The school year is in full swing and so are the year’s activities. If your family life is like mine – among ball games, play rehearsals, youth groups, homework clubs and social engagements – it’s certainly not easy to find time to sit down to a relaxed family dinner.
Still, we know that the busier we are, the more important it is to check in with our kids and to preserve the routine of a family dinner (at least on most nights).
Here’s a rundown of a few ideas, as well as my own family’s standby, so you can spend the time you have together sitting down and catching up with one another, rather than scrambling to get something elaborate on the table.
I invite you to read my ideas, add your own, and share them with friends.
1. My family eats a lot of fresh vegetables, so my biggest lifesaver is to use “almost there” prepared foods. There’s no shame in using prewashed produce. Bags of prewashed lettuce are wonderful gifts to the busy mama, especially if it means the difference between your family actually eating a salad and skipping the salad because it takes too long to wash and prepare all the veggies. Same goes with those bags of broccoli, carrots, celery, and sugar snap peas.
Here’s a quick and easy variation on a traditional tossed salad and it takes only a few minutes to assemble. Start with pre-washed baby spinach, toss in some dried cranberries and toasted walnuts and serve with a light raspberry vinaigrette. Yum.
Many supermarkets also have bread in the bakery that is nearly baked all the way you through. You take it home and pop it in the oven for 5 or 10 minutes and out comes delicious, crusty, warm bread. This is such a treat in my family!
2. Make an extra-large pot of chili (or chicken noodle soup) on the weekend and freeze or refrigerate the leftovers. Pop some cornbread in the oven (a quick mix takes less than 20 minutes to bake) and serve with a green salad.
3. The slow cooker is your friend. Share favorite crock pot recipes with your friends. The best recipes are those, such as roast beef and potatoes and veggies, where there is no cooking before or after. In the morning, you toss in all the ingredients. In the evening, you come home, open the slow cooker and eat up. These are the only slow cooker recipes I ever really make, to be honest.
4. Spaghetti! As fun to eat as it is to say. In my family, we love Italian sausage in our spaghetti, but we’re also very health conscious, so we never use very much of the sausage in any one meal. I’ll cook all the Italian sausage in a package, then divide it into 4 portions and freeze them. Then, when it’s spaghetti night, I defrost the meat, which then simmers with sauteed onions and the spaghetti sauce – and dinner is done in the time it takes the noodles to cook. Serve with a green salad and garlic bread.
On a side note, the clear glass jars that the spaghetti comes in also make excellent glasses for lemonade and water in the summertime. We keep a few in the freezer for chilled water and lemonade. (Okay, also, cold beer.) Classico-brand jars are particularly well-suited for this. They are a little squarish and quite elegant. The smaller jars, such as the alfredo jars, are just the right size for smaller hands.
5. Serve healthy pizza. Pizza doesn’t have to be greasy and oozing with sauce. Have a couple of premade pizza doughs (such as Boboli) on hand and experiment with healthy toppings that cater to your family’s individual tastes. We love to have Mexican Pizza, for example, layered with refried or black beans, then salsa, onions, olives and a bit of cheese. It cooks in less than 10 minutes. Another idea we use a lot: purchase a plain frozen cheese pizza and let the kids pile on their own healthy toppings.
6. Sandwich night. Pick up a submarine sandwich from the deli of your local supermarket. Take off the lettuce and tomato and toast the sandwich under your broiler at home. Then pile on even more lettuce, tomato, pepperoncinis, whatever goodies you like. Slather on some gourmet mustard and you’ve got a delicious almost-ready-made meal.
7. Some days, choose healthy fast food. This phrase used to be somewhat of an oxymoron, but nowadays, new chains are popping up nationwide that offer fresh, healthy, locally-sourced fare. From soup to pasta to burritos, you can find something that suits everyone’s tastes. It’s probably not something you want to do every night, but your fast food choices are now much broader than the old hamburgers and French fries.
8. Find a few favorites from your local gourmet store. While this might be an expensive choice for everyday life, it sure can be a lifesaver. Stock your freezer with a few Harry & David chicken pies, for example, and the next time you have surprise guests during one of your busy nights, you’ll look like the rock star you are.
Jamie Jefferson writes for the online parenting magazine Momscape as well as Susies-Coupons.com and New Coupons and Deals, where you’ll find the latest online coupon codes, as well as printable grocery coupons.