What’s for dinner?

photo-144In this month’s newsletter (out April 1!), I argue that being organized about household chores doesn’t necessarily save you time. There may be other benefits, like more interesting meals, perhaps, if they’re planned and cooked ahead on weekends. It’s not a causation relationship. Being organized in and of itself doesn’t make you spend more time on chores. But there’s a correlation between organization/rituals and spending more time on housework, because people who run a load of laundry every morning to keep it from piling up are also the sorts of people who really like having a clean and organized house — so they spend their weekends achieving this, too.

But what about the rest of us? My housework and errand totals per week are pretty low. When asked, I answer that this is a combination of outsourcing and standards best described as “relaxed.” My husband does some chunk of chores and errands too, so just because my totals are low doesn’t mean the household total is so paltry.

I do know, however, that I wind up doing at least 80 percent of the cooking around here. My husband travels a lot, so he’s often just not around for much of the weekday meal preparation and consumption (or eating, of course, so that’s one less person to deal with). I don’t spend time meal planning in the traditional sense. We go to Costco every 3-4 weeks and buy large sizes of meat, produce, cereal, eggs, etc. Somebody makes an additional quick grocery shopping trip once a week to the local grocery to freshen up supplies. We usually have the ingredients for a few basic meals on hand, and also have some frozen prepared dishes in the freezer that I’d be unlikely to make from scratch (chicken tikka masala, etc.)

I love to eat. When people ask me for my restaurant preferences, I respond, honestly, that I eat everything with enthusiasm (see my raw egg adventures in Japan). My kids, alas, are not gourmet eaters yet. They want things on the simple side. So pasta, sauce, cheese, and meat are all OK on their own, but mixed together as lasagna they get looked at suspiciously. While I love to eat, I have little interest in spending an hour cooking a meal they’re going to whine about, especially if I can get some fruits and vegetables into them in other ways. I do some recreational cooking and baking and I completely understand that cooking can be fun. It can be fun to explore new recipes, or hunt for unexpected ingredients in cute little markets. I can imagine doing a lot more of that at another stage of my life. Right now it’s not a top priority.

The kids usually like cereal, bagels with lox, waffles, pancakes, oatmeal, or eggs, or yogurt for breakfast. Of these, pancakes take the longest, but not too long from a mix. My 6-year-old buys school lunch. In a big win for peer pressure, they got him to try arugula the other day! The 4-year-old and 2-year-old eat lunch at home. It’s often mac and cheese or a sandwich, and fruit (the 4-year-old sometimes has veggies too — he’s the more adventurous one). I eat leftovers, or a Lean Cuisine type meal, usually with quickly cooked veggies on the side. I do something between steaming and sauteing cauliflower or broccoli in 8 minutes flat. Snacks are things like fruit, yogurt, cheese, pretzels, nuts.

Dinner for adults who are around is often protein with a sauce plus veggies (last night was salmon in teriyaki sauce plus broccoli). Salads are pretty quick too. Tonight was my “Southwest chicken salad” — 2 cut-up chicken tenders sauteed with red pepper and corn, served on a bed of greens with avocado, cut up cucumber, and spicy ranch dressing. I timed it tonight: 10 minutes tops. If we go with one of the prepared meals, we heat it up, then do lots of veggies on the side. I do work from home, which opens up some possibilities, and so occasionally I bake chicken over veggies, which takes about 45 minutes, but not 45 active minutes. You spend 5 minutes chopping the veggies — or not. Many can be bought pre-sliced! Stick the chicken on top, stick it in the oven, add a marinade if you so desire, go read the paper or play outside and dinner is basically ready when it comes out. I tend to skip the starch, but there are microwave rices without flavorings and added salt that cook in 90 seconds.

The kids like kid food. So their dinner is largely about putting some piece of adult food on their plates that they may try and over time come to like, making sure they eat a serving of fruit and a serving of vegetables, and then giving them something they will eat that’s hopefully got some redeeming value. We do breakfast for dinner sometimes (scrambled or boiled eggs), hamburgers, chicken strips that then turn into my Southwest chicken salad in leftover form when a kid doesn’t finish them, Bagel Bites, frozen pizza, Annie’s mac ‘n cheese, pasta in various shapes, putting cheese between two tortillas and cooking it and calling it quesadillas, etc. Two out of three will eat smoked salmon and steak, so these make appearances too.

