Monday Menus: Fake-Out Fried Chicken

Oven fried chickenFried chicken is a quintessential picnic food, isn’t it?

And yet….picnics make me think of summer (though a nice autumn picnic is nothing to sneeze at). Summer makes me think of heat, at least on a day like today, when the mercury was well into the upper 80s here in Rhode Island and the humidity was about as oppressive as having a huge wet sheepdog lying across your back. And the last thing I want to be doing, when it’s hot outside, is standing over a vat of oil frying ANYTHING.

Of course, it’s not just the frying and the heat that are issues when it comes to fried chicken; it’s the fussiness of it all. Most recipes call for dipping in egg washes, rolling in flours, sometimes doing two or three different coatings…by the end of it I usually feel like there isn’t a piece of chicken in the world that’s worth the aggravation. Yes, fried chicken is good, but somehow it’s never quite good enough, if you know what I mean. I hate to be left with piles of dishes and an oil-splattered kitchen for something that doesn’t completely knock my socks off. So if I could come up with a way to re-make fried chicken that would be less of a hassle, more appealing to make on a hot day, and still deliver some crunchy tastiness to the table, I was determined to find it.

This method isn’t technically “frying,” but J. and the boys agreed that if I hadn’t told them I was baking the chicken, they wouldn’t have known the difference. Using a well-oiled baking sheet in a hot oven still gives you that nice crunchy crust to sink your teeth into, without the fuss of standing over a hot stove and dealing with spatters of oil careening all over the place. It’s also a much easier way to deal with the question of breading, since the marinade that tenderizes the chicken doubles as the “glue” to hold the coating onto the drumsticks. I added the tiny special touch of rosemary lemon salt at the end just to give the chicken a little more personality; for me, fried chicken always needs a little something to boost the flavor. You could leave it off, but it’s an easy flourish that makes a big difference.

The end result is chicken that’s easy enough to make even on a weeknight, but still delivers the same tender, crispy experience you expect out of fried chicken. I’m sure for some people, nothing but the “real” thing will do, but for us, this is a fake-out that works just as well as the original concept. Try it and see what you think; if you’ve never oven-fried chicken before, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Get the Recipe: Oven-Fried Chicken with Rosemary Lemon Salt

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September 2014 Meal Plan: We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

Seriously. You guys. It’s September. (Well, ALMOST.) And I never even posted the meal plan for August!

I had one. You know I had one. I can’t function without a meal plan. But, well, AUGUST. It was a month of constant revisions. Plans cropping up at the last minute. Things changing from day to day. Getting one camp schedule nailed and conquered by Wednesday, only to have it change with a new camp and a new routine the next Monday. Comings and goings and bonfires and beach trips and fairs and picnics and parties and….!

But now it’s September (almost), and the boys are back in school — have been for three days now. Aside from the unusual exhaustion that comes with those first few days back, when their little bodies and brains are adjusting to long days filled with rules and expectations and academics again, they’re thriving in Kindergarten and 2nd grade. I’m getting used to the school-year schedule again, and thriving on that, too — the predictability of knowing that this is how things will be for quite some time now, and being able to plot things out on the calendar weeks or months ahead with relative certainty. Phew. Routine.

Which, of course, brings us to the meal plan! It’s done. It’s firm, as much as any meal plan ever can be. And it’s just what I needed after a whirlwind of a summer!

WEEK ONE:
9/1: Labor Day! Oven-fried chicken, tahini coleslaw, and whatever delights come in our CSA basket.
Make it GF: Crust chicken with almond, cashew, or pistachio meal, or use crushed organic cornflakes!
9/2: First night back to choral rehearsals for the upcoming season. Slow cooker — Mom’s Meat Sauce over pasta, salad
Make it GF: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta brand (we like Jovial and Tinkyada)
9/3: Dinner crepes with a variety of fillings
Make it GF: Use my gluten-free crepe recipe!
Grilled Citrus Chicken
9/4: Grilled citrus chicken, vegetables
9/5: Fend night/Kids cook
9/6: Fresh seafood from the farmer’s market
9/7: Sunday roast chicken dinner

 

 

 

