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This one’s for you, moms

Sue Ontiveros' bean veggie tostadas colorful easy meal make. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Sue Ontiveros' bean and veggie tostadas, a colorful and easy meal to make. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 10, 2012 8:03AM

On Sunday, mom’s special day, there will be gifts of flowers, perfume, candy.

Some moms will be treated to breakfast in bed, made by little hands.

Those are fine gifts for that day. Now, I’m going to give moms a present for all the other days of the year: my 10 surefire strategies for feeding the family during the hectic work-school week. (If you’re a dad who’s the main meal maker, this one’s for you, too.)

I know many of you are trying to avoid the fast food dinners and want to feed your family nutritiously. But with work and kids’ jam-packed schedules, it’s tough. I feel your pain, and that’s why, after a friend and readers asked for help, I decided to compile all the little tricks I have used so my family isn’t dining nightly from the drive-up window.

To get started, you are going to have to make time. But once you start employing these techniques, the chaos in the kitchen will disappear and you’ll all be eating better.

1. You’ve gotta have a plan. If you’re feeding the family, the days of deciding at 5 what’s for dinner are over. Once a week, make out a menu of what you’re having every night. While you’re making this menu, look at the family calendar. Factor in what’s happening each evening before deciding what you’ll have. A night where you know you’ll be helping Kevin finish his science project is not good for some multi-step, elaborate meal.

For those of you who aren’t confident yet in the kitchen, think about deciding, “Monday’s taco night, Tuesday is spaghetti,” etc. Then, as your confidence expands, add meals to your repertoire. If you rarely cook, choose one day, say every Wednesday, and vow that you’re going to make sauteed chicken breasts and build up from there. It’ll be good for the health of the entire family.

2. Get groceries once a week. Once you figure out the weekly menu, make your grocery list so you have on hand what’s needed. If the family budget allows it, consider a grocery delivery system as a time-saver.

3. Carve out time each week (on your day off) to do prep work. In winter I roast a huge bunch of veggies and parcel them out for meals in the week. When the days get warmer, I cut up produce so I can do a quick saute during the week, make salads or toss veggies into a stir-fry. While you’re prepping, get the kids involved. For example, they can fill plastic bags with grapes or baby carrots that can be tossed into lunch bags during the week.

Or, use the time to make large portions of a dish. Divide it into something for the week, with the other batch going into the freezer. Meatballs and pasta sauces are good for this. Do that often enough and you’ll have a nice selection in the freezer for fast meals.

4. Make enough so one dinner equals two meals. Roasting two chickens simultaneously takes the same time as one. Serve one that night and plan to shred up the other to stick into soft tacos or to turn into chicken salad. (If you have time, shred it that night to make the next night a breeze.) Or roast a chicken on one shelf of the oven and a pork tenderloin for the next night on the other.

5. Don’t get hung up on what June Cleaver served. A healthful dinner does not have to include an entree, two veggies, a starch, salad and a dessert. Between work, homework and soccer practice, that can’t happen. And actually, simple often is healthiest. You can make grilled cheese sandwiches, serve them with cut-up veggies and a little dip, followed by a piece of fruit and for most kids, that will be more than enough. Or, have breakfast for dinner: an omelet with veggies tossed in and a salad on the side. Both are healthy options.

6. When you’re deciding on an entree, think about how it can show up as something else later in the week. The roast tonight can be sliced, added to a simple gravy and put over noodles. Give ’em meatloaf the traditional way, then chop that up and fill baked potatoes with it (maybe with melted cheese on top) and a salad. I cook pork chops in a tomato sauce and always make a lot of sauce. Once the meat is gone, there is a rich, flavor-packed sauce left that can top pasta with a sprinkling of cheese and sauteed peppers and it seems like a whole different dish.

7. Lots of people order pizza on Friday as a way to free themselves from the kitchen after a long work week. Consider ordering pizza on Wednesdays, and using that night to make something that’ll get you through Thursday and Friday. You’ll still have an easier Friday, and you’ll get through Wednesday and Thursday with a lot less stress, too.

8. Use your slow cooker. (If you don’t have one, invest in one. They are very affordable.) Chili, pulled pork, pot roast, stews and so much more can be made in a slow cooker. You return home and dinner’s pretty much ready.

9. The spring my son did two Little League teams with soccer overlapping (what was I thinking?!), the night before I would do things like leave rice measured out in a cup next to the stove, the water needed already in a pan with a lid on it. Or, I’d leave the chicken breast, sliced onions and vegetables (all wrapped separately to avoid contamination) on a platter in the frig, with the olive oil and spices next to the stove where the pan for sauteing already was on the burner. When you’re really strapped for time, anything you can do to cook faster helps.

10. Consider ingredients that cook fast or things that save time. Turkey cutlets, saute in just minutes. Couscous is done in 5 minutes, angel pair in about six. Most supermarkets have packets of shredded cabbage, broccoli slaw or, pre-washed lettuce. There now are variety packs of veggies. All can be used to quickly top a salad, or can be included in a stir-fry, sauce or casserole.

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