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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Family Dinner, Mostly

How do you plan for a family dinner routine when not every person can make it to the table?

Children with foodCan you even have a family dinner without the whole family present? That’s a big question these days, I think. I’ve heard from lots of people who struggle with schedules and the needs of different family members, for whom a “real” family dinner – one with every person in the household present – is too much of a feat to accomplish every day.  Up until recently, I could understand the challenge, but I couldn’t necessarily relate on a personal level.  From the time J. and I got married almost 10 years ago, we’ve nearly always had a family dinner, whether it was just the two of us, or us plus a kid or two.  Sure, there were years when I had a long commute or worked some evenings and we might have missed a night or two in certain weeks….but basically, those were the outliers, not the daily reality.

A couple of weeks ago, J. started a new job that takes him far from home on a daily basis. It’s an adjustment for all of us in many ways, not the least of which is that I – the queen of all non-morning people – am now getting up with the roosters, because the aspects of the morning routine in the house that were once handled by my dear husband are now on my to-do list.  (This is not my favorite part of his new job, I admit.  Not the chores bit; the loss-of-sleep bit.)  But despite the sunrise duties, the thing I notice most as we settle into the new routine is the change to our family dinners.  Where once there were four bodies at the table, there are now three, putting me squarely in the midst of the dilemma I’ve answered for others these many years: Is it still a “Family” dinner if part of the family is absent?

Luckily, I’ve had plenty of time to think about these matters, and since I’m in the habit of coaching others to help them reach optimal dinnertime satisfaction, I already knew the answer, long before we had to put this scenario into practice.  Yes, it’s still a family dinner; but in my mind, it’s only a family dinner because I’m eating with the kids.  If I fed them first, then waited until J. got home to eat with him, I wouldn’t consider our routine a family dinner at all.  Confused?  Here’s how I got to this place.

Family dinner is good for kids.

Sure, family dinner is good for all of us – people have known for centuries that the act of taking a meal together makes most of us happier, healthier, and less stressed than we would be if we just snarfed down whatever we could get our hands on, alone.  But when we think about family dinners as a practice to institute in our homes, the ones who arguably stand to see the biggest benefit are the kids. They’re the ones who have never had a mealtime routine, so they’re the ones who need one now.  Research shows that children who engage in regular family dinners are likely to have healthier habits, a lower risk of drug and alcohol abuse, higher grades, and better self-confidence than kids who don’t have a family dinner routine.  Given all that evidence, it’s smart, when rearranging your household schedule, to put the kids at the core of whatever new system you establish.

Kids eat like the people they eat with.

Those of us who have sent a child or two off to elementary school recognize this immutable truth of kids and food, because we’ve probably seen the lunchbox come home barely touched or had a kid beg for the school lunch or the latest “cool” snack. Those phases don’t have to be lasting if you handle them properly, but they serve as a good spotlight on the fact that children are likely to imitate the eating habits and behaviors of the others at their table.  That means that if you feed the kids first, but don’t eat with them yourself – even if you sit with them to “monitor” the meal or provide social interaction – they won’t get all the benefits they could out of the dinnertime experience.  Seeing you eat the same foods, model appropriate dinner behaviors through action instead of words, and make decisions about portions and proportions (how many vegetables? How much starch?) helps your kids to ultimately grow into those positive habits on their own.  It also provides one more source of positive role-modeling to counterbalance any sibling negativity that may be going on.

Eating with the kids sends a different message than eating by yourselves.

When families are apart all day, at work, school, sports, and other activities, it’s important (I think) to establish simple touchpoints in the routine that show children that time at home is time for togetherness.  Keeping meals segregated (children vs. adults) keeps everyone in the mindset of being in two different worlds, not coming together at the end of a day as a family unit.  Even when one member of the family can’t join in the regular dinner hour during the week, keeping one set time for meals that the majority of the family members can participate in sets a clear expectation and priority around dinnertime.  It says to children, “This is when we eat our meal, and whoever is in our home at that time joins in eating at the table, because this is part of what we do to connect and show togetherness.”  Families are teams; just because your quarterback might be sidelined for the game, doesn’t mean that the rest of the team members don’t go out there and play together.

Keeping the routine majority-centered helps with consistency throughout the week.