WEEK TWO:
9/8: Roasted tomato and pepper soupRoasted red pepper soup
9/9: Buffalo-style lettuce wraps
9/10: Open House night at the kids’ school! I’ll have chicken spring rolls made ahead of time so we can stay on schedule.
Make it GF: If you can’t get your hands on gluten-free wrappers, use rice paper wraps instead and make summer rolls
9/11: Having dinner with family!
9/12: Fend night/Kids cook
9/13: Dinner out!
9/14: Italian Wedding Soup

WEEK THREE:

9/15: Spaghetti with pesto, salad
Make it GF: Use your favorite gluten-free pasta brand
9/16: Slow cooker — Sticky chicken, rice and vegetables
Pepperoni-Spinach Calzones9/17: Pepperoni and spinach calzones
Make it GF: If you don’t have a favorite gluten-free pizza dough substitute, use the filling to stuff portobello mushroom caps or zucchini, cover with sauce, and bake
9/18: Cobb Casserole
9/19: Fend night/Kids cook
9/20: No-Fuss Chicken, vegetables
9/21: Lasagna
Make it GF: Use gluten-free lasagna noodles, or substitute slices of eggplant or zucchini

WEEK FOUR:

9/22: Vegetable fried rice and miso soup
9/23: Monte Cristo sandwiches, fruit
Make it GF:
Use the same ingredients, but make them into an omelet or egg scramble instead!
9/24: Skillet honey-mustard chicken, vegetables
9/25: School fundraiser night, catered by a local restaurant
9/26: Fend night/Kids cook
9/27: Local seafood from the farmer’s market
9/28: Baked spaghetti with chicken and peppersbaked spaghetti with chicken
Make it GF: You could either use GF pasta, or omit the pasta and bake the chicken with peppers, capers, and marinara sauce

WEEK FIVE:

9/29: Baked eggs with tomato and cheese, zucchini-rye biscuits
Make it GF: Use almond flour and cornmeal in a 50-50 blend in place of rye flour
9/30: Slow cooker — Sloppy joes, sweet potato fries, fruit
Make it GF: Ladle the sloppy joe filling over the sweet potato fries for a fun twist on chili fries (cheese optional!)

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Flash Sale! 50% off “Back to School the Organized Way”

Don't these look good?  Get the recipe!

Don’t these look good? Get the recipe!

Big News!

You’ve probably already heard about the fantastic back-to-school organizing guide I put together with my friend Bonnie from The Joyful Organizer.  To recap, it’s a downloadable e-guide with over 100 pages of amazingly helpful content.  In its pages, you’ll find a complete guide to getting your family super-organized for the school year, including:

  • Tips and tricks for organizing back-to-school shopping and kids’ closets
  • Chore charts and ideas for getting the kids involved in staying organized throughout the year
  • Recipes and plans to make 60 school lunches and 14 family dinners — all freezer-friendly, easy to make, and ready when you are!
  • 12 weeks’ worth of school lunch packing menus
  • AND…every recipe and idea in the guide is easily customizable for both vegetarian and gluten-free diets (and we’ll tell you how)!

For a limited time only, we’re offering you 50% off the guide.  That means you get all that content for only $5!  The offer will be good until noon Eastern time on Monday, August 18, so don’t wait!  Use the button below to get your guide now.

Please note: This promotion is no longer valid. However, you can still purchase the “Back to School, The Organized Way” guide for its original price of $10, using the button below.





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Book Review: “Larvie Learns a Lesson”

larvieI was recently approached by a clinic called BMI of Texas, asking if I’d read and review a children’s book the doctors in the practice had written to help young patients and their families. The entire idea of a doctor’s office having written their own children’s book was, I have to say, somewhat intriguing to me. I’ve heard of many pediatricians and medical specialists recommending various books to their younger patients and their parents, but it’s not often that I hear about a medical practice actually taking matters into their own hands to write one themselves. I was intrigued enough to say yes, and “Larvie Learns a Lesson” arrived at my front door.

Before I can review the book, I think it’s important to give you a little bit of background on the practice itself and how the project came to be; in this case, context is everything. BMI of Texas is a medical weight-management practice. They specialize in bariatric surgery, but they have a strong focus on nutrition and health counseling – in other words, they’d prefer to help patients adopt healthy habits and help them manage their weight non-surgically, and try to provide resources to that end. In what I can only guess was a move geared towards preventing future surgical patients, the doctors in the group decided to write a children’s book that they could distribute, giving kids a simple framework for healthy habits.