We’ve been going out to eat once a week or so as a family. I usually grab sushi on Tuesday nights when I work late. My husband and I eat out together once every 2 weeks or so.

Because the meals are simple there aren’t that many dishes to do. While I dislike being on the hook for making a meal and doing the dishes after, when I look at the clock, I see that it doesn’t take that much time. Two pans is a 2-minute job. Unloading the dishwasher is 5-7 minutes. It only feels like it takes 5 hours.

What’s for dinner in your house?

In other news: Cloud, of the Wandering Scientist blog, has a long-running series called Dinner During Dora consisting of 22-minute recipes.

Photo: Another of my favorite entree salads — leftover restaurant steak, cooked with mushrooms.



27 Responses to What’s for dinner?


  1. Usha says:

    Laura, our food habits are SO different :) … I cook Indian food. Mostly South Indian. We usually have rice with dal or sambar, rasam, a curry and a chutney for dinner. Sometimes we have rotis with dal, a curry and salad. We always have yogurt. Lunch is almost always South Indian. I do spend a lot of time cooking which involves prep time as well as clean up time. It takes me about 02 hours/meal if I go all the way in the above packages. No matter what, it takes me an hour to make rice with dal or sambar or rasam and a curry. REAL extensive cooking takes at least 3 hours/meal, which I do on important occasions and weekends or when we have someone over. I have my time logs which show that the process does take, on an average, 1.5 to 2.5 hours/meal.

    • Laura says:

      @Usha- everyone has different things they choose to spend their time doing. To me, one of the great things about modern life is that we don’t have to make choices one way or the other. Some people, for instance, enjoy making their own clothes for many reasons: style, exact fit, creativity. But of course it’s also possible to purchase clothes as well. Same with food.

      • Usha says:

        We used to explore eating more “Western” food when we lived in Sydney. Here any kind of cheese is very expensive, so trying out different Italian/French cuisine is very hard in India.

        Indian food is certainly delicious, but yes, it is time consuming….

        I agree with you Laura… I am able to cook a little more because I’ve got only one girl who is old enough to play by herself/entertain herself. I wasn’t able to cook as much when she was a baby… SO yes, there is the need of the hour, my mood, and what I can get from the markets here.

    • Ana says:

      Indian food is extremely time-intensive but SO DELICIOUS! We are trying to make it more often so the kids get used to the flavors (the grandmothers are appalled when they won’t even try a dal or curry) .

      • We strongly recommend this cookbook for quick delicious weeknight Indian: http://amzn.to/1gXSKiU

      • Usha says:

        What kind of cuisine do like to eat/make, Ana? There are some quick recipes from each Indian state. Sailu’s Kitchen is a nice site for comprehensive list of all kinds of cuisine, particularly from Andhra Pradesh.

        • Ana says:

          Usha, I’m Gujarati and my husband is actually South Indian, so we make a mix of both, and some other pseudo-Indian stuff, with Indian spices and flavors. I have plenty of recipes from our mothers, but even with practice it takes longer to cook than other foods for me.

  2. Griffin says:

    I went through a phase pre-children in which I was utterly obsessed with where our food came from. My reading began with Michael Pollan, but it did not stop there. Two farm shares later, I completely burned myself out, and I think I gained weight (or at least worked harder to maintain my weight) thinking about food so much. I have a love-hate relationship with Costco, but Laura’s post has me contemplating renewing my membership. I do 99% of the cooking in our house, and I do 100% of the shopping. After years of practice, I’m pretty efficient, though, and I’m not dissatisfied with the amount of time I spend in the kitchen. I struggle with whether or not to do the shopping with the 2-year-old twins in tow. It pains me to use a child-free hour to do this errand, but dragging them along isn’t pleasant either.

    • Laura says:

      @Griffin- I, too, don’t like the idea of using what could be kid-free time for shopping. On the other hand, shopping with a 2-year-old in tow is often stressful. We use Costco a lot. Unfortunately, there are a few items they don’t carry that we need, so we can’t only shop there. Also, it’s 20 minutes away, so going is almost always a 2-hour ideal. It only happens once every month or so, so that comes out to 30 minutes/week, but still.