We’ve got to eat dinner without J. on most weeknights now, because he gets home later than is really optimal for the boys to eat their evening meal.  However, on weekends, we’re all together and can resume family dinners as usual.  Keeping the routine orderly and centered around those who are home at the appointed hour makes the transition from weekday to weekend seamless; when Daddy is home, we have four people at the table.  When Daddy’s at work, there are three.  Everything else remains the same, which is comforting to all of us.

That’s the “Why” of creating, or continuing, a family dinner routine even when the whole crew can’t make it to the table on time.  In the next post, I’ll be covering “Hows” – how do you make sure that you’re not just cutting out the family member who can’t participate?  How do you work and re-work a household schedule to make sure you’ve looked at every possibility to get all the members to the table?  And how do you foster togetherness so the family members who aren’t able to get to dinner most of the time are still able to bond equally with everyone?  Hard questions, with lots of possible answers.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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June 2014 Meal Plan and a Dash of Feminism

Before I get on with the meal plan, I just want to say something.  Today, my friend Bettina at The Lunch Tray shared an op-ed from the Washington Post which theorized, among other things, that the problem of unhealthy school lunches wouldn’t be a problem if mothers across the country hadn’t had their heads turned by feminism and were now protesting their parental duties by refusing to pack lunches for their kids.  No, seriously, that’s what it said, at least in a nutshell.

Here’s my thing about that (well, technically, this is only ONE of my things about that, but I don’t want to take up a bunch of space tonight): If people are supposedly not feeding their families properly because of feminism, what does it say about those who do cook at home?  Are we anti-feminist?  I think most of my friends, and certainly my husband, would laugh at the notion that I’m somehow less than a proper feminist because I bake cookies and make dinners at home.  In fact, I thank feminism for teaching me that it’s okay to bake cookies, or not bake cookies; it’s okay to be a great cook and take pride in domesticity, and it’s okay to be a lousy cook but have other skills I lack, like, say, a sense of direction.  Feminism is about choices, not about rejecting family life, motherly duty, or anything having to do with hearth and home.  For me, well, this whole cooking and meal planning gig is just a part of what I do because 1) It’s easier to keep on top of meals, as a full-time working mom, if I have a plan to follow; 2) I like to cook, whether that makes me a “proper modern woman” or not; and 3) I believe that it is SOMEBODY’S responsibility, in a family setting, to take charge of providing healthy meals, as far as such a thing is possible given the family’s socioeconomic status, resources, etc.  In our house, we’ve got one person who can’t boil water (sorry, J. — I love you, but we both know you have many other fine qualities) and one person who excels at boiling water.  So tag, I’m it, and it’s got nothing to do with feminism, just like it will have nothing to do with feminism when I pack the kids’ school lunches tomorrow.  You know what I’ll be thinking about tomorrow as I’m accomplishing that chore, in fact?  I’ll be thinking about how gosh-darned lucky we are to have a fridge full of food and nice lunch kits to put it in, and how my seat of privilege as a middle-class Northeastern white woman with an education is no place from which to be judging anybody else, and how literally within walking distance of my cozy little kitchen is one of the most food-insecure neighborhoods in my state, where over 60% of kids probably really, really need us to come through for them on that whole “better school lunches” thing.  Those kids don’t care what any of us think about women’s liberation.  So can we please cut the crap and focus on the real issues at hand?

Rant over.  Meal planning time!

Dinner menus for June

WEEK ONE:

Sunday, 6/1: No-fuss chicken and farmer’s market vegetables
Monday, 6/2: Macaroni and cheese casserole with broccoli and tomatoes
Make it GF: Use Jovial or Tinkyada brown rice pasta
6.14 Quick Tip 1Tuesday, 6/3: Grilled ham steak, vegetables, spelt flour biscuits
Make it GF: Omit the biscuits and make corn muffins instead, using masa harina in place of any flour in the recipe.
Wednesday, 6/4: Grilled London broil, sauteed mushrooms, salad, roasted potatoes
Thursday, 6/5: DIY salad night
Friday, 6/6: Fend night/kids cook
Saturday, 6/7: Having dinner with family

WEEK TWO:

