The Wall family learns how to plan dinner keeping in mind busy schedules and picky eaters.
Sasha Wall, of Sterling, Virginia, is an evaluation and research manager in the education field. She's also the primary meal planner, shopper, and cook for her husband, Russ, a police officer who works nights, and daughters Sophie, seven, and Maddy, five.
Challenge: Russ needs quick, easy recipes he can prepare on his days off. "He would make us dinner if he knew what and how to cook," says Sasha.
Solution: Choose recipes with short ingredient lists and few steps. Citrus-Glazed Chicken Thighs, for example, deliver wonderful flavor, thanks to an easy marinade (Russ can even recruit the girls to help measure ingredients). We also suggested that Sasha provide Russ with a short list of recipes to concentrate on. That way, he can develop a solid repertoire, rather than being distracted by too many choices.
Challenge: Cook one meal for everyone instead of preparing one dish for the parents and another for the kids. "We always have to make two, or sometimes three, meals a night," says Sasha. "What can we make that everyone will eat?"
Solution: Teach kids that Mom and Dad are not short-order cooks. Even as toddlers, children can and should eat what their parents eat. Encourage kids to sample new foods (offer one new food at a time), but don't force the issue. Hungry kids will eat what's available, especially if they have a choice.
Challenge: Stop wasting food. "We buy food and often throw it out if we don't have time to cook it," says Sasha.
Solution: The best way to avoid waste is to buy only what you need. People tend to purchase big packages of food because they think it saves money, but the strategy doesn't work if they end up throwing away half the package. If you buy a large package of meat or poultry, divide it into single-recipe portions in heavy-duty zip-top plastic bags, label, and freeze at once. You can also add marinades or rubs to the meat or poultry before freezing, so it's ready for grilling, baking, or broiling when thawed.
Challenge: Improve meal planning and kitchen organization. "I can't seem to plan a week of menus so that I only have to shop once a week," says Sasha.
Solution: Before shopping, sit down and select the recipes you plan to make for the week (keep in mind that some will yield enough for leftovers for lunch or dinner another day). Check your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer to see which ingredients you already have, and make a list of those you need. Also take an inventory of the fridge and pantry to toss old or duplicate ingredients. To reduce last-minute trips to the store, keep a running list of items you need-as soon as you run out of something, add it to the list. Keep a copy on the fridge, and as you run out of an ingredient, check it off.
The Feedback: After devoting a weekend to rearranging the kitchen, purging expired items, organizing the pantry, and relocating cooking tools for more convenience, "It's amazing how much space I have now, and how I can see everything at once," Sasha says. "Tomorrow, we'll grill the chicken we marinated and froze. I plan to make sautéed spinach and precut refrigerated potatoes by experimenting and putting together flavors that we like, and tasting as we go."