Mark Bittman, cookbook author and self-trained chef, wrote in the New York Times that healthier eating happens when people eat real food. And by real food, he means meals that do not come from a box or a drive thru window.
Preparing meals at home is not only healthier, but also cheaper and better for the planet. The problem, he says, is that "Real food is cooked by real people...and real people are cooking less than ever before
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why. After working all day and coming home to the unfinished book report, tween angst, permission slips, that PTA meeting you forgot until now, a potty training disaster, taekwondo carpool, telemarketers -- need I go on? After all of that mayhem, the mere thought of boiling water can make anyone opt for pizza delivery.
Alma Schneider, founder of Take Back the Kitchen, says dinnertime is the absolute worst time to be thinking about dinner. Take Back the Kitchen, a consulting company based in New Jersey, is dedicated to helping people overcome their psychological and practical obstacles to cooking.
"Nobody can snap their fingers and have dinner," she says. "You have to make the time and it's not going to be at 6:30."
Schneider encourages her clients to plan ahead and prep ahead. Planning starts with sitting down one evening after the kids are in bed, or on your commute, and creating a weekly menu and grocery list. You save time by only making one trip to the store each week, and you have on hand everything you need for a week's worth of meals.
She believes the best recipes are the ones that have minimal ingredients. But if you don't have time to scour cookbooks, ask friends for easy recipes of foods their kids like.
Hire a Service
Or you can take it a step further, like Rebecca Weiner of Arlington, Va., a mother of three and a photographer. She found someone else to plan her meals and create grocery lists. "Now I could use my brain space elsewhere," she says.
A quick search on Google turns up no less than a dozen menu planning services, but Rebecca chose The Six O'Clock Scramble because the recipes were most appealing to her. For a small fee, the Scramble emails her a week's worth of recipes and a single shopping list.
Ask Your Nanny or Babysitter
Your sitter could turn into your meal prep savior. Many will often lend a hand with cooking duties while watching your kids. She may be able to feed your kids dinner or at least do some of the grocery shopping/prep work to save you time when you get home.
Just make sure to increase her pay to make up for the extra work. And emphasize that kids, not food is still her priority.
Prepare the Night Before
So you have the ingredients and a menu. Now what? How does it all get cooked and on the plate? Schneider says the key is prep, prep and more prep. "If we were to journal our day, we'd all find 5 or 10 minutes here and there. We need to make use of that time."
Chop vegetables while the kids are eating breakfast. Boil pasta while you take your morning shower and reheat it at dinnertime. A roast is perfectly low maintenance. Throw it in the oven and do something else for 45 minutes. Preparation the day or night before makes cooking a meal for the whole family much easier after a long day at work.
Cook With Friends
It's all about multi-tasking. And Alison Bermack founded a national organization based on that principle. Members of Cooking With Friends infuse food and friendship towards the common goal of healthy eating. Cooking With Friends clubs have sprouted up from New York to Colorado, encouraging participants to join forces in the kitchen, cook in bulk and make use of their freezers.
"It's hard enough to make dinner and make time for friends," Bermack says. "Now you can do both. Relationships are strengthened by the act of cooking."
This type of group is also an incredible time-saver. Whoever complained about too many cooks in the kitchen obviously never had to feed a family. Cooking with a friend for a few hours on the weekend can leave you with a week's worth of meals. With two (or more) cooks, one person could be chopping vegetables, while another measures and mixes spices.
"Now when it's 6:30 and everyone's starving, you just open up the freezer," says Bermack.
Planning ahead (or outsourcing the planning), prepping on the fly, cooking in bulk, making it social -- these will all help you put food on the table. Real food, as Mark Bittman would call it.
How to get your kids to sit nicely and eat it? That's a whole other story.