      • Griffin says:

        Well, if I did Costco alone monthly (and super-efficiently), I can swing Harris Teeter quickly with the twins the other times because they can be bribed with free sugar cookies and keep quiet during a quick tour of the produce, dairy and deli sections.

  3. Ana says:

    We definitely spend more time cooking than you, but it just happens to be a priority for both of us, and I think we’ve got the system down (and the kids play independently enough) to where its not a burden. We do most of our cooking (lunches and dinners) on Sunday, so if we happen to be out of town for the weekend, the week will be more full of take-out and prepared foods.
    Honestly our 2 year old is much easier to shop with than the 4 year old. At least the little one will stay in the stroller instead of running around the store, he hasn’t realized where the ice cream and candy are to go and grab things and put them in the cart, and he is HIGHLY motivated by the lollipops at the register at Trader Joe’s—enough to behave the entire time just so he can get one.

  4. We’ve written a lot about this on our blog. We make dinner most nights, and generally in less than 20 min, and generally as a team effort. DC1 (age 7) is learning a few meals too, like quesadillas and scrambled eggs.

    http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/mental-load-and-menu-planning/ is an example post, though we’ve got a bunch more under our food tag.

  5. gwinne says:

    I cook a lot over the weekend, use the crock pot liberally, and do some meal prep when I work from home during the day. Like, right now I’m going to brown some ground turkey before heading to campus (tonight it will be meat sauce for g-f pasta and it will become chili at some point later…)

  6. M says:

    -I like good food, and have become a food snob, so I really try and balance classiness/tastiness with efficiency in the kitchen. I spend the extra time to make home-made salad dressing or add fresh herbs, but cook fairly simple meals overall, and do lots of batch cooking
    -I do a weekly meal plan (a friend of mine recently inspired me to do a monthly meal plan–and even though that’s trickier due to not knowing the schedule that far out–it’s great for establishing a base and finding more of a pattern–I couldn’t eat the same thing every week, but I could every month)
    -We do the monthly Costco trip (also about 20 min away). However, this supplies nowhere near all of our food. We have a mini-Costco in our basement now for pantry stuff and recently got a second fridge (for cheese, milk, jumbo clamshells of spinach and other jumbo Costco veggies, etc.) We also have two deep freezers stocked with meat. These things make a huge difference.
    -I shop once a week based on my meal plan
    -I TRY to do 2-3 hours worth of cooking on Sunday to get some of the cooking out of the way for the week. Sometimes I really don’t feel like it, but it happens 3/4 weeks.
    -I typically do one slow-cooker meal per week (15 min prep, max), and then maybe prep a veggie or salad to go with it (10 min).
    -We can typically do two meals based on leftovers or drawn from our frozen stash (chili, etc.)
    -That leaves one meal per week (M-Th) where I will actually cook something… typically taking about 40 min.
    -Friday I might cook something nice, go out with my husband, or we’ll do taco night with the step kids (30 min prep – everybody helps)
    -Saturday will usually cook a meal… sometimes this is an opportunity to cook something that takes longer in the oven, but not necessarily lots of prep work (e.g., braised/roasted meat).
    -The killer is that we cook most of our breakfasts (~15 min prep) and eat family breakfast – this adds greatly to the morning routine, but also counts as family time and means we make it through the day with a light snack or really light lunch
    -Cooking probably comes to a total of 7 h/week (for me – husband will contribute 2-3 by helping or doing an occasional full meal), which includes all meals. Time for dishes/clean up is relatively significant – probably 20 min/day, so another 2.5 hour. This is sort of a lot, but for the health/pleasure I think it’s worth it?

    Overall I think I disagree with Laura’s premise that organization does not equal time savings. I think it depends on the individual circumstance. For me, it definitely saves time. I appreciate the point though that moreso than time, it saves stress and also equals more satisfying meals… the time savings is probably a smaller part of the equation.