“Larvie Learns a Lesson” is a short, colorful, direct read — and kid-approved by my five-year-old, which is certainly as important as anything else I might have to say about it! There’s no doubt, when you flip through its pages, that this is a children’s story written through the lens of doctors who see the troubling effects of obesity – at every age – on a daily basis. It’s the story of a young caterpillar whose parents feed him healthy fruits and vegetables at mealtimes to help him grow strong, so he’ll one day be able to spin his cocoon. However, as Larvie grows up, he starts to see lots of advertisements on television for foods that his parents haven’t given him. Assuming that the chips, crackers, cookies, sodas, and other junk items are good for him because he sees them advertised during his favorite shows, Larvie begins to eat these commercial foods, and soon grows fat and unhealthy. The book tells us that he’s short of breath and he can’t run and play as well as he used to. Larvie worries that he won’t be able to spin his cocoon.

At this point, Larvie’s parents take him to the doctor, who finds that Larvie is obese and has diabetes. The doctor tells Larvie that he needs to stop eating junk food and start exercising more. Larvie does, and soon he’s thin and fit again. He spins his cocoon and emerges from it a strong, beautiful butterfly.

Where “Larvie Learns a Lesson” succeeds is in its simplicity and focus on the way certain events impact Larvie himself – for example, Larvie’s worries begin when he feels that he can’t keep up with his friends at school while he’s playing. That’s a much more concrete way to explain the effects of obesity to kids than talking about blood sugar. It also gets a gold star from me for tackling the concept of direct junk food marketing to kids. As a basic educational tool that shows simple correlations between eating too much junk food and not being fully healthy, “Larvie” is fairly effective.

My feeling, though, is that “Larvie” probably belongs within its proper context: As a tool for children and families who are struggling with severe weight issues or are at a high risk for such issues, delivered with clinical or educational support. Outside of that context, I think it’s a story that may be right for some families, but not for all.

One thing I worry about: If kids who are struggling with their weight read “Larvie,” they may feel that it’s normal – expected, even – to drop a significant number of pounds by making healthier choices. In reality, that may not happen for every child, and certainly not as quickly as it does for Larvie. Would a child expecting a perfect, happy ending become discouraged or feel that there’s something wrong with them if they failed to realize their weight loss dreams? On the flip side of the issue, while the book gives a nod to diabetes at Larvie’s checkup, it seems to imply that obesity is the major danger in eating a diet heavy in junk food. That, to me, is a bit worrisome, as it plays right into the hands of a major challenge faced by parents and activists who lobby for healthier diets for children: “But my kid’s not fat!” seems to be a rallying cry for many adults, and “Larvie” does little to dispel the myth that thin = healthy and overweight by any measure = unhealthy, no matter what your habits.

Overall, though, I applaud the efforts of the BMI of Texas group. They saw a need in their immediate community, and they addressed it; whether it’s as nuanced as I think it could be or not, it’s clearly a timely and relevant tale for the population they’re working with, and has the sort of simple and straightforward messaging that appeals to very young children. What I’d like to see next is more doctors, and more people who work directly with kids and families, expanding on the initiative that “Larvie” has started to bring more balance, nuance, and greater educational value to the conversation for all families – obese or not.

If you’re curious to read “Larvie Learns a Lesson” for yourself, you can get a copy, either in paperback or Kindle format, through Amazon.

Thanks to the folks at BMI of Texas for providing me with a complimentary copy for review!

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Five Quick Ways to Stay Organized for School Lunch

Turkey rollup lunch v.4It’s back-to-school season! I know some people around the country already have kids back in school; others are starting this week; and others, like my boys, will be going back in a couple of weeks’ time (major jealousy, by the way, for those lucky enough to wait for a post-Labor-Day start). Whether you’re in full-on organizing mode right now, just getting started (maybe, ahem, with the help of my handy back to school guide?), or already in the swing of things and hoping you can keep it up, the task of staying on top of school lunches and snacks probably looks something like this for most people:

Step One: Get your game face on. This year, snacks and lunches are going to be AWESOME. And effortless. You laugh in the face of lunch ruts.
Step Two: Stock up on some stuff. Plan for amazing first-day (or first-week) lunches. Buy or make all the kids’ favorites for snacktime. Congratulate self on being so darned organized.
Step Three: Complete first few days of packing. Rest on laurels. Feel smugly “together.”
Step Four: Life happens. Kids complain. Coffee goes cold while you scramble for sanity in the mornings. Evenings fill up with activities and homework. Somebody eats all the granola. The turkey goes bad. Your inspiration sags. Lunch packing becomes a drag.
Step Five: Pray for summer. Only 162 days to go.

