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Tips for busy families in the evenings

We're a small family and our time together has always been extremely important. We don't over-schedule and we are all home every single evening to eat dinner together unless there is something special going on (outside activity with friends, etc.). I enjoy cooking and putting together healthy from-scratch meals and we enjoy our conversations and food. We don't eat fast food, by the way, but do eat out once a week or so at a sit-down restaurant enjoying appetizers through dessert as entertainment. These meals usually last a couple of hours, so not something we can do every night of the week (time, or money-wise!).

So, the question. Dd (11) wants to play basketball this year. We live an hour from the school and the schedule looks brutal. I won't even go into the homework issue as it's not something for discussion here. My concern for CH is the evening meal. We sit down every night together. While not eating fast food the past couple decades was just a decision, it's now a matter of health. We just can't grab-n-go. Neither can we resort to processed foods to take along or for me to heat-and-eat.

I just don't know what to do and I'm sure you Chowhounders will have some ideas. Some ideas we may be able to use, others not, but I welcome any and all advice. Please - what do you busy families do to nourish your children when you're just not home in the evening?

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  1. a cooler can be your best friend, you can pack cheese, salads with a protien as cold things or if everything in the cooler is hot, it will keep hot as well. Invest in some partitioned plastic containers so you can make up individual meals on the weekend when you have time, microwave till HOT then put them in the cooler, they will stay hot for quite some time. You have been lucky to have gone this long with everyone together every night but the kids need to do these outside activites too. I would also (and have) have a small cooler with an ice pack with drinks, fruits, cheese, meats, veggies and dip, stuff that's easy to eat in the car, if necessary.

    1. I think the slow-cooker would be your friend as well. I love momoftwo's ideas below on the cooler to tide you over. Once everyone gets home, they may want something warm to eat. There are so many great slow-cooker recipes that can be put together the night before (with very little effort or time) and be plugged in before you leave in the morning. And they can certainly be healthy too; for example, my slow-cooker chili is made with lean ground beef (or venison or chicken), literally no oil, lots of veggies and beans, and some really great spices. It is so satisfying and actually freezes very well.

      6 Replies
      1. re: icey

        With all due respect to icey and all other slow-cooker fans, I can't stand 'em. How in the name of Mike do you know what you want to eat that night first thing in the morning??

        Look in to getting a pressure cooker. The damn thing is lightning fast, cooking a stew that might take 3+ hours using ordinary measures in 45 minutes. Modern cookers are completely safe, too, and just the thing for busy weeknight meals.

        There should be a gazillion threads on them- take a peek and see what people are doing with them!

        1. re: biggreenmatt

          I like my pressure cooker too but 45 minutes on a busy weeknight is more time than I have and maybe OP too. Nights like tonight are why I use the slow cooker. There is lentil soup cooking for dinner tonight with prewashed greens and salad dressing in the fridge.

          I get home at 6:30 with older kid who has specialist doc visit in DC. Spouse is gone, coaches younger kid's basket ball team, they ate the soup and salad at 5:30. Me and son eat together, he does dishes and I go to choral practice at 7:30. That doesn't happen every night but I need some dinners that can be plated and served with about 10 minutes effort. That is where the slow cooker and microwave, and preplanning, are essential.

          1. re: biggreenmatt

            I actually just got a pressure cooker but am always unsure of what things take time wise. Totally afraid to either run out of liquid while it is still in a pressurized mode or add too much liquid or overcook. I will definitely look at the chowhound threads to see what people are doing.
            Biggreenmatt, is there anything that you particularly like to make in there?
            Also, agree with tcamp though, if I come home late and am famished, 45 minutes isn't going to cut it. Either I have a night meal ready in the slow cooker or made 15 minute risotto in the pressure cooker!

            1. re: icey

              The pressure cooker is magnificent for anything that needs to be braised or boiled.

              Typical visitors to my cooker are stews, pulled chicken/pork, curries, corned beef (super-ultra-tender in no time flat), braising steaks, modernist carrot soup (google it- believe me, it's the best thing that'll ever come out of that thing), you name it!

            2. re: biggreenmatt

              I meal plan for cooking at least four nights a week. Typically I also plan what day I make what bases on schedule. In order to do this I do not get to decide when I get home what I want to eat.

            3. re: icey

              I agree with the slow cooker for having meals ready to go when you get home. I don't work, but I'm chronically ill, so some days I am just too tired or on too much medicine to make a complicated meal, and the slow cooker really saves us.

              I make a good amount of soups in the slow cooker, which are one of your best options, since they can usually stand the most cooking. The most popular around here is ham and bean soup and an adapted chicken tortilla soup recipe that I made up. The chicken tortilla soup recipe can be pre-mixed into freezer bags that you can just dump into the slow cooker in the morning and add chicken stock to, then cook all day - if you are interested in the recipe, let me know.

              Shredded meat sandwiches go well in the slow cooker as well. I do Italian beef sandwiches as well as shredded chicken, both for sandwiches and for tacos/burritos/quesadillas.

              I often cook a whole chicken or a bone in turkey breast in the slow cooker all day. While this will not give you crispy skin (which no one in my family really cares about), it will give you a tasty moist chicken. We'll have meat with roasted or mashed potatoes and veggies the first night. You can strain the juices from the crock pot and use them to make gravy on the stove pretty quickly. After dinner, I pick the meat off the bones and use the rest for meals during the week that are quick and easy - chicken/turkey salad, chicken nachos, chicken quesadillas, creamed chicken or turkey over biscuits, whip up a quick alfredo sauce and mix in chicken and some steamed broccoli.

              On the non slow-cooker front, I use a good amount of eggs to make quick dinners for my husband and step-daughter - scrambles with whatever leftovers I happen to have mixed in, quiche (I either use a premade crust, but if you don't want to do that, I sometimes make up homemade ones and keep them in the freezer), egg salad, egg sandwiches and the like.

            4. There are a lot of things you can make extra of on the nights you are home to use as ingredients on the nights you have little time- chicken, soups and stews, braises, lasagna and other baked entrees, etc. There are some great threads here on freezer cooking. If you take them out and put them in the fridge to thaw before you leave in the morning they take less time to heat up/ cook when you get home.

              1. We also believe in eating homemade food together and I have a system that works for us. One night a week - the night we are running in different directions until 8 p.m I serve soup -- usually vegetarian -- that I've made from scratch over the weekend with bread and salad (leftovers are for packed lunches the next day). First adult home heats it up. One night is breakfast for dinner night and features eggs or homemade pancakes or waffles (leftovers are for breakfast the next day). On nights when we have no after school lessons or practices I cook something simple. The cookbook "Keepers" or blogs like Family Bites help keep my ideas fresh. One night might be something from the freezer night, when I defrost a portion of a stew I doubled and froze half of previously. On Friday nights when we are bone tired its make your own pizza night with homemade dough. Another night might be sandwiches, or taco bar or salad bar night, which utilize leftovers. We always cook a more elaborate Sunday dinner to help start off the week, give me a chance to try some more time involved meals. It's a challenge but it can be done. Its worth it.

                1. Welcome to the "activity" years, aka middle and high school! Sports, friends, clubs, jobs, etc, all which happen to fall over and around the dinner hour, especially when looking at a longer drive. And it only gets worse. Growing up, we had to be home all together for one weekend dinner, and 2 during the week. Once I had my own job after school, I was on my own for my dinner if I wasn't eating with the family.

                  A good bento box might be a solid investment so you can have hot foods in a travel friendly container, for your kid in the car, and then one for you/spouse as you hang out and wait for practice to be over. Good conversations can be had in the car instead of the dinner table