Moms are masters at adapting. They’re nimble, efficient multitaskers who can get dinner on the table in a hurry. Even if it’s not perfect, it’s dinner.
With time squeezed on weeknights, there are various strategies. Some moms cook a few days’ worth of meals on weekends, some prep the night before or early in the morning, others repurpose leftovers into new dishes. Slow cookers, zipper bags, and freezer space all save the day. The lucky ones enlist a husband, partner, or teenager to cook or shop or do both. The smart ones understand that these aren’t their mother’s suppers because these women aren’t leading their mother’s lives. Modern moms buy chickens fresh off the rotisserie, potatoes already mashed, vegetables that are chopped, and pizza dough shaped into balls. Let someone else do the kneading.
Assembling multiple meals at one time is one of Natalie Boyd’s strategies. The Natick mother of two young girls might have six or more bags in her freezers (yes, this lucky gal has two freezers) filled with chicken breasts and sauce. Family favorites are cranberry-barbecue sauce, lemon vinaigrette with dill, and orange marmalade with fresh ginger. In the morning, she takes a bag from the freezer, lets it thaw, and then bakes the chicken for dinner.
“I use my slow cooker religiously,” says Boyd, 33. After her first child was born she discovered that preparing a meal in the morning, “was the only thing that got dinner on the table for us.” She uses her Crock-Pot all year long to make pot roast, pork chops, chicken thighs, chili, soups, lasagna, and even some desserts like apple crisp.
Jody Young Clement’s household runs differently. Her husband does the cooking. “He cooks, I clean,” she says. The Southborough mother of two daughters acknowledges that the arrangement is “the opposite of what it used to be,” but says that among her friends, it isn’t uncommon. “I don’t have a passion for cooking and I’m not very good at it,” says Clement, 37, who has her own financial services company. At least four nights a week, her husband, Jarrod, who works at Boston University, whips up chicken piccata, pork tenderloin, flank steak with grilled peppers and onions, and numerous seafood dishes. “We eat very well,” says Jody. Once a week, the family has leftovers, orders pizza, or bakes frozen chicken nuggets or fish sticks (two items “always on supply if we’re in a jam,” she says).
For moms with young children in after-school activities, there’s little to no time for prepping before dinner. One of Jill Blondek’s solutions is to make a marinade at night and mix it with a protein — chicken, fish, or beans (she doesn’t eat red meat) — in the morning in a zipper bag to marinate all day in the fridge. “Ten to fifteen minutes in the morning can make a big difference in what gets on your table at night,” says the Sherborn resident. When they’re not at a playing field or ski lodge, 8-year-old Mayson sets and clears the table and helps prep vegetables. Blondek, 46, a personal trainer and nutrition counselor, cooks low-fat, healthful meals such as grilled chicken breasts and fish cooked in parchment, accompanied by a salad or vegetable and a grain dish. “I make extra of everything,” says Blondek. On another day, leftover quinoa and brown rice get tossed with chopped vegetables. Extra marinade that never touched raw meat dresses grain or bean salads. “Leftover vegetables can be turned into a quick frittata,” she says.
Saturdays and Sundays she has an assistant. “My husband is a big help on weekends,” she says. James Blondek makes a big batch of tomato sauce, not only for his chicken Parmesan, but for Jill to use during the week for baked ziti, to top whole-wheat pizzas, and poach cod.
Dinner is a tag-team effort in the Melanson household in Newton. Mayuko Melanson, who works full time in Boston in the financial industry, makes dinner midweek, when her husband, Mike, is often traveling. Other nights, he cooks homemade pizza and roast chicken, beef, or pork loin. He shops for his meals; she shops for hers. When it’s her turn to cook, she says, “I try to do some preparation the night before,” since she gets home at 6 p.m. and her sons are hungry. “I like making meals from scratch and using fresh ingredients,” she says.
Melanson usually rotates six different dishes, including vegetable soup with chicken or turkey, pasta with meat sauce (with added spinach or eggplant), and a few Japanese dishes, including a mild-flavored curry and a ground beef and scrambled egg dish served over rice called soboro.
Renee Minor, 29, of Watertown goes grocery shopping with 8-year-old Brianna on weekends. “She picks stuff out and whatever she picks, she’ll eat,” says Minor. Buying prewashed, chopped vegetables helps cut down on prep time. Brianna sets the table and sometimes helps with cooking. Favorite meals include seitan stir-fry with broccoli, cauliflower, and yellow peppers in soy ginger sauce; breaded tofu with a buffalo sauce marinade and Brussels sprouts; and tilapia with green beans. Minor, who is a technician at an animal hospital, says, “Usually we can throw together dinner in about 20 minutes.”
One key, say these moms, is a full fridge or pantry. Nikki Daigel, 40, of Winchester, says, “The biggest challenge is having what you need on hand.” Cooking isn’t a burden for her. “I like to eat something different every day,” she says. “I’m not a big leftovers eater.” Working full time from home allows her to take a quick break in the afternoon to “chop stuff, throw it in a bag, and come back to it later.”
Daigel’s daughters, ages 10 and 8 (“one is extremely picky, the other will eat anything”), set the table and her husband, Roger, cleans up and runs out to get last-minute items. “We eat a fair amount of pasta because everyone will eat it,” she says, usually paired with braised chicken thighs, meat sauce, or meatballs. Vegetables or salad are always on the table.
“When all else fails, [dinner is] eggs and potatoes,” says Daigel. Her “911 meal” is potatoes cut into thick sticks, fried in a little oil, with eggs scrambled on top. Essentially, a deconstructed Spanish tortilla.
Because her work hours can be unpredictable, Daigel doesn’t buy a lot of food in advance. But her friend Jeanne Emanuel, another Winchester resident, routinely shops Saturday or Sunday morning and spends the rest of that day preparing a few nights’ meals. “My main goal is to sit down together and have a meal that came from our fridge,” says Emanuel, who works full time in publishing.
For two daughters who are picky eaters, Emanuel, 44, often cooks chicken (cutlets that she preps and freezes ahead), pasta, or breaded cod. Sesame noodles and pasta salads are favorites that will last a few days in the refrigerator and are good for snacking on. For her and her vegetarian husband, Rick, she makes spinach pie, quiche, tofu with ginger-citrus sauce, vegetable enchiladas, balsamic marinated portobellos, and eggplant Parmesan. “I make a ton of soup,” she says, including butternut squash, tortellini, and sweet potato corn chowder. She freezes half of each batch for a future meal. Summer nights she serves a lot of grilled vegetables and leafy salads, and fresh fruit for dessert.
“Every day is different,” says Emanuel. “It’s not perfect, but we just go along with it.” Making a homemade meal, she says, “It’s something I do for my family; something that over time they’ll come to appreciate.”
Time to take mom out for dinner.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at email@example.com.