Sunday, 6/8: Spaghetti and meatballs, salad
Make it GF: Use brown rice or quinoa pasta, or serve the meatballs on a bed of sauteed spinach.
Monday, 6/9: “Cheater” scallion pancakes and vegetable stir fry
Make it GF: Use brown rice tortillas if you can find them, or wrap the stir-fry in rice paper rolls.
Tuesday, 6/10: Grilled pesto chicken and foil potatoes
Wednesday, 6/11: Bacon-wrapped turkey bites, vegetables
Thursday, 6/12: Baked samosas, mango lassi, and vegetable curry6.14 Quick Tip 2
Make it GF: Use teff flour to make the samosa dough, or bind the samosa filling with egg and cook it into potato cakes
Friday, 6/13: Fend night/kids cook
Saturday, 6/14: Chopped salad and garlic bread
Make it GF: Omit the garlic bread and serve cheese fricos instead

WEEK THREE:

Sunday, 6/15: Father’s day!  Haven’t quite decided what we’ll make to laud my wonderful J., but we’ll do something special.
Monday, 6/16: French lentil salad, crusty bread, grilled vegetables
Make it GF: Serve the lentil salad with omelettes or a potato cake instead
Tuesday, 6/17: I’ll be at a potluck tonight, so it’s a fend night for the guys!
Wednesday, 6/18: Pizza chicken spirals, broccoli
6.14 Quick Tip 3Thursday, 6/19: Turkey and rice burritos
Make it GF: Use corn tortillas
Friday, 6/20: Last day of school!  We’ll hail our conquering scholars with a good old fashioned burgers-and-dogs cookout.
Saturday, 6/21: Pasta “poulet” and salad
Make it GF: Use brown rice or quinoa pasta

WEEK FOUR:

Sunday, 6/22: Sunday roast chicken dinner
Monday, 6/23: Breakfast for dinner
Tuesday, 6/24: Chicken and broccoli calzones, salad
Make it GF: Serve the calzone filling over baked potatoes
Wednesday, 6/25: Simplest stuffed peppers6.14 Quick Tip 4
Thursday, 6/26: Panzanella
Make it GF: Use toasted cornbread or substitute roasted chickpeas for the bread in the salad.
Friday, 6/27: P. “officially” graduates Pre-K today. I suspect we’ll have some sort of family celebration tonight.
Saturday, 6/28: Antipasto kebabs

WEEK FIVE:

Sunday, 6/29: Lamb burgers and grilled vegetables
Monday, 6/30: Farmer’s market quiche, salad
Make it GF: Make omelettes instead of quiche

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Monday Menus: Fun to Eat, Fun to Say

Vegetarian bibimbap recipeSay it with me, friends: Bibimbap.

Bibimbap. Bibimbap. Or, as my kids so charmingly suggested, “Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo?”

It doesn’t really matter what you call it. This meatless wonder of a meal was a completely unexpected hit with the whole family, and it hit all the right notes for a weeknight dinner: Easy, healthy, tasty, and cheap.  As the summer produce begins to heat up around here, I’ll certainly be making this again, with different variations on the vegetables I used to test the recipe.  That’s another beauty part about this dish – there’s no one right way to make it.  Essentially, this is a dressed-up, better-for-you fried rice recipe, which you can personalize with any mix of vegetables (and even meat or seafood, if you insist) that makes you happy.  In my book, that would be the ones that are most abundantly and clamoringly in season.  You can’t screw up the taste of an in-season vegetable.

Somebody is sure to write to me after seeing this recipe and complain that it’s not authentic, and I am okay with that.  I will be very honest and up front with you all by saying that I have a very dim grasp of what authentically ought to be in a bibimbap recipe.  I’ve looked at a few, and there are some commonalities, but not many. I’ve eaten bibimbap once, in a restaurant, but that didn’t help me much.  So really, what you’ll find here is my version of this budget-friendly dish, modified so that it’s easy enough for the average frazzled human being to pull it off in a home kitchen.

Sadly, I had to do away with one of the key components of the dish in its authentic form.  Traditionally, you’d find bibimbap served in a special heated vessel that makes the rice all crunchy around the outsides.  For a home kitchen, that sort of innovation (and extra step) didn’t seem quite right, so I scrapped it; but you could probably bake the whole thing in a casserole for a while if you felt the need to experience the crunchy rice phenomenon.  I found that the meal was absolutely delicious as it was, without the crusty exterior, so I don’t think you’ll be missing anything if you opt out.  But you do what you like.