    • If we don’t have some sort of plan, we (by which I mean me and DC1) end up having low blood-sugar melt-downs while we decide whether it’s worth getting take-out (given the time spent waiting and driving) and if so what on earth are we going to order (DC2′s allergy to wheat nixing weekly pizza delivery). Having a loose menu plan (here are meals we can make with the ingredients we have) takes the mental load part away and gets food into me faster after work, leading to time saved, increased familial harmony, healthier meals, and lower spending.
      *
      So, um, team organization?

      • Ana says:

        Agree. Maybe it doesn’t save OVERALL time, but with careful planning, we have it down so that little to none of it has to happen on weeknights between 5 and 7 pm, when we all get home together (often quite tired and frazzled), have to walk the dog, have to get kids fed and exercised and to bed. It saves a LOT of mental stress not having to think each day about what to eat and how to get it on the table, since we do all the planning, shopping AND cooking on the weekends.

  7. Nother Barb says:

    I’d say that my kids always eat what we eat, but that would be to deny the year my 2-yr-old ate only Burger King chicken nuggets, milk, apple slices, veggie Wheat Thins, veggie cream cheese, and Ovaltine. We tried to get any nutrition possible, even traces, into the kid. Then, since he looooooved numbers, we did the “as many bites of each thing as you are old”technique with great success. By the time he was 6 (oh, the years of counting and playing math games with food) he’d joined his brother in being quite presentable in nice restaurants.

    When he was 4 I subscribed to my life-hack menu planning service. Today is Chinese crockpot chicken, since I won’t be home before 6:30. Most nights, though, my menus let me have dinner on the table within the hour…if I remembered to defrost the meat…

    I usually shop at my local independent chain grocery because it’s small, a weekly shopping takes half an hour, and they don’t have stuff I don’t need like the big supermarkets. I.love my Costco every so often too, but can’t take the boys because they tease us and write essays about it in school, how hopelessly suburban we are, how costco must be some anagramatic acronym for temple of conspicuous consumption, etc. Then they gladly scarf down the frappucinos and grapefruit by the case.

  8. M says:

    Also – the kids eat what we eat – no negotiation. They are my stepkids, and when I first started living with them they were 5 and 6 and were used to eating waffles, mac & cheese, hotdogs, chicken fingers, etc. They did not recognize a tomato or peach. My mind was blown. From the beginning, they had to eat what was cooked, though usually in fairly small portions. It took about a year of effort to get them really into this mode. There were rarely “food battles,” per se, but there was a reasonable amount of complaining, slow eating, etc, which got a little wearing. Now they eat everything, like some of it a lot, tolerate most of it, and only really dislike some things (which they know they must eat anyway – but sometimes do so very slowly). Making it a no-negotiation issue really worked, and I strongly believe they are going to be far better for it (and our life is much less stressful as well). They are now 9 and 10. I believe that in a couple more years, they will be little gourmets.

  9. Shelly says:

    I really agree that even though being organized may not save time, the sanity savings are worth it. I used to be organized. But then our DC2 learned that flinging food she didn’t want to eat was great fun. Even better if she can smack it out of our hands before we get it to her tray. I think she was toying with us for a few months where she would eat everything. Now…not so much. It has made meal times stressful and I’ve given up on making lots of different meals as it is not fun (as Laura mentioned) when you spend time making a great meal that won’t get eaten. I keep trying to introduce our meals to her and sometimes it works. I just need the patience to get through this phase!

  10. Wendy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information. This is the first time I’ve stopped at your blog, I will read MORE!!!
    We do things a bit different here. We have some allergy issues here, I have had to learn to cook 4 different ways. So, what I do now is cook our supper, doubled, so we can have leftovers for lunch. Everyone can eat supper, but they are mostly on their own for bkfst and lunch. When the kids were too little to cook for themselves i did make out a menu for every meal plus snacks, tight budget at the time. Now for snacks we have fruit if we want it or crackers and peanut butter. I do bake 2 pans of chicken breast about once a month to have on hand for recipes. and we eat dessert on Sundays and Wednesdays. Not big stuff, but we get excited over the little things!

  11. Gladys says:

    Hi Laura,
    I make mix meals at home- A Filipino & American. It’s very easy to make American breakfast like bacon,eggs,toast bread and sometimes my girls just eat cereal but I cook Filipino breakfast like fried rice, eggs and sweet sausage. And same with dinner/supper, it takes me a while to finish my cooking and it depends on what kind of dishes I’m making.

