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Moms Talk Q&A: How Do On-the-Go Families Make Time For Dinner?

How do you throw a decent dinner together mid-week between homework, sports and other activities?

Moms Talk Q&A is a new feature on Maplewood-Brentwood Patch that is part of a new initiative to reach out to moms and families. We invite you and your circle of friends to help build a community of support for mothers and their families right here in Maplewood-Brentwood.

Our takes your questions, gives advice and shares solutions. Moms, dads, grandparents and the diverse families who make up our community will have a new resource for questions about issues ranging from snow days to teen pregnancies. And if you have a question for the Moms Council, please leave it in the comments or reach out to them individually. But the conversation doesn't stop there—please share your own stories too.

So, grab a cup of coffee and settle in as we start the conversation today with the question: How do you throw a decent dinner together mid-week between homework, sports and other activities? The Moms Council offers responses below.

It has always been a struggle to have a decent, healthy and quick meal at night for my family. I was once a fast food and pizza kind of mom, but I've changed for the better. I started Weight Watchers and, at first, I was worried about making two different dinners: one for myself and the other for my family. I didn't have the time. I decided to take the time to make a weekly meal planner, so at least I knew what I was going to cook even if it was two different things.

I got out my Weight Watchers cookbooks and started flipping through them. I saw recipes for dishes I was already cooking but with much healthier ingredients (like macaroni and cheese and sloppy joes). It was great! All I did differently was change some minor ingredients.

I started using 2 percent cheese, skim milk and whole wheat pastas and breads. My girls love pesto, so I make a batch of that at the beginning of the week and serve it with carrots or celery. I love having some sort of garlic bread with my meals, but instead of buying frozen bread I use refrigerated pizza dough and top it with a little olive oil and some Italian spices I picked up at With my preplanned meals, which only takes about an hour of my Sunday, I feel I am making up for it with the time I save looking through the cabinets and running to the store picking up something for that night. Both my family and I eat a fast healthy meal before we're off to Daisy’s and basketball practices.

But there's more to it than planning, cooking and eating. Our oldest knows all the steps to making pesto, and our youngest wants to learn. Many meals can be made before and chilled or used to transition into an even greater event: family time. When we are lucky, we get two or three of these meals a week. The familiar ritual is as (or more) valuable than the meal, and there is a certain synergy to the whole process. It takes practice, patience and optimism that it gets easier. It seems like it is starting to work.

Having a weekly plan for what to make for dinner is a huge time saver. A plan eliminates the daily 5 p.m. cry of “what am I going to fix tonight” accompanied by the last-minute rush to find the ingredients and cook them so they can be gulped down just before we move to the next activity. A menu means less anxiety, less time shopping and more time for dinner. Yet, as beneficial as a weekly plan is, my creative muscle shuts down when I have to plan a week’s worth of dinners. My solution is to steal other people’s menus and have a few tried and true stand-ins when they are needed.

For as long as I can remember, Woman’s Day magazine has featured dinner menus for the month. The menus are pretty straightforward and easy to fix. They also come with shopping lists, which really streamline the planning process.

Given how much time a prepared menu plan saves, it’s little wonder that menu subscription services are starting to pop up everywhere. The services e-mail a week’s worth of seasonal menus every week along with a shopping list. Two of my favorites are Saving Dinner and Dine Without Whine. The Six O’Clock Scramble and Hot By Six are two Web-based services that I’m checking out now. 

Of course, even the best laid plans go astray. So, I like having the fixings to make a few emergency meals always on hand. Breakfast for dinner is my favorite way to reset a bad day. Tomato soup and grilled cheese are fast comfort food. Polish sausage, green beans and potatoes make a hearty meal in about 20 minutes.

We have never been one of those families with the luxury of family dinners on a nightly basis. I have always had jobs that required me to work later into the evening, and my husband is a first shift kind of guy. He is often ready for dinner shortly after the kids are home from school, and I’m hours away from being home. Add to that the hectic schedules of soccer, baseball, dance class, guitar lessons, school meetings and work travel, and we see each other mostly in passing and often with huge breaks in between.

When we are together, we like to take advantage of my husband’s excellent skill at the grill (which he loves to use, even in the snow). By using the grill, even if we are just throwing together burgers, they aren’t frying in a pan of grease. We throw on burgers, chicken or pork loin, and try to cook extras for extra meals. 

We try to balance the bad nights by keeping fresh fruits and decent snacks available. At least then, when the kids are dashing all over, they have healthy, portable options. Usually you can find granola bars in both boys’ backpacks and hanging out of my purse. My oldest is often rushing out the door for early morning baseball practice with a bottle of water and a banana—at least it’s not a doughnut.

For other actual meals, I try to multitask whenever possible. I brown ground beef five or so pounds at a time and freeze it in one-pound packages so it’s ready to go for spaghetti, sloppy joes or tacos. I’ve tried making and freezing casseroles, but thawing and cooking them doesn’t always save time.

I’m not going to lie, and it may cost me my Mother of the Year award, but my kids learned early on how to make their own peanut butter and jelly, where I keep the string cheese and how to reach the yogurt. It's a requirement if they want to do all the things they do. There are designated spaces in my fridge and pantry that are always available to the kids and almost always stocked with the items mentioned as well as raisins, real fruit snacks, grapes, bananas or strawberries—things that don’t need a knife to cut up or that they peel with their hands. Clementines are huge right now. 

