Have you ever spent a little extra time at work just so you can justify a fast food takeout instead of having to go home and cook dinner?
It’s not like you don’t appreciate the healthy home-cooked dinners with your family. But, having to be the one who cooks those meals every single day can make anyone want to weep, right?
I’m actually quite fortunate — I’m blessed with a husband who’s passionate about cooking, and very good at it too. Even now that we’re both full-time work-outside-the-home parents, he gets a comforting, nourishing dinner on the table every night he’s home.
The nights he’s not at home, though, I tend to panic a bit! I’m an adequate cook. I enjoy baking. I can even savor the process of creating a meal, if I’m in the right mood.
But that’s not how Getting Dinner works, is it?
Night after night after night, whether I’m in the mood or not, someone’s got to feed the little hungry mouths. Even when I lived alone in graduate school, this was a prospect which sometimes drove me to tears. And now the pressure to feed our growing family right just kicks it up to a whole new level.
And, I’m sure it’s not just me.
There’s a lot of wider cultural stress about getting a home-cooked, healthy dinner on the table. For a lot of us, it’s hard; for all of us, it’s time-consuming; and is it actually worth it?
On the one hand, I’m elbow-deep in lovely Pinterest photos of green vegetables and lyrical blog entries about family bonding. On the other hand, figuring out how NOT to have to cook at home is a pastime almost as old as humanity.
Ancient Rome had carry-out restaurants. Social reformers from Thomas More to the Amana colonies to Amanda Marcotte have suggested that we’d be better off having a few devoted cooks and letting the rest of us use our cooking hours for something more interesting or productive.
But no matter what your ideal solution looks like, in today’s reality, you’re likely to find that cooking healthy family meals at home is the best way to keep both your wallet and everyone’s long-term health in check.
And the research is clear: shared meals are one of the best things you can do for your kids.
So how can we get it done without breaking down and weeping?
Here’s our family’s little cheat sheet –
1. Go For the Convenience Foods
This is a huge one. Your supermarket is full of things that can get you at least halfway to a finished dinner, with most or all of the benefits of starting from absolute scratch.
Studies show that frozen vegetables are roughly as good for you as fresh vegetables — better, if the vegetable is out of season or doesn’t grow near you. Frozen fruit is often better for baking than fresh fruit. Frozen fruits and vegetables also tend to be picked at the peak of ripeness compared to fresh produce which is often picked early, to make up for the time it takes to get to the store. And frozen food lasts a lot longer (sometimes to our chagrin; I would not have minded if that CSA kohlrabi had quietly rotted and been thrown out).
Canned fruits and vegetables are a little iffier; you’ve got to watch out for excess sugar and salt. Our kitchen is always stocked with canned tomatoes and canned beans, though; we just add less salt to the overall dish.
My mother has always served delicious, nutritious and healthy family meals. She thinks leftovers are strictly a lunch food, so dinner is always something new. Sometimes it’s a real from-scratch work of art. But quite as often, my dad teases her about her “square meals,” where every ingredient seems to come from a box. (She retorts that everything does NOT come from a box. There are also cans and bags!) Seriously, here are a few of my mom’s quickest recipes, ones she describes as “dump and cook”:
- Pesto pasta: Cook pasta, toss in some pesto sauce (sold in jars, or powdered in a paper envelope), add canned (or fresh) tomatoes, canned artichoke hearts, and canned salmon or frozen shrimp. Once everything’s warm, it’s ready to eat!
- Stir fry: Buy chicken or beef (pre-cut into stir fry pieces, if you like), brown in a pan, and add stir-fry vegetables (sold pre-mixed in the freezer section) with some soy sauce or a fancy oriental sauce (found at many grocery stores or Asian markets) to suit your family’s taste palate. Serve over rice.
- Lazy Man’s Shepherd Pie: This was the coolest meal ever when I was a little kid. We called it “Hamburger, Mashed Potatoes, and Peas,” and that’s almost the whole recipe. Brown hamburger, microwave frozen peas, and prepare mashed potatoes — the dried kind in a box are fine. Serve these three things separately, with ketchup on the side, and let your kids build elaborate landscapes out of them at the table before eating. This even gets my husband to eat his peas.
These are the recipes I go to when I’m in a pinch and need something quick. Thinking back to your childhood and making a handy list of the quick recipes that also serve as comfort foods can be the decisive factor between giving in to the take-out urge and mustering up a healthy, home-cooked meal in minutes.
2. Invest in Some Convenience Tools
If you have a little space in your kitchen and some room in your budget, investing in a few convenience tools can save a LOT of time and hassle in the long run. Here are a few that we use in our family, along with a few that work great for other families.
- A rice cooker. It’s an amazing gadget to have. I’ve made whole meals by tossing uncooked rice, still-frozen veggies, sausage, salt, and a few spices into the rice cooker, pressing “cook,” and walking away.
- A slow cooker / crock-pot. A very similar idea to the rice cooker. Just dump in all the ingredients (fresh, frozen, bottled, canned or from a packet), turn it on and go off to take care of whatever else that needs to be done. When you come back in a few hours, you’ll be welcomed by the wonderful, beckoning smells of a delicious, healthy, home-cooked meal!