I’m kidding, sort of. But I know as well as anyone that no matter how well-organized you get for back-to-school, there’s a certain amount of MAINTAINING that organization that needs to happen in order to ward off a total lunch-packing slump. Here are some of my favorite easy tips to keep the ball rolling after that first-day triumph:

  1. Be a snack squirrel.  Whenever I see fabulous sale prices on items that make good snacks or lunchbox additions, I buy 2 or more of them at a time.  One goes into the pantry for general use; the others go into a secret location where the children won’t find them, and I won’t be tempted to use them up unless I really need them.  Right now, I’ve got several bags of whole wheat mini-bagels, which were on major sale at Whole Foods for a few weeks in a row, stashed in the chest freezer in the garage.  There are two boxes of Annie’s bunny crackers, a box of Trader Joe’s cereal bars, and a couple of packages of unsweetened applesauce cups shelved in the basement.  I’ll keep adding to these stashes, little by little, one small purchase at a time — and that way, when I start to feel myself reaching the desperation point, I’ll have a well of reserves I can turn to that will help me pull it all back together.
  2. Keep a fallback lunch ready to go.  The fallback lunch is the one you pack when you’re just too tired or stressed to think about anything.  It will not be nutritionally perfect, but it will be better than panic.  I recommend putting the ingredients for the fallback lunch in a box or bag and stashing it on the top shelf of the pantry.  An example might be a box of your family’s favorite approved mac and cheese, a fruit leather or box of raisins, and a granola bar or similar item.  Or you might keep a single-serve pack of crackers, a can of tuna, a cup of applesauce, and trail mix on hand.  On a tough lunch-packing day, you can grab the kit and just follow where it leads.  Bonus points for adding some fruits and vegetables from the fridge, if you’ve got them.
  3. Try an “approved add-ins” bin.  This is an especially good trick for families with multiple children, and for families that want to foster more independence in lunch-packing (and who among us doesn’t?).  In a large bin of your choosing, pack your family’s favorite shelf-stable, nutritious snacks and lunchbox add-ons.  Fruit cups packed in juice or water, nut and seed butters, whole-grain cereals and crackers, fruit leathers, the makings for trail mix, popcorn, and rice cakes are all good choices.  Each day, once the main lunch (and any fresh items you want to add) is packed, the kids can choose from the add-ins bin to round out their meals and pack their own snacks.  Just by keeping an eye on the level in the add-in bin, you’ll know how much grocery shopping you need to do for the week.
  4. Do a “20 minute tune-up” once a week.  Pick a time and schedule it.  This is your moment: Set a timer and get chopping and packaging.  Slice vegetables, portion fruits, make single-serve containers of yogurt with frozen berries or jam or maple syrup stirred in (just not honey — honey left in yogurt makes the yogurt separate. Sad but true).  Cube your cheeses, portion your dips and hummus and salsas.  Whatever you can get done in 20 minutes is FINE.  Don’t push yourself to do more unless you’re dying to.  The point is, you’ll be that much farther ahead for every lunch-packing session during the week, and you’ll know that it’s only 20 minutes of your time that needs to be committed to the effort.  We can all find 20 minutes — even if it’s during commercial breaks.
  5. Set a snack list.  The hardest part of lunch-packing for me is invariably the snacks. I pack a great lunch, feel good about it, and then realize that I’ve forgotten to throw in a snack — and I don’t feel inspired.  The snack list should ideally contain five items in each of three categories: Fresh foods, Freezer foods, and Fair Game foods.  Fresh foods are things like apples or bananas with nut or seed butter, yogurt parfaits, fruit and cheese, veggies with dip, etc.  Freezer foods are make-ahead items that you keep at the ready: Banana bread, mini-muffins, mini-bagels, frozen smoothies.  Fair Game foods are the pantry items you can grab and toss into backpacks, like granola bars, crackers, and popcorn.  Fill out the lists with accepted items in your household, and keep it handy.  Each week when you do the grocery shopping, consult your snack sheet and do a quick check of your inventory to make sure that you have at least three of those snacks on hand, in enough quantity to keep you going for the week.  If not, stock up.  The fifteen snacks you’ve written down, packed in rotation, will be enough variety to keep the kids from getting too bored with their choices, but provide enough structure for you to keep things easy.

