Cooking Dinner on a Busy Schedule

Too tired or unprepared to cook after 10 or 12 hours of perpetual busy-ness, we take the easy path to eating: a pizza, a restaurant, a store-bought frozen meal, the fried chicken counter at the local grocery store. Yet such noncooking options add up to a whole lot of unhealthiness.

Whether it’s working, caring for kids, running errands, going to school, getting exercise, volunteering, or some combination of the above, we are all busy. Which is why dinner has become such a challenge. Unfortunately, prepared foods are filled with salt, sugar, and fat — a one-two-three punch against your heart and health. Then there’s the shortage of vegetables, fiber, and vitamins. Additionally, the portion sizes tend to be huge — a fact we eventually display at our waistline and hind side.

There is a better way. Here are simple, realistic tips to get you eating healthily at dinner again, mostly at home, mostly with your own cooking.

1. Keep your kitchen clean. Families tend to congregate in the kitchen, bringing with them newspapers, mail, backpacks, school papers, toys, and a thousand other little this-and-thats. Don’t allow it. Set a new policy: The kitchen is for cooking and eating only. Why? It’s hard to get motivated about cooking if you have to clean up a mess first, not to mention what it does to your mood. The opposite also holds true: A clean, bright, inviting kitchen can be a wonderful oasis after a day of craziness.

2. Speaking of which, make your kitchen a place you like to be. Is there music playing? Do you have a glass of wine poured? Is the evening sun shining through the window? Are the knives sharp, the produce fresh, the pots good quality, the counters clutter-free? All of this contributes to your desire to make good food. If you can’t honestly say you enjoy being in your kitchen, do what you need to do to change that.

3. Enjoy the cooking process. Sure, not everyone loves cooking. But there’s no reason to not like doing it. If the thought of cooking brings dread, you need an attitude adjustment. Cooking is a pleasure, far easier than many non-cooks realize. For your health, your pleasure, your pocketbook, you should learn — or relearn — the pleasures of cooking. Make it a project. Spend time with your friends and family while they cook so that you can absorb the methods and routines. Consider taking a class, or buy an introductory cookbook. Most of all, lose your fear. It is actually harder to be a bad cook than a good cook, particularly if you use good ingredients.

4. Plan a week’s worth of dinners. Fewer than 30 percent of Americans know what they’re having for dinner come 4 p.m. Yet planning ahead takes just a few minutes. Here’s how. Every Friday night or Saturday morning, sit down with a pad of paper and your favorite cookbooks or cooking magazines. Think about what’s in your freezer and fridge, what your family likes to eat, what your upcoming week entails. Then plan out the week’s worth of menus (leave one night for pizza night). At the same time, write out your grocery list. Now post the list of menus on the kitchen refrigerator or bulletin board so it’s the first thing you see when you get home. Voilà! No more thinking ahead. Just follow your own instructions.

5. Delegate, delegate, delegate. If you have kids older than 10 or another adult who gets home before you do, get them started on dinner. For example, you might ask your spouse to pick up ingredients on the way home, your teen to start chopping vegetables for the salad and fill the pasta pot with water, your preteen to gather needed ingredients for a given recipe and put them on the counter for you, preheat the oven, and set the table. Yes, they may think of it as a chore, but if you build in a little opportunity for them to “create,” (i.e., with place cards for dinner, fancy napkin foldings, their own recipes) it will make your kids more interested in nutritious food and trying new things.

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