Tag Archive | family mealtime

Answering the “What’s for Dinner?” Question

By Jen Ashenfelter

Mmmmm... spaghetti! (Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net)

Mmmmm… spaghetti! (Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net)

“What’s for dinner?”

When I was younger, this question was important to me, and waiting to hear the answer filled me with nervous anticipation. With dinner the most important meal (to me), I just needed to know which way my day would go. Spaghetti or meatloaf and mashed potatoes could make the day, and hot dogs or lima beans could break it. (There’s nothing worse than knowing the day was ending with a spoonful of evil.)

Apples don’t fall far from the tree: I have two boys and everything revolves around food. I totally understand their need to ask me what’s for dinner first thing in the morning (with apologies to my mother for constantly asking), but that doesn’t mean I have to actually answer them. And no, we never end the day with lima beans.

With that in mind, a little preparation every week goes a long way toward maintaining a lot of sanity—and it probably saves time and money too! I can’t remember exactly when I started planning meals for the week, but I can tell you it makes it big difference and whenever I fall out of the practice—chaos ensues.

There’s no silver bullet or divine secret to meal planning—just takes a little time and creativity. I’m happy to share what works for me, and I encourage discussion on what works for you. Regardless of your work/home balance, from grocery store to dinner table, we are usually responsible for feeding the family. Who really has the time; why not make it as easy on ourselves as possible?
• Collect recipes – Keep them in a notebook, envelope or box—doesn’t matter where, just as long as you can quickly scan through recipes of family favorites or easy one-pot dishes. Research the web and ask friends for great recipes.
• Find a planner – Go to AC Moore, Michaels, or your local arts-n-crafts or dollar store for a planner pad you can stick to the refrigerator. (My pink and black zebra print pad has seven columns so I can plug in the date.) You can use your computer or iPad, but I prefer old-fashioned paper because I can stick it on the frig where everyone has 24/7 access—which eliminates the “What’s for dinner?” Q&A…and, at times, the follow-up whining and complaining.
• Plan for the coming week – I start by noting which nights have soccer or karate or meetings—dinner should be quick and easy on these nights. Before I go grocery shopping, I look through my recipes and/or store flyers to help keep the menu interesting and inexpensive. Cook enough for two nights when you can—eat half now and freeze the other half for later, so next week’s menu is easy to create and the only requirement is reheating.
• Make the grocery list – Use the back of last week’s menu to write your shopping list. With recipes on hand, it’s easy to list everything you’ll need. Planning and shopping for the week saves time and money since I’m less likely to run to the store for a few items and return with a cart full…or resort to spending money on fast food. We definitely eat healthier when I take the time to plan for the week.

That’s it! I fell out of practice during the summer, and by Friday evenings I was so frustrated with the questions about what’s for dinner and last minute planning that I didn’t care if anyone got dinner. (Note the snippy tone.) Now that school is back in session and the activities and sports are in full swing, planning is essential. And I actually like Friday evening dinners again.

Here’s a delicious recipe for chicken that turns any dinner into a Sunday dinner without much effort. Add some rice or bread, microwave a bag of green beans and dinner is served. Please share your time/money-saving tips or a favorite recipe with everyone. Enjoy!

Orange chicken
Chicken A L’Orange
4-8 shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise (quartered if large)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 3-3 ½-lb whole chicken (I use package of cut-up chicken w/extra package of thighs so there’s enough to create 2 dinners.)
½ cup orange marmalade
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped

1) Heat oven to 425. In a large shallow roasting pan, toss the shallots with 1 tbsp oil and ¼ tsp each salt and pepper.

2) Cut the chicken into pieces. In a large bowl, whisk together the marmalade, vinegar, rosemary and remaining oil and ¼ tsp each of salt and pepper. Add the chicken; toss to coat.

3) Place the chicken mixture in the roasting pan, nestling the pieces among the shallots. Bake until the chicken is cooked through and browned and shallots are tender, 25 – 30 minutes.

