Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What's For Dinner?

Going back from maternity leave, I knew that one of the hardest things to juggle with working would be getting dinner on the table each night.  It was tricky pulling it off with one kid, but of course two makes it harder.  Not only do we have two attention-seeking niblicks interfering with the dinner prep and becoming increasingly whiny as their blood sugar plummets with each passing minute, but we also no longer have the luxury with June (as we once upon a time did with Georgia, when she was still a baby) of waiting to prepare food until after the baby goes to bed, because, um, we've got to feed the toddler.  And the baby.  So we might as well feed ourselves in the process, right?  This also makes the most sense for us because Joe and I are kind of sticklers about striving to have us all eat the same thing (save for June, who's still mastering solids).  I just can't handle cooking multiple meals.  Plus, with the bedtime routine, post bedtime kitchen cleanup, and not infrequent need to "log back on" to work from home in the evening (Joe more so than me these days), if we don't eat before the kids go to bed, we'll be up forever.

Now, to facilitate getting dinner on the table while maintaining peace, I think many families dole out their children's limited TV time while a parent cooks, but that's not really a viable option for us.  I totally get why people do it and think it's quite smart.  But in our case, there are a few reasons why we don't do this.  The most important one is that when you've been away from your young children for 9-10 hours, are getting home at 6:00 p.m., and only have approximately 1.5-2.0 hours of time to spend with them before bed, I'm going to go ahead and be judgmental here and say that it would be kind of crappy of you to on any kind of regular basis allow television to act as a babysitter during that brief window.  Not to mention that June's too young to watch TV, plus our TVs are not right next to the kitchen where one could cook and keep an eye on a child at the same time.

So anyway, this is our deal.  We walk in the door at 6:00 p.m. aiming to prepare a meal and get it on the table by 6:30, while simultaneously playing with the girls.  The result is rarely a culinary masterpiece, but I must say that I'm actually quite proud of us for pulling it off most nights.  I think the short answer to, "How do you do it?" is that we just make it happen somehow because we refuse to accept the alternatives of regularly ordering take-out or eating tons of processed meals from the freezer aisle.  On our schedule, eating together as a family may be at the expense of other things, but it's important to us so we're making it work for now. 

So, here's our Top Eleven List of tips, whether you've got kids or not:

1) Teach yourself to cook without a recipe.  And the only way to do that is to just wing it and practice.  This way you can just start throwing food together immediately and not get bogged down in the extra minutes it takes to read a recipe and get out all of the ingredients.  Or, cook something that technically has a recipe to it, but you've made it so many times that you know it by heart and don't really have to measure.

2) Employ the crock pot so that you can make the meal ahead of time and come home to it already cooked.  Of course, this is only shifting the dinner prep to a different time in your busy day, so you've got to pick ridiculously easy crock pot recipes.  [I should use this technique more than I do.  Please email me or leave a link in the comments if you know of an awesome crock pot recipe.]

3) Cook something on the weekend that you can eat during the week, either as leftovers one night, or as a make-ahead meal that you then cook and eat during the week.  The weekends are also our chance to try new or more adventurous recipes, and things that take more time.

4) Liberally allow snitches of food so that your toddler doesn't melt down.  Only you know your child's appetite and how much is too much and will ruin his or her appetite.  For Georgia, a couple of snitches are pretty much a necessity.  Some people have luck getting their kids to try new foods this way, too -- things that they'll accept as a snitch but would never eat off their plate at mealtime.

5) Make at least 1 weeknight "leftover night".  That's an easy one, right?

6) Bend your own rules from time to time.  We do occasionally get take out, and every once in a while we still feed the girls first and then cook for ourselves or order take out after they've gone to bed (e.g., sushi after our little fish-allergic angel is safely snoozing).

7) The proverbial "let your children help with the cooking."  Yes, we let Georgia help spin the salad greens, and hold her up to toss things in the pot or whatever, but generally speaking we save the more extensive mess making for the weekends and just power through our weekday dinners without much toddler sous cheffing. 

8) (Not recommended, but I'm sharing all of our techniques here:)  Use the every other week method.  By that I mean that we sometimes get in a rut where on Week 1, we do an awesome meal plan, go to the grocery store and buy everything we need for that meal plan, and then eat a week's worth of well thought out meals, some of which even involve new recipes that I find on  Then, on Week 2, crap out.  Go to the store at the last minute when your fridge is almost empty but you have no time or energy for working up a meal plan, so you just haphazardly buy things, mostly staples.  Week 2 is all about clearing the fridge and using Tip #1 (above) to, in the words of Tim Gunn, "Make it work!"  This every other week method is probably a bad idea, but in a weird way it ends up working out for us.

9) Have a set of "go-to" meals in your back pocket that you eat pretty often but don't have to think about much.  For us, these are probably spaghetti, quesadillas, and homemade pizza (although that one requires a little advance planning for making the dough). 

10) This one's not a tip so much as a reality for us:  learn more vegetarian options.  Part of the reason Americans eat tons of meat is that it's super convenient to prepare in our busy lifestyles.  It's easy to throw a burger or chicken breast on the grill, and it will be ready in 6 minutes.  Our family doesn't eat meat every night, though.  Maybe 50-60% of the time?  Also, we buy high quality fancy-pants meat, and a lot of it lives in our freezer, which means our entire meal plan gets sabotaged when we forget to take the meat out to thaw.  So, we're constantly working on getting more vegetarian main dishes into our repertoire.  It's a work in progress.

