Chat Leftovers: When Life Gets in the Way of Dinner

Arlington, Va.: Help. I am a mom of a 17-month old, and I've been finding it really hard to plan quick, healthy meals for my family. I'm a fairly competent cook, and I love being in the kitchen, but now that my daughter is mobile, it's been hard for me to find time to cook dinner and pay attention to her. (I get home at 6; her dad gets home at 8:30, after she's in bed.) I would love to designate Sunday as a planning/prep day for the week ahead, but I can't seem to figure out how to get organized. I'd love any tips & recipe suggestions.

Although I don't have a squirming bambino in my kitchen midst, I certainly can relate (as can so many busy home cooks) to the ongoing conundrum of trying to squeeze in time to make supper. A few months ago, I wrote a piece called Save the Nancys, the story of two women with very different lives in different parts of the country who share your struggle with getting a healthy meal together in under an hour. Take a look at some of the 30-minute meal ideas plus the great tips shared by readers.

As a birthday gift for my dear friend, Leslie, a single mom who's got a very bouncy eight-month-old boy, I got her a copy of “Feeding the Whole Family: Recipes for Babies, Young Children, and Their Parents” by Seattle writer Cynthia Lair, who's got a lively blog called Cookus interruptus.

What's nifty here is that Lair takes one dish and offers suggestions on how to accommodate everyone in the family, including the newest eaters at the table.

I agree with you that Sunday should become a planning/prep day, but go easy on yourself. Do one or maybe two projects, nothing more; you've got a lot on your plate (for lack of a better expression), and stressing about the week's meals will not serve you in the long run. One thing that works for me is to make a big batch of rice that I can reheat throughout the week, plus have one pot of beans or soup on hand, particularly if I know if Mister MA's schedule is not synching with mine. You may want to sketch out on paper what a few meals look like, and include your husband to get his feedback and ideas. This is helpful even if the week turns out completely different from what you imagined.

Desserts: My church is hosting a group of homeless people next week and I need to provide desserts on two nights. I know one night I'd do simple brownies and chocolate chip cookie bars, but I'd like to do something different for the other night. It's for about 50 people and will need something that I can easily do the evening before and deliver mid day. Any suggestions?

You’re a good egg. I hope you know that.

I’m thinking quick breads or Bundt-style coffee cakes, which are great for either dessert that night or breakfast-to-go for the next morning. You’ll need three, maybe four loaves or whole cakes, as you’ll get about 12 pieces from each.

These could all be made in advance, frozen and thawed out the night before delivery day. My favorites in this category include: Banana bread, cranberry nut tea bread, apple coffee cake, Aunt Rita’s marble cake and a low-fat vegan chocolate cake. You can't go wrong with any of these sweet things.

Chicago, Ill.: We just joined a meat CSA with a sustainable farm that is about 70 miles from our house. I think your encouragement and posts over the years are a big part of why we joined. We got our first box of meat on Saturday and so far we've tried pork chops and stir-fry beef. Everything has been incredible so far! We received something labeled pork shoulder steak. Any ideas?

Way to go, Chicago! I am so excited for you. I’m thinking you should contribute a regular CSA report for the blog, maybe once every six weeks, and share your experiences getting meat straight from the farm. Let’s tawk!

As for the pork shoulder steak, you’re in for a treat. Also known as a shoulder chop, blade steak or pork steak, the shoulder is loaded with flavor and loves slow moist heat. Braising is the operative word here, dear. Is your steak bone-in or boneless?

You can use wine, beer, chicken stock, and/or juice (I’m thinking orange or apple, but there’s a ton of options) as your braising liquid. You can brown the steaks, then a chopped onion, some herbs and your liquid. You’ll want to bring up to a simmer, then lower heat and cover and let the braising fairies do their magic. Steaks should be tender in about an hour, if they’re about 10-12 ounces each.

What's Cooking transcript in entirety.

Join me and cooks across the country (and on three continents) next week on the Eating Down the Fridge Challenge! The frugality begins this Sunday, March 8, for a week-long experiment of using up what's in the fridge, freezer and pantry. To sign up, e-mail me, including your city, state and country (if applicable -- we've got EDFers in Australia, South Africa and Denmark!), and I'll include your name on the EDF Honor Roll.

