by Lisa

Or:  Surviving 3 months of Migraines.

Or: Surviving Afterschool without Insanity.

Or: Getting Dinner on the Table. Fast.

Or: What to Do About Dinner When You and/or Your Children Just Can’t Cope.

The adjustment to first grade was hard for us.  Ella loved school–more than ever, really–but she was also completely exhausted by it.  She’d emerge onto the blacktop each day looking about as disheveled and worn down as it’s possible for a child to look without having a 103 degree fever.  Then she had to do homework–not a lot, mind you, it was truly a very small amount–but early on, anything that involved sitting upright was, well, rough.  This situation was compounded by the fact that during these months I was beset by several migraines a week, for which I was prescribed heavy doses of medication which made thinking impossible, cooking difficult, and any amount of added stress nearly unbearable.  It was not a good time for our family.  My husband had started a new position, too, which required longer hours, so help at and with dinner and bed wasn’t forthcoming either.

In the clear-headed, quiet moments (there were a very few),  I had to figure out how to feed my very tired, very hungry children with a minimum of stress and preparation. The difficult part was that my daughter especially needed the most attention and care and supervision during the witching hours, between 3 and 5 pm, when I would normally prep  dinner.  But back then, spending more than 15 minutes on dinner was pretty much out of the question.

And while we do have some good places for take-out (delivery, not so much), that would have involved piling the kids in & out of the car and driving–which was out of the question.   If you can imagine back to how you felt during those first days of bringing your newborn home from the hospital, when even defrosting the meals you & your friends had painstakingly stockpiled in the freezer, you can get a pretty good idea of my exhaustion during this time.

I knew that part of surviving these early days and adjusting to the new routine would involve keeping Ella rested and well-fed, and developing a calm routine. Devising how to do this was a major part of feeding my family in the last months of ’08.  Now that my health has returned, and Ella manages school swimmingly, I can still use the general principles I developed back then on those days when things run late, or spin out of control, or the best laid plans run amuck. Which, of course, they sometimes do. So, for what it’s worth, here are my emergency strategies and plans for those busiest, terrible days.

My first strategy:  The Snack.  Right after school, I sat Ella & brother down for a good snack. Sometimes this would be a cookie or two & milk. Sometimes it would be whatever fresh fruit we had from the farmer’s market. Sometimes it was fresh almonds or pistachios, which we also get from the farmers market in all sorts of great savory and sweet flavors. Sometimes it was fresh popcorn.  I pretty much let her eat a small amount of whatever made her happy.  Happiness is good and so, I believe, are most things, in moderation.

For dinner, planning is essential.

1. Many side dishes can all be prepped and ready to go hours ahead:

I work from home, so it’s possible for me to get one or two things started at lunchtime, or right after lunch.  I still do this all the time. I can wash and prep vegetables and set them in their pots to simmer/steam. This might involve broccoli, spinach, green beans–whatever is in season.  I left little pots of carrots or radish or celery in the refrigerator to set out before dinner. If I’ve made a batch of homemade Thousand Island dressing, I throw that on the table too. It’s delicious, and it keeps. The principle is to get as much done when a) I’m not so tired and b) my kids aren’t both home and tired and doing homework and cranky.  Getting side dishes ready to get frees me up to be with them and cook a really simple main dish right when it’s time to eat.

  • Since we eat whatever is seasonal and fresh from our farmer’s market, digging into my vegetable bin for a side dish or two is really, really simple.  Vegetables can be simmered or steamed in a matter of minutes, or very quickly sauteed with garlic, add olive oil, salt. I add a squeeze of lemon juice or drizzle a balsamic or red vinegar, and we’re all very happy.
  • Use canned white beans, add olive oil, maybe a small amount of garlic (you can even crush a clove and let it sit, it will flavor just as well; just take it out after a few hours),  sage, a sprinkling of salt. You don’t even have to heat them up.
  • If you can remember to put potatoes in the oven, there’s not much simpler than a baked one. But I often forget even to do this.
  • Rice. Prep and start the rice cooker early. In a pinch, I have been known to rely on TJ frozen, precooked rice. It’s fast and good.
  • Nothing beats a good loaf of bread.  I always keep some in the freezer to heat up with dinner if nothing else inspires.

2. Main Dish.

Eggs are your friend. Especially if you buy excellent eggs directly from a farmer, there’s not much better or faster than a good omelet or plate of scrambled eggs.  My kids both love to make/eat eggs, and when eggs are freshest (right now) they’re a real treat. Even if you pay $7/dozen, it’s still one of the cheapest sources of protein you can find.  For the grown-ups, pair it with a salad, crusty bread, and a glass of wine.  You can also fry them in a mix olive oil/butter +garlic + herbs and serve over pasta. It’s delicious.  Right now, eggs are coming into markets and if you’re lucky, you’ll find the ones from Happy Quail Farms whose yolks can be nearly red.  They’re amazing.

