Weeknight family dinners

How to make meals that work for different schedules

Recently, there was a meme floating around on social media that said, "School is back in session, so we can eat dinner at 4 p.m. or 9 p.m.". As a parent of three children, two of whom are involved in multiple extracurricular activities, this simple sentence resonated deeply with me. When it comes to meal planning, I spend way too much time trying to figure out what and when to feed my kids, and I'd wager a lot of money that I'm not alone in that struggle. 

In the past, extracurricular activities often took place immediately after school, and there was rarely – if any – traveling involved. Kids were able to safely ride their bikes home from practice, where they would join their family for a home-cooked meal right around supper time.  Sadly, much of that has changed over the past decade, and family dinners have become almost obsolete. Instead of slowing down and reconnecting over a leisurely meal, many parents find themselves frantically passing out burgers and fries in the car to overscheduled children and wondering how life got so hectic. 

Like many people, I miss those seemingly simpler times and I often wonder how other families connect over nutritious meals with the insane amount of pressure and time constraints we are all under. At the start of every school year, I find myself asking my friends what they feed their families for dinner. I ask them to share their easiest recipes, and I hold out hope that one of them is going to give me some advice that makes me feel like this giant, meal-centric riddle has been solved. Instead, I'm often met with answers that echo my own dinner dilemmas and a chorus of groans over the impossible task of feeding people who all are on different schedules.   

I often turn to Google for advice, but instead of feeling like things have been simplified, I'm met with hundreds of "easy" meals that leave me feeling completely overwhelmed. Plus, many of these online, weeknight recipes rely heavily on meat that can be cooked in a slow cooker for hours on end. This is a great option if your family is a carnivorous bunch, but if you're trying to cut back on the amount of meat you consume, these recipes aren't always very helpful. Realizing that the needs of my family weren't being met by my online searches, I decided to create a few meals that are a cinch to prepare and rely on easy-to-find, real ingredients. 

Below are some incredibly tasty meals that are in heavy rotation at our house. They can be made ahead of time, require minimal cooking and prep, pack a hefty nutritional punch and can be customized to please everyone who gathers around my kitchen table. Rarely are there any leftovers, but if there are, all of these meals keep well in the refrigerator and travel nicely in school lunchboxes. 

The first (and quite possibly my family's favorite) meal is sesame noodles. Here, cooked soba noodles (or whole grain spaghetti) are paired with soy sauce, mirin, toasted sesame oil and sliced scallions. This dish is great served immediately, but it's even more delicious served cold, alongside cucumber slices or stir-fried vegetables. These noodles never get mushy and actually taste better the longer they sit, so they are a great option when you have kids that are coming and going at all different times. 

Another go-to dinner at our house is something my family lovingly refers to as "Stuff on a Plate." This meal originated when I was pregnant with my son and my morning sickness was so intense that the thought of cooking anything sent giant waves of nausea rolling over me. At the time, my husband was working in another city, and I knew that unless I wanted my young daughters to survive on cold cereal for months, I had to come up with something that we could throw together in a jiffy and that kept me far away from the stove.  

Stuff on Plate is exactly what it sounds like. It's basically a lazy mezza and a carefree charcuterie. Normally, what I like to do is whip up a big batch of homemade hummus (it's easier than you think!), warm up some pita, and raid the refrigerator and cupboards for anything that needs to be used up. That random half block of cheddar cheese hanging out in the crisper?  Cut it into cubes and toss that stuff onto the plate. The apple that someone took one bite out of and threw back into the fruit bowl? Chop it in half, toss the half-eaten part to the squirrels and turn the good half into apple slices. Other foods that go well on Stuff on a Plate are olives, nuts and lightly steamed vegetables. Honestly, though, just use the foods that your family enjoys eating. This is a total crowd pleaser, and if you serve it on paper plates with tiny toothpicks everyone will think you're a total rock star. 

The final, easy weeknight meal that I want to share with you is soup. My husband loves to make fun of me because I could easily eat soup every single day, even when it's unbearably hot outside. I firmly believe that if you have a few good soup recipes in your back pocket, dinnertime will always end up being effortless and enjoyable. 

In the summertime, when garden vegetables are at their peak, I love making a giant pot of minestrone, which is a versatile, delicious soup that highlights whatever vegetables are in season. I love adding beans or chickpea pasta to my minestrone for a little protein and extra nutrition because they add incredible flavor and texture, but they are totally optional. 

In the wintertime, I make all sorts of meatless stews, chowders and bisques. These soups are creamy, hearty and unbelievably satisfying. Plus, they freeze and reheat beautifully, which means that if you double your recipe, you'll always have a stash of soup on hand, just waiting to be warmed up and served alongside a loaf of crusty bread or a crisp green salad. 

If you're in a cooking rut, I encourage you to give some of these simple meals a chance. They are perfect for busy families who are trying to find easy ways to enjoy the benefits of stress-free family meals. 

Please don't be too hard on yourself, though, if you hit up the drive-thru every once in a while. We're all doing the best we can, and sometimes there's nothing better than a hot, salty French fry. 

Sesame Noodles (serves 4)

Ingredients:

¾ pound soba noodles or whole wheat spaghetti

cup regular or low-sodium soy sauce

3 tablespoons mirin

3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

3 scallions, thinly sliced

Preparation:

Cook the noodles according to package directions. 

While the pasta cooks, whisk together the tamari, mirin and toasted sesame oil in a large bowl. 

When the noodles are ready, drain, rinse with cold water and add directly to the bowl with the sauce; toss to combine. 

Top the sesame noodles with sliced scallions and serve. 

Easiest, Creamiest Hummus

Ingredients:

1 can garbanzo beans, drained; liquid reserved

¼ cup tahini

1 garlic clove, minced

Juice from 1 lemon

Salt (optional) 

Preparation:

Add drained garbanzo beans, tahini and garlic to a food processor and blend until the ingredients start to come together. Slowly add the reserved garbanzo bean liquid until mixture achieves your desired consistency. Add lemon juice and salt (if using) and serve. 

You can also top this hummus with sliced cucumbers and halved cherry tomatoes. Drizzle with olive oil and serve with warm pita slices.

Lana Shovlin is a freelance writer who lives in Springfield with her husband and three children, all of whom love eating vegetables. She's always trying to make healthy food choices and wholeheartedly agrees with Julia Child that when it comes to meals, "You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients."

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