Packing a healthy and kid-approved school lunch every day can feel like a huge feat, but with the right organization, some advance planning, and a few simple tips like these, it doesn’t have to be a totally thankless chore.  Try one or two of these ideas this school year, and let me know if they’re a help to you and the lunch-packing routine in your house!

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Back to School, the Organized Way!

BackToSchool-3I’m so excited today to announce the launch of a new project that I’ve been practically SLAVING over (yes, picture me, back of hand to my forehead) with my friend Bonnie from The Joyful Organizer.  The two of us have been working on a fabulous new downloadable e-guide to help our readers get ready for back-to-school time, and it’s finally here!

“Back to School the Organized Way” is your ultimate guidebook for this time of year.  Bonnie offers simple and effective tips for setting up homework spaces, getting the kids’ closets in shape for the school year, and more — including some great printables to keep you super organized on even the most chaotic days!  As for me, well, I’ve put together a plan for you that offers the following:

  • A two-week, day-by-day guide to readying your kitchen for back-to-school time
  • Step-by-step plans to help you get 14 family dinners, 60 school lunches, and more into your freezer in just about an hour a day
  • Brand-new recipes and some tried-and-true favorites
  • Twelve weeks of full school lunch menus to make packing easy
  • And every recipe and lunchbox idea comes with adaptations for both vegetarian and gluten-free families, so you can be sure that all the meals in the guide will meet your family’s needs!

From getting your kids involved in staying organized throughout the year, to easy and adaptable recipes that will help you get everyone to the dinner table on even the busiest weeknight, Bonnie and I have got you covered.  With over 100 pages of original content, color photos, and simple instructions for each day, “Back to School the Organized Way” is a practically perfect prep plan…for practically imperfect people, like all of us!

Get the guide now!




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Monday Menus: Easy Chicken Sandwiches

Platter of chicken sandwichesWhen I was a kid, I remember eating these chicken sandwiches at some restaurant — I don’t know for sure where it was, but I think it was probably the country club where my parents played golf.  (Yeah, I’m a former country-club kid.  No, I’ve never worn a sweater tied around my neck non-ironically.) I remember this sandwich being THE chicken sandwich for me.  It was grilled, not fried; juicy and tender; nicely seasoned, but not overly so; and very simple.  Just the chicken, the bun, and some crunchy lettuce and perfect slices of sweet tomato.  Nowadays, I feel like every grilled chicken sandwich is trying to one-up itself, adding bacon and cheese and fancy sauces; but the chicken sandwich of my youth, well, that’s the one I’ll forever remember.  It didn’t need anything fancy added to it.  It just WAS.

Recently, some old friends of mine visited us from quite a ways out of town.  We hadn’t seen them in years, and I’d never eaten a meal with their kids, so I had no idea how anyone’s palates might be.  We’d invited them to join us for an outing at the local zoo, then back to our place for a casual backyard dinner, but I got hung up on what to serve.  What if their kids didn’t like some of the foods our kids and our friends’ kids are used to?  What if I chose the wrong thing?

Of course, the answer was to step back, take a deep breath, and remind myself that when in doubt, simple is always better — especially when you’re feeding a bunch of hungry people after a long afternoon in the hot sun.

I had burgers and chicken breasts in the freezer, so I decided we’d just throw everything on the grill, set out some buns and toppings, and make a salad and a fruit tray to go alongside.  But when it came to the chicken, the image of those old, nostalgic sandwiches kept haunting me.  I had to try to make those sandwiches myself.

In the end, it turned out that the mystery of the chicken sandwiches was nothing more complicated than Italian dressing.  I whisked together a pretty good imitation of the ubiquitous “zesty Italian” you find in supermarkets everywhere, coated the chicken, and let it marinate for a few hours.  When it came off the grill, to my everlasting surprise, it was the chicken I’d remembered — moist, nicely seasoned, flavorful but not overpowering.  And on a big fluffy bun with some crisp romaine and heirloom tomatoes, it was the grilled chicken sandwich of my childhood all over again.