- A pressure cooker. This serves the opposite purpose of the slow cooker. On a busy day, dump all the ingredients in a pressure cooker and have the meal done in a matter of minutes. It’s particularly good for meat or corn on the cob. It takes some practice to make sure that you don’t end up smooshing the food, but the time spent on mastering it is well worth it.
- A bread maker. Fresh home-cooked bread with minimal effort. Need I say more? (My husband thinks bread makers are heresy; if you agree with him, there are several no-knead bread recipes that can also put homemade bread on your table with little fuss.)
3. Use a Simple Rule of Thumb
You can really put a lot of thought and effort into producing healthy family meals after healthy family meals, if you enjoy that kind of thing. That’s why chefs and nutritionists have jobs!
On the other hand, at the end of a busy day if the thought of having to come up with a healthy meal that the whole family enjoys makes your brain hurt, you can get a long way by adopting just one or two of these simple rules — I borrowed each one from a different family.
- Eat your colors: One family friend, who’s always busy in the medical practice she shares with her husband, keeps her family’s diet balanced by making sure that they eat plenty of different-colored foods at each meal. She started this practice because it made the meals look nicer, but it’s recommended by nutritionists right up to the USDA.
- A protein, a starch, a vegetable: This old-school formula is what my mother has always used to plan dinners. You can fine-tune it for your family, or incorporate modern specifics about food groups and proportions, but even the bare-bones version will get you a good, filling, balanced meal. (I suspect this formula is responsible for the “lazy man’s shepherd pie” listed above.)
- Double down: You’ve probably seen those freezer cooking articles explaining how to stock your freezer with a month’s worth of ready-to-heat meals in just one day. If it works for you, this is great, and massively efficient. If you don’t have a whole day to set aside for freezer cooking, though, it works just as well to fill your freezer little by little. At our house, this is the only way we ever get a meal into the freezer, and that freezer stock is a lifesaver on busy nights!
On a day when you have time to cook your healthy family meal from scratch, you’ll often have time to make a double batch of it. Do whatever it takes to keep the howling wolves at your table from getting to those extra servings (for us, this means boxing it up before we sit down to eat), and put the extra in the fridge or freezer for a busy day.
(Oh, and label the containers. I recently warmed up a container of frozen chili, only to find that it was actually spaghetti sauce. Fortunately, my son isn’t old enough yet to think it’s weird to eat spaghetti sauce on bread!)
4. Cut Your Losses
Some nights, it just isn’t happening at all. There’s nothing stocked up in the freezer, your supply of raw ingredients is somehow down to half a can of oatmeal and a shriveled kohlrabi from the last CSA basket, and given your work schedule and your kids’ activities, going to the grocery store fits into your evening about as well as going to the moon. Now what??
Now you remind yourself that it’s NOT all or nothing.
It’s wonderful to sit down all together to a well-balanced, home-cooked dinner. And it’s still wonderful even if you don’t get all those pieces together every day. Whether it’s a regular fast food outing, or cereal for dinner as a surprise treat, cutting corners is NOT the same as giving up.
Even the most passionate cooks get tired of the drudgery, as Megan McArdle eloquently describes. (She also includes many more tips for reducing that drudgery!) My husband is devoted to home cooking to an extent I sometimes find kind of insane, but he still demands Chinese takeout on a regular basis.
And the benefits of shared family meals are not limited to just dinners either. Maybe your family sits together and talks over cold cereal in the morning, and in the evening everyone warms up leftovers when they have a minute. Maybe you get Sunday dinner as a family, and a one-on-one meal with different kids on different days of the week. Every family’s mix will be a little different, and doing whatever you can is absolutely good enough.
When you’re stressed out, you don’t always remember that you really do know, on a deep level, what’s good for your family. You’ll know, over time, if you need a course correction. And sometimes, the best choice for your family is to save your energy for other things, whether it’s for one meal or for the long haul.
Judging by Marcotte’s editorial, many of us need to be told more often — choosing your battles isn’t losing at taking care of your family; it’s how you win in the long run!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
It’s time to take stock with our quick contemplative questions.
- How often in the past week/month have you resorted to unhealthy options because cooking felt like drudgery? Might using one of the tricks above have helped to quickly put together a healthy family meal?
- Is your pantry/freezer always stocked up with the ingredients to make quick meals when you are in a lurch?
- Is there at least one meal in your freezer that just needs to be heated and served on a day you just can’t cook (or don’t feel like cooking)? Can you get in the habit of doubling the recipes so you have at least one such meal in the freezer at any given time?
- Can you set aside a freezer cooking day/hour to stash something in the freezer that can save precious minutes/hours on busy days? (Simply marinating the meat/fish and throwing it in a Ziploc baggie also counts and can go a long way on a busy day!)
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Try a few of these tricks this week. At the end of the week (or a month) check in with yourself and your family. What’s really working for you? Are there strategies that sounded great for my family, but are causing your family stress and outweighing any nutritional benefit you might be getting? Drop them, or tweak them! You are the best judge for your family.
And if you have some secrets that work for your family, please do share. Let’s get together a list of these secrets in the comments that can help us all find that balance between eating great, healthy food without getting bogged down by the stress of cooking day in and day out!