5 Steps to Stress-Free Family Dinners, Tested by a Single Parent
Carline Louis-Jacques' days as a single mom and a busy ob-gyn in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, never seem to end: She’s out the door many mornings at seven, and on the days her children—Weston, 15, Garrett, 12, and Ethan, 10—are with their dad, she often works late. When the boys are with Carline, her goal is to be home in time to help with homework and get dinner on the table. “But if my pager goes off, I’m back out the door,” she says. “Babies don’t wait.” Sit-down family dinners are important to Carline, as are healthy whole foods. “I want to practice what I preach to my patients,” she says. Her fall-back meal is often stir-fried chicken and vegetables. But if she’s really tired, she admits, the kids make ramen noodles. Actually, the boys love being in the kitchen, which is a plus. “Sometimes Weston will get things started when I’m on my way home,” she says. “But he needs a little direction. Otherwise he’ll wander off and forget to put rice in the pot.” And he can only help, she knows, if she has a dinner plan in the first place: “Most days I walk into the kitchen with my heart racing, thinking, What the heck am I going to cook tonight?
Carline has a lot going for her: She likes to cook and has an eager crew of live-in sous chefs. Real Simple staff food editor Charlyne Mattox introduced the family to meals they could prepare together and gave Carline a trove of quick recipes for nights she gets home late.
Make and Freeze Meals Together
Enchiladas, baked pasta, and casseroles are easy to make in big batches, and everyone in the family can pitch in. The dishes can then go into the freezer, and on crazy nights Carline just has to reheat. Label and date the frozen meals, says Charlyne: After 3 months, it’s time to toss them.
(Click here for easy-to-freeze recipes.)
Let the Kids Start Dinner
Charlyne gave Carline’s “kitchen staff” a brand-new cooking timer and easy-to-follow instructions for tasks they can do to help get dinner under way on nights Mom is running behind. After a few trial runs with supervision, they were ready to take over.
How to Bake Potatoes
Step 1: Heat oven to 375° F.
Step 2: Scrub the potatoes. Prick them all over with a fork.
Step 3: Bake on a baking sheet until tender, about 1 hour.
How to Defrost Meat*
Step 1: Take the meat out of the freezer, remove it from its packaging, and place in a resealable plastic bag. (Make sure the bag is tightly closed.)
Step 2: Fill a large bowl with cold water and place the bag in the water. Let sit until thawed.
How to Make Rice
Step 1: Put 1½ cups water, 1 cup long-grain white rice, and ½ teaspoon salt in a small saucepan.
Step 2: Bring to a boil, stir, then reduce heat to low. Put the cover on and simmer for 18 minutes.
Step 3: Turn off heat and let the pot sit for 5 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork.
*Parents: This technique works only with small to medium cuts of meat. Larger cuts should be thawed in the refrigerator overnight.
Click here for a refrigerator door-ready pdf of these how-tos.
Have an Arsenal of Über-Quick Meals
Two Weeks Later...
“The mood in our house has radically shifted,” Carline reports. Weston agrees. “My mom is much less stressed-out,” he says. “And the food has been a lot better. We look forward to dinner now.” Planning recipes in advance has been key, and Carline is getting the kids involved in that, too. On the weekend, they flip through cookbooks to slot the week’s meals. “Whoever picks the menu helps me cook, and the other two do the dishes,” says Carline. “I made pork chops one night and pasta shells stuffed with ricotta another night,” says Garrett. “Everyone loved them!” Carline feels she is not only getting help in the kitchen but also passing on valuable skills to her sons. “They’ll be able to cook for themselves when they go to college and for their families afterward,” she says. Right now, though, her biggest reward is hearing everybody say, “Let’s make this tomorrow night, Mom.”