Simple Spaghetti. Many of these exist. We like canned tuna + olive oil + capers + lemon zest. Cacio e pepe=spaghetti + lots of finely shaved grana padano + pepper.  Fresh tomatoes (though they weren’t in season most of the fall, so this didn’t work) + black beans + olive oil + balsamic + basil + fresh mozzerella (a raw sauce). The list goes on.

Quiche. You can make this hours ahead and reheat or serve room temperature.

Precooked sausages.  You can do a lot with many of the “natural”, uncured sausages & kielbasas available these days.  They can be heated in your convection/regular oven in a matter of minutes, paired with white beans, added in the final minutes to a roast of apples & onions.   I use a very small amount of meat, and add sides.

Ham steaks. Niman ranch makes an excellent uncured hamsteak that cooks in about 5 minutes.  After you cook it, you can deglaze the pan with hard cider or beer or or just water, add some honey, mustard, shallots if you’re inspired, and you have a nice sauce. Ham is great with a baked potato and salad.

Fish tacos. For these, you can use frozen, breaded tilapia or cod filets, or, better, use an inexpensive fresh fish from your fishmonger, like red snapper. Salt the fresh fish, drizzle with lemon & olive oil, & broil in about ten minutes.  Salsa, sour cream, cilantro, mayo, and lime make a good baja-style sauce, and you buy fresh or precut cabbage, avocado/guacamole, etc. The kids can assemble their own with some help.

Frozen Tamales. There are several great, organic brands on the market these days. Keep them and some prepared guacamole in your freezer. Always

Trader Joes Maryland Crabcakes. Like tamales, we always have some of these on hand. They’re really, really good. Serve Sponge-Bob Style on a roll, with lettuce and tomatoes, or naked with faux aioli made with smashed up garlic, salt, lemon and mayo.

Roast Chicken. For me, this is one of the easiest things to cook. If I’m home, I prep & start it roasting at lunch or late afternoon, then it’s ready to serve for an early dinner.  OR–I’ll roast a larger chicken on the weekend, with extra potatoes, carrots, onions.  Then, with the help of a frozen pie crust & a quick bechamel I can make chicken pot pies.  These can be made in about 20 minutes prep time at lunch: divide the ingredients, make the bechamel, top with crust. Then you can refrigerate until it’s time to cook or bake right away and reheat.  I use individual serving dishes for the kids, and to the already cooked chicken and vegetables, you can add a handful of frozen peas, frozen green beans, fresh spinach–these days, Ella & Finn decide what they want.  The kids adore these, and like to put action figures and princesses on top of their crusts for presentation.  Or the kids can just eat leftovers, reheated in the pan sauce, and my husband and I can eat a composed salad, with the dressing made from the drippings.

Shrimp. Fresh, frozen, fresh frozen from my fisherman. Nothing cooks more quickly.  Add rice + vegetable+ soy based dipping sauce=easy Japanese style bowl. Or sautee in butter + lemon + wine for a scampi, server with bread and salad.  There’s also this Grilled New Orleans Style Shrimp (you don’t actually have to turn on your grill, just pan sautee)  if you like hot–not for most kids.

Fresh fish. Petrale sole can be cooked a la meuniere (dredged in flour and pan fried in butter) in a matter of minutes then topped with lemon/caper butter.    I can sometimes get fresh albacore tuna from my fisherman and it can can be grilled or broiled or pan seared and served with a Korean soy dipping sauce and rice. Very, very fast, clean cooking.  Scallops, same thing, but served with caper/butter/lemon sauce.  But they’re not cheap.

Pancakes. I was not above serving pancakes and fruit for dinner. Not the good kind. The kind from a box.  Of course, a big, big hit.

A good meatloaf can be made ahead–at lunchtime or even the night before.   Mine is never the same, but maybe I’ll blog this soon.

Pesto. I made, during the summer, in the height of basil season, dozens of batches of pesto and froze them, enough in each bag to dress pasta for one family dinner. This saved me many, many times.   It’s still saving me.

3.  Use your freezer. I also learned to rely on a few decent, frozen prepared foods that my kids loved, and we kept these in the freezer.  I have never in my life done this, and it does sort of horrify me, but many times these things saved me.

  • Instant Miso. Add tofu, a side of rice (fresh or frozen), and potstickers.
  • TJ Potstickers
  • TJ (frozen) Organic Jasmine Rice
  • TJ Teryaki Chicken  (This comes in a bag, and I sort of think it’s gross, but for a few months, my kids loved it. Now they’ve gone off it, but if you can bear to buy non-organic chicken, it’s worth trying as an emergency supply)
  • TJ Frozen, Cooked Edamame, makes a terrific side dish
  • TJ Maryland Crabcakes. See above.
  • Tofu + premade simmer sauce
  • Tamales (see above)
  • Pesto (made fresh in the summer and stockpiled….)

Generally speaking the trick is to get the freshest produce you can find, which you can cook very simply.  Stock up on canned beans and rice and freeze a really good baguette or two. Decide on a few main dishes that you know your family really loves that you know can be cooked very, very quickly.  Keep a few things in your freezer for emergencies–not what I keep, necessarily, but things like these that your whole family will like.  Let me know, too, what you’ve found that’s uber fast and (mostly) fresh.