For most moms I know, 5 p.m. is do-or-die time. After nine long hours of school and daycare, the kids are tired, hungry and demanding attention, and getting a meal on the table—let alone a healthy one—can be a challenge. Even so, I manage pretty well, relying on a number of strategies I’ve developed to serve my family food that doesn’t make nutritionists cringe. For example, I often prep a dish the night before so that it’s in the pan, spices added, vegetables chopped and ready for the oven the minute I walk in the door. On Sunday nights, my husband, Stuart, and I usually grill enough for at least two meals—that night’s dinner plus chicken breasts that I can use up to three nights in a row if need be. My kids, Alice, 7, and Ben, 4, are good vegetable eaters, so I steam large pots of broccoli and green beans for the week, and I wash vats of spinach leaves so there’s always a salad option. Each week, I permit myself one night of frozen fish sticks or grilled cheese sandwiches and one night at a restaurant (preferably on Friday, and preferably at a place that serves wine).
But as work deadlines, business trips and school activities heat up, I confess to trotting out the quick toaster-oven quesadillas and the hot dogs (I know, I know) instead of making the effort to prepare healthier meals. So, when the editors at iVillage challenged me to cook seven dinners, seven nights in a row, I was more than game—it would be the nudge I needed to get back on track. (And a reason for finally breaking out the never-used slow cooker that was gathering dust in the closet.) I was ready. Or so I thought.
Day 1: Wednesday
The Menu: Bean soup, steamed broccoli
The Prep: My family loves Bean Cuisine’s bean soup mixes, but they require a long, time-consuming simmer on the stove that isn’t feasible on weeknights. What a perfect choice for inaugurating the slow cooker! In the morning, I put all the ingredients into the pot (I had sauteed the onions and carrots and soaked the beans the night before), set it on low and got everyone off to school. No sweat. Until we came home at 5:30 to a house devoid of hearty soup fragrance and a crock full of tepid, hard beans. Out came the frozen fish sticks. In a desperate bid to serve something freshly cooked, I dug some soba noodles out of the pantry and quickly found a recipe online for peanut sauce. By 6:15, dinner was ready—just not the dinner I had planned on.
The Results: My kids love fish sticks. (“We haven’t had these in, like, five days, Mom!” Alice declares. I grimace with guilt.) Ben says he likes the peanut sauce, but eats only two bites; Alice won’t even touch the soba noodles plain.
Day 2: Thursday
The Menu: Bean soup, steamed broccoli
The Prep: Wednesday’s failure is Thursday’s triumph. After putting the slow cooker on high instead of low (always read directions!), tonight’s meal was ready before I went to bed last night. We got home at 5:45 and were eating by 6:05.
The Results: The beans are still crunchy to my taste—certainly no victory for the slow cooker. Alice eats two bowls of soup. Ben says he likes it, but doesn’t eat much—either the granola bar that got him through Alice’s piano lesson filled him up or he’s feigning praise for the sake of the challenge. I’m pretty sure it’s the latter.
Day 3: Friday
The Menu: Homemade pizza, spinach salad, steamed vegetables, peach crisp
The Prep: To stick to the challenge, I decide to cook for friends rather than hit a local restaurant, which is our usual Friday evening routine. The night before, I thawed some Whole Foods pizza dough and some cheese I had grated and divided into pizza-size freezer packets, then sauteed zucchini and red peppers for the adults’ pizza, steamed fresh veggies for the kids and prepped a crumb topping for the peach crisp. Our guests arrived Friday evening with pepperoni for the kids’ pizza and a bottle (or two) of wine. We assembled pizzas and blanched peaches while the kids played; with friends to distract them, they didn’t care that dinner was served later than usual, nor did they fight for my attention.
The Results: What kid doesn’t like pizza? The adult pizza was a wee bit soggy—too much liquid from the veggies—but the warm peach crisp tasted downright decadent. And it was nice to have a leisurely “no rush to pay the tab” dinner conversation with our friends.
