If there’s one thing every expert seems to agree on, it’s the sanctity of the family dinner hour. Researchers say kids who eat dinner with their families are less likely to smoke, drink, or use drugs than their peers. They perform better in school, and are healthier emotionally.
There’s only one thing they don’t tell you: how to run your life, raise your kids, and still get a homemade dinner on the table every night. But don't lose hope: today’s cooks have access to the kind of prepped produce that professional chefs hire sous-chefs to prepare.
Stores now carry washed, trimmed, bagged salad greens; peeled carrots and trimmed celery or crudités platters; diced onions; and packaged spinach ready for the pot. Some stores even carry clean, trimmed broccoli and cauliflower, cooked, peeled beets for salads or reheating, peeled, diced squash, and sliced peppers and onions for fajitas. While canned and frozen vegetables usually suffer in texture and taste, these veggies are fresh, natural, and fast. When you buy the freshest and best-quality ingredients, you won’t need elaborate sauces.
Most fresh veggies taste wonderful lightly steamed or roasted with a pat of butter and a dash of salt and pepper. Vinaigrette is easy to make and lasts indefinitely in the fridge, so skip the bottled stuff and make a big batch. The classic French vinaigrette is 3 parts olive oil to 1 part acid (red or white wine vinegar or lemon juice), with salt, freshly ground pepper, and Dijon mustard to taste. Try experimenting with adding diced garlic or shallots, fresh herbs, and different vinegars.
Many meals reheat wonderfully, so every time you make pasta sauce, meatloaf or soup, double your recipe and freeze half. Thaw in the microwave and you’ll have a hot meal on a busy night. Ground beef on sale? Cook a few pounds at once and freeze in Ziploc bags; you can throw a handful, still frozen, into your next casserole or spaghetti sauce. Freeze homemade broth in ice cube trays and store frozen; you can use them as an easy base for sauces.
It always helps to plan ahead. Set aside one day to make a menu and shopping list for the week, and stock up. Can the leftovers from one meal be the basis for the next? Shred leftover roast meat to top salads, fill out a burrito, make croquettes or a casserole; throw extra cooked veggies into soups, stews, quesadillas, and fried rice. Then dig in! Family Dinner Day isn’t until September 24. But you don’t need an excuse to chow down together anytime.