As for the sauce: Some of you will wonder what in the world I’m doing advocating that you use oddball ingredients like miso paste and sambal.  I don’t ordinarily post recipes on RRG that require you to buy a bunch of fancy pantry dust-collectors.  However, neither sambal nor miso paste is dreadfully expensive, they both last FOREVER in the fridge, and once you’ve got them, they’re not hard to use.  A little miso paste stirred into hot broth with garlic, ginger, and seaweed makes an easy miso soup.  It can also be used in salad dressings, stir-fries, and marinades.  Sambal is just chiles with garlic and ginger, so used sparingly, it’s a good condiment in its own right, or can be used to start sautes and stir-fries or liven up soups and sauces.

I swear, this is a meatless meal worth trying.  J. even said to me, “I have to be honest: I don’t expect that anything you make will be BAD, but I wasn’t very excited about this idea.  I was wrong.  It’s awesome.  It’s really, really good.”  He and the boys both devoured their dinners when I set this in front of them, with not a single comment about the lack of meat.  In my house, that’s high praise, indeed.

Get the recipe: Vegetarian Bibimbap

 

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A Free Cookbook for Food Revolution Day

Happy Food Revolution Day 2014!  As I have in years past, I’m teaming up with a group of fellow food bloggers to celebrate this day with a communal project.  The amazing people at the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation got in touch with my good friend Bettina of The Lunch Tray and asked her if she’d like to help organize something for this day; Bettina contacted me to ask if I’d join in; and since food and fun are always a case of “the more, the merrier,” we emailed blogging friends from across the country to get a group committed to our event.

This year’s theme is “Let’s Get Kids Excited About Food,” so we decided to get into the kitchen with our children and make them a central part of this year’s celebration.  Each one of us cooked a meal or a part of a meal with our kids, which we’re sharing with you today:
Breakfast, made by Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray, with her son;
Snack, created by Grace Freedman of EatDinner.org, with her daughter;
Lunch, cooked by yours truly (or more accurately, by L. and P., with a little supervision from me);
And a multi-course dinner, including salad by Mia Moran of Stay Basic with the help of her three kids, entree by Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition (from her great new cookbook!) and her boys, and side dishes contributed by Caron Gremont of First Bites and her two children, and Lynn Barendsen of The Family Dinner Project, cooking with her sons.

We hoped to show, on this day, that getting kids into the kitchen and whipping up some excitement about healthy, real food isn’t a gimmick or a trick or something that we only do because it’s Food Revolution Day.  Each of us takes pride in cooking with our children – or letting them cook for us – throughout the year.  We believe in teaching the core principles of healthy eating, as well as the life skills of shopping for and cooking real food, because these are the most basic and necessary tools in our arsenal to reverse the disturbing national trends towards a junk-food lifestyle and pervasive health issues in the long term.  Plus — and this is where I jump off the soapbox — it’s fun.  Good food is fun.  Cooking is fun.  Kids love it, and even if they do sometimes drop a whole open jar of salad dressing on the floor when they’re trying to help, the togetherness and the memories are worth the hassle.  Not that, uh, anything like that has ever happened in my kitchen….!

Without further ado, and with a HUGE thanks to my fellow contributors, I present you with a gift: Our free online cookbook, chronicling our collective efforts to get into the kitchen with our families and make some memories.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed creating it for you.  Happy Food Revolution Day!

 

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Why We Need to Ban the War on Obesity

feetOnScaleIt’s high time, in my estimation, that we stopped talking so much about “obesity.” It’s a well-publicized public health crisis, the buzzword of the moment, but framing our national dialogues around a measurement of our citizens’ body sizes doesn’t seem to be helping much. Obesity rates are, at best, stagnant; at worst, possibly still rising in some segments of the population. You’d think that with all the anti-obesity rhetoric out there, something we’ve done as a country to combat our weight problem would have had a noticeable effect by now.

It hasn’t. And here’s why.

