There was a time, when the girls were two and three, that we dreamed of the day when they’d be 10 and 11, able to sit at the table and place food in their own mouths while filling us in on their days. Now that we’re finally here—avert your eyes, new parents—we realize that our dream was a mirage, that life finds a way of constantly moving the goalposts on you. Family dinner is still chaotic, only the challenges have shifted from the physical to the logistical. And March and April, for us—with the girls deeply entrenched in two spring sports—is the most chaotic time of year. As we’ve detailed more than once on this blog, practices don’t end until 7:30, which means that, most nights, dinner doesn’t happen until the (very European) hour of 8:30. When you’re dealing with an overstuffed activities schedule, it’s crucial to have a few strategies that make a solid dinner possible. Here are three we will be relying on all season long:
Strategy 1: The Before-Work Play
When the cook is on carpool duty—i.e., it’s not just the athlete coming home late—the key is to prepare something in that 15-minute window before you head to work in the morning. We love soba noodle salad with a simple rice vinegar dressing and greens—spinach, kale, chard—tossed right into the pasta water in the last minute of cooking. Refrigerate till you get home, toss on the dressing, and, if you have time, add some shredded chicken for the win.
Strategy 2: The Pan-Fried Pizza Move
By the time our li’l midfielders stagger through the door, they’re like a couple of feral dogs: They don’t even bother to take off their shin guards before inhaling whatever is put in front of them. A piece of fish on a night like this? Ain’t. Gonna. Cut. It. Individual pan-fried pizzas with whole wheat crust? That’s more like it. Just brown your rolled-out dough in a cast-iron pan with some olive oil, flip, add sauce and toppings, then finish under the broiler. Abby likes a classic Margherita; Phoebe goes for ham and pineapple. (Book owners: Please see page 281 for the official recipe.)
Strategy 3: The Freezer Plan
When there’s so little time on the clock, it’s tempting to fall back on takeout or frozen pot pies. But we’d rather walk through the door, reach into our freezer, and pull out something homemade—like a batch of bake-ahead turkey and spinach meatballs. Think of it as the utility man of the family dinner: ever reliable, can play both protein and vegetable, goes on a bun (meatball subs!) or over pasta, and will crush its store-bought competition any night of the week. Pro tip: Freeze them in single-serving batches, so you can thaw and deploy as needed. Victory.
This is our “Providers” column for the March 2014 issue of Bon Appetit. Head over to their site for the spinach-and-turkey meatball recipe. Photo by Matt Duckor (meatballs) for Bon Appetit.
my son is two, and we are in the midst of that dinner chaos you speak. one night he is an angel, eats everything in his plate, chats and sits for ten whole, glorious minutes. the next night, he refuses everything, begs for yogurt, which he wipes all over the floor and screams through dinner. sigh.
but i love the idea of those meatballs on a sandwich — remixing it up!
I wonder…why not just make dinner earlier in the day or on the weekend, put in tupperware, and reheat in microwave just before dinner? Chicken dishes, pasta sauce, turkey burgers, beef stir fry all work well like this. My mom did that almost every night during my childhood because of tennis practice and dance rehearsal etc etc.
Those meatballs look great. Egg allergic kid in our house, and I never quite understand what the egg does in a meatball. Is it just a bit of binding? I have one allergy-free meatball recipe from Cybele Pascal and she uses that egg replacer product in hers and they taste fine. Anyone have other ideas for swapping out the egg in this or should I stick with the egg replacer we use?
Your chili recipe is our go-to on these nights. I can make it ahead the night before, then warm it up and serve over rice that cookies itself thanks to a rice steamer with a timer function.
We have The Before-work Play situation twice a week and it’s a drag. Chili is a good one for those nights, just needs some warming and you’re good to go. I keep a batch in the freezer.
Andrea – you can sub that egg replacement powder for the egg in any meatloaf easily. You can also use potato starch or arrowroot starch. The egg replacement powder is just a combination of starches anyway, and in a recipe like meatballs that just need binding, it will be perfect.
Putting the spinach in the meatballs is genius. I’m going to make these into patties and cook them on the stovetop for immediate “meatball sub” gratification, while the rest cook as meatballs in the toaster oven, headed for the freezer, to be eaten in the future on pasta. Backwards! xox
My biggest issue now is we are in the toddler phase with one (i.e. super picky, won’t sit still, 5:30 witching hour, etc) and the super busy activity/homework phase with the other kid (age 7). Will dinnertime ever be…..normal? I think not and hey, that’s ok – as long as we’re trying, right?
Great tips! Of course you have completely dashed my dreams of having a normal family dinner a few years from now (5 + 2 1/2), but at least I feel prepared for what’s ahead!
3kids and varying schedules so we use many of these tricks. Additionally I use my crock pot to hold and warm sloppy Joe filling, meatballs and sauce, soups, taco meat, fajitas filling, homemade Mac n cheese so that kids can grab as they come and go -avoids short order cooking and takeout.
Hi Jenny-Those meatballs look delish!
I hate to be a nudge, but what brand is that cast iron pan on your stovetop?… It’s green??? Any help round be much appreciated!
These are great suggestions, and not just for families with kids doing sports. With four kids, all with different schedules, I have learnt that home-made freezer meals are your best friends. Adding the pan-fried pizza to my list of healthy home-made “fast food” options.
I love the idea of individual pan fried pizzas. I’m definitely going to try it,
Hi Jenny! Love these tips and DAL! Question – can you substitute the frozen spinach for fresh? Going to make these ASAP!