Larchmont writer Jeanne Muchnick, whose credits include Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, Westchester Magazine and The Journal News, recently came out with her first book: Dinner for Busy Moms: Easy Strategies for Getting Your Family to the Table.
It’s a strategy book, as opposed to a cookbook. There are recipes, but much of the book discusses logistics, organization and stress management – something a lot of busy moms could appreciate.
In time for Mothers’ Day, Ms. Muchnick offers an excerpt and a simple but elegant recipe for Mustard Chicken:
What’s for Dinner?
How many times have you spent $100 at the grocery store and then ordered pizza because nothing in your eco-bags actually constituted a meal? Or, what about that time when you picked up your daughter from a friend’s house, only to hear her say, “Why don’t you cook like Natalie’s mom does?”
Before I decided mealtime was sacred in my house, I would become insanely stressed by those three little words: “What’s for dinner?” By the time I’d get home from work and finally had a chance to start thinking about a dinner menu, everyone—myself included—would be so hungry and cranky that I’d end up ordering in, or reaching for yet another batch of chicken nuggets to throw in the microwave. But when the guilt of serving less-than-nutritious meals—and the expense of last-minute take-out—finally caught up with me, I had no choice but to start putting more thought into dinnertime. And that’s when I became an advocate for weekly meal planning.
The truth is, I always found time to plan ahead in my work life—I would never go to a meeting unprepared or fail to meet a deadline. At home, I found, mealtimes required the same kind of attention. That doesn’t mean adding hours of labor to your already-busy schedule. All you have to do is figure out a template for your week, a process that should take an hour-and-a-half a week at most, less as you get used to doing it. It’s as easy as thinking about your schedule: Which evenings will you be gone? Which nights can you cook? Putting those details on paper is the first step towards stress-free meals.
By knowing what my family is going to eat a week ahead of time, I know exactly what I need to buy at the store, and I avoid buying food that my family won’t eat, therefore cutting down on unnecessary waste. It also gives you a gauge on what your family is consuming and what menu items you might re-work given individual health and dietary needs. Plus — and here’s the kicker — imagine how easy it will be for the rest of your family to come up with menus or meals for themselves on those nights you can’t be home for dinner. (Hello: girl’s night out!)
Here are tips to get started:
Go digital. Write down all of your family’s favorite dishes and store them in your computer. Think about your main dishes (some kind of protein, such as poultry, beef, pork, fish, or soy) and go from there to create meals that fit your family’s dietary requirements and lifestyle. Choose lean meats, choose to eat more fish and, for vegetarian eaters, substitute meat dishes with soy and main vegetable dishes. Think, too, about side dishes, as this is your best chance to introduce vegetables into your family’s diet. Be sure you have at least one vegetable in the rotation each night. For best results, two or more types of vegetables at each meal are optimal. Your kids may only eat one, but at least you’re offering choices. Tell them they have to pick a green or yellow to make it fun.
Bookmark favorites. Put your go-to meal planning sites in easily reachable files. Often you can create a recipe box and tag your finds in a way that makes sense for you (e.g., chicken, pasta, or kid-friendly).
Consult family members for their thoughts—trying to get them to stretch beyond their usual pizza and hot dogs. Assign each day a food category or a theme to help you brainstorm ideas. For example…
- Sunday—pot roast or stew
- Monday– chicken
- Thursday—ground beef
- Friday–kids’ favorites
- Saturday—anything goes. Try a new recipe, opt for dinner out, or order in.
Mix it up, keeping the family budget in mind, adding Dad’s favorites, soup and sandwiches, upside-down day (with breakfast for dinner), Mexican night, invite-a-friend-over Fridays, etc., to add variety. Consider your needs. If the prospect of cooking the same thing, week-in and week-out, is no motivating, continually work to mix up your list.
Check the family calendar for the week. If you have a lot of activities that will keep you from getting home at a decent hour, you’ll want to plan simple meals, leftovers, or take-out for those particular nights.
Take an inventory of the items in your fridge and pantry. Do you have any foods that need to be eaten right away? This is one of the greatest benefits of meal planning. You waste much less food because you only buy what you plan on using that week. If you see that you have frozen lasagna or chicken strips and pasta, you know right up front that you have a couple of easy dinners right there and also have less to shop for.
Consult your recipes. Recipes are your best friend when it comes to planning healthy meals. You can print out recipes from the internet, many of which can be prepared in an hour or less. To keep organized, keep a three-ring binder on your kitchen shelf as my sister Ann does. Once you know what’s for dinner, you can make a shopping list with the ingredients.
Consider the seasons. Shop local and shop the “real foods” (as opposed to processed) that are in season. Not only are they often less expensive, but they taste better and are healthier.
Here’s where a CSA also comes in handy, as it forces you to use the produce that’s available according to the specific time of year.
Focus on foods that serve more than one purpose. Eggs continue to be my number-one best example. Sure, they are great for breakfast, but many egg recipes (spaghetti carbonara for one) use eggs for dinner. You can also scramble some, add veggies, and you have a healthy quiche or omelet. Lean ground beef or turkey can add depth to pasta sauces or can easily be made into burgers, tacos, or meatloaf. And cheese, a source of calcium, can add flavor to any dish. Mix them all together for a delicious frittata.
Think about where you can double up. Look at where you can buy family-sized packs and double your cooking efforts. Take chicken cutlets, for example. You can prepare some with BBQ sauce, season some for baking, use some for stir-fry, and grill some to use in sandwiches and salads. They’ll all be cooked and ready to use as you need them throughout the week. Or, if buying ingredients for lasagna, make two and freeze one. Remember to put everything in a container that can be frozen or heated without needing to change.
Post your menu on the fridge, and use a standard weekly template. Opt for a variety of healthy choices, and rotate different types of food throughout the week. Variety is also important in making sure that your body is getting all of the nutrition it needs.
Go international. Walk the ethnic aisles at your supermarket, or check out a local Asian market for a twist on the tried and true, “same old, same old.” Try new kinds of olives in your salad or on your pizza, add zing to burgers with a sprinkle of feta cheese, or experiment with a new kind of noodle for your own variation of Pad Thai.
Don’t stress. Dinner is really only difficult when you rush home after a long day and haven’t taken time (either the night before or the morning of) to think about. Remember, simple is fine. It’s more about sitting together as a family than serving the “perfect” meal every night. Soup and sandwiches qualify as dinner, as do baked potatoes, frozen pizza and scrambled eggs (not all together, of course). My super-easy meals include shrimp, beef or chicken and veggie stir-fry over brown or white rice, pasta tossed with olive oil, diced tomatoes, small salad, tacos using leftover rotisserie chicken, and chicken or cheese quesadillas.
Here, my foolproof “something easy” that never fails me.
½ cup (or more) Dijon mustard
6 boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 ½ cups breadcrumbs
salt and pepper
Wash and pat dry the chicken breasts. Put them in a bowl with mustard, salt and pepper and let sit in the fridge for ½ hour or longer (you can even add a dash of white wine). I often add a touch of water to the marinade so it isn’t too thick.
Roll chicken in breadcrumbs and bake 20-25 minutes at 375 degree oven until slightly crispy.
For more information or to purchase Jeanne’s book, go to www.dinnerforbusymoms.com or www.jeannemuchnick.com/. Or order direct from the publisher (www.plainwhitepress.com), and get 20% off by using code word “Dinner.”