Obesity is only one measurement of a larger pervasive issue

We’re not fighting a cause; we’re fighting a result. It’s a tree-first-forest-later way of thinking. Obesity is a very visible and potentially troubling effect of a much bigger, more troubling issue. By focusing our efforts and attention on the size and shape of people’s bodies, we may be missing not only other, more subtle problems that are also deserving of attention – such as the effects of junk food on neurology, behavior, and learning, or the socio-economic implications of existing agricultural and marketing models – but actually the opportunity to deeply assess what the real problem, or problems, may be.

Obesity can be a symptom of poor health, but not the only symptom of poor health

Some people grow fatter on a junk food diet, while others don’t. Some thin people have diabetes, dangerously high blood pressure, arterial disease, and other poor health indicators that may go undetected because of their body type; some larger people have none of those poor health indicators, but are presumed to be highly unhealthy because of their body type. Obesity can tell you a lot about a person’s health, but then again, it may tell you only that someone is larger than others.  It can also be present in people with overall positive habits, such as a healthful diet and good exercise regimen. In other words, it’s not a 100% corollary to anything other than body size, so a “War on Obesity” amounts to little more than a war on people who are bigger than other people.

 The “War on Obesity” perpetuates negative stereotypes and attitudes about human beings

Notice how it’s not a “war on the health problems that are faced by some obese people” (as well as some non-obese people)?  It’s a war on obesity, itself – giving an ultimate free pass to those who are unhealthy but slim, as well as opening the door to arguments like the “energy balance” mantra. How many times have you heard a critic of, say, the new healthy school food requirements complain that “my kids are thin, so they should be allowed to eat the food they liked instead of the new, gross, healthy food?”  I’ve heard it more times than I can frankly stomach. There’s little push to help people recognize that feeding their skinny kids (or skinny selves) crap food can lead to poor lifetime eating habits, which may lead to poor health outcomes, and may even lead to – gasp! – the dreaded “obesity.”

Framing obesity as the main problem also creates a damaging and unhealthy divide among people. We, as a culture, feel somehow justified in serving donuts and Gatorade after youth soccer because those are “active” kids (there’s that blasted energy balance theory again!), but also perfectly justified in frowning upon a parent who takes her overweight child out for ice cream. We feel okay about serving soda and chips at class parties, but disgusted by the overweight low-income family who stretch their limited food dollars by purchasing the same soda and chips at the grocery store. We use the fatness of others as a distancing, dehumanizing tactic, and therefore the “War on Obesity” is beginning to look an awful lot like a “war on obese PEOPLE,” which I assume is not what any public health official intended.

When we unite against “obesity,” we fail to unite behind a shared goal

This is a big pet peeve of mine, when it comes to advocacy or activism in general. Something I learned early on, and which was borne out by a brief stint as a professional in public health programs, was that you can better effect change – especially behavioral change – by uniting around a positive goal rather than attacking a shared enemy. For example, it’s considered bad form to teach sexual responsibility by saying “Don’t rape people” (although “don’t rape people” is certainly a nice, desirable behavior). Instead, you build people who behave with sexual responsibility by teaching and modeling respectful behaviors, encouraging good bystander citizenship, and improving attitudes about sex and interaction with other human beings.

In declaring war on obesity, we’ve essentially said, “Don’t be fat.” How do we propose that people achieve that non-fatness? That’s certainly not a nut we’ve cracked, otherwise obesity rates would be down. So we’re throwing everything in the arsenal at the “don’t be fat” model, which produces different camps of people adhering to different schools of thought: Exercise more! Eat less! Eat no carbs! Eat no fat! Let’s move! Let’s not move! Let’s cleanse! Let’s…just stop now. None of those things, singularly, is making a significant dent, because none of them, singularly, addresses all of the complex factors that are at play in obesity.  They MAY, however, be impacting some of the health problems that make obesity a concern to us; which means we’re either doing the wrong things, or MEASURING the wrong thing.

The truth is, we’re not much closer now to figuring out all the causes of obesity than we’ve ever been; both science and anecdotal, experiential observation have proven at this point that the old “calories out, calories in” math doesn’t provide anything approaching a complete answer. Furthermore, while obesity can raise serious health risks, it doesn’t always; and it isn’t always the sole driver behind those same health risks, meaning that they can also appear in non-obese people. If we’re worried about the health and well-being of all of our citizens, we owe it to them – to ourselves – to change the dialogue to one that specifically addresses the things that most concern us: The heart disease, the strokes, the diabetes, the chronic and life-threatening and life-ending illnesses.  We need to make it clear that the war FOR our nation’s health is a cause that includes everyone, not just those above a certain number on the scale. Every one of us has skin in this game.  So why do we insist on focusing only on the skins of a few?

