Back-to-School Transition: Serving Solutions

My children expect me to feed them. No matter what else is going on, regardless of who’s sick, who’s looking for wooden craft sticks and purple wool yarn (cannot be acrylic) for a history project, who’s begging for help on math homework, which I don’t understand either, and, by the way, needs his soccer uniform washed — they still want to eat.

Three meals a day, seven days a week, not including snacks and the bonus food on holidays, the single most stressful part of my school year is keeping all the growing bodies in our home fed. And since we’re fortunate enough to have sufficient food and a safe, reasonably clean place to cook and eat it, I have to ask, what is my problem?

Well, maybe it’s not just me.

From the moment parents decide breast or bottle, how they feed their children can be an emotional, even political, issue. Preparing meals for today’s busy families becomes complicated as caregivers struggle to find the time, and in some cases the confidence, to prepare enough good food without falling back too often on the drive-through. There are must-manage special dietary needs, multiple schedules and food prices growing faster than teenagers.

Busy schedules make mealtime challenging

“You want to do right by your kids, but most households have two people working,” says Kathleen Bonner, owner of the Triangle-area Katt in the Kitchen personal chef service. “You have to get some balance. Do I cook from scratch? Do I do what’s quick? When you do that, you feel like you’re cheating your kids. But if you get in from work, and you’ve just picked up [kids] from day care, and you’ve got soccer practice at 7, what are you going to do?”

Bonner recently became a mom for the first time, so at this point her experience is as a professional working with other families. But Alicia Ross has lived it.

“I’ve been there. My children, before I can even think about dinner, are asking, ‘Mom, what’s for dinner?’ It’s a stress across the board.”

Ross, who lives with her family in Raleigh, is a nationally syndicated food columnist and co-author with Beverly Mills of three Desperation Dinner cookbooks, a best-selling collection that got its start years ago in Ross’s driveway when she confessed one evening to Mills that she had no idea what she’d be cooking for dinner. At the time, Ross was writing for The News & Observer and had access to professional chefs, experts, books and magazines.

“That still didn’t help me get dinner on my table for my family.” Ross says.

On the evening she admitted to having no plan for an evening meal, Mills told her, “You need a desperation dinner,” before driving off. Ross gave her friend enough time to get home before calling to ask for details. Their resulting collaboration, which has grown from friendship to cookbooks to column to Web site, has made them the neighbors-you-wish-you-had for frantic cooks around the country.

The food industry also has responded with meal-preparation businesses, which help simplify everything from planning to prep to cleanup. Food markets offer an ever-widening array of prepared foods, while more specialty and delivery options are cropping up. And increasingly, other cookbook authors and food experts seem focused on helping everyday families with that most basic activity: getting folks fed.

“I’m a dietician, and I have the same issues,” says Suzanne Havala Hobbs, a faculty member and registered dietician at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health. In preparing meals for a 17-year-old and 12-year-old, she balances speed, appeal and being budget-conscious. “We juggle a lot of expectations and goals, and it’s hard. It’s a constant challenge. I think it’s stressful because we’re trying to do our best. We’re trying to please.”

Ross believes that anyone feeling guilty or stressed about preparing family meals needs to be up front and honest about it and look to planning as one way to reduce the anxiety. “It’s as if they think everyone else has it all together,” she says. “Everybody has to figure out what works for their family.”

She and other experts agree that planning and simplicity are key, and that getting into a new habit before classes resume will help ease the transition.

“All the activities kick back in, it seems [when school starts]. It can push a family into chaos,” Ross says. “There’s a lot of psychology in it. We defeat ourselves before we get there. If we just get a little bit of a plan, we don’t need to be so angst-ridden. We just need a plan.”

However they approach it, experts promise there’s a way to help most families reduce the stress associated with meals. They also emphasize the value beyond nutrition of families planning and cooking together, with a role even for young kids, and of sitting around the table sharing conversation in time that’s unrushed and free from distractions.

Involve the kids in planning

Liz Edmunds, a Utah mother of seven, has turned all she learned feeding her large family into a business called the Food Nanny. Her soon-to-be released cookbook, The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner (Palmer/Pletsch Inc., $24.95) aims to simplify for any size table what her large brood helped her perfect. Edmunds’s goal is to get families sitting down together again, and the way she does it is by planning dinners around nightly themes. Monday is comfort foods, Tuesday is Italian night, Wednesday is vegetarian night and so on.

“The hardest part of the meal is figuring out what to cook. And 5 o’clock is too late to start planning,” she says.

Consistency not only helps whoever is preparing the meal, it also means the kids know what to expect and gives them something to look forward to. Her family helped her come up with the themes 30 years ago when one of her children was struggling with stomach troubles. They’ve worked for her, and the folks she helps, ever since.