Hate to Cook? Me too!

By Ruth Topper

Does the thought of putting a meal on the table create stress for you?  Well – me too.  Cooking has never been one of my favorite activities.  In fact, I would rate my personal satisfaction of cooking pretty low on a scale of 1 to 10.  I would trade off doing lots of dishes – including pots & pans – every night in lieu of cooking.   In fact, while dating my husband, Gary,  I told him straight up that if he was looking for someone who would put a meal on the table every night for him – then he wasn’t looking at the right girl.  (Fortunately he must have seen other qualities and stuck with me)!

I felt added pressure when I stepped off the full time Merry-Go-Round after the birth of my daughter more than 15 years ago.  Gary was always home from work before me, so for more than 7 years of marriage, he had dinner already started by the time I got home.  Now that I was a “stay at home” mom I felt the pressure to start making dinner every night.  I certainly couldn’t be home all day with the kids and then have him come home & make dinner.   So – I made Gary write down (for the first time) the recipes for some of our favorite meals.  Slowly I started to put together a repertoire of a few dishes I could make on my own.  Although to get to that place – I can’t tell you the number of times I called him at work that first year to clarify instructions to make a particular dish.

So why is cooking such a chore to me (and maybe you)?  Here are some of my theories:

1.  Deciding what to make each day for dinner.  There are so many options to consider and what is an option that everyone, including all the kids, will eat?  Is it relatively healthy?  If your family is anything like mine there are many times that you can’t sit down together for a meal due to sports & activities.  What do you make that won’t seem like a “leftover” three hours later?

2.    Figuring out the timing of all the components (meat, potato, vegetable, etc.) of the meal  so that everything is hot & ready at the same time.    This is truly a science that I have yet to figure out!  All I can say is don’t ever put me in charge of Thanksgiving Dinner!  At my house – I go run the “Turkey Trot” early on Thanksgiving morning while Gary makes the filling & stuffs the turkey!  I’m very good at making the rolls the day before and jumping in at the last minute to help put the various items in serving dishes and/or to stir the gravy – but do not put me in charge of making sure everything is done at the same time!


“Spices to taste?” What does that mean?! Help!

3.   Measurements for ingredients included in a main dish recipe are often not precise.   Let’s take soup as an example.  Gary is a “Soup Nazi.”   I see him pulling spices out of the cupboard & just sprinkling a little of this & a little of that into the pot or adding vegetables, meat, cheese, etc. without even thinking about measuring them out!  How in the green earth does this “mish mash” end up tasting so good?   We recently purchased a quart jar containing “Seven Bean Soup”  from  our church.  The jar contains a variety of dry beans and the recipe to make the soup.  The last “ingredient” on the recipe is “spices to taste.”  How is someone, like me, ever to figure out what these “spices to taste” are!

In spite of my great dislike for cooking I do manage a few times a week to put something edible on the table for my family.  I learned early on that you need to develop a few “go to” recipes that just don’t fail for you.  One of these recipes in our family is meatloaf.  It is a comfort food, something that everyone likes, warms up nicely or is great the next day cold in a sandwich too.

1 ½ lbs. ground beef
1 egg
¾ cup of milk
½ cup bread crumbs
¼ cup onion, chopped
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 ½ Tablespoons parsley
1 teaspoon salt

½ cup catsup
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon mustard

Mix all ingredients together – except  the topping.  Place in a shallow baking pan.  Bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes.  Drain any grease off meatloaf.  Add topping and bake an additional 10 minutes.   Enjoy!

Mmmmm... Meatloaf

Mmmmm… Meatloaf

So – are you challenged in the kitchen (like me) or is cooking something you love to do?  We would love to hear from any of you who have “survival” tips?  Do you have any favorite, easy meals that are your stand-bys?  Please share!

