If anyone could use the excuse "I'm too tired to cook," it's Erica Hill. She wakes up at 2:45 A.M. every weekday to cohost CBS This Morning. "I enjoy making dinner for my family, and feeding them healthy meals is important to me," says Hill. Still, when the journalist invited Parents to visit her New York City apartment a few months ago, she was candid that planning meals for her husband, business owner David Yount, and their boys, Weston, 5, and Sawyer, 2, had become increasingly frustrating. "Many weeks I rotate the same three or four dishes, even though our kids aren't picky eaters," says Hill. "Plus, dinner has turned into a marathon event; the boys are eating slower, and Sawyer constantly wants to get out of his chair."
To help Hill finish in the kitchen faster and avoid dinner burnout, Parents hooked her up with two experts: food coach Jenna Helwig, founder of Rosaberry, a personal-chef and culinary-instruction service in Brooklyn, New York, and Carolyn Ievers-Landis, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Rainbow Babies
& Children's Hospital, in Cleveland. Eavesdrop on the advice they gave her and pick up recipes and tips that will help you spend less time cooking and correcting, and more time savoring the food and family conversation.
Given the couple's work schedule, Helwig wonders, "Do you ever do any dinner prep ahead of time?"
"A couple of months ago, I started planning the week's menus in advance," says Hill, who added that she would appreciate advice on dinner prep.
So Helwig first jumps in with some guidance for coming up with the weekly rotation: She suggests two types of meals -- dinners like shrimp stir-fry or whole-wheat pasta with fresh tomato sauce that can be ready in 20 minutes with a little advance prep, and ones that Hill or Yount can get started in a slow cooker in the morning that will be almost done by dinnertime.
Hill swings open her kitchen cabinet and plops the appliance on the counter. "I got it as a wedding present seven years ago and I've used it once," she tells Helwig, who promises to create a week's worth of slow-cooker recipes for Hill. The only foods the boys aren't wild about, says Hill, are mushrooms, cauliflower, and lettuce. Helwig encourages her to make brown rice (a fave household side) on the weekend and freeze it in batches for weeknight meals. "If you have rice three times a week, you spend almost an hour cooking it each time. Just make it once and triple the amount you cook," she suggests.
Helwig also gives Hill another assignment: On the weekend, slice veggies and blanch them, a technique that will keep them bright and crisp for at least five days. Simply toss them in a pot of boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes. Then transfer them to a bowl of ice water until they're completely cold, pat dry with paper towels, and store in containers in the fridge. "When you're having a stir-fry or want, say, a side of broccoli to go with turkey burgers," she tells Hill, "you just heat and eat."
To keep Sawyer in his chair, Dr. Landis suggests curtailing snacks an hour before dinner. "He just might not be all that hungry," she tells Hill, who admits giving the boys fruit and veggie slices
to tide them over while she's cooking.
Then Dr. Landis encourages Hill to set a timer for 20 minutes, the amount of time you can expect kids this age to sit at the table. "Tell the boys that you're going to put away the food once the timer goes off, so they need to eat now," she explains. If the timer goes off, and they've goofed around and aren't done, she urges Hill to clear the table anyway. "It will be hard for you to do this," she says. "But focus on the prize: The next night, there will be more eating."
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A couple of weeks after Parents visited, we caught up with Hill and her family. Weston and Sawyer were breaking the ends off green beans (Dr. Landis suggested that Hill give them little prep jobs to do) and snatching a few for themselves. "I really like green beans," Weston tells his mom. "Giving the boys something to do in the kitchen has been a fun way to get them involved," says Hill. "They definitely take pride in the dinner they helped create- -- and seem more eager to eat it!"
On the menu tonight: Tuscan Veggie Stew, a hearty pasta dish that Helwig created using many of the boys' favorite foods. It takes about 10 hours in the slow cooker, so it's perfect for Yount to get ready before work. Before long, Weston wants seconds. "This is great!" he says, smiling from his chair.
Hill serves meatless meals once or twice a week. Thanks to the lentils, just one portion of this vegetarian soup packs as much energy-boosting protein as a burger.
This stew has planned leftovers, so Hill can stash them in the freezer for a quick meal on
a time-crunched night.
Who needs all that stirring? Make risotto in a slow-cooker.
If Hill mixes the sauce the night before, it will take her 10 minutes to get Asian Beef & Broccoli ready before work.
Who knew? You can make a whole chicken and veggies in a slow cooker.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.