There have been a number of people recently telling me they could never follow through with gluten and dairy free eating in their lives, because they are too busy or get home from work too late to cook. They are amazed that we sit down to dinner as a family (comprised of 3 generations) at least 5 out of 7 nights a week. We have activities, meetings, games…but still we eat together. It is one of the ordinary things we do that perhaps is extraordinary.
Eating together keeps us connected as a family, even though we don’t really talk about much over the dinners. It keeps us well nourished, because we eat real food that doesn’t contain the allergens my family avoids nor does our food contain many chemicals. We eat vegetables. My kids sometimes even take seconds of cooked greens. I know we aren’t the only family that eats together most nights, and I love to hear about other families and their traditions. Family dinner is even the subject of a new book by Laurie David, who said “At one point I said to myself, I have to get some happy family moments. And so I zeroed in on family dinner as the perfect time to accomplish that.” I have to agree with her. Not all dinners are equally enjoyable, but more often than not we manage to all connect with each other in a fundamental way that gets missed if we eat separately or in a restaurant.
How can a busy family have a real meal on the table in less time than it takes to have a pizza delivered? Organization and creativity are useful skills. I became the queen of the twenty minute dinner early on in my marriage with the help of cookbooks by Marion Burros. Keep It Simple helped my marriage survive law school. She laid out whole menus and listed the order of prep jobs so you could have everything ready in about 20 to 30 minutes. It helped me immensely to have someone figure out the orchestration of the cooking for me. I can’t use most of her recipes anymore, but I’ve absorbed the ideas and now adapt them to my new menus.
But what are those menus, you wonder? Tacos. Pasta with a quick saute of veggies and strips of chicken or beef. Lentils and Rice. Soups. Stir-fry. Frittatas. All of these are in heavy rotation in my house when things get busy. I plan the menus for the week based on the schedule of activities and shop once. Only once. I alternate whether I go to a regular grocery or Costco, but I try not to do both in one week. Going to the grocery store every night is a time suck and it makes me cranky to stand in line with all those other cranky hungry people. Sometimes you won’t have the exact right ingredient. That’s where creativity comes in. Don’t go to the store for it. Look in the pantry or the freezer to see if there is something else you can use and get creative. Some of the best dinners are made that way. Mark Bittman’s recipes taught me to be creative with my cooking. Have you ever used the ultra quick recipes he published? I can’t use a lot of his suggested meals because of food sensitivities in the family, but there is enough to get me started. Since I live in Texas, his summer meals are appropriate for much of the year. Weeknight meals don’t have to be fancy productions to be good. It is the choice of good ingredients prepared quickly and simply that make the perfect weeknight dinner.
Soup can be made in the pressure cooker in less than 20 minutes or in a slow cooker you start in the morning. Stir-fry can be made from veggies you prep the night before, as can the sauteed veggies and meat over pasta. If you are cooking rice, just get it started before you prep your veggies to stir-fry, and if it is pasta you are cooking, start the water for pasta first an then prep the veggies you want to saute. Weeknight meals don’t need to be elaborate, just flavorful.
Taco fillings can be varied based on family preferences – refried beans from the can are perfectly acceptable and can be dressed up with the addition of your own spices. Leftover chicken can be chopped, as can other leftover meats. A pound of ground turkey cooked with seasonings makes another quick taco filling option. I prep all the possible taco fillings, and then everyone makes their own tacos to their own taste. You can tell, there is not much fancy cooking going on during busy periods. What you can’t tell is how happy the family is to gather for a brief period and connect. The world can seem a crazy place, but when I’m sitting down to a family dinner, no matter how simple, I feel I can counter some of those negative, worrisome images that run in a loop in my head and focus on the extraordinary joy in the ordinary.