As summer winds down and our families fall into the rhythm of fall and school routines (and faster paced schedules, and rushing, and wondering as you sit in rush hour traffic at 6pm what on earth you will pull together for dinner for your family?), it feels good to slow down and enjoy the act of preparing simple, healthy meals. If you remove the last minute trips to the grocery store and the pressure of elaborate meals with complicated ingredients, you and your family will have more time to just "be." Here are tips to help dinner time be a smooth, simple process:
Seasonal adaptation is key! Use the seasons to guide your meals. In the summer, grilling chicken or fish and vegetables is a quick answer for a low-key meal. In fall and winter, use your crock pot for a no-fail method to have a savory supper waiting at the end of the day. (It's really as easy as plunking in a pot roast and some cut up vegetables!) Invest in a high quality rice cooker to have rice always on stand-by for easy meals with seasonal ingredients.
Take advantage of weekends to prep key ingredients: brown meat and freeze in small portions for easy spaghetti sauce, chop mirepoix (carrots, onions, celery) so you can have a stir-fry ready in a matter of seconds. Having key elements for simple dishes close at hand cuts down on all the prep work when you've got a whiny toddler begging for your attention and you're exhausted (and would rather sneak out for sushi or hit the drive-through).
Never underestimate the power of Trader Joe's: For those nights when you've got exactly 45 minutes to fix dinner before a preschool coop meeting, chopped veggies, bagged salad greens, and microwave brown rice are your friend! Do what works to get food on the table and take the pressure off!
Make a notebook of 21 family favorite dishes to incorporate, plan, and rotate according to what your local store has on sale, or what veggies you have growing in your garden. Use what is on sale at the grocery store to plan your meals (save money/simplify the dilemma of meal planning.) Implement one night per week where you plan everything out -- even down to lunchbox ingredients -- you will see your grocery bill drop dramatically and you will have more time for family (or hiding in the bathtub with the latest issue of US Weekly!)
Tired of being a short order cook? Make up a "menu" and let each child be in charge of what's for dinner one night per week. Allow your child to make their own choice from several kid-friendly options. Older children can help you scour the weekly ads for ingredients for healthy meals and learn math at the same time.
Feed your freezer! If you're making lasagna or any other dish with an involved prep process, make a double batch and you can eventually build up a nice little stockpile for nights when you can't bear to do anything more than heat up the oven.
Designate themed nights -- Friday can always be pizza night, whether you roll out the dough as a family and have each child add on their favorite ingredients, or you go for a short walk to pick up a take-and-bake pie in your neighborhood. This will actually help cut down your weekly planning process even more. Kids may enjoy coming up with wacky theme nights on their own!
Breakfast for dinner means using what you have on hand, vegetables about to be compost pile fodder can be salvaged and made into a quick frittata. Fruit that is nearing the end of its lifespan can be whipped into a tasty smoothie to accompany home fried potatoes, or an overripe banana can quickly become pancakes that are sure to please!
Whatever strategy your family uses to get food on the table, the most important ingredients are simple, healthy foods, and a no-stress atmosphere. Less can definitely be so much more!
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