I have to confess, I’ve made these sandwiches twice more since we discovered them, and each time they disappear almost as fast as they hit the table.  In the midst of a busy summer season, this is one of my new food obsessions.  Fast, simple, satisfying, and a hit with family and friends alike; what could be better?

Get the recipe: Easy Grilled Chicken Sandwiches

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New Adventures: An Announcement

fireworks

This is big news!

Loyal readers and followers on social media have probably noticed I’ve been fairly quiet these past few weeks…maybe even months. It’s been a bit of a bumpy road for the RRG family in a few different ways, during this first half of 2014 – which means I haven’t had, to be honest, the mental and emotional energy I’ve needed to keep up with the blog. Just a modest rundown of what’s been happening with us would show things like challenges at work, a job loss (and subsequent new job, new hours, new arrangements) for J., and a set of new diagnoses for L.’s ongoing neurodevelopmental problems, which of course have come with a new action plan. Oh, and P.’s growing up and moving on from Pre-K to Kindergarten, and….

When J. and I sat down and looked at all of what was happening in our household and with our family, we knew some changes had to be made. You probably thought that one major job change would be enough, but we don’t do anything small around here. So we decided, if he was changing jobs, I should, too.

I KNOW. It seems like a crazy thing to do when the dust of unemployment is still settling. But we realized:

  1. J.’s new schedule has him out of the house much earlier, and returning home much later, than we’re used to. Whereas he used to be able to help with drop-offs and pick-ups, he can’t do much of that any longer. All of the kids’ needs would have to be jammed in around my work schedule, or my work schedule massaged (as far as might even be possible) to fit around their needs.
  2. We did not WANT our children’s needs to be something we had to try to “accommodate.”
  3. Our new insights into what L. needs from both school and home meant that not only did his schedule have to come first, but somebody (me!) would probably have to be available to work closely with his teachers, at least at times, to make sure that everything was progressing as expected.
  4. I wasn’t completely in love with my existing job, anyway, and after more than 4 years at the same position I wasn’t seeing it going anywhere that I truthfully wanted to follow.
  5. Our household wasn’t as well-tended as we wanted it to be. We were both spending many hours a day in service to other people’s schedules. By the time we got home at night with our kids, we wanted to connect with them, not clean the house and deal with all the projects and daily minutia that needed our attention. That’s a valid choice, but let me tell you, it’s not without its own consequences. At a certain point, it was just frustrating for us, on every level, to feel that we were spread so thin – and having to let things slide much more than made us comfortable.

Obviously, something needed to give. J. and I have always believed that living a happy, rewarding life should be our top priority – sometimes at the expense of better financial positioning, sometimes to the puzzlement of people around us. But we’re trying to carve out space in this crazy world that lets us feel more like we’re living and less like life is happening to us while we run on some treadmill and try to keep up with it. So we made the decision that I would step back. What might you call it these days? Leaning OUT, maybe?

I’m not going to stop working; I’m just not going to work on someone else’s timetables anymore. I’m not going to stop making money to contribute to our family’s well-being; I’m maybe just not entirely sure where all of that money is going to come from anymore. Yes, I’m going out on my own, and as happens sometimes when you just unclench your fists and ask the universe to help you answer a big, hard question, I’ve been provided with a wonderful way to enter the freelance world. I’ve been dying to share it with you, and now I can finally announce:

I’m joining the team at The Family Dinner Project!

The wonderful people at FDP have generously offered me the opportunity to work as a consultant, helping to shape their campaigns and get my hands into the amazing work they’re doing to improve family dinners – and the state of family life, in general – across the country. I’m excited to be a part of things, and even more excited when I consider how much richer this experience could make my work here on Red, Round, or Green. There are few moments in life where you can be instantly, acutely aware of how the pieces of your world are aligning, and this is one of those precious times. I am, at this moment, standing on the edge of something new and thrilling; feeling nervous, giddy, scared, hopeful, doubtful, confident, flummoxed.

Happy.

Ready to move forward. And hoping that you’ll all continue to join me for these new adventures.

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July 2014 Meal Plan: New CSA, New Adventures

It’s the first day of July, and the house is too quiet.  The boys are off on a week-long trip to Gramma and Grampa’s house while J. and I stay here in RI and slowly roast tardily install air conditioning units and dutifully go to work.  It’s a weird week without them here, and also a week without a meal plan, because we revert to carefree status at times like this and do wild, impetuous things like eat out and pick from leftovers in the fridge.  Oh, we’re mad, we two.

