FEEDING A BUSY FAMILY CAN BE LIKE HERDING HOUSEFLIES
STORY BY Kerry Dunnington PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mary C. Gardella
Karen Pitsley, owner of Transforming Architecture and mother of two energetic boys, ages 10 and 12, doesn’t have a lot of extra time at the end of the day. Often, she says, “thoughts of what to feed the boys nag at me throughout the day.” So it’s no surprise that when she has a plan for dinner, “it makes my day easier and the dinner hour a little more relaxing.” In other words, planning ahead pays for itself in stress reduction as well as a more healthful repast for the family.
“Preparing a healthy meal and trying to eat around the dining room table is challenging but doable,” she says.
Karen’s husband, Scott, an IT professional who works at the Pentagon, says the go-to meal when there’s nothing planned is chicken from the freezer. With rice and vegetables, “it all goes into the pressure cooker and dinner is on the table in about 30 minutes,” he says.
For the Pitsleys, like other families, putting dinner on the table after a busy day can be a challenge. Sports and after-school activities, meetings and music lessons seem to conspire to prevent even the best meaning families from sitting down together. In fact, for many overbooked families, getting the entire brood together is as challenging as herding houseflies. But with a bit of pre-planning, preparing a nutritious, colorful and satisfying dinner doesn’t have to be daunting. And the extra effort is worth it. According to the Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit founded by a team at Harvard University, eating together has been linked to lower levels of eating disorders, drug abuse, depression and obesity as well as better academic performance and higher self-esteem.
Even so, there will be times when you can’t sit down together. On those days, the backup plan is having a refrigerator filled with healthy options for grab-and-go or a meal that can be easily put together or heated up when each family member touches down.
Pam Long, owner of Pam Long Photography, and her husband, Johnny, have two daughters, ages 10 and 12; Long knows that her hectic school-day afternoons are not an anomaly. Ensuring that
each family member gets a healthy meal on the days when everyone is on the go and sitting down together just isn’t possible, she says, means having certain staples on hand. The Longs make sure they have chicken, deli meats, grab-and-go fruits and vegetables that can be easily steamed or eaten raw comprise the family’s ‘go-to’ larder, says Long, “because they can be used in different ways.” There’s usually ground turkey in the Longs’ fridge and whole grain pasta in the pantry, along with a variety of sauces. “Breakfast meals in the evening are a hit as well,” says Long. “Pancakes and eggs are a delicious choice!”
Here are a few tips to help you with feeding a busy family throughout the week. When you can, carve some time when you can precook food so it will be ready when you get home. That way, all you (or another family member) has to do is pull it together and reheat. Cook big batches of your family’s favorite foods and then pair them to a variety of other complementary foods. Grilled meats, baked chicken, precooked pasta and rice, along with a few of everyone’s favorite vegetables can easily be mixed and matched for multiple meals. They can also be added to quesadillas, stir-fried meals – even soups and stews. In a pinch, open-faced or grilled sandwiches are time-saving and healthy, especially when served with soup or a leafy green salad.
This recipe for polenta lasagna (see page 58) is a welcome treat when life is busy and everyone needs refueling for evening activities. Your family will be asking for it again and again, because its comfort food kids love – and grown-ups too! This version is vegetarian; if you’re a meat-eating family or you want to add protein, add a layer of cooked chicken or ground beef. You can replace the spinach with other vegetables if desired. Serve with a side salad. *
Kerry Dunnington, is a five-time national award winning cookbook author of Tasting the Seasons and This Books Cooks, she can be reached through her website: kerrydunnington.com.
This simple chicken entrée is packed with flavor. Any leftover chicken can be sliced and turned into a delicious chicken sandwich. 8 servings
- ½ cup Dijon-style mustard
- cup packed brown sugar
- cup honey
- tablespoons minced fresh ginger
- chicken cutlets, about 2½-3 pounds
1. Preheat oven to 375°F.
2. In a medium bowl, combine mustard, brown sugar, honey and ginger. Whisk until well blended.
3. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Coat the paper with cooking spray.
4. Place the cutlets on the prepared paper and brush both sides of the chicken with the mustard mixture.
5. Bake for about 15 minutes on each side. Set oven temp erature to broil and broil for about 1-2 minutes on each side or until golden and slightly blackened. Serve immediately.
Spinach and Polenta Lasagna
- 16 ounces ricotta cheese
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- ½ teaspoon salt
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- ½ cup Parmesan cheese
- 18 ounces polenta, cut into 16 slices
- 25-ounce jar spaghetti or marinara sauce
- 16 ounces frozen chopped spinach, defrosted, drained and squeezed dry
- 16-ounce package presliced mozzarella
1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
2. Coat a 13 x 9-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
3. In a medium bowl, combine ricotta cheese, basil, salt, pepper and ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese. Mix until evenly distributed.
4. Spoon ½ of sauce over the bottom of the baking dish.
5. Arrange eight of the polenta slices over the sauce. Top polenta with half of the ricotta mixture. Top ricotta with ½ of the chopped spinach. (Don’t worry about perfection because the mixture will even out during the baking process.) Cover the spinach with ½ the amount of mozzarella slices.
6. Repeat with the remaining polenta slices. Top the slices with the remaining ricotta mixture and spinach.
7. Top with remaining marinara sauce. Cover the sauce with the remaining mozzarella slices. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the mozzarella.
8. Cover and bake for 45 minutes or until bubbly. Remove cover, switch oven temperature to broil to allow top to brown. Serve immediately.Use as many of your favorite herbs to season the ricotta; thyme, basil, oregano and parsley work well. Any tomato or marinara sauce works; I especially like one made with eggplant. If you don’t want to slice the mozzarella, buy thin, presliced from the deli section. 6-8 servings