urban pacifier – surviving mealtime

The topic of family friendly meals came up recently which incited me to review what I’ve got in my mommy arsenal. As I searched through my recipe collection, I came to realize that I have really picky eaters.  So, instead of contributing an article of meals that are friendly to my picky eaters (there would be no article), I’m going to provide a few recipes as well as several tips and tricks to surviving mealtimes as a busy mother of two who is always strapped for time.

First, a little background. When I worked full time, creating meals on the weekends was how I was able to survive. I would cook up chicken nuggets, grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese ahead of time, divvy it up into little containers coupled with frozen veggies or veggie/fruit pouches and voila my infant’s lunch was done for the week. I know what you are thinking: garbage! I prepared easy kids foods because they were easy for my infant to chew and swallow without choking. I was petrified of giving him solid white meat chicken or any other meat for fear he would not chew and choke to death. I tried lunch meats but with no luck. I tried different fruits at home but nothing seemed to stick. Let me just say that starting a child on processed foods was a big mistake, and I am still paying for it.

In an effort to move away from packaged foods and motivated by my favorite food blogger who, as a side note, is a widowed single mother, I started cooking more from scratch. If a woman grieving over the loss of her husband while raising two children can do it, I knew I could too. Granted, I was sickened by how much food went into the  garbage by way of my picky eaters, but when I started to get some traction, I felt like I was no longer cooking in vain. Because my child’s protein of choice was chicken nuggets, I started there. If I couldn’t buy chicken nuggets that weren’t loaded with sodium, created from mashed up and reorganized meat, or free from mystery ingredients that are fit for a science project, I was going to make them myself, from scratch.

Tip 1: Don’t reinvent the wheel! Borrow a recipe and modify it to suit your needs and preferences. My favorite food blogger posted a recipe for crispy baked eggplant which inspired my chicken nugget recipe. I start with organic chicken tenderloins cut into a little smaller than traditional nugget-sized pieces. By cutting the chicken into child friendly sizes, so much less ends up in the trash. Like the baked eggplant recipe above, I use the standard breading trifecta layers flour, eggwash, and a panko crust; however, I found that panko is best for chicken nuggets when it’s been seasoned (I add homemade BBQ seasoning: it’s flavorful and not full of sodium) and when it’s been blended to a finer crumb texture. Through several rounds of chicken nugget redesign, I have found that adding a little bit of olive oil to the egg wash helps to produce crispy nuggets, making them seem more like the “real” thing. I bread my nuggets, spread them out on aluminum foil lined baking pans for easy clean up, and bake them at 425 degrees for 12 minutes. After they’re cooked and cooled, I freeze them. To reheat, just pop in a toaster oven at 400 degrees for 10 minutes and voila, crunchy, homemade chicken nuggets that even my picky eater eats by the shovel full. What’s great about this recipe is that it’s made from scratch, can be made in large batches and frozen for quick, easy meals for all of your family members. It also can be applied to other meats or even vegetables to suit your family’s dietary requirements.

Tip 2: It’s ok to buy yourself a leg up. When I had my second child, I had a c-section and my parents spent 6 weeks with me to help take care of me, my husband and my eldest son while I recuperated. My husband was leaving on business for a week the same day they were leaving for their summer home, and I started to panic about how I was going to feed myself while trying to care for a newborn and an eighteen month old without any help. Before my folks left, I purchased six rotisserie chickens from Sam’s Club. I deboned each chicken, mixed all of the meat together in a large bowl and then scooped out two cups of chicken into quart sized freezer bags, squeezed the air out, flattened each bag, and popped them into the freezer. Let me just tell you, this might be the smartest idea I have ever had. Those little bags of chicken were a lifesaver. Chicken salad, chicken wraps, chicken tacos, sloppy chicken, barbeque chicken sandwiches, chicken and veggie casserole, the list goes on. What’s great is that the chicken is cheap, well seasoned, tender, delicious and can get tossed into just about any meal. Again, with my picky eaters, this is a great thing because we can each have a different variation by just preparing the already-cooked chicken a little bit differently to each family member’s liking. Here’s one of my favorite recipes that uses rotisserie chicken, courtesy of Bobby Flay. If you don’t have time to slice, dice and roast to prepare this recipe, you can cheat by purchasing store bought salsa verde, adding some fresh cilantro and a bit of honey (hold the serranos if your little one isn’t quite ready for them yet!).

