Cooking Dinner on a Busy Schedule

Easy ways to throw dinner together on a limited schedule.

Too tired or unprepared to cook after 10 or 12 hours of perpetual busy-ness, we take the easy path to eating: a pizza, a restaurant, a store-bought frozen meal, the fried chicken counter at the local grocery store. Yet such noncooking options add up to a whole lot of unhealthiness.

Whether it’s working, caring for kids, running errands, going to school, getting exercise, volunteering, or some combination of the above, we are all busy. Which is why dinner has become such a challenge. Unfortunately, prepared foods are filled with salt, sugar, and fat — a one-two-three punch against your heart and health. Then there’s the shortage of vegetables, fiber, and vitamins. Additionally, the portion sizes tend to be huge — a fact we eventually display at our waistline and hind side.

There is a better way. Here are simple, realistic tips to get you eating healthily at dinner again, mostly at home, mostly with your own cooking.

1. Keep your kitchen clean. Families tend to congregate in the kitchen, bringing with them newspapers, mail, backpacks, school papers, toys, and a thousand other little this-and-thats. Don’t allow it. Set a new policy: The kitchen is for cooking and eating only. Why? It’s hard to get motivated about cooking if you have to clean up a mess first, not to mention what it does to your mood. The opposite also holds true: A clean, bright, inviting kitchen can be a wonderful oasis after a day of craziness.

2. Speaking of which, make your kitchen a place you like to be. Is there music playing? Do you have a glass of wine poured? Is the evening sun shining through the window? Are the knives sharp, the produce fresh, the pots good quality, the counters clutter-free? All of this contributes to your desire to make good food. If you can’t honestly say you enjoy being in your kitchen, do what you need to do to change that.

3. Enjoy the cooking process. Sure, not everyone loves cooking. But there’s no reason to not like doing it. If the thought of cooking brings dread, you need an attitude adjustment. Cooking is a pleasure, far easier than many non-cooks realize. For your health, your pleasure, your pocketbook, you should learn — or relearn — the pleasures of cooking. Make it a project. Spend time with your friends and family while they cook so that you can absorb the methods and routines. Consider taking a class, or buy an introductory cookbook. Most of all, lose your fear. It is actually harder to be a bad cook than a good cook, particularly if you use good ingredients.

4. Plan a week’s worth of dinners. Fewer than 30 percent of Americans know what they’re having for dinner come 4 p.m. Yet planning ahead takes just a few minutes. Here’s how. Every Friday night or Saturday morning, sit down with a pad of paper and your favorite cookbooks or cooking magazines. Think about what’s in your freezer and fridge, what your family likes to eat, what your upcoming week entails. Then plan out the week’s worth of menus (leave one night for pizza night). At the same time, write out your grocery list. Now post the list of menus on the kitchen refrigerator or bulletin board so it’s the first thing you see when you get home. Voilà! No more thinking ahead. Just follow your own instructions.

5. Delegate, delegate, delegate. If you have kids older than 10 or another adult who gets home before you do, get them started on dinner. For example, you might ask your spouse to pick up ingredients on the way home, your teen to start chopping vegetables for the salad and fill the pasta pot with water, your preteen to gather needed ingredients for a given recipe and put them on the counter for you, preheat the oven, and set the table. Yes, they may think of it as a chore, but if you build in a little opportunity for them to “create,” (i.e., with place cards for dinner, fancy napkin foldings, their own recipes) it will make your kids more interested in nutritious food and trying new things.

6. Stock your freezer with homemade meals. Stews, soups, chili, and gumbo all freeze wonderfully. Figure out how much of a one-pot meal you need to feed your family for one dinner, and then buy plastic containers of that size. Make a pot of your family favorites on the weekend and you’ll have four or five meals tucked in the freezer. A smart freezer is filled with plastic containers of several different homemade meals, each labeled with the contents and the date it was made.

7. Go the next step with freezer food. Side dishes also freeze well, particularly rices, pastas, and breads. For space, put the right portion amount in freezer bags and squeeze out the air before sealing.

8. Go the next step with soup stock. We are big advocates of soup for dinner. It’s healthy, filling, delicious, and easy to make. If you keep homemade chicken stock in the freezer, or cans of low-salt broth in the pantry, it often takes just a few minutes to whip together an impromptu vegetable soup. Use a quart of stock or low-sodium chicken broth as the base. Then just toss in a variety of chopped veggies such as spinach, carrots, corn, lima beans, green beans, and zucchini. Make sure to include chickpeas and other beans. They provide excellent protein, lots of fiber, an array of micronutrients, and are filling and satisfying at a relatively low cost in calories. To round out the meal, have some whole grain bread (dip it in olive oil rather than spreading it with butter) and a salad.

9. Or, make a pot of broth-based soup on Sundays, then start each meal during the week with a cup. Studies show watery foods such as soup tend to fill up the stomach, making you feel full quicker, despite being relatively low in calories. Having a healthy soup to start a meal also makes cooking the rest of the meal a little less demanding.

10. Include three old standbys on your weekly menu. No one expects you to come up with a new meal every night. Pick three low-fuss, nutritious recipes that you and the family enjoy, and, most important, that you can almost cook in your sleep. For example, you might designate Monday as pasta or casserole night, Tuesday as grilled fish night, and Wednesday as roasted chicken night. Include similar vegetable and grain side dishes as well. This eases the headache of grocery shopping — you’ll need many of the same groceries from one week to the next.

