Surviving 6 p.m.

Dinner time.

These two words strike fear in the heart of working parents everywhere. I’m sure someone out there has mastered the art of getting a nutritious, inexpensive and quick dinner (that everyone in the family will eat!) on the table every night, but it sure isn’t us. Given our schedule and after-school activities, dinner needs to be more or less prepared by the time we get home; or at the very least, ready within 20 or 30 minutes. The more we can do in advance to prepare, the better.

Here are some of ways to maximize your time with a little bit of planning:

  • if you buy big club packs of meat for the freezer, package your chicken breasts or pork chops in meal-sized portions and add your favourite marinade to the bag (bottled will do)before you freeze it. The meat marinates as it defrosts;
  • whenever possible, cook extra, especially when cooking on the weekend. It takes as long to make two chickens as one, and then you’ve got chicken for the week.
  • use a menu-planning service. We’ve just started using Six O’Clock Scramble.  Having someone else do the shopping list is a lovely perk;
  • as Nathalie suggests, breakfast for dinner is your friend.  Peter makes a big batch of waffles every weekend and freezes them — a couple of those with some sausage and sliced fruit make a perfectly decent dinner.
I’m also always on the lookout for ways to maximize the nutritional punch of anything we cook. Here’s a recipe for a sauce that I made this weekend that does just that.  It’s nothing fancy — just a standard tomato sauce that you can rely on for any number of meals: pasta, chicken parm, or meatball subs.  I feel a bit guilty suggesting that you use canned tomatoes when the stores are full of bushels of beautiful Roma tomatoes just begging to be made into sauce, but such is life. Unlike those homemade tomato sauces, this one can be on the table in just over half an hour.  I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m guessing it can also be easily doubled or tripled; the proportions should be about right for everything except the oregano. No one needs that much oregano!

Sneaky tomato sauce

1 onion, finely diced

1 clove garlic, diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup dry red wine (Technically optional. Skip as your conscience dictates).

3 carrots, peeled and diced

1 stalk celery, diced

2-3 Roma tomatoes (optional — when in season)

1 398 ml can low salt tomato sauce

1/2 can tomato paste

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped, or marjoram if you prefer. You could also use basil, but I despise dried basil, so I don’t)

salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large sauce pan. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat until the onions are soft and start to take on colour — about 8-10 minutes. You want them on the verge of caramelization, not scorching, so turn down the heat if they go too fast. When the onions are browned and softened, add the wine (if using; if not, skip to next step) and stir until the wine is reduced by half.

Stir in carrots, celery and tomatoes if using.  Reduce heat and cook covered, stirring occasionally until the carrots are softened.  At this point, add the tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, sugar, and salt and pepper, cover, and cook over low heat for about 15 minutes until the carrots are completely softened.  Remove from heat and let cool for five minutes.

Here’s the sneaky part: at this point, carefully transfer the sauce to your blender, or use an immersion blender to process the sauce until smooth. Once blended, season to taste. The carrots and celery lend a nice sweetness and thicken the sauce so that you don’t have to cook it for hours.  Serve as you would any other tomato sauce.

The week before Labour Day: new shoes, new markers….

…new binders.  How I loved back to school shopping when I was a kid.  The smell of Laurentian pencil crayon shavings. A new school bag.   And then Labour Day would roll around, the last fireworks from the Canadian National Exhibition would erupt, just out of sight of our house, and the next day school would start again for another year.

My own kids are starting grades one and three this year, which means I get to prepare for back-to-school all over again, but this time, from a mother’s perspective: crowded malls, sold-out stores (doesn’t anyone EVER carry a size one and a half shoe?) after school activity shuffling: it’s not nearly as fun now, is it?

But the new school year still means new beginnings for me, possibly more so than the ticking of the clock past midnight on New Year’s Eve.  Every year, I remind myself that I can be more organized and on top of what’s going on with my family, so in that spirit (and because I wanna have fun, too!) I’ve made my own back-to-school shopping list:

1.  A new day planner.

I’m a bit of a Luddite when it comes to planners.  I want paper. I want to hold it in my hand,  and always know where I’m supposed to be when, regardless of whether I have battery power or not. Last year my friend Karen introduced me to the MomAgenda line of day planners, and once I got past the idea of carrying something with the name “MomAgenda” embossed on the cover (it’s subtle, really!) I fell in love with it. It has everything I need: a week per page starting in September every year (just like school calendars!)  with space to write in up to four childrens’ daily activities,  pages to keep track of all those little things you want to write down (most notably, a place to write down your favourite wines)  Pricey? A bit, but they’re worth it. And they’re available at Indigo and Chapters here in Canada, which saves you the shipping — although, if you sign up for the newsletter on the website, you get an instant 10% off coupon.

2. A new binder.

Nothing fancy here, although I’m tempted by these covers. I use binders to organize my life: a simple, three ring binder with tabs and clear plastic envelopes, which I switch out as I start and finish various projects.  Except, I’ve wrecked and destroyed my binder in the move and I’m in need of another one.

3.  A menu planning system:

It’s the bane of most working parents: that moment when you walk in the door with a hungry, grumpy child or two in tow, and realize that you have absolutely no idea what to make for diner. Over the years I’ve tried a couple of different menu planning options, most notably Saving Diner. It’s a great system – healthy, inexpensive meals with a ready-made shopping list for you to take to the grocery store – but the recipes didn’t appeal to my kids. If anyone knows of a meal planning system – be it software, a website, anything – and wants to recommend it,  leave us a comment. I’m all ears.  And knives and forks.

What’s on your shopping list this year? And more importantly, do you know what you’re making for dinner?