Tip 3: Cook once, eat twice or even three times. Another favorite recipe of mine, Taco Soup, comes from the queen of the south, Paula Deen. I not only love the recipe because of it’s amazing flavor, but I love it can be manipulated to serve several purposes.  While I do omit the ranch salad dressing mix to manage our sodium intake, it’s a great recipe just as it is. In addition to being a hearty and healthy soup, this recipe works great as an enchilada or taco filling and as a salad topper (just mix a little salsa and sour cream for a quick dressing). One thing I’ve learned, as a mom who is always strapped for time, is to re-use recipes. Cook once, eat twice. I really like when I can make something and serve it two or three different ways as it keeps me out of the kitchen and gives me more quality time with my kids.

Tip 4: Your crockpot is your not-so-secret weapon! My favorite meat is, without a doubt, pork. It’s delicious and can be healthy depending on how you prepare it. I like to cook a pork shoulder in the crockpot because it’s saves me time and can be used several ways. In a crockpot, combine a large pork shoulder, a whole jalapeno, a quartered onion, a few cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of salt, a palm-full of oregano, and cover with beer. Cook overnight (8 to 10 hours). Once done, this meat can be de-fatted, portioned and easily stored in its cooking liquid in the freezer. Reheat the meat with some of your favorite barbeque sauce for super easy pulled pork sandwiches, or shred and serve with cilantro, lime, queso fresco and some corn tortillas for some of the best pork tacos you’ll ever have in your home. If your kids are taco friendly, this is a great way to create tacos in a flash.

Tip 5: Eggs are your friend.  These little wonders really are a mom’s best friend. I have two “recipes”  that have become family favorites. The first is something I grew up with, can be served hot or cold, and is great in sandwiches or smothered with a quick, no fuss marinara sauce. It’s frittata. Growing up, my father, who is a native Italian, would make frittata at least once a week and even served it as an appetizer at dinner parties. My family frittata recipe involves sweating some onions, a few handfuls of chopped zucchini and asparagus. Add a bit of garlic (use caution to add it just before adding the eggs so you don’t burn it), and a sprinkling of mint. Make sure you use a well oiled non-stick skillet so you are able to flip the frittata (once one side is cooked, slide the frittata out of the pan onto an oversized plate, then place the pan on top of the plate to flip it). This easy egg meal is full of protein, vegetables and most importantly flavor. It’s fast, easy and can be made ahead of time as a breakfast, lunch or dinner.

The second egg recipe is best prepared the night before. Because the heavy lifting is done ahead of time, this casserole will allow you to enjoy all of the deliciousness of a weekend morning style breakfast without standing at the stove. Brown some breakfast sausage or other breakfast meat of your choice and some chopped veggies. Chop a loaf of french bread into rough slices. Mix 10 eggs with 3 cups of skim milk. In a casserole dish, place the sliced bread, add the sausage and veggies, pour the egg mixture in. I also add cheese to my casserole because I love cheese, but if you are trying to watch fat, you can definitely skip this step. Refrigerate overnight. When ready to serve, remove from the refrigerator about an hour before baking. Heat your oven to 350 degrees, and cook for about 1 hour or until the center of the casserole is no longer jiggly. Don’t like eggs? No problem. The texture of this casserole is more like a souffle crossed with Fench toast. It’s packed with protein and veggies and it will allow you to spend time with your family while your breakfast cooks itself.

If you get one thing out of this article, get this message: you can make great meals for your family without cooking everything from scratch or slaving over a stove. You can reduce the amount of time you spend in the kitchen by making large batches and freezing in smaller portions. Also, by freezing smaller portions of your family’s favorite meals, or meal starters, you’ll reduce the amount of time, food and money that is wasted by cooking a new meal from scratch every day. So moms and dads, borrow from recipes, apply great ideas that save you time, and take all of the credit. Bon appetite!

Lisa Bello is a blogger, web administrator and graphic artist as well as a full-time stay at home mom.

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