 

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May 2014 Meal Plan: Market Season At Last!

It’s here!  It’s finally here!  My beloved summer Farmer’s Market opens in just a little over a week, and I’m positively giddy about it (in case you couldn’t tell).

Oh, I know it’s not going to have much to begin with…after all, the growing season here in New England isn’t really in full swing until much later in the summer.  It’s just the promise of the whole thing, the camaraderie of all the neighborhood folks enjoying the first warm mornings, the smiling faces behind the counters, and those first glimpses of what lies ahead.  It’s knowing that once the market starts, it rushes forward with each week revealing new surprises, right up until its slow and dignified wind-down with those last hearty greens and thick-skinned squashes of the fall.  The market season, to me, is cooking and eating bliss.  Let’s get on with it.

Meal Planning for May

WEEK ONE:

Thursday, 5/1: Sausage and pepper sandwiches, sweet potato rounds
Make it GF: omit the buns, and serve the sausage and pepper mixture over the sweet potatoes if you’d like.
Friday, 5/2: Fend night/Kids Cook
Saturday, 5/3: Vegetarian bibimbap and miso soup
Sunday, 5/4: “Picnic chicken,” mashed potatoes, broccoli 5.14 Quick Tip 1
Make it GF: Use ground nuts for breading chicken
Monday, 5/5: Cinco de Mayo, so we’re not going vegetarian tonight — Beef fajitas
Make it GF: Use corn tortillas
Tuesday, 5/6: Slow cooker — Ribs, cornbread, and warm vegetable slaw
Make it GF: Use masa harina in place of any flour in your cornbread
Wednesday, 5/7: Pasta with beets and goat cheese

WEEK TWO:

Thursday, 5/8: Grilled chicken sandwiches
Make it GF: Use leftover corn tortillas to make quesadillas or wraps
5.14 Quick Tip 2
Friday, 5/9: Fend night/Kids Cook
Saturday, 5/10: I’ve got a performance tonight, so I’ll make a lasagna that can be easily heated up
Make it GF: Use eggplant slices instead of lasagna noodles
Sunday, 5/11: Mother’s Day — I’m operating purely on intuition here, but thinking I won’t be cooking. ;-)
Monday, 5/12: Carrot and broccoli risotto, salad
Tuesday, 5/13: Make-your-own panini bar
Make it GF: Serve sandwich fixings between slices of vegetables, on corn tortillas, or over a bed of greens
Wednesday, 5/14: Homemade chicken nuggets, vegetables

WEEK THREE:

Thursday, 5/15: DIY Salad night5.14 Quick Tip 3
Friday, 5/16: Fend night/kids cook
Saturday, 5/17: Local seafood from our farmer’s market! :-)
Sunday, 5/18: Sunday roast chicken dinner
Monday, 5/19: Three-tomato pasta, salad
Make it GF: Use Jovial or Tinkyada brown rice pastas
Tuesday, 5/20: Taco salad
Wednesday, 5/21: Chicken spring rolls
Make it GF: Use rice paper wrappers

WEEK FOUR:

Thursday, 5/22: Lamb meatballs, pita, vegetables
Make it GF: Serve over quinoa instead of pita, or use teff flour to make flatbreads
5.14 Quick Tip 4Friday, 5/23: Fend night/Kids cook
Saturday, 5/24-Monday, 5/26: Memorial Day weekend, so I’m leaving it open to have space for celebrating with family and friends
Tuesday, 5/27: Pasta with pancetta and peas
Make it GF: Use Jovial or Tinkyada brown rice pastas
Wednesday, 5/28: Grilled pizzas
Make it GF: Make grilled vegetable pizza stackers by piling your sauce, cheese, and toppings onto slices of grilled eggplant and peppers

WEEK FIVE:

Thursday, 5/29: Citrus grilled chicken and rice
Friday, 5/30: Fend night/Kids cook
Saturday, 5/31: Tamale pot pie

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