As I sat on the commuter train, resenting the fact that a last-minute meeting had caused me to run late, I dreaded the four little words that awaited me as soon as I opened my front door: “What’s for dinner, Mom?” The answer I wanted to give, “Absolutely no idea, hon,” wasn’t going to work given the hectic evening that lay ahead (piano lessons and a school meeting). So I did what thousands of working moms do. Instead of figuring out what to cook for dinner, I pulled out the cell and called the local pizzeria. One order for a large pie later, I felt my cheeks flush with a mix of guilt and embarrassment as the order taker instantly recognized my voice and said, “Oh, hey, Rosemary.”
Okay, I confess. I’m a food columnist and cookbook author, but I’m a regular at a pizza joint. In my defense, I’m also the mom of seven children, and I work full-time. Not so scandalous now, huh? As working moms, we all know that pit-in-your-stomach feeling when it’s 6 p.m. and you're pondering what to cook for dinner, but there’s nothing cooking except your anxiety. With everyone teetering on the verge of a meltdown (including you), the takeout trap is an easy one to fall into—it’s so fast. But it isn’t cheap, or healthy, and it does nothing for the guilt trip we’re always taking. So early on I decided that sitting down to dinner as a family would always be a huge priority for me. It’s the only time we’re all together, for better or worse, and though a home-cooked family meal may not happen every night (thus the pizzeria), I have learned a few tricks to make it happen most nights. Of course, the other challenge is to come up with dishes you can prepare in a hurry. The most creative among us has drawn a blank on what to cook for dinner—and there are only so many rotisserie chicken recipes one family can stomach. So I’m happy to share the practical solutions, shortcuts and go-to dishes I rely on—everything from shopping shortcuts to pantry must-haves. Try a few of these strategies and before you know it, you’ll be deleting the takeout numbers from speed dial.
Prep the Kitchen
Those clutter-free kitchen counters that appear on TV, the ones showcasing nothing more than a vase of lilies and a bowl of lemons, are just silly in the eyes of a working mom. That said, taking the time to think about how you can make your kitchen as efficient as possible has a big time-saving payoff.
Store the tools and go-to gadgets you use all the time close to the stove so you’re not running around the kitchen.
Alphabetize the spices—you’ll avoid pawing through six bottles of dried oregano searching in vain for the basil.
Keep ingredients you use often, like olive oil, salt and garlic powder, in plain sight so you can grab them quickly.
Occasionally go through your kitchen with a ruthless eye, discarding stuff that isn’t being used.
Repeat after me: I will not guerrilla grocery shop. Those panicked “I’ve got nothing for dinner” stops at the supermarket induce stress, waste time and are far more costly than you might think. The biggest shopping shortcut I know is to be organized and to break shopping into tiers. Once a month, do a major shopping run to restock the pantry, buy cleaning supplies and paper goods, etc. Once a week, shop for meat, produce and dairy. Here’s how your electronic gadgets can help save more time.
Home Computer Create a shopping list organized by category (snacks, fruits). Print it out, hang it on the fridge, and highlight needed items or add new ones.
Smartphone Keep your grocery list on your phone. There are assorted grocery list apps for iOS and Android.
Laptop or handheld Use delivery services (Peapod, Fresh Direct). They store your lists, so you just log on, place an order and wait for food to come to you. They have apps too.
Fabulous Oven-Fried Fish
Dip 1/2-inch-thick cod or catfish fillets (about 1 pound total) into milk, then into flour, then into a mixture of 1/2 cup dry breadcrumbs, 3 tablespoons melted butter and 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese. Place the fillets in a single layer in a baking pan and bake, uncovered, in a 350F oven 6 minutes or until fish flakes easily with a fork.
South of the Border Chicken Wraps
Mix 1/2 cup low-fat sour cream with 3 tablespoons store-bought guacamole. Spread this on 4 large flour tortillas. Sprinkle tortillas with precooked chicken strips (you will need two 5-ounce packages, sold in the supermarket meat case), plus chopped tomato and shredded lettuce. Roll up, cut in half, and serve.
Pesto Pasta with Chicken and Broccoli
Cook 1/2 pound ziti about 12 minutes or until done. Add a bag of broccoli florets (from produce area of supermarket) the last 4 minutes. Meanwhile, strip the meat from a 2-pound roasted chicken from the supermarket deli. Drain the ziti and broccoli, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. toss the pasta, broccoli and chicken with 1/2 cup store-bought pesto and reserved water. Heat over low heat until very hot. Add 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
In a mixing bowl, combine 1 pound lean ground beef with an egg, 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Shape into 4 burgers. cook in a single layer in a pan for 12 minutes or until done, turning halfway through cooking. Brush both sides of each burger with barbecue sauce and cook 1 more minute. Place burgers onto split toasted rolls.
Spend some time grouping canned foods by type, and rotate your cans—meaning when you buy new ones, put them in the back of the cupboard and pull the older cans to the front so you will use them first. Keep a box in the kitchen to store all the kid possessions that so often get dumped there (backpack, shoes, books, etc). After dinner, hand it over to the kids so they can transfer their belongings to their own bedrooms.
Elizabeth Bryan of Temecula, Calif., recently purchased a dinner bell. When she rings it, her boys know it’s time to set the table. “They come down, and they really help me while I cook,” she says. “They’ll put out the condiments and the napkins.”
Mom of two Lura Antokal of Park Ridge, NJ, makes 10-minute pork loin in her microwave by cooking the meat in a covered casserole dish for 10 minutes, and then letting it sit for 10 minutes. She chops it up, stirs in barbecue sauce, and serves as sandwiches.