When I do get to cook, I try to make it really count and fix lots of extras that can be eaten as leftovers or turned into something else. Veggies are always quick to steam or warm in the microwave. I wish we used more fresh vegetables, but they're usually frozen. It’s more economical because meal times and menu plans get juggled and pushed back, and if too many emergencies arise then fresh vegetables go bad. I love the frozen steamer packs available now. I always load up on those when they are on sale.   

Do I wish my kids had healthier options at home and that we enjoyed them together as a family? Yes, but that’s not who we are or where we are right now. Some weeks we’re close, and other times I’m watching for DFS to bust down down my front door and take the Happy Meal away. We do the best we can to provide as many fresh and healthy meals as possible, and try and not let guilt eat away at us for the times we can’t quite pull it off. 

I’m not known for my cooking, let alone throwing together a decent dinner. It’s not that I can’t cook, but I don’t particularly enjoy it. That said, my family does try to eat at home when possible.

It’s certainly more difficult on evenings when there are sports practices or games, school activities or a number of other events that keep us going non-stop. While it’s often easier to run through a drive-through window on the way home from work, we try to make an effort to go to restaurants that offer some healthy choices.

I recently finished the book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, by Michael Pollan, that has inspired me to try to eat healthier and be more conscious about what my family is eating. As Pollan writes, “It’s not food if it arrived through the window of your car.”

I’ve found my best option is to plan ahead and at least have enough on hand that I can quickly pull together two to three meals each week. It may be a pasta dish for a “Meatless Monday,” a quick meal using something from Tastefully Simple or finding recipes using as few ingredients as possible from the Food Network website or cooking magazines, which I enjoy reading.

Whatever the dinner outcome, research shows the more a family can eat together, the better off everyone will be, so I try not to stress out over the meal but instead enjoy the time shared.

As much as I would like to make old-fashioned home-cooked meals every night of the week, I don't have the time or energy to do it.

Here is how we keep the cupboard stocked:

  1. Pastas and beans. We keep noodles of a variety of shapes, colors, and grains, with beans (pinto, black, baked and green), and with sauces (tomato, pesto and mushroom soup). I can usually whip up some pasta with cheese, beans and some chunks of chicken from a rotisserie bird roasted at , , or . 
  2. Wheat tortillas or Boboli pizza crusts are another staple. Roll-up sandwiches of cheese and meat (and sometimes a pinto bean mash) rolled in a tortilla and warmed in the microwave always please the kids. Some nights, we pull out the Boboli ready-made pizza crust and slather it with sauce and whatever leftovers are sitting in the fridge, topping it all off with shredded cheese.
  3. Veggies and fruits are another staple. We try on Sundays to stock the fridge with broccoli, asparagus, carrots, mini cucumbers and sugar snap peas. Either broccoli or asparagus takes only seven minutes to boil or steam (once the water is boiling), and then the kids will eat it with just some salt. The carrots or cukes or the sweat peas can be eaten raw. We always chop up fruit like apples or grapes, or maybe give them some applesauce, and usually have some 50/50 vanilla/plain yogurt mix with sprinkles on top to lure the kids into eating it (they often use it as a dip). We are lucky right now because our kids are still young, so we can throw something together and have enough to feed them all pretty quickly.
  4. At least one day of the week, we make a slow-cooked crock pot meal: a seasoned pork roast, a whole roaster chicken with carrots and potatoes, or chicken soup with noodles and veggies. The accompanying sweet potatoes still get baked in the oven; it's the only way to really bring out that caramelized sweetness. Microwaving the potato for three minutes before baking them speeds the process without compromising the texture and taste.

Though I crave culinary variety and spice, I have learned my young kids do not. But the one thing I try not to compromise on is time: I think we as a culture we eat too fast and don't spend enough time talking to each other over meals. I try to demand that everyone sits down together and everyone stays at the table to talk, eat and generally hang out together.

Ryan Martin February 16, 2011 at 08:13 PM
Denise — I really like the idea of using a subscription service as a meal planner. When I was in school, I played baseball, sang in choir and performed in school plays, so my family often threw together easy meals to get by: pairing a ground beef dish (tacos, sloppy joes, etc) with canned or frozen vegetables. Now that I'm charged with preparing my own meals while living an equally-busy life, I find myself wanting to use the same culinary practices my mother used. It's not that easy anymore because my girlfriend is a vegetarian. Sure, we can eat spaghetti or steamed vegetables every night, but I often crave other options. Beef, pork and chicken vary enough in taste that my family and I could be lazy with our meals but still have enough of a variety to keep us happy. Maybe I can find a vegetarian meal planner that will help me find a good variety.
Clare Etheridge February 16, 2011 at 08:48 PM
Check out a fabulous book called 'The Family Dinner' by Laurie David. It is full of easy and enjoyable meals and recipes. I agree with Denise, plan your menu and shop from it, that way you can plan a quick easy but healthy meal for the more chaotic evenings. I like to make pizza dough in the bread maker and store it in the fridge until it is time to use it. Make mini pizzas so everyone gets what they want, quick and easy!
Katrina Sommer February 18, 2011 at 09:33 PM
Even though Whole Foods can get expensive, they have some reasonably priced dinner specials on different days of the week ranging from rotisserie chickens to paninis. It is a great way to eat affordable healthy (and delicious) meals for busy families. When I was pregnant my husband was left to do all of the shopping (I couldn't stand to be around food) and it was a foolproof way to make sure we ate healthy meals. I want to emphasize foolproof because the first time I sent my husband to the store with a list he brought home cabbage instead of lettuce! I've also found that the pre-cut stew meat makes a great replacement for stroganoff and teriyaki - the meat is high quality and there is minimal slicing and dicing involved.

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