At any rate, it’s July whether I was ready for it or not, and a meal plan must be written for the month ahead.  This summer, for the first time, we signed up for a CSA share from a local farm.  Our first basket came this weekend, and there are fourteen more of them on the horizon — fifteen chances, in all, to be creative with whatever comes our way.  To that end, I’m adding a “CSA night” to each week of our meal plan; I figure, why not leave some space for inspiration to come calling when I see how the baskets are shaping up?

Meal Plan for July

WEEK ONE:

July 1-5: I’m not planning anything.  We’ll be here, we’ll be there, we’ll be celebrating the 4th, and it’ll all work out.
7.14 Quick Tip 1July 6: Restaurant style grilled chicken sandwiches, grilled vegetables
Make it GF: Serve the chicken and vegetables on top of salads
July 7: CSA night

WEEK TWO:

July 8: Middle Eastern lamb and eggs with pita triangles
Make it GF: Serve injera bread (made with teff flour) instead of pita, or serve over quinoa
July 9: DIY Salad night
July 10: Tortellini salad with chicken and basil
Make it GF: If you can’t find gluten-free tortellini, you can use any gf pasta alternative
July 11: Kids cook/Fend night
July 12: Fresh seafood from the farmer’s market
July 13: Slow-grilled pork shoulder with baked white beans7.14 Quick Tip 2
July 14: Bibimbap

WEEK THREE:

July 15: Fajitas and fruit
Make it GF: Use corn tortillas
July 16: CSA night
July 17: Turkey BLT sliders
Make it GF: Serve in lettuce wraps
July 18: Fend night/Kids cook
July 19: Fresh seafood from the farmer’s market
7.14 Quick Tip 3July 20: Eggplant parmigiana
Make it GF: Omit any breading, or substitute ground almonds for breadcrumbs
July 21: Hummus, tabbouleh, and pita
Make it GF: Serve baked vegetable chips with the hummus

WEEK FOUR:

July 22: Roasted garlic chicken pasta salad
Make it GF: Use any gluten-free pasta substitute you prefer
July 23: CSA night
July 24: Summer chili
July 25: Fend night/kids cook
July 26: Fresh seafood from the farmer’s market
July 27: Chicken ratatouille bake7.14 Quick Tip 4
July 28: Risotte caprese
July 29: Meatball subs, fruit salad
Make it GF: Serve the meatballs without buns, over grilled zucchini or with roasted potatoes

WEEK FIVE:

July 30: Chicken salad platter
July 31: CSA night

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Keeping the “Family” in a “Mostly” Family Dinner

Blueberry pancakes, bacon, egg and vegetable scramble

Family dinner or family breakfast? Both could work.

Last week, I wrote about the new challenge we’re facing in our household with a schedule that now doesn’t allow us all to sit down together each night for dinner.  I shared my thoughts on how to manage that kind of schedule conflict, and talked a bit about the motivations that led me to determine that a family dinner routine that stays solid for me and the boys – even though it excludes J. many nights – was the best way for us to roll with the punches.  The obvious next question, though, is this:

How do you instate that new routine, without totally shutting out the importance of quality time with the family member who isn’t at the table with you every night?

Time with all family members is important, no doubt. My boys (and I) dearly miss Daddy when he’s not home with us, and while they’re certainly getting the benefits of eating and bonding with me each night, they equally need to connect with their father.  Whether your mostly-family dinner cuts out Dad, Mom, or one of the siblings, here are some strategies you can try to make sure that the absent family member’s importance to your whole unit is still honored.

Find a way to make them a part of dinner.

Of course, you’ve already tried to figure out how to get everyone to the table at the same time, and you couldn’t make it work.  I get that.  But someone doesn’t have to be fully present for the main event to be remembered and represented.