Day 4: Saturday
The Menu: Swiss chard risotto, baked salmon with herbs, leftover pasta with broccoli and chickpeas, leftover peach crisp, s’mores
The Prep: We spent the early afternoon at a local college football game, and some friends stopped by after for an hour or two, which soon turned into four hours and questions about dinner. I had been thinking of a panko-crusted chicken breast, but we had no meat thawed, no milk and no breadcrumbs. Even so, when our friends suggested ordering Thai, I couldn’t bring myself to give up on the challenge. I took a deeper look in the fridge. I was thawing salmon for another shot at a slow-cooker recipe on Sunday; we could run it under cold water to thaw it completely and toss it in the oven. And then there was the somewhat random bounty my husband had brought home from the farmers’ market that morning: Swiss chard, cauliflower and jalapenos. (We needed milk!) The latter two could wait for another day, but inspiration struck with the chard: risotto! It gets a bad rap for being hard to make, but it’s basically idiot-proof. I baked the salmon with some herbs and served it with the risotto; the kids had pasta left over from earlier in the week, to which I added steamed broccoli and chickpeas. We finished off the meal with a backyard fire in the fire pit, s’mores and leftover peach crisp.
The Results: The kids powered through their leftover pasta (and s’mores). Our fish was a little underwhelming, but the risotto was perfect. “For a last-minute meal, it was like gymnastics,” one guest said. “The routine wasn’t flawless, but throw in a degree of difficulty, and it was excellent!”
Day 5: Sunday
The Menu: Leftover bean soup, leftover pasta with pesto, sauteed vegetables with pesto
The Prep: Sunday is usually the day I do a lot of grilling and cooking for the week, but this time of year, Sunday means soccer and late dinners. The slow-cooker salmon was out, since we ate the fish the day before. Instead, I went with leftovers: bean soup and pasta. To liven up the pasta, I pulled out some homemade pesto (another food I make in advance and freeze), which I also served with some quickly sauteed cauliflower and zucchini.
The Results: Dinner was fast, uneventful and uninspiring—but technically still homemade. And everyone liked the pesto on the vegetables.
Day 6: Monday The Menu: Panko-crusted chicken with maple sauce, green beans, wild rice The Prep: The weather was nice, so the kids and I spent a long time playing outside in a local park. It was almost 5:30 when I started preparing the chicken recipe I had been thinking of making two days before. Turns out I needed to pound the chicken into flat pieces before breading and frying them—a laborious task. In a panic, I put the kids in front of old episodes of The Muppet Show and set to work. Dinner wasn’t ready until 6:45. Ben would’ve been a complete puddle if I hadn’t caved to Kermit.
The Results: The chicken was delicious, but too much work for a weeknight—I need dishes that are simpler to make.
Day 7: Tuesday
The Menu: Salmon with caramelized onions and carrots, green beans, homemade bread (on a weeknight, no less!)
The Prep: I spent Monday night doing the sort of advance planning I often do on Sundays. Ben and I made a bread dough that rises for 18 hours without requiring kneading. I chopped onions and garlic for the slow-cooker salmon (I was finally trying it out), and then, because I had some basic ingredients handy and/or chopped already (panko crumbs, extra onion), I prepared ground turkey meatballs for Wednesday night’s dinner. I didn’t finish until 10 p.m. and still had emails to answer, but I had dealt with two nights’ meals in one fell swoop. Seven days later, I had finally gotten my groove on.
The Results: Alice loved the salmon, and Ben even ate the caramelized onions.
So, what did I learn from this challenge?
· My kids are game for trying new foods, but they don’t really care about “healthy”—or variety, for that matter. They want Mommy time. I’m the one who wants to try new meals that don’t rely too heavily on leftover pasta and chicken.
· It’s nice to mix new meals into the routine, but for the most part I have to limit experiments to weekends, when I have more time.
· Cooking on weeknights is time-consuming and compromises my efforts to prepare healthy breakfasts and lunches, which are just as important to growing children and my own health.
· Having friends over (at least the ones who can look past how messy the house is) requires a bit more effort, but delivers a big payoff. We’ll attempt this more often from now on.
· I still need at least one day or a full night to plan, prep and cook various foods for the week. And I need a grocery list written and ready to go at least two days before that.
· No matter how much I like to cook and eat new foods, the best part of this experience was the afternoon I spent playing with my children in the park. Kids definitely need Mommy time—but I need kid time, too.
Could you cook every night for a week? Chime in below!