Oh, sweet Callie. Can you tell she's growing up in a home where dinner doesn't come at a predictable time each night? It comes...eventually. And it's always good (and good for her). But she never knows from night to night when she'll be eating.
And until yesterday, I don't think she realized that dinner time could be planned. And consistent. Last night she overheard us talking to Brynn about how "bed time" at our house is no more a set time than "dinner time." That those words just mean that it's the time to go to bed, or time to eat dinner and that we don't set a rigid time for those things because they tend to shift depending on our day.
So this morning when Callie asked me how people plan what time they're going to have dinner ready, I explained that most people start with a recipe, figure how long it will take to gather and prep the ingredients, how long those ingredients will take to cook, and they work backwards from what time they'd like to eat dinner.
Her response was classic: "Oh, that would never happen in our house." No, darling. No, it wouldn't.
Because it seems that at 5pm I'm usually still working on a project. Or doing something that, at that moment, seems like it (a) will be done quickly and (b) has a good stopping point in the near future at which time I can drop the project and move onto making dinner.
So our dinner time usually hits around 7:00 or 7:30. Yes, the kids are hungry. But eating dinner late gives them time to finish up their afternoon extra-curricular activities and do their homework before dinner. And it means that I don't get kids rifling through the pantry two hours after dinner.
I used to be a great planner of dinners. I would use my Everyday Food magazine each Sunday to plan out the dinners for the week, make a list of all the ingredients I needed to buy, and do my shopping for the week on Monday. That all went out the window when we joined our CSA six years ago. It got me into the use-what-you've-got mode and that has stuck with me, even in the winter when the CSA isn't running.
So here are my secrets for making a quick, last-minute plant-strong (and usually vegan) dinner.
- I use my pressure cooker. I couldn't do healthy last-minute dinners without it. If I think about it in time, I'll do a quick soak for my beans for an hour before I cook them, which cuts the pressure cooking time down to 11 minutes at high pressure. Usually that means boiling some water and pouring it over the beans before I run out to get the kids from school, and then letting them soak until I'm ready to make dinner. If I don't do that, I'll cook them starting from their dry state, which makes the cooking time a bit less predictable – it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour of cooking time, depending on how fresh the beans are and what kind they are. I learned the pressure cooking technique from this awesome cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey.
- I "approximate" recipes. Meaning, I find a few recipes I like (or a meal I like at a restaurant) and I use approximate amounts of similar ingredients (or the same ones, if I have them on hand) to create dinners that work. The downside of this is that we never eat the same thing twice. Which is also the upside, depending on whom you ask. Sticking to an exact recipe is too constraining for me, both in time and in planning. Once I've made a recipe a few times, I can get close to the original recipe (or sometimes even better) by using my memory, imagination, and whatever I have around the house.
- I make huge salads. It's easy to keep the ingredients for salads on hand. They're predictable and with a few small changes, a salad can take on a whole different taste. The key (for me) is having a big enough bowl. I bought the biggest metal bowl that Ikea sells and we use it almost every night for our salads.
- I make extra. Always. Usually our dinner looks like enough to feed 10 people, and sometimes it is. Not only does this mean that Scott has something to eat for lunch every day, but it's also great when I am genuinely running behind and we have a "fend for yourself" night. Ahem. Those are the exception, not the rule. I also use leftovers (like plain leftover quinoa or leftover beans or lentils) as an ingredient in whatever I'm making the next night.
- I stock everything I need to make a variety of dinners. I (almost) always have potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, lettuce, spinach, kale, garlic, dry beans, lentils, quinoa, canned tomatoes, and veggie stock or Better than Boullon on hand, plus a handful of other produce items. Those depend on what is in the garden or what came in our CSA or Door to Door Organics box that week.
What do you do to get your family together at the dinner table?
Psst...for more on my personal journey to health, check out this post.