By Kim ODonnel |  March 5, 2009; 7:00 AM ET Chat Leftovers
Previous: Wine Cork Recycling and a Bigger Conversation | Next: Eating Down the Fridge: Let the Fun Begin!


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I'm a huge fan of braising! I braised some little ham steaks in OJ last night. I recently realized my Calphalon "Every Day Pan" (like a shallow wok) is oven safe, so braising takes very little effort now.

Posted by: ArlingtonGay | March 5, 2009 10:46 AM

Regarding desserts: A group of us from work made a meal for our homeless shelter last month and I chose apple crisp for dessert. I have an apple peeler/corer so that kept the process speedy and it's easy to throw a crisp topping together. It was well received by the clients and with the apples still contributed to the overall nutrition of the meal, at least a little bit.

Posted by: esleigh | March 5, 2009 11:24 AM

Oooh, a pork shoulder steak sounds divine. Think of it as a sort of "chuck roast" of pork. My fave way is to lightly brown the well-trimmed pork steak in an iron skillet with a lid. Remove pork and pour off excessive grease, but you want some for the next step. In same skillet lightly saute some diced onions, carrots and celery; when they soften, add a cup of rice and saute until it's kind of translucent. Return pork to skillet, nestled atop rice mixture; add about a cup and a half of chicken broth. I also like to add a few raisins and chopped dried apricots (or a chopped apple--we like the sweet and savory deal). You could also sub orange juice for some of the chix broth. If I have it, I add either a few sprigs of fresh thyme or a couple of sage leaves. Bring to a boil, lid it, and pop into a 350 oven for about 45 minutes or until rice has absorbed liquid and pork is tender. mmmmm.

I made this recipe up one night when pork steaks were $1.29/pound. It's become an easy weeknight dinner for me.

Posted by: khachiya1 | March 5, 2009 11:56 AM

Kim, thank you for posting Arlington's question/conundrum and your suggestions, strategies and the blog link. I'm in the same boat and am always looking for advice for handling the dinnertime-kid tango.

My best strategy is to have an emergency back-up go-to meal available just in case all advance cooking and planning goes awry. I keep frozen spinach around to add to eggs for a quick scramble. Add some toast, maybe some yogurt with applesauce on the side, and voila: dinner.

Sometimes no matter how hard you try, dinner menus have to be scrapped and you've gotta punt.

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | March 5, 2009 1:22 PM

For the church volunteer, I too volunteer at a shelter and have taken to making homemade desserts for 25 or so. I confess I usually just make a regular size dessert and serve very small portions, but two of the most successful have been from the Food Network:

1) pumpkin gooey butter cake by Paula Deen uses packaged ingredients to the point that there is no measuring required. I cook it longer than she suggests so it sets.
2) pumpkin roulade is Ina Garten's very simple and impressive alternative pumpkin recipe for anyone who's tired of pumpkin pie during the holidays. Both recipes are easy to make ahead and won't fail to impress!

Posted by: otabenga | March 5, 2009 2:40 PM

Hey guys, sorry I've been offline. Been battling the stomach flu since last night. As a result, there will be no Friday post. Check back with you on Monday. kod

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | March 6, 2009 12:09 AM

oh oh. Sounds like Mr. MA's food poisoning was infectious. Icky. Hope you're on the mend soon.

Posted by: khachiya1 | March 6, 2009 1:43 PM

For the Arlington mom: I've had luck cooking favorite meals in larger batches -- eating one and freezing the others. Sometimes rustling up all the ingredients is the hardest part. Then it's just as easy to make a triple serving of taco filling or bean soup or meat in marinade. I do this one meal at a time just when the opportunity presents itself so it takes a while to have some variety in the freezer.

Posted by: pamelar1 | March 6, 2009 4:30 PM

Arlington Mom -

Get the cookbook "Fix, Freeze, Feast." It is written by two women who each own a "Let's Dish"-type make-ahead-meal business. The book has lots of good recipes and gives very specific instructions for shopping, assembling, freezing, cooking, etc.:

Good luck!

Posted by: obamamama31 | March 9, 2009 12:52 PM

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