  1. Set the absent person’s place anyway.  There are four seats at our table, and setting for three makes it seem, visually, as though we’re neglecting our fourth family member.  We lay J.’s place setting every night, whether we think he’ll be home to eat with us or not.  This action has the added benefit of welcoming J. home with a nicely set place at the table, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten about him and have a meal waiting for him when he’s ready to eat.
  2. Get everyone involved in caring for the absent family member’s needs.  For us, this means anything from letting the boys choose which piece of chicken should be saved for Daddy, to having them pour a special beverage for him or serve his food to him when he does arrive home.  Making an extra effort to have everyone consciously remember and care for those who aren’t home for dinner keeps them present (and builds the empathy skills of young kids).
  3. Look for schedule overlaps.  Is it possible for your family to have a scaled-back version of the dinner experience together?  You might serve dessert or fruit and milk to the kids at the table when the parent who missed dinner sits down to eat, or have a salad course or cheese and fruit available to the whole family for a sit-down appetizer while a teenager eats dinner before running off to a sports practice or other event.
  4. Make a “dinner conversation” box and place it in the middle of the table so when kids share something that they wanted the other family member to hear, they can write it down and put it in the box.  Later, when everyone’s home together, take a few minutes to go through the box and catch up on the whole family’s dinner table news.
  5. Break the no-technology rule.  In this era of Skype and Facetime, some families might really benefit from connecting virtually during the dinner hour.  If Mom or Dad is working late, but can spare 10 minutes to make a remote appearance at the table to share in the conversation and news of the day, it can really provide a boost to everyone’s spirits.

Plan for the absent family member’s arrival.

Sure, you know when your partner or busy teen will arrive home, but does every family member have a good grasp of time?  And when they do get in the door, is there going to be a mad rush to greet them and a tussle for their attention?  Setting expectations around what happens when that last family member gets home each day can provide stability and calm.

  1. Make a plan that allows for “togetherness” as soon as everyone’s home, but don’t expect the person just walking in the door to immediately transition to “on” mode.  Set the expectation with everyone in the house that when Mom, Dad, or big brother gets home, s/he will be going to change clothes, wash face and hands, and put away personal items before joining everyone else.  Those extra five or ten minutes can help make the transition less chaotic for everyone involved.
  2. Make sure everyone understands what comes next – is it dessert while the newly arrived family member eats their meal?  Is it twenty minutes of playtime or reading time before bed?  Try to be as consistent with this as possible so it becomes as valuable a part of the day as the family dinner itself.
  3. If Mom or Dad won’t be home before the kids are asleep, set up a nighttime ritual to let the kids know that the absent parent looked in on them.  For younger children, you might designate a special stuffed animal to be tucked in to bed with them by the late-arriving parent, so they can wake up in the morning to evidence that Mommy or Daddy was there.  For older children, a note on the nightstand or another “secret signal” that you create together can be a meaningful way to remind them that you are always thinking of them, even when you can’t be together in the evenings.

Have “Family Dinners” Outside of Dinnertime.

The real point of family dinner, of course, is the time that you spend connecting and sharing a meal together.  Whether that happens at 6 p.m. or 7 a.m. isn’t nearly as important as the fact that it happens regularly.  For some families, getting creative with timing is the best way to keep a routine that works for everyone in the household.

  1. Have family breakfasts.  If everyone’s awake and able to make it to the table at the same time in the mornings, then breakfast is your best bet – just make sure that you can really commit to a good 30 minutes of table time, not just a gulp-and-run-to-catch-the-bus moment.  Make-ahead breakfast recipes like stratas, egg casseroles, and overnight French toast bakes are a wonderful way to not only make your family breakfast feel more like a family dinner, but also start everyone’s day with plenty of healthy fuel.
  2. Can’t do breakfast or dinner?  Try for Saturday lunches or Sunday brunches.  Even if it feels like all is lost, take a closer look at your family’s schedule.  Do you often find that you’re all home on Saturday afternoons, after sports and activities?  Make a point of taking that time to serve a healthy, communal snack and gather around the table.  Do you feel like you could have a family dinner if eating in the car counted?  Throw a picnic blanket in the trunk and pull over.  It’s the rare family that can’t find at least one night a week to eat together; if you combine one or two weekly dinners with some other creative shared eating times, you’ll boost your number of opportunities to confer some of the benefits of a family dinner on your clan without feeling like you have to serve a pot roast and homemade pie seven days a week.

Obviously, having everyone together at the dinner table as many nights a week as possible is the ideal, but when you’re not living in an ideal world, having a good plan that respects everyone in the family is key.  These strategies can not only help keep things running smoothly when not every family member can make it to the dinner table, but also keep the principles of family dinner — connection, togetherness, communication, shared values — at the center of your household routine.

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