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Solving the Dinnertime Dilemma

Make dinnertime decisions easy on the whole family.

Solving the Dinnertime Dilemma

I dread dinnertime. Without question, dinner is the most difficult meal of the day for me. It's when I juggle the nutritional needs and eating preferences of three children while trying to prepare an interesting, healthy meal for Tom and myself. Throughout the day, the dietitian in me has kept mental tabs on what each child has eaten and what remains to be consumed at dinner. Thoughts like "Hannah drank juice at lunch and should drink milk with dinner"; "Hayley hasn't had fruit all day"; and "Emma needs more protein" fly through my head as I struggle to get dinner on the table in a timely fashion.

Until recently, dinnertime found me preparing three different meals, despite the fact that I am no short-order cook. So why did I spend so much of my time in the kitchen? Emma was an infant, so she didn't eat too much table food without a lot of assistance. And Hannah and Hayley prefer plainer foods than Tom and I like to eat, so there was no way that a combination dish of garlic-laden chicken, broccoli, and ziti would fly with them.

Although I'm against catering to each family member's food preferences, I do have my limits. I prefer to serve meals that nearly everyone likes. There are three dinners the whole family will eat without any fuss, but that doesn't mean that I will serve French toast, pancakes, and macaroni and cheese night after night.

Eating jags keep me on my toes, too. The girls may all favor certain foods, but hardly ever on the same day, especially when it comes to fruits and vegetables. Hannah and Hayley like mashed potatoes, but Emma won't touch them (even though she's been exposed to them more than the recommended ten times already); Hayley eats asparagus, but Hannah hates it; Hannah prefers her pears peeled and sliced, while Hayley will eat whole pears, and so on. Thank goodness Tom likes nearly everything I make for dinner!

Supper, Simplified
By the end of the day, you're tired and little ones are cranky. You want to put a well-balanced meal on the table, but you can't always spare the time, nor do you have the energy it takes to prepare dinner. That's why you so often settle for the same meal, or for high-fat, low-nutrient convenience fare. Good news: Dinner doesn't have to be elaborate to be nutritious and satisfying. (Mine never is.) These suggestions can simplify the daily process of getting a good meal on the table.

Consult the Family Calendar
The whereabouts of family members can determine what's for dinner. Even at this tender young age, your kids may have activities that cut into dinnertime, or your spouse or partner may be working late or out of town during the week. When Tom or I won't be home for dinner, the family eats much more simply. That's when we order in pizza and have it with milk and fruit, or cook up scrambled eggs or a cheese omelet to go along with toast and vegetables.

Shop Regularly
It's 6:00 P.M., and there's not a fruit or vegetable in your refrigerator. You can't prepare the quick and healthy dinners that you dream of when your kitchen is not stocked with the fixings.

After perusing the family calendar, devise a weekly dinner menu to avoid ordering takeout when time gets tight and you're too tired to cook. While you're at it, purchase some breakfast and lunch items to take to the office. For the inconvenience of preparing your own breakfast and lunch, you'll save a lot of money: A week's worth of takeout coffee and bagel with cream cheese and commercially prepared salads or sandwiches for lunch can easily cost upwards of $120 a month per person, depending on where you live.

Keep your cupboards crammed with ingredients for nutritious meals by posting a running list on a bulletin board or refrigerator. Write down items you need as they are used up. Take some time on the weekend to make out a shopping list or use the Weekly Family Shopping List as a template. Once you're in the supermarket, don't deviate from your list unless it's to purchase an item you need but forgot to write down, or you find a sale item you cannot pass up. Unit pricing can help you get the most for your money. When comparing products such as poultry and salad dressing, check the price per unit, which is typically in pounds or ounces. Unit prices are often posted on the package (as in the case of fresh meat and seafood) or on shelves directly under the food.

Think Ahead
Prepare at least one meal on the weekend to serve as the basis for other meals throughout the coming weeks; store extra food in airtight containers for future use. Roast a chicken or a small turkey breast or prepare a double batch of stew, soup, or lasagna to get a jump on weeknight dinners. Add a grain and vegetable to leftover poultry for a fast meal; make chicken or turkey salad sandwiches or fajitas and serve with salad or soup; and take the chicken or turkey carcass and prepare soup from it. Soups and stews serve as the centerpiece at dinnertime with crusty bread and a salad as partners (use prewashed salad mixes for faster preparation). When cooking dinner on a weekday, always make enough for another meal. Whipping up double batches saves time. It does wonders to know that you have a delicious meal for the following night, too.

Eat Breakfast for Dinner
Pancakes and waffles are two foods our entire family loves, even at dinner-time. There is nothing wrong with eating the likes of omelets, scrambled eggs, or breakfast cereal for supper. In fact, traditional breakfast foods provide the basis for a fast and healthy meal, especially when kids are hungry and you're too pooped to cook. Don't forget to add fruit or vegetables, milk, and a grain, when necessary. For example, serve up French toast with fruit and milk; scrambled eggs with toast and a fruit or vegetable and milk; or blueberry pancakes and milk.

Capitalize on Convenience
They cost more, but prepared foods save time. Depending on what they are, store-bought foods can serve as the centerpiece of a meal, or as a side dish. Pair up a roasted chicken with fresh or frozen vegetables and a quick-cooking grain such as packaged couscous. You can use takeout pizza as the beginnings of a healthy meal, too. Order a thin crust cheese pie and combine it with a large hearty salad made from packaged salad greens, grated carrots, and cherry tomatoes. Baby carrots can be microwaved for a quick and healthy side dish. You can skip the peeling and chopping when you rely on prepared butternut squash or potatoes your grocer sells in the produce aisle.

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