Michelle Bailey, a pediatrician with Duke Integrative Medicine with an interest in childhood obesity, also encourages parents to make kids part of the meal-planning process. And if the response to “What would you like to eat?” is noncommittal, she says to offer a suggestion and guidance, but also choices.

Bailey has some favorite Web sites where she looks for recipes that are healthy, have few ingredients and are quick to cook, such as www.cookinglight.com. She also encourages families to build their own cookbook based on their preferences.

In the Desperation Dinner cookbooks, Ross and Mills emphasize always having certain staples on hand. Sitting down with a family calendar, coupons and recipes once a week to coordinate schedules with meals is key, but so is knowing that some nights, a home-cooked meal might not come together. Use the family calendar to anticipate those nights when you might need to grab something out.

When the meals do come together, “It just feels like at the end of the week, you’ve been in control of that small part of your week,” Ross says. And when they don’t, “Next week is a new week. You get to start over.”

Aleta Payne is the associate editor of Carolina Parent and a mother of three boys — ages 16, 14 and 10 — who are always hungry.

Win a Personal Meal-Planning Session

Could your efforts to plan and provide healthy meals benefit from a little nurturing and guidance? Would the advice of an expert help? Well, here’s your chance for a one-on-one consultation.

Liz Edmunds, author of The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner (Palmer/Pletsch Inc., $24.95), will visit the home of one lucky Triangle-area family this fall to help them reduce the daily stress of meal planning. Along with her consultation in your home, food for meals will be provided. And Carolina Parent will sit in to document your special session as well as check back a few months later to see how it’s going.

To enter this special contest, send us a 100-word essay explaining why you need the Food Nanny – typewritten, please. The more desperate, the better. Include your name, city of residence, phone number and e-mail. Our staff will read your pleadings and choose one family in the Triangle for a visit from Edmunds this fall.

Send essays to: Carolina Parent, Attn: Food Nanny, 5716 Fayetteville Rd., Ste. 201, Durham, NC 27713. You can also submit online. Go to www.carolinaparent.com for online entry. Entries must be postmarked or submitted electronically by Aug. 31, 2008, to be considered for prizes.

Since not everyone can win the grand prize, we’ll offer a consolation to other meal-challenged parents. Anyone whose essay is not chosen will be entered into a random drawing for a cookbook from a selection that includes Edmund’s Food Nanny; Alicia Ross and Beverly Mills’ Cheap, Fast, Good! (Workman Publishing, $13.95); Rachel Ray’s Yum-O: The Family Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $22.50); and Linda Larsen’s The Everything Meals on a Budget Cookbook (Adams Media, $14.95).

Meal Ideas

Meal-planning isn’t just about dinner. You have to keep the family fueled practically from sunup to sundown. “Each of those three meals presents its own challenges,” says UNC’s Hobbs.
Here are some suggestions from the experts on ways to tackle the different dilemmas presented by the three big meals of the day.

BREAKFAST
Let’s face it, for the most important meal of the day, breakfast also can be the most rushed and the least thought-out. Key suggestions: cook ahead and keep it simple.
Ross suggests muffins and quick breads that can be made in batches and frozen. Smoothies and granola customized to your family’s taste are also at the top of her list.
Hobbs’ focus is on quick and nutritious, too: fruit, instant oatmeal without artificial colors or flavors, string cheese, and complex carbohydrates like whole wheat breads and cereal.
Edmunds suggests finding some favorite breakfasts and rotating them through the week.

LUNCH
Fueling bodies through the second half of the day while avoiding the dreaded bag-lunch food rut takes its own kind of planning.
“Finding out what they want is three-quarters of the battle,” Ross says. Favorite leftovers are an option, depending on the ability to reheat, she offers. For variety, try options like pita points with veggies and humus.
Hobbs encourages rethinking lunch. It doesn’t have to be built around a sandwich. Maybe fruit salad or peanut butter crackers could be at the center of the meal, or try an individual serving of soup with veggies and dip. “It’s OK to bring a little collection of favorite foods,” she says.

DINNER
Planning, planning — did someone say planning? — is the key to dinner. Ross is so prepared that she even has a backup meal that she prepares when things haven’t gone as planned. She always has the ingredients for it, the recipe is taped to the inside of a cabinet door so she doesn’t have to look for it, and she tries only to use that particular meal in a true dinner emergency.
Hobbs emphasizes simple, as well as healthy, shortcuts. Dress up prepackaged salads, rice and pasta-based meals, packaged vegetables and baked potatoes to form the basis for quick, nutritious dinners.
Along with themes, Edmunds emphasizes using mealtime for conversation. Her book includes suggestions for conversation starters along with recipes. Although the meal may be simple, “It’s a party because it’s conversation every night.”
And even if the family can’t be together for dinner, taking the time to sit down and talk with each person when he or she gets home to eat means a lot.