Think Outside the (Lunch) Box

By Karen Hendricks

One of my top priorities as a mom is to play the role of “Nutrition Nazi.”  I try my best to infuse nutrients into our meals and ban empty calories.  Equally important as the nutritional value of meals:  The family value of gathering everyone together for meals.  That gets extremely difficult through the middle and high school years, I’m finding, but it’s a priority we try to maintain.  Now that I am “off the merry-go-round” and working from home, I feel like I have a better handle on meal time routines, although most moms with growing families will agree that it’s a constant struggle to keep enough food in the house!

One of the biggest challenges is packing school day lunches.  Although lunches provided in school cafeterias are becoming healthier, my kids prefer to pack because waiting in lines takes too much time and they don’t always like the selections.  This is fine with me!

I like to think of every lunch box as an extension of our family meal times, upholding those same nutritional values and reminding my children that their family loves them.  (Please note:  I would never embarrass my middle or high schoolers with “love notes” in their lunch boxes, although I was known to add a few random notes and jokes through their elementary years!)

I think the challenges include:

  • Finding the time to pack lunches.
  • Making sure they’re nutritious.
  • Not succumbing to easy, but expensive and empty-calorie, pre-packaged lunch items found at the grocery store.
  • Ensuring that lunches can be devoured quickly, since schools are constantly cutting the amount of time allotted for lunch periods.
  • Making sure that everything fits within your child’s lunchbox!

Our entire family helps with the packing of lunches in some way. Here are some tips that have helped us streamline the process, and I hope they help you as well:

Prepare a Lunch Menu.  When my kids were learning keyboarding (4th-5th grades), I set up a simple spreadsheet on our home computer which we still use today.  The rows going down list food groups (Meats/Sandwiches/Grains, Fruit/Veg, Dairy, Snacks, Drinks) with rows under each heading for the kids to customize each week’s menu with our grocery shopping (for example, ham or tuna salad sandwiches, yogurts or string cheese).  The columns are set up per the days of the week, with a column for each child to check off their selections.  It’s great typing practice for the kids, plus they learn organizational skills and the menu is a great help to the chief lunch packer (my wonderful husband).  When my children were younger, they could also see how a nutritious lunch was built using the various food groups.  Now it’s second-nature for them to include at least one item from each food group.  One of the kids typically prepares the lunch menu on Sunday, printing it out and stationing it on our countertop (you could also post it on a bulletin board or refrigerator).  Every night before bedtime or during evening snack time, all the kids make their “picks” for the next day’s lunch.

Banana Keeper! Made by Tupperware and sold in a set of 2, these happy yellow containers keep our bananas from being bruised and squished. Pure genius!

Invest in Reusable Containers.  There are some great products made specifically for lunch boxes today!  Plastic sandwich containers not only keep sandwiches from being squished, but they also negate the need for plastic bags which are costly and not environmentally-friendly.  Our family also uses stainless steel water bottles (found inexpensively at Target and other stores) and small plastic containers with lids for fruits and other snacks (grapes, pretzels, etc.).  Sometimes it’s a challenge to fit all the containers within a lunchbox—it can be like a puzzle—but you develop a knack for it.

Pre-Package Lunch “Staples.”  My kids all pitch in around the house with tasks like dishwashing, unpacking grocery bags, etc.  So when the stainless steel water bottles get washed, they also get refilled with cold water and stashed in the fridge, so they’re chilled and ready to be popped into lunchboxes.  When groceries are being unpacked and there’s an item like grapes, one of the kids washes the grapes right then and there, and prepares 7-8 small plastic containers full of grapes, so they’re ready for school mornings.  This is a great time-saver!

Prepping grapes for the lunchboxes

Include a Touch of Home.  If you have a leftover, homemade biscuit, why not use it for a chicken salad sandwich?  Have a leftover cup of homemade soup?  It takes some effort, but pack it in a microwaveable container or warm it the next morning to pack into a thermos.  The same idea applies to leftover fajitas, a bowl of chili or homemade pizza.  Be creative and think outside the sandwich box.  Sometimes, these are the most popular, sought-after lunch items in our house!  Of course, fighting over them is a subject for another blog… Hey, at least they are eating well!