  12. I like to be organized and plan ahead, but not for everything. I base my meals off of our CSA. So the planning comes in on Thursday when we pick up: What is going to go bad, first? And what goes well INTO something.

    This time of year it’s a lot of greens, so the lettuce becomes salad and the darker greens get cooked.

    My tendency is to cook 2 big meals on the weekend and eat leftovers for a few days, then wing it when we run out.

    I used to love trying new recipes – at least one a week. But now I have a toddler. My 8 year old is fine to let me cook, the 20 month old, not so much. So dinner is microwaved leftovers and a veggie on the side. Sometimes salad, sometimes steamed, sometimes roasted.

  13. Kaitlin says:

    I stay at home, and my husband works just a few minutes away, so he’s able to come home for lunch most days. Lately, I’ve started doing our bigger meal at lunch since I have more energy in the morning, and then in the evening we have either leftovers or something that takes 10-15 minutes to throw together. This offers us a lot of flexibility for our evenings, which we have come to appreciate tremendously.

  14. caryn says:

    This is definitely some food for thought! I agree with what Laura said in the newsletter about how housework fills the available space. Whenever I’m home, I spend most of the time doing mundane, piddly chores, in addition to the ones the other family members are responsible for!

    As the family nutritionist, meal planner and chef, I spend, on average 2 hours in the kitchen per week night, prepping & cooking dinner, doing dishes, and prepping things for the next day such as lunches & coffee. Or not- I think it’s time to do another time log. Sometimes during these two hours, I’m browsing the internet, going through mail, checking homework, etc. Regardless, it seems to take about two hours from the time I start dinner to the time it’s served and we’re actually eating.

    I even spend a few hours on Sunday chopping veggies & cooking ahead so week night meals will go together in a snap, and I love “2-for-1″ meals that I can cook once and we can eat twice.

    I do enjoy most of the process of meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and occasionally experimenting & trying new recipes, but would love to spend less time in the kitchen each night, especially if it’s a gym night. I devote at least two nights a week to the gym, so those are our “reheat” nights.

    Thanks for the suggestions. I will see if I don’t fall into the Organization Camp and hopefully find areas I can be more relaxed about, cut back on or effectively outsource so I can have more leisurely, relaxing evenings!!!

  15. Carrie says:

    Funny Laura, when I got remarried (to my second husband post-divorce), I realized how my expectations around dinner changed. As a single mom of 4 kids, I could reheat (homecooked) leftovers a couple times a week, and have “cheese and crackers and fruit” for dinner once a week, and only end up cooking a couple of nights a week with no complaints.

    Now that I have this man to cook for… LOL! Seriously, it’s just MY expectation that changed, not his. He would be happy coming home to a sandwich as long as he didn’t have to cook it.

    Also, I get bored easily with eating/cooking. I need the variety more than my family does, so I don’t resent spending more time cooking – it makes me happy.

    And I now have 3 adolescents, and they eat a lot. They also do a lot of chores, so it evens out. ;-)

    • Laura says:

      @Carrie – who knew, my husband’s absence is actually making me spend less time on chores!

  16. Susanna says:

    I have enough trouble with meals – and it’s just me! my work schedule is 12 hr rotating shifts with overtime- mostly known but sometimes last minute callout. I enjoy cooking when I have time- and that’s very very seldom when I’m working that day or night. sometimes I use the crockpot or cook from scratch but usually I do eggs and make breakfast tacos(no matter what meal) or quesadillas or wraps or a sandwich- like you I add fruits and veggies to make the meal healthier. this past month with working so much I’ve used canned soup and sandwiches quite a bit as well as pulling meals I’ve frozen out of the freezer and adding fruits/veggies or even using the occasional frozen meal (bought that way!). I have to have some kind of plan – not necessarily every single meal -b ut I know with what I like to eat and my time contraints I need eggs, cheese, tortillas, a a few frozen things for convenience, fruit, baby carrots, cherry/grape tomatoes, greek yogurt and the occasional cans of soup to make it. failing to stock up on these things leads to failure.