11. Plan which night you will eat out — and stick to it. Rather than eating out whenever you lack the inspiration — or groceries — to cook at home, eat out on a designated night. This makes eating out what it should be — a treat. You’ll enjoy your restaurant meals more and eat more healthfully throughout the week.

12. Try new recipes on weekends, when you have more time to cook. You’ll enjoy the cooking process more when your mind feels rested and unfettered. Once you get the hang of the new recipe, incorporate it into your weeknight repertoire.

13. Eat together as a family at least three times a week. According to a national survey of more than 15,000 children ages 9 to 14, children who ate dinner at the table with other family members consumed more fruits and vegetables, fiber, calcium, and numerous other important nutrients than children who rarely or never ate dinner as a family. Those who ate with their families also consumed less saturated fat and fewer soft drinks. Hold a family meeting and pick nights and times that work for everyone. Make eating together at the table nonnegotiable.

14. Keep your grocery list and recipe list on the computer. That way, you can just rotate your weekly menus (along with the grocery list) every month or every two months. Thus, once you have, say, eight weeks of menus, you’re set for the rest of the year!

15. Relax for 20 minutes before you eat. If you tend to skip breakfast, but gorge your way through dinner and then snack until bedtime, you may have a condition known as night eating syndrome. People who eat more than 50 percent of their calories after 6 p.m. tend to suffer from insomnia, gain weight more easily, and feel more stressed than people who spread their food intake throughout the day. One solution: relaxation. In a study of 20 people with night eating syndrome, a once daily progressive muscle relaxation session reduced stress, anxiety, fatigue, anger, and depression within eight days. Participants also felt hungrier in the morning and less ravenous at night. Although the name of the technique sounds complicated, progressive muscle relaxation is actually very simple. Just sit in a chair or lie on your back. Then progressively tense and then relax various muscles in your body, starting at the top of your head and moving down your body and ending at your feet. Tense as you inhale. Slowly release as you exhale. When you hit your toes, it’s time to eat!

16. Have your cocktail after dinner, not before. In a study conducted at the University of Liverpool in England, men who drank a glass of beer 30 minutes before a meal ate more during the meal than men who consumed a nonalcoholic beverage. They also ate more fatty, salty foods and felt hungrier after the meal than men who did not drink. Because alcohol stimulates appetite, sip on an alcoholic beverage after your meal rather than before, particularly if you are trying to lose weight.

17. To eat less at dinner, hold your afternoon snack to a small portion. When researchers at Pennsylvania State University in University Park offered study participants different-sized bags of potato chips as a mid-afternoon snack, participants ate the entire bag, regardless of size or calorie content. Those given smaller bags, however, felt just as satisfied after their snack as those who ate twice as many chips from a larger bag. Even more compelling, those who ate twice as many chips from the larger bags consumed an average of 150 calories more during dinner. If you need a mid-afternoon snack to get through the day, serve up a small portion and make it high in protein and fiber (such as a low-fat cheese stick and an apple). Your body digests protein more slowly than carbohydrates, keeping your appetite under control for a longer
period of time.

18. Turn off the television during dinner. A study of 548 students completed at the Harvard School of Public Health found that the more television and videos students watched, the fewer fruits and vegetables they ate. Researchers theorize that television programs and commercials depict unhealthy foods, causing people to reach more often for soft drinks and chips rather than fruits and vegetables. A separate study from the University of Minnesota found television watching during dinner reduced fruit and vegetable consumption during the meal.

19. If your kids won’t eat what you put on their plate, bite your tongue. A study of 277 families completed at the University of Minnesota found that hassling children over their eating habits during dinner actually caused children — and their parents — to eat less nutritionally. Children and their parents consumed more fat during meals when they argued over eating behavior. The stress from the argument may have led to cravings for fatty comfort foods rather than an appetite for brussels sprouts and spinach.

20. Instead of forcing kids to clean their plates, enforce a one-bite rule. Encourage your children to take one bite out of all the foods on their plate. If, after one bite, they still don’t want to eat their spinach or broccoli, let them push it aside. This technique encourages children to try new foods, but doesn’t create a stressful eating experience. Involve young children in preparing any foods you want them to try. The sense of ownership will make them bolder.

21. When out of ideas, serve ready-to-eat cereal. This old bachelor standby provides a multivitamin’s worth of vitamins and minerals, along with some protein in the milk and fiber, if you choose a high-fiber cereal. More important, serving cereal may help the entire family slim down. In a study completed at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, people who ate a bowl of cereal in place of either lunch or dinner consumed an average 640 fewer calories a day and lost an average of four pounds of fat during two weeks. A variation on the cereal theme is to make up a great big bowl of muesli for the whole family, mixing cut-up fruit with low-fat granola or muesli cereal with or without nuts, fat-free plain yogurt, and honey. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers, it’s delicious the next day for the real breakfast.

22. Have breakfast for dinner. A great “breakfast” option for dinner is an omelet. Quick and easy to make, a great protein source, and relatively low in calories. Fill it with veggies instead of cheese, and you’ve got a complete meal in a frying pan!

23. Use parts of last night’s dinner for tonight’s meal. This allows you to cook once and eat twice. For example, if you have roasted chicken one night, use the leftovers to serve up chicken fajitas or chicken salad the next. Similarly, if you make grilled fish one night, try fish tacos the next. Prepare all key protein foods — chicken, turkey, fish, and so on — in larger-than-needed amounts so they will last two nights instead of one. Do the same with rice and other grain side dishes. Serve it up as a regular side dish one night and use the leftovers to make a casserole, stir-fry, or soup the next.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest