Simplify Your Dinners, Guys

There’s been a lot of chatter about whether or not cooking dinners at home is worth it. This Slate article has been debated online from the moment it went live, and rightfully so. While I won’t add to the onslaught of negative mud-throwing, I will add my tiny voice to the sensible bloggers I’ve read (many of them moms in the trenches, themselves).

While much of the article is absolute incite-filled bunk, there is a sliver of truth in it. No, we shouldn’t expect poverty-level families to eat all higher-priced organic produce, grass-fed meat, and other expensive natural, non-processed foods. And, regarding the general purpose of the article, no, we shouldn’t attempt to achieve these incredibly intricate, Pinterest-worthy meals on a daily basis.

But, that’s pretty much where my agreement ends. When we switched to mostly “real foods” (we still get some processed organic items, admittedly, but put tons of thought into why we use them), our budget essentially adjusted. We were buying SO many processed and boxed stuff, it was insane how much we could’ve been spending on more veggies, fruits, and meat. And while it doesn’t always work this way, I love this post on how to eat healthily when you can’t afford organic and this one about how to shop for healthy food at Aldi. Can you tell I love The Humbled Homemaker?

So, who says that meals need to be these overly complicated, intricate things? If you’re taking your guidance from Michael Pollan himself, at its essence he suggests we “eat more food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pretty basic, really. And even those words are stated in a casual, loose way. I take it as meaning: “Eat as well as you can. Don’t beat yourself up.” Give or take.

And that’s where a lot of this pressure comes from. No, not everyone LOVES cooking, and I can guarantee that even the most famous of chefs grows weary of cooking for his/her family every. Single. Night. Everyone burns out, and when you’re doing it 3+ times a day, 365 days a year…um, yeah. The odds are very good.

But, when “perfection” is thrust down our throats like an impeccable three-course meal, the pressure becomes harder to take. So, just take today’s post as a reminder – to all of us.

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Seriously, guys. Let’s take a few deep breaths here and repeat some Stuart Smalley affirmations. Take it from a chick who tries her best to dole out three healthy, real food meals to three very different eaters every day. It’s overwhelming, but if you remember a few things, it helps:

1. Okay, we’ve heard it all before, but planning is your BFF. You don’t have to download a month’s worth of meal plans (but, if that helps, go for it!), but having at least a general idea of what the upcoming week brings (schedule-wise) and knowing a meal that will fit each day (like, I don’t advise cooking a meal on-par with Thanksgiving on a night when the kids have a million things going on).

2. Share the duties. We don’t do this a lot, honestly. We share other duties, like the fact that Dave handles driving to/drop-off/pick-up/bringing home from Hadley’s sitter. But, yeah, I do a ton. I’m the modern Donna Reed, which really just means that I cook/clean/do laundry/keep the house upright, but I do it in sweats instead of pearls. So, when things start to get overwhelming, I reach out to him and let him know that the dinner part of things is nuts. And guess what. He’s always willing to take on a couple of meals himself — and usually enjoys doing it! (No, seriously.)     

3. Simplify, simplify, simplify. If you have a hard time planning ahead and thawing the meat or prepping the Crock Pot first thing in the morning (I feel ya), then keep your weekday meals super simple and quick. Why do you think Rachael Ray’s first hit show was “30 Minute Meals”? Seriously. Look up a bunch of her old recipes and see if you can make any of them work for you and your family (or Google “20” or “30 minute meals” and see what you find).

4. Use leftovers to your advantage. That is a trick out of my mom’s game book. She always made us a HUGE meal on Sundays (sometimes a good-sized one on Saturdays, too). Say she made roast beef with all the trimmings. Monday, she might make beef and gravy and pair it with the leftover mashed potatoes or bread (some might call it “$%&# on a shingle”) and some veg. She’d get two or three additional meals out of whatever she made, but Wednesday was always soup and sandwich night. It helped cut the monotony a little bit (not that it really was monotonous to us kids). Oh, Wednesday nights leads me to my next tip!

5. What the heck’s wrong with soup and sandwich, anyway? Or the occasional pancake night? Or a salad for you, PBJ and carrots for the kiddo? I don’t advise this every night, but we all have those “what the hell are we gonna eat?!” nights, don’t we? Where you didn’t thaw something or you had a horrific day at work or you’ve been sick and don’t have the energy? Give yourself a break and make some scrambled eggs. Or something you would usually deem “only suitable for lunch.” Food is food.   

6. It’s not always about what you eat; it IS always about who you eat with. This whole “come to the table” concept is part trying to get consumers to re-focus on cooking. It’s incredible to think about how many FEWER people know how to cook today compared to fifty years ago. At the same time, I feel that the methods we use are tons easier, and often create tastier meals (not kidding, check out the unappetizing recipes in some of the old cookbooks…how may methods for making Jell-O?!).

BUT, I also think that the movement is as much about bringing families back around the table as it is about knowing and thinking more about food. And, y’know what? I’m a bit of a hypocrite. During winter months, we’ll often eat at the dining room table, but lately we’re totally in an “eat around the TV” slump. It is what it is. We’ll watch one Hadley show, then one episode of “the Mommy Daddy Show” (“The Dick Van Dyke Show”).

What I really mean here, though, is that it doesn’t matter how fabulous or grandiose your meal is. Focus on the family, guys. They don’t REALLY care, do they? I find that my “breakfast for dinner” nights are just as welcomed and appreciated as my glazed pork tenderloin with roasted vegetables nights. Usually. 😉


On a final note, I thought I’d share a quick, simple recipe that I just threw together last night.

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When I say “sub”, I mean do it up! If you don’t have apples, try blueberries, strawberries, dried cranberries, etc. Use whatever lettuce you have on hand. Try sunflower seeds or walnuts or pecans or whatever. No Parmesan? Use cheddar or bleu or mozzarella or…let’s just say I don’t say “no” to any cheese. And vinaigrette can be as simple as oil and vinegar or as slightly-less-simple as the warm apple cider vinaigrette that I whipped up.

And, for full disclosure, here’s what Hadley had:

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An all-natural, nitrate-free hotdog with organic cheese melted on, apple slices, and yogurt. He also got a “treat” of a handful of “cookies” (actually organic graham bunnies). And guess what? He loved it. And I’m not guilty, especially knowing that his lunch was leftover homemade chicken “nuggets” with roasted sweet potato wedges and veggies for lunch.

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