Cooking Time Crunch


    A busy mom asks for suggestions on how to balance kids and cooking — and if it's even possible to eat better without spending too much time or money or effort.

    Dear Miriam,

    Do you have any suggestions on how to balance kids and cooking? By the time I get home from work, I only have a few hours to spend with my 11-month-old son, and I find it very difficult to cook while watching him. Plus, I would rather play with him than stand over a hot stove. My husband gets home late, my son goes to bed late and basically, we feed him and then often eat cheese sandwiches for dinner — a sad diet for grown ups in their 30s. How can we eat better without spending too much time or money or effort? Is that even possible?

    Cooking Time Crunch

    Dear Cooking,

    It's totally possible, and realizing that you want to make a change is the first step! There are lots of options. I'll share a few. Even if none of them totally fits with your lifestyle and your preferences, hopefully you'll gain enough knowledge and confidence to figure out what works for you. Also, there are plenty of mail order/delivery/pre-fab meals of the "food for working families" variety. I'm not going to suggest those, not because they're not good options, but because 1) I have no experience with them, and 2) I feel like if you want take-out, get take-out, and if you want home-cooked meals, make them yourself. All that being said, here are some practical (I hope!) suggestions:

    1. Learn how to use a crockpot. I love making soup this way. Chop some veggies, add lentils and broth, throw them in before you leave for work, then come home to a warm meal and a delicious-smelling house. The Internet is great for finding crockpot recipes, and they typically take less skill and less concentration than other kinds of cooking. I usually just attempt to replicate my favorite stovetop soup recipes by slow-cooking them for eight hours on low. It almost always works. For me, prepping in the morning is easier than the evening in most cases, and then it's instant gratification when you get home. I also love soup because it's surprisingly easy for kids to eat either mashed on a spoon or with the veggies and beans as finger food.

    2. Make a plan for the week. Try to stick to it while recognizing that life happens. Decide on Sunday what you're going to eat every weekday. Be sure you have the ingredients. Cook something during naptime on the weekends. Trade off with your husband on weekend kid duties to make time. It helps me to have a basic outline of the categories of meals and then vary within those categories from week to week. Monday through Thursday in our house (Shabbat meals somehow manage to get planned separately), in no particular order, is pasta (mac and cheese, lasagna, baked ziti, sesame noodles), soup (lentil, split pea, potato corn chowder, chili), kid-friendly protein (fish sticks, chicken nuggets, hot dogs) and cheesy something (pizza, grilled cheese, quesadillas). Occasionally we throw in burritos or a quiche or casserole or stir-fry or curry, but this is pretty much what we eat. If you need to swap out one of these nights for some kind of take-out or frozen meal, do it. If you need to schedule PB&J one night, fine. If you want to make two things a week and alternate leftovers, even better (though I usually opt for leftovers for lunch). Then, if something goes haywire and you eat cheese sandwiches on your pasta night, no biggie. Just regroup and figure out what dinner will be the next night. The point is fast, easy, healthy enough, kid-friendly and prepped in advance. Which brings me to…

    3. Prep before you're starving. Cooking in advance does take planning and does potentially take time away from other endeavors, so you have to decide where to place your priorities. If you want to have a wider range of meals, you will need to adjust how you use your time. One of the best time-savers I learned from my dear friends Beverly and Naomi is to chop, saute and freeze several onions separate from any dish you're making. Then when it's time to make the stir-fry or whatever, you just grab them from the baggie in the freezer and you're already two steps into the recipe. It's honestly amazing how much time it saves. If you're going to make soup, you can cut the veggies the night before and stick them in the fridge. If you're going to make mac and cheese, you can assemble everything and bake it when you get home. Look for recipes that can be done in stages, then do them in stages!

    4. Make cooking a fun family activity. As much as you want to play with your son, see how you can involve him in meal prep. He's the right age to bang on a pot while you chop veggies or to stack tupperware while you're grating cheese. The more that you get used to having him in the kitchen and he gets used to being there, the more involved he'll get. In just a few months, he'll be able to dump ingredients into the pot himself, which will lead into mixing and then into measuring. Cooking is one of my favorite activities to do with my two-year-old. She's great at sprinkling cheese on pizza, stirring ingredients together for pancakes and even cracking eggs. She's also terrific at making a mess, but her involvement means that cooking isn't time away from playing, it is playing. 

    I'm happy to share recipes directly with anyone who's interested, but even more important than the specifics of what you eat, I hope this gives you some vision beyond cheese sandwiches and ideas on how to incorporate more options into your diet. 

    Be well and eat well,