You can’t blame Katie, a stay-at-home mother of two, for feeling “totally spent” by 5 o’clock. On an average day, when she’s not shuttling Chloe, 5, and Jonathan, 3, to playdates and dance class, she’s visiting her mother, who has been hospitalized for complications from breast cancer and a broken pelvis. This hectic schedule has taken a toll, which is particularly apparent come dinnertime. Most nights the kids eat hot dogs, ramen noodles, or fast food, while Katie picks off their plates. Her husband, Ian, 38, is left to fend for himself when he gets home at eight from his bank job. “Ian doesn’t complain,” says Katie. “He worries about whether I’m eating. But I would feel better if I could at least leave him a plate to heat up.” Katie doesn’t lack for space. Her kitchen is large—but it’s disorganized. “I can never find anything,” she says. Tools and equipment are stashed willy-nilly, so that making even a grilled cheese sandwich feels like a major undertaking. “All I would like is to sit down once in a while to a home-cooked meal with Ian when he gets home,” she says. “But given the way things are in my life, that feels impossible.”
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“Dinner doesn’t have to be so hard,” Real Simple staff food editor Dawn Perry told Katie. To make it easier, organizing expert Chip Cordelli found homes for wayward pots and pans and created efficient work stations by the stove and the sink for food prep. Then Dawn offered Katie a trove of delicious recipes—plus ideas for making mealtime a source of joy, not stress.
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Befriend the Slow Cooker
Ten minutes. That’s all the time Katie needs to start a meal in this miraculous appliance—something she can probably handle on even her craziest days. Dawn gave Katie a stack of recipes, including this tasty, low-fat soup. “Slow-cooked meals make the best leftovers,” she says. “Perfect for when Ian gets home late.”
Katie didn’t have a problem keeping groceries on hand. Unfortunately, those purchases were mostly processed foods, snacks, and desserts. Instead, Dawn gave her a list of healthy, long-lasting staples that can be used to whip up quick, delicious dinners.
Dawn showed Katie that she could put together a fresh, flavorful side dish loaded with nutritious nuts or vegetables in the time that it takes to prepare a box of mac and cheese. These super-fast recipes pair perfectly with easy proteins, like grilled steak and pork chops.
“A frozen pizza or burrito can be a lifesaver,” Dawn told Katie. “Just be smart about which kind you buy.” According to Karen Diaz, a registered dietitian based in Wyckoff, New Jersey, a healthy pick should have about 300 calories, 10 grams of fat, and 18 grams of protein per serving. “Paired with, say, a salad or a quick side [like the previous recipes], you’ve got a respectable meal,” says Dawn. These tasty options make the grade.
Burritos: PJ’s Organics Skinny Burrito, $3.50 for 5.5 ounces, at supermarkets and natural-food markets.
Soup: Tabatchnick Tuscany Lentil Soup, $2.50 for 15 ounces, at supermarkets.
Pasta: Amy’s Stuffed Pasta Shells Bowl, $5 for 10 ounces, at supermarkets.
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Eat Together (When You Can)
“As a kid, I had dinner with my parents every night,” says Katie. But that ritual had fallen by the wayside in her own family. Dawn encouraged Katie to make it a priority—even just one night a week. “Eating with little kids isn’t exactly relaxing, but it’s important family time,” says Dawn. And if they do it on a weekend, Ian can grill, Katie can make a side dish, and the kids can help set the table.
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Two Weeks Later…
“I still have things to worry about in my life, but dinner is no longer one of them,” reports Katie, who has averaged three home-cooked meals a week since Dawn’s visit. “I never knew making healthy food could be so easy.” She has also become more adventurous: “Recently I made a Thai peanut chicken dish and brought it to my mom,” says Katie. “I got inspired by a recipe in a cookbook that Dawn gave me.” Her kids are opening up to new foods, too. “Chloe requested zucchini and asparagus!” she says incredulously. Most crucially, Katie has learned how to find the time to cook—and even to kick back a little. “Although I still run around like crazy most of the day, now I look forward to dinner. It’s the one moment where I can sit down and enjoy time with my family.”