Eating sanely when life is insane

This week has been busy. Figure in one overnight trip to DC (which almost, but mercifully did not, coincide with Michael’s trip to the west coast), two evening 168 Hours events here in New York (Mediabistro’s Book Club, and the Pen Parentis Literary Salon), plus the workaday madness of having columns and book reviews due while sending people emails saying “Hey, it’s Laura. Remember me? I wrote a book,” and you can imagine that the time management techniques I learned while writing my book are being tested.

But hey, sometimes long workweeks happen. What makes this more entertaining is that we have a big celebration coming up this weekend: my son’s 3rd birthday. In between planning this celebration, and still squeezing in several runs, I chose to let something go. And this week, that thing was cooking.

Groceries and cooking have been undergoing a long, slow revolution in my house – and psyche. I grew up with my mother cutting coupons and keeping them in envelopes (on which she wrote her shopping list). As I’ve blogged before, we didn’t go out to eat that often. Normally, I try not to rely too much on take-out; it tends to take just as long as cooking, and is a lot less healthy. When I go out to eat, I like to hire a babysitter, go out somewhere nice, and relax. I don’t like the idea of getting restaurant food just because there isn’t anything in the house and I’m tired.

Then, this week, things happened. At the grocery store on Sunday, I actually bought pre-cooked chicken breasts. Even as I threw them in the cart, this struck me as the nail in the coffin of my lifelong calculation that it is better to take time to save money. Pre-made chicken breasts are all about spending money to save time. And not even much time, as it turned out, as I never even got to eat them with the instant rice and pre-made Indian sauces I’d planned on. Adding to the horror of all this: I threw out the coupons for baby food the clerk gave me. We buy tons of baby food! I just decided, though, that I wasn’t going to take the time to keep track of them (especially since I’m not the only one in my household who shops for groceries).

But I do know that eventually things will be back to normal. And when they are, these are my best practices for eating decently in the middle of a busy life:

Order groceries if you can. Fresh Direct here in New York is great. Other players: PeaPod, even Amazon in Seattle. The trek to and from the grocery store is on the delivery guy’s time, not yours.

Keep staples in the house. Here’s a quick way to think about what you need: Breakfast can be cereal, fruit and coffee (or juice/milk for the little ones). Everyone is on his/her own for lunch. Snacks: pretzels and fruit. Dinner: one protein, one veggie, one side. Keep things interesting with exciting marinades, if you desire.

Speaking of dinner: do not over-complicate this. There are no bonus points gained for cooking a 45-minute dinner when a 20-minute one should suffice. Some quick ideas: pasta (angel hair cooks in 3 minutes) and jar tomato sauce; soy sauce-glazed salmon with asparagus and instant rice; BBQ pork chops with peaches and couscous; chicken tikka masala (sauce in a jar) with rice and green beans; mushroom and goat cheese omelet with broccoli on the side. There, I just got you to Friday. Real Simple often has good, quick recipes.

It’s good to eat together. If you’re never eating dinner together, just aim for twice a week. If you can’t swing dinner, do breakfast. Get up early enough to take your time, and talk about your days.

Check out Jeanne Muchnick’s Dinner for Busy Moms. While I’m a bit testy about the idea that it’s only mom’s job to make sure everyone eats, the tips in the book are still good. For instance, if you’re ordering Chinese take-out online (see Seamless Web), involve your kids. Hey, you’re still spending time together!

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