Monday, June 7, 2010

Winning the witching hour: Dinner in 15 minutes

I call it The Working Mom's Witching Hour: 6 p.m. or so. The kids are ravenous, I'm cranky, we've all just gotten home from work and school and childcare. It's tempting to hand them a snack just to keep them from gnawing on the furniture, but then they won't eat dinner. The food-o-sphere is rife with meals that you can make in 30 minutes or less, but what if you don't even have a half hour to spare?

In our family, take-out isn't often an option. Aside from the fact that our budget is tight right now, three of our five kids have food intolerances or allergies, which means anything with gluten is a no-no. That rules out pretty much anything that's ready-made.

Over at The 36-Hour Day, we're sharing the ways that we cope with the witching hour. Here are my five go-to meals that can be made in 15 minutes.

1.) I always keep rice noodles or cellophane noodles in the house, to make what my youngest kids call Slippery Noodles. They cook in boiling water in about 5 minutes; whisk together soy sauce, honey, and rice wine vinegar, drain the noodles, and dump them into the sauce while they're piping hot, and let it sit while you stir-fry whatever vegetables are languishing in your cripser drawer. The noodles soak up the sauce, rendering them completely non-drippy, which is essential if you have a 3-year-old in the house, as I do.

2.) My preschoolers love frozen ravioli. I think they taste like paste, but they're fast and fairy nutritious, and I can whip together a no-cook pasta sauce in no time. A can of pureed tomatoes (no-salt-added kinds are best), some herbs, a little garlic, a healthy grating of parmesan, and that's it. You can freeze the surplus sauce in 1-cup containers; it's great for homemade pizza as well. If you have a few extra minutes, you can layer the cooked ravioli, sauce, and grated mozarella to make a cheater's lasagne.

3.) My husband calls keilbasa "meat candy," and it's kind of true, but the turkey versions taste good and are much lower in fat. Pair them with the frozen ravioli or perogies, or offset the fat by serving them with steamed veggies and fresh or frozen corn.

4.) When our big kids were little, and I was wiped out, I'd serve them "snacky dinner." I thought I was totally slacking as a stepmom -- until I discovered that it was one of their favorite meals. Anything goes with snacky dinner as long as a.) all items can be dipped into condiments or b.) all items can be eaten with ones hands or c.) all items count as appetizers. So... raw veggies and salad dressing, tater tots and BBQ sauce, samosas and mango chutney, cheese quesadillas and salsa, supermarket sushi, slices of salami, string cheese, chunks of ham, apple slices and peanut butter, pineapple rings, and even tortilla chips with salsa, guacamole, and refried beans all fit the bill. I'd put a huge assortment out on the kitchen table, give each child a very tiny plate, and let them graze until they were full.

5.) Breakfast for dinner is always a favorite. It can take more than 15 minutes to prepare if you have to make it all from scratch, but even so... if you let them snack on fruit while you're making the sausage and a double batch of pancakes, that totally counts as a first course. (Why a double batch of pancakes? Wrapped individually, they freeze beautifully, and you can make breakfast for the week -- or another installment of breakfast for dinner -- with minimal extra effort.)

What's your go-to meal when you barely have time to cook?

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