’re at it with the chopping, pull out another pot, sizzle up the extra mirepoix from the Wedding Soup (if you’re chopping, why not keep chopping?). Toss in that lone slice of bacon leftover from the weekend. Clean out your vegetable drawers. Let’s say you find two zucchini and a potato; clean, peel and cube. With some broth, a can of crushed tomatoes, some frozen corn or peas and a can of beans you’ve stretched it to a nice smoky vegetable bean soup. With a drizzle of olive oil, grated parmesan and some crusty bread you’ve got dinner or a hearty snack for tomorrow. When roasting chicken breasts Tuesday, cook a few extra for the Burrito bowls you’ll have Thursday. Bake extra potatoes tonight to use for a frittata the next day. In other words, see where you can use parts of something you’re making to bridge into another meal. And another. Also, always make extra of something and freeze when you can. If you’re making lentil soup, is it that much harder to double it? What a gift to yourself on a snowy Sunday a month from now.
Are you doing these things already? What else are you doing that I should know about?