11)  DO NOT BE SO HARD ON YOURSELF!  THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP!!  Part of the reason that I think we're successful at cooking a meal most nights is that our standards for what can be defined as "cooking a meal" are not super high.  I mean, the food's made from decent ingredients and all, and it's not super processed or anything, but what I'm saying is that the meals do not always make sense.  I always want there to be a vegetable of some sort, but that may mean throwing a bag of frozen peas in the microwave and calling it a day.  And we may be eating those peas along side of a black bean and cheese quesadilla.  I don't care that that's not what you'd order were you in an actual Mexican restaurant!  I see lots of people (mostly moms) online saying that they don't have time to cook or don't know how, and I really think it's because they're holding themselves up to Food Network standards.  I mean, even Rachel Ray's "30 Minute Meals" take a long time when you think about gathering all the stuff and following a recipe you've never made before.  When I was a kid, my mom was an excellent cook and we had meals each night that always made sense.  A main dish, with a side salad, plus a coordinating side dish, and probably a basket of fresh bread to pass.  That was awesome, but I'm just saying that I'm not there yet, and if you're not either, that is more than okay by me!

So, there you have it.  Last night's meal was a prime example of many of the above tips, maybe #11 especially.  It didn't make sense, but it cleared the fridge of a lot of things and filled us up without much effort. 

Behold, Georgia's plate:
{Roughly clockwise:  Leftover Sunbutter sandwich, leftover bowl of veggie spaghetti w/onions and red peppers, slice of watermelon, bowl of pumpkin, glass of milk, leftover broccoli, sauteed purple cabbage, leftover grilled chicken breast.  Not pictured:  the leftover oven fries she ate as her snitch.}

Joe's plate:
{Like my literal interpretation of "honey mustard"?  Dribble of honey, dribble of mustard.}

(June didn't want to be left out):
{Remnants of pumpkin (on her thumb) and pureed peas.}

And, Georgia's plate after:
{Yeah, we're lucky.  That girl's a good eater.  I think it's some kind of karmic evening of the score for the whole food allergy thing.  In addition to what was pictured above and the snitched oven fries, Georgia also asked for (and ate) more chicken.  Oh, and the pumpkin was only because she saw June getting some and therefore had to have it.  Of course the baby spoon was also by request, since that's how June was being served.}  : )

So, what are your tips?  Got any good recipes to share with me?

EDITED TO ADD:  Are you shaking your fist in the air, cursing my name because I forgot to mention in my list of tips that this whole thing goes much better with two adults present?  You probably gathered that that's usually the case for us, but I know not everyone's that lucky.  I did land it solo at 6:24 this evening, though.  BOO-YEAH!


Susan said...

Okay, that plate of food does crack me up. What a mix! Regardless, this is an extremely impressive commitment you're keeping.

jessica said...

All I can say is...I really have no excuses! Thanks for the inspiration!

Kelly said...

You are doing such an awesome job! I find it challenging with one child... I can't imagine with 2 AND working full time. Well done!

Oh, and just FYI, when we need a REALLY easy dinner, we often will do tomato, basil, mozzarella sandwiches. So simple, yet so delicious! Take 2 slices of white bread (sourdough works well, but any type will do), put olive oil on one side of each of the slices (these sides will be the outside of the sandwich). Slice up some fresh tomatoes and put them on one slice of bread, layer on some fresh basil, and top with some fresh mozzarella. Put the other slice of bread on top and grill both sides until they're golden brown (we use our George Foreman Grill to do this, but a panini press would work great if you have one). That's it... really easy, but very yummy!

jessica said...

Kelly-that sounds so good! Those items are now on my shopping list!

Kate said...

Thanks, Kelly - I'm definitely going to add that in the mix, especially now that it's summer and we've got basil readily available on the back porch.

I'm also super excited to see that I'm not the only person left in America who still uses the Foreman Grill!

Ann said...

Great post! I too am in awe of the meal prep when there are 4 of you and both parents working outside the house. Well done! I also love the term "snitch" since I formerly only used that for tattletales! Will definitely be keeping your techniques in mind as life gets more complicated. For now, I love my old Everyday Food magazines when I'm in a rut and have relied on TJ's for lots of frozen organic veggies. Easy peasy!

benandsherie said...

Kate - love your post. Our schedules sound almost identical, except I get home with the girls at 6 and Ben tries to be home by 6:30 so I make most meals in that window, alone. I do feel like an Olympian magician some nights when I pull off something better than "okay". My biggest tip to add is this: when I walk in the door, I immediately go to the stove and turn on about 3 inches of water to boil in a covered 4 qt pan with steamer insert. Before I even set my purse down, I get this water going -especially if I have no idea what I will make. I then go change out of work clothes, get the girls going on something and by the time I am back & ready to start cooking, my water is boiling and I can throw in pasta and steam some veggies on top, or use the water to defrost etc. It saves about 7 minutes...and when you only have 25 to get it done, that is huge. Post more of your dinners! Pan seared fish is a go to for us ... it sautes in less than 5 mins while veggies are steaming. Happy cooking!

Kate said...

awesome tip, sherie! I used that boiling idea tonight.

Rebecca Perry Magniant said...

Kate- Maybe you should just quit and become a pro blogger! You are a great writer, btw. Anyway, I'm a huge fan of the crock pot as well- some of my faves:
-bbq pork [put in a big chunk of boneless pork, pour on an entire bottle of bbq sauce, add chopped onions, if you want, then pull pork apart/shred and serve with rolls or rice]
- italian sausages- throw 'em in, add peppers, onions, marinara sauce- serve w/ pasta
- brats n beer- johnsonville brats, can of beer, onions- now i also add some small new potatoes, and take the potatoes out to make a warm potato salad [add yellow mustard, cornichons, etc. and mix up]
- turkey breast- made this up the other day, but it worked well- turkey breast, root veggies, thrown in some white wine, chicken stock
i have some other great chicken ones too, but i don't have them memorized ;)
becca from bocomo