We all know about countless studies which have shown that regularly eating together boosts grades, health, nutrition, social skills -- and is more economical. But nobody tells you how to do it. Last month we gave you a make-ahead meal plan to help you prep and freeze that even a novice could follow. But there's no one-size-fits-all way to feeding your family. In this final installment of the Parents What's For Dinner? series, we offer another approach -- this one tailored to fit a busy mom who's at home taking care of her two young children. We've paired her with our professional cooking coach to serve up an easy-to-follow plan geared toward all of you who are in the vicinity of your kitchen but don't have a lot of time to focus on preparing food in it.
Meet The Ellefsen Family
Their Dinner Challenge:
During the day, stay-at-home Jenn is so busy chasing Robert around, tidying up their Cape Cod-style house and shuttling Ryann to and from her morning session at preschool that before she knows it, it's 4 p.m. and her husband is calling to ask what's for dinner. By that point, the kids are getting hungry and it's too late to prepare anything too ambitious. So Jenn figures she'll do what she does most days -- pull something from the freezer that pretty much cooks itself. Chicken cutlets and pasta is her standby.
To further complicate the situation, Craig doesn't arrive home until after the kids have eaten. By then, Jenn is already starting their bedtime routine.
Parents enlisted Jenna Helwig, of rosaberry.com, a mom from Brooklyn, private chef and dinner coach, to draw up a weekly meal plan to help Jenn prepare healthy dinners while caring for her kids.
"Dinners are great," says Jenn. "I've been using recipes that I know everyone will like and that Craig can reheat for lunch the next day. His co-workers are even looking to steal his food!" she says. Not only does this save the family money, they're also eating healthier. "I have gotten better at giving meal planning the time it needs because the reward is healthy food for my family," said Jenn.
By planning in advance and relying on easy, hands-off recipes Jenn spends more time with the kids and less time stressing about dinner. Ryann has noticed that her mom is cooking more too. "She's trying everything and for the most part, likes it all. I'm shocked!" says Jenn, "She thinks I'm a good cook!
Occasionally, Jenn reverts to her standby like chicken cutlets and pasta, but "dinner doesn't feel as much of an uphill battle anymore!"
5 Commandments of Hands-Off Dinners:
1. Don't be afraid of longer cooking times. A roast or a stew can require less effort than a 30-minute-meal.
2. Steal time throughout the day for food prep. Chop vegetables for dinner while you're making or packing lunch, for example.
3. Have a repertoire of 2-3 meals that can be put together with pantry/freezer staples and keep the necessary ingredients on hand.
4. Supper doesn't have to be a protein and two sides. Something like a veggie-packed frittata can be just as nutritious.
5. Don't be a short-order cook -- let family members assemble their own meals (tacos, salads, rice bowls).
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Parents magazine.