Dinner for four, for life in a hurry

There are a lot of aspects of parenting I’m not particularly good at, and meal planning would be among the top three. It’s not that I’m a bad cook; in fact I’m a very good cook. It’s that I struggle to remain organized enough in our hectic lives to remember the contents of the refrigerator in times of panic.

Last week, a friend came by the house and marvelled at a meal plan that I had tacked to the refrigerator door. Laying out the days of the week, the dinner meals cross referenced against the boys’ activities for the week, she commented that she dreamed of being “that organized.” I laughed modestly and thanked her, then drew her attention to the pair of robins at the bird feeder in the garden. I didn’t want her to notice the meal plan was from two years ago, and I’d not been organized enough to take it off the door since.

The reality of our life is that the dinner hour in our kitchen resembles more of a drive through than anything else. We are rarely in the kitchen for dinner for longer than 20 minutes during the week. The Rational One and I return from work, the kids parachute in from after-school sports and the dog runs circles around everyone, twice, while everyone scrounges for snacks and drop backpacks in the traffic lanes. In the meantime, I’m covertly searching the cupboards and refrigerator for something that will meet the highly diverse nutritional and psychological needs of the famished.

And that’s really at the heart of the meal planning challenge for me. It’s the competing priorities of my organizational abilities versus each family member’s desires at the dinner table. I’ve got one almost-15-year-old who wants nothing more than to put on weight and keep it on, while concurrently wanting international culinary excellence on his dinner plate. I’ve got an 11-year-old prepubescent who can’t stop eating sweets and carbohydrates. Sitting on that raw edge of puberty, food is a sanctuary away from the pressures of life, an oasis of yumminess in a chaotic world. The Rational One has shared that eating is just an irritation; he’d be just as happy taking a pill like the characters in Willy Wonka. A true bachelor when we met, I remember he once tried to convince me that eating Vegetable Thin crackers constituted eating vegetables. You can see there are diverse needs at my kitchen table.

What I hadn’t remembered, from my own teenage years, is the perpetual state of hunger in which teenagers live. Hungry teenagers are cranky, reverting into an almost infant-like state; giant, squalling and helpless in the face of their own distress, they seem unable to reach a cupboard to put a granola bar in their own mouth. In a quest to avert the ‘death by starvation’ of teenagers in my kitchen, I have come up with some really, really fast dinners that can keep the ravenous hordes at bay. I cannot claim that these are the most nutritious meals (you can fix that I’m sure), but they feed teenagers and feed them fast.

First is a classic that never fails to comfort after a bad test or failed playoff run – grilled cheese and tomato soup. Rumour has it I make the best grilled cheese in the Beach (according to many grade three guests) and I’ll let you in on my secret – this grilled cheese sandwich could fell a cardiac patient. Ironically, it also effectively eases teenage angst. Use real butter, white bread (the whiter the better) and thick pieces of good old cheddar. Put it in a frying pan with more butter and cook on medium heat. Meanwhile, heat the Campbell’s condensed tomato soup with milk, and pull the saltine crackers out of the cupboard. Between the fat, the cholesterol, the lack of fibre and the salt, it nurtures the child-like spot in each of us. Finish it off with a bowl of ice cream and life will be really be okay again. Prep time: six minutes.

My second fastest meal is a white-woman-raised-in-Mississauga Indian meal. Okay, so I cannot really do spicy, having been raised by a Ukrainian father and a British mother. Ukrainians only have two spices – dill and garlic – and the British, well, it’s recognized that cooking wasn’t really their forte. So I’m a cheater, but I totally love Indian. You need a jar of butter chicken sauce, plus any other Indian sauce, chicken, chick peas, rice, and a package of good naan. Get a pot of rice going; meanwhile, sauté the chicken with some onions (don’t cheat and undercook the chicken or you’ll regret it for about, ummm, three weeks) and then throw the butter chicken sauce on top and heat it through. In the meantime, drain a can of chickpeas and mix with the second jar of sauce and heat. Serve up the butter chicken on the rice with a side of curried vegetables and some warm naan, and in 15 minutes you’re eating faux Indian.

Finally, the kids’ absolute favourite is when The Rational One makes dinner. I said he couldn’t cook but he does have two specialties left over from the bachelor days. First, he makes a mean pot of Kraft Dinner. He fusses over the sauce and it shows, so in a pinch on a Saturday afternoon, he will show off his inner saucier. The real favourite is when Dad makes “breakfast for dinner” and whips up a bacon, egg and toast meal that would put any greasy spoon to shame. He does what I cannot and serves everything hot on the plate at the same time, for as many diners as are present. Add a good strong cup of hot coffee and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice and you are ready for parent teacher interviews tonight.

Again, I would warn that these ideas are not for seven days a week; you will die if you eat this way regularly. Until I’m able to hire Oprah’s chef away from her, or Willy Wonka delivers roast beef and Yorkshire puddings in pill format, it’s all about me being head chef. I still fantasize about those days of good meal planning and cross referencing it against the boys’ activities, but then I remember that we have to get the youngest to the rink for a game in an hour and it’s a 30 minute cross-town drive (in rush hour), so if we’re not hitting the drive-thru, I’ve got to make him something to eat now. And fast.

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