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Easy Dinnertime. No Mess, No Stress!

How to Plan for Easy Dinner Times. No Mess, No Stress!

Stressed out home schooling moms tell me that it is not the actual home schooling that is sapping their strength. It’s not the housework, or yard work, or meal preparation.

It’s not the endless diapers or the energetic toddlers or even driving to extracurricular activities. Not one of these things causes maternal burnout; rather, it is all of these things put together that some days make mom feel that the burden is just too heavy to carry.

Of course the sad fact is that most of us realize that we are not enjoying these precious years of our children’s childhood—years we instinctively know will fly by—as much as we wish.

We find ourselves becoming so wrapped up in the hundreds of individual tasks it takes to run a home schooling household and transport our children to their various activities that we fail to relish traditional, simple pleasures of everyday life.

This seems to be especially true of mealtimes.

Stop the Fast Food

In the United States, family dinner is quickly becoming as extinct as the sabertoothed tiger. Far too many Americans, and sadly too many homeschooling families, grab fast food on the way home from activities and eat it in the car or, worse yet, in front of the television.

This national trend not only contributes to the obesity epidemic, but also fosters other undesirable behaviors. Study after study has indicated that teens who share the evening meal with their family several times each week are far less likely to engage in immoral or unsafe activities.

We need to remember this as we plan which, and how many, after-school activities our children really need. The whole family will benefit if siblings spend more time playing together in the yard and if mom can get out from behind the wheel of her minivan.

Being raised in an Italian-American home, I learned how to whip up a really tasty meal for a couple of dozen people at my mother’s knees, but I have observed that many young moms were better prepared for college classes than kitchen duty.

Today, newly-married women almost always work until the babies start coming, and then they find themselves too overwhelmed with infant care to learn how to cook. They try to follow some recipes, but recipes often seem complicated and call for ingredients that mom has never heard of, much less purchased.

They come to believe that good cooks belong to some sort of secret society with a very limited membership.

Not true! Anyone can learn how to prepare wholesome and delicious meals everyday.

Here are some basic principles and menus.

Substitute or Ignore Ingredients

Do not be afraid to substitute ingredients, or leave them out altogether.

My absolute favorite recipe for cornbread/corn muffins calls for buttermilk. Now I ask you, does anyone actually keep a regular stock of buttermilk in the fridge?

Planning ahead and stocking up on such a rare ingredient calls for a level of organization that most home schooling moms cannot achieve, so I substitute plain or vanilla yogurt, which I do keep in stock. The cornbread tastes delicious.

Novice cooks frequently do not understand that most recipes will tolerate some tinkering. The result may be slightly different, but so what? Does your recipe call for asiago cheese? Parmesan or Romano will work just as well.

Hesitate to make that casserole because you don’t have a bay leaf? Make it without the bay leaf, and no one will notice. You can use dried and powdered spices in place of fresh.

Are veal cutlets $14 per pound? Use chicken or turkey breasts, or pork medallions.

Pasta is Your Partner

Remember pasta is your mealtime partner.

Pasta is cheap, easy to prepare, and generally husbands and kids love it. Follow package instructions (boil water with a pinch of salt, add pasta, cook to desired tenderness and drain) and top with your favorite sauce. Some of the bottled sauces are okay, although the good ones are a tad pricey.

Do you want to make authentic Italian marinara? Finely chop an onion and cook until soft in olive oil, then add some minced garlic (I buy the preminced stuff in the bottle.) and allow to cook for just a minute or two more, until the garlic is soft but not brown. Add two or three large cans of tomato puree (or crushed tomatoes, or whole tomatoes pureed in the blender, whatever).

Throw in some Italian spices (basil, parsley, rosemary, oregano or anything else you like) and simmer for 30 minutes or so. Taste the sauce. If it is a bit bitter, add sugar to taste. If you really want to jazz it up, add a pound of browned and drained chopped meat, some left over pork chops, or cooked sausage. Serve the whole thing with grated cheese.

It’s that quick and easy.

When I was a little girl, Catholics never ate meat on Friday so we had our pasta aglio olio. Cook a few tablespoons of minced garlic in olive oil until soft, but not brown. Mix this with a tiny bit of the water you cooked the pasta in, and pour over the pasta.

You can add some minced parsley (or red pepper flakes) and grated cheese and most people will salt it. If your palate can’t take all that garlic, it is perfectly fine, and quite authentic, to serve your pasta simply topped with butter and grated cheese. A popular topping for pasta in Italy is sage butter, which consists of several sage leaves allowed to steep in melted butter.

All of these sauces can be used with boxed pasta or the fancier stuff you find in the frozen section of the grocery such as ravioli, tortellini and gnocchi. Serve any of them with a side salad and a loaf of crusty bread.

Voila! You have dinner in no time.

Easy pan roasted dinners.

An easy way to cook root vegetables, such as potatoes, yams, carrots and the like, is to chop them into bite-sized pieces, coat them liberally with oil (olive, canola or corn), sprinkle them with your favorite seasonings, and bake them in a 350º oven until soft (usually 45 minutes to an hour).

Sometimes I add a coarsely chopped onion or green pepper, and some meat or other (like chicken, sausage, or pork chops) to the pan.

Usually these will bake a little longer, but an hour and a quarter later you have a healthy and complete meal.

Start dinner in the morning.

If your afternoon schedule will just not allow you any food prep time, get a crock pot. Master a few simple stew recipes.

Chop everything early in the morning, put it in the slow cooker on “low” and dinner will be ready to dish out in ten hours.

Get the kids involved.

It has been my experience that even children who routinely resist chores love to help in the kitchen. At the end of the school day, have the children prepare a fruit or veggie platter for an afternoon snack. For some reason, when children peel, chop and arrange vegetables on a plate themselves, they are far more likely to eat them, especially if you have a dressing “dip.”

Use a portion of the sliced cucumbers, carrot sticks, or cherry tomatoes to get a head start on a side salad for supper. Chop up some lettuce, wash it and let the kids spin it dry. (Kids love spinning salad, and WalMart sells a perfectly fine spinner for a couple of dollars.)

When storing salad in the fridge until suppertime, cover it with paper towels (not plastic wrap) which will absorb excess moisture and keep it from getting soggy.

This Christmas, give kiddies cookbooks as gifts. They contain simple recipes, with easy to follow instructions, and stress kitchen safety. Any food prep the children do can be noted in your lesson plans as practical life skills.

Plan Ahead.

Some homeschooling moms will take a day over the weekend to prepare several meals and ease the weekday evening rush. This is a good idea, but as you can see, not really necessary.

On the other hand, you should occasionally make double recipes when you cook, and freeze or refrigerate one half to serve later on a particularly busy night.

This column is not intended to be a recipe column, but hopefully a source of advice and encouragement for home schooling parents. Preparing perfectly palatable meals is well within the reach of just about everyone. Cooking is an activity that should be fun for the family and not a source of stress for Mom.

Even more important, mealtime should be a relaxing occasion when ideas and experiences can be shared and family relations strengthened.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of time spent with my extended family around the dining room table. Build those memories for your children too.

Editor’s note: With the school year approaching for many families, this is a reprint that bears repeating!

What’s your fast, nutritious go-to meal when time is short?

Header Image CC GloriaGarcía

About Ginny Seuffert

Ginny Seuffert has been a leading writer and speaker about homeschooling and Catholic family life for more than two decades. She has given hundreds of talks at conferences and written three books. Meet Ginny | Ginny's Books
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