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Aviva Goldfarb is a mother of two, and the author and founder of The Six O'Clock Scramble, an online weekly menu planner and cookbook. Read more »
Have you ever found yourself staring into your refrigerator at 6:00 PM, wondering what to make for dinner, while the kids are fighting, the dogs are barking and the phone is ringing? You probably never pictured yourself as the kind of mom or dad who would feed your family something out of a bag, a box or a can every night, or be on a first name basis with the pizza guy. Yet you only have about half an hour until meltdowns begin. What's a busy parent to do?
I have spent the last six years developing strategies to survive the "six o'clock scramble." It involves cooking one simple meal that the whole family can enjoy, getting organized in advance about dinner menus and grocery shopping, and involving the kids in dinner preparation and clean-up. Since sharing my recipes and meal planning system, hundreds of parents have told me that it has "changed their life."
Let's face it: hardly anyone cooks every night. But dinner is an important meal in many of our houses. It's a time when we all sit together (at least for five minutes!) and talk about the day, tell jokes, solve silly codes, and just make that all-important eye contact with each other! It's also a time for us to try to get some healthy food into our family's bodies.
I have found four simple strategies to help busy parents like me cook four to six nights per week, and actually save time and money by doing so. It may sound challenging (I know, because I used to think so too!), but with a little preparation and practice, making healthy and delicious homemade dinners can be easier, faster and cheaper than ordering take-out.
Here are my tricks for surviving the "six o'clock scramble:"
1. Keep meals simple.
With our families' busy schedules, most of us can't afford to spend more than 30 minutes preparing a meal. I have developed a great collection of simple, healthy, delicious recipes that don't take more than 30 minutes to prepare, and many only take 10 or 15 minutes. No matter what recipes you use, match a simple main dish with an easy and healthy side dish to balance out flavor and nutrition, and you've got yourself a great family dinner.
2. Get organized: Prepare a weekly menu.
When I was a girl, I remember my mom sitting down each week with her recipe boxes and making a shopping list. When I became a mom, I thought I could never be that organized. At first, I would walk the grocery aisles, letting items on the shelves inspire ideas for the week's dinners. The problem was, I would often get home and realize I was missing key ingredients, so I'd have to go shopping again or change my dinner plans. And the amount of food I was throwing away because I didn't get around to using it was appalling. I finally realized my mom had the right idea. A weekly menu takes only ten minutes to prepare, but saves us loads of time and stress. Having a weekly menu and keeping a grocery list tacked to the refrigerator allows us to shop only once each week for ingredients. And, it saves us from having to think too much at the hectic dinner hour about what to prepare.
3. Keep your kitchen well-stocked.
With a well-stocked pantry, you can easily pull together an extra meal or two with any unused ingredients from the week's meals, or throw together a quick meal on those nights when your evening doesn't go as planned. Some of my favorite healthy and inexpensive quick meal essentials are canned beans (for burritos or taco salads), tortillas (my husband's mantra is that everything's better inside a tortilla), eggs (for easy omelets, scrambles or frittatas), and frozen vegetables and other healthy side dishes to round out the meal. What's more, your grocery trips each week should be even faster if you are well-stocked with staples.
4. Involve kids in the kitchen.
If time allows, I like to let the kids help me in the kitchen. When our children were babies, I hung their jumpers right in the kitchen doorway, where they could bounce like crazy to music while I cooked. When they were toddlers, one of my best allies in the kitchen was a small step ladder. From this perch, the kids could assist me at the counter while I was husking corn, or make bubble soup in the kitchen sink while I put dinner together. Now that they're a little older, they can help do things like set the table, peel vegetables, unload the dishwasher or spin the salad dry. Sure, sometimes they get in my way, but cooking is a great way for us to spend time together. And here's a bonus for us parents of picky eaters: kids are far more likely to eat something that they've helped prepare!
If dinner has you feeling daunted or discouraged, don't despair. Try to simplify your menus and recipes, plan ahead for a few meals before going to the grocery store and always shop armed with a grocery list. Chances are you will enjoy the stress free dining so much, you'll want to plan your dinners before heading to the grocery store every week!
To give you a head start on getting healthy homemade dinners on the table, here's a link to my menu and grocery list for this week.
So, tell me, how are you managing meals at dinnertime?