How to Succeed at Dinner
(Without Really Trying)
I’ve been looking at my calendar again. Bad idea. With the summer winding down, my firstborn heading off to Kindergarten, my choral group kicking off for the season, and my first PTO meetings “strongly suggested,” it would appear that my time, this September, will not really be my own. Not to mention, of course, that pesky little thing I like to call MY JOB. And those two small people – and one large person – who look expectantly at me each morning, noon, and night with the same expressions dogs tend to get when they hear the can opener.
Yep. It’s back-to-school season, and people still expect me to feed them.
The good news is, I have a game plan. I ALWAYS have a game plan, mainly because I, too, like to know where my next meal is coming from. Since we’re a real-food family, the last-minute delivery order, frozen pizza, or boxed mac and cheese solution aren’t options for us. We stopped eating stuff like that years ago, and as I watched my older son’s health improve (he was just a young toddler at the time), it strengthened my resolve to continue being not only a mom who cooked for her family – but a mom who actually COOKED for her family, no boxes, bags, cans, or microwaves required.
The thing is, if you’re going to do the real-food thing, AND work full-time, AND raise kids, AND become a tightrope walker/lion tamer/somebody who showers on occasion, you’ve got to organize yourself, or else you’ll go stark raving mad and hate the whole thing. And possibly give up, which is not an option. I started meal-planning in earnest right after my Loyal Husband J. and I got married nearly eight years ago, simply because I found it too draining to have to think of something to do about dinner with him staring at me from the other side of the sofa after a long day at work. If I could get the decisions made well in advance, I could at least muster the wherewithal to blindly shuffle my way to the refrigerator and execute the plan.
With kids, commitments, and some sort of “it must resemble actual food” standard to uphold – one for which I occasionally curse myself, as I watch the blithe consumption of drive-thru meals by families all around us – the dinner-planning process has only become more crucial to our well-being and my sanity. I’d like to say that I’m one of those people who hangs around in the kitchen all day on Sunday, making freezer-ready meals that will last us all week long, but I’m not. If I’m hanging around the kitchen all day on Sunday, I’m probably doing heavier-duty work like preserving summer produce, or baking bread, and regardless, there will probably be cookies at the end of it all. Not freezer meals. Cookies. I like to think I’ve got my priorities straight.
In light of my lack of freezer-casserole awesomeness, I’ve had to become a different sort of dinner maker; a quick meal NINJA, if you will. (You won’t. You shouldn’t. I’ve just always wanted to refer to myself as a ninja, so thanks for indulging me.) The good news is that since there’s no amazing casserole superpower required to do what I do, you can probably be a dinner planning ninja, too. There are only a few rules.
Plan early, and not often. Look, you COULD plan your meals every week, but that would mean that every Friday or whatever day, you’d have to sit down for 20 minutes and think about the week ahead. It doesn’t sound like a big commitment, until you try to do it and find that your Friday dinner-planning spot keeps getting squeezed out of the calendar by your kid’s martial arts carpool or that much more appealing glass of wine with friends. Avoid the guilt of shirking the meal planning duty by doing it once a month instead. If you repeat meals – which I don’t, but only because I’m insanely attached to variety – you can get 30 meals roughly sketched out in less than 30 minutes, and then you don’t have to think about it again for a whole month.
Arm yourself with two backups. These are the guys that will sit on the bench (i.e., in the pantry or freezer) until you really need them. They’re the quick pasta dish, the frozen calzones, the breakfast-for-dinner solution that you know you can make in less than half an hour no matter what kind of chaos is churning around you. Keep the items you need for these backup meals on hand at all times, and you’ll always have dinner.
Don’t cook any more than you have to. Really. I actually love to cook, and I wish I could make elaborate, amazing dishes every night. But the reality is that I have exactly enough time and energy, most weeknights, to pull together things like skillet chicken dishes and simple fajitas. Aim to use only one or two pans and just a couple of cooking techniques (and no, sous vide should not be one of them, you overachiever). As for side dishes, it’s not written anywhere that I know of that a simple green salad, a platter of sliced summer tomatoes, or carrots and raw bell pepper strips with dip or hummus can’t do the same work on your plate as something you had to steam, sauté, bake, roast, or boil.
Be your own dinner fairy. Some nights, I wish I had a dinner fairy who’d just bring us all a healthy meal without me having to contribute to the effort. Luckily, the miracle of the slow cooker makes it easy to give myself a break at least once a week and still offer a home cooked meal to the family. Build that kind of breathing room into your own dinner schedule, even if you don’t have a slow cooker, by cooking extras of simple proteins like chicken once a week. It’s no harder to roast two chickens than it is to roast one, and if you save that second chicken, you can serve it later in the week on one of those dinner fairy nights – whether on a salad, in sandwiches, or tossed in the middle of the table where your family can have at it with their bare hands. (This seems to be how things work in my house, no matter what the intention actually was.)
Know your sources and don’t stray. It’s tempting to drive here, there, and everywhere to buy groceries, especially if you think you can save a few bucks. But I find that after lots of experimenting, what works best for us is to know where we’re going, when we’re going there, and get ourselves in and out as fast as possible. Since there are no coupons for fresh, local produce or humanely raised meats, I’m probably not going to get a “deal” on anything my family actually eats by shopping around – and that’s a good thing. I can focus instead on buying only from purveyors whose food I trust and whose prices I’ve deemed fair and affordable for us. We tend to do a weekly trip to our farmer’s market, where about half of our budget goes to fruits, vegetables, and local honey; then we make one additional trip to Whole Foods, where we can afford some trustworthy meat and dairy, and where our other staples, in bulk, are cheaper than we can find them at any conventional grocery store.
It’s an embarrassingly humble list of rules, but I think they bear repeating often – after all, we live in a world where modern conveniences do their best every day to convince us that the family dinner is not only a lost art, but a lost cause. I prefer to think of it this way: If we, as livers of this modern life, can do so much multi-tasking, learn so many skills, keep up with shifting technology, and hold together all the pieces of the incredibly complex puzzles that are our days, it should be no problem at all for us to perform a simple and relatively unchanged task that families across time have completed successfully. We just have to carve a space out of our consciousness to do it, and get our priorities in line. First, family dinner. Then – obviously – cookies.
What are your tricks for sticking to a real food meal plan?
Photo Credit: Bri DeRosa/Craig McCord
Chris Regan and Ashley Mayne produce a wide array of delicious greens for the Hudson Valley.
With his new book, Forrest Pritchard tells the stories of 18 farms from all across America.
Forrest Pritchard and Smith Meadows are prime examples of sustainable family farming.
Jonathan Waxman shares his food philosophy with Slow Films.
A group of star chefs play with fire for a good cause.