Survival Tips Getting meals on the table quickly isn't reason to panic

February 10, 1993|By Sheryl Julian | Sheryl Julian,Boston Globe

In every household, there are moments of complete chaos just before dinner. Picture this: Everyone in the family is cranky and has a different agenda. Someone forgot to walk the dog. The day's mail litters the kitchen table, which no one has yet set with dishes. The phone rings every 10 minutes. The doorbell sounds throughout the house and momentarily stops everyone. Standing in the doorway is a delivery man holding a large cheese pizza. The family supper has arrived. What's wrong with this picture?

Nothing, says Nancy Stutzman, a home economist in the Cooperative Extension System. In her 28 years in the job, Ms. Stutzman has fielded thousands of queries from worried consumers. She says firmly, "Pizza is great." Strew the top with sliced fresh tomatoes or leftover vegetables, add a salad and there's nothing wrong with that dinner. "Not every day has to be exemplary," she says.

Ms. Stutzman is very forgiving in the latitude she allows, though she says she doesn't believe parents should indulge their families with a different menu for each child. During a recent interview she urged cooks to be creative, to rely on the cupboard for emergencies and to stop berating themselves when they resort to pizza delivery.

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Q: Besides pasta and rice, what commercial products do you think families should have on hand?

A: Canned tomatoes, canned kidney or garbanzo beans, some spaghetti sauces are fine (those without meat aren't going to have much fat). You can use the sauces on chicken or add them to vegetables. Canned corn is fine, canned beets are fine, too. Eat them cold or add them to a salad or add orange juice and reheat them. There are good soups. Put a dollop of pesto in them. I've tried the low-salt [canned chicken broth], but the flavor isn't as good; buy full-strength and add water. Put the can in the refrigerator, then open it and spoon off the fat. Tuna fish, canned salmon -- go ahead and spend $4 for the red -- and I often have sardines. A little bit of those can be added to a salad; you don't have to use the whole can. People need the confidence to know that anything goes together.

ad,1.3 Q: What about frozen foods?

A. Frozen peas are great, the plain ones without the sauces. Frozen corn is fine, and so are frozen sugar snap peas -- they're just not as crisp as the fresh, but they're good. Frozen baby corn is another. The good thing about frozen vegetables is that you don't have to use the whole box. I often keep pesto frozen. I usually keep a package of frozen tortellini. Take the diluted chicken broth, throw in a few of those tortellini, and that makes a quick dinner.

Q: What other suggestions do you have for frantic families and working parents?

A: We're doing some home study courses this spring, and one is called "Nutrition and the Working Woman." One thing I'll suggest is a marathon cooking session. Get the family involved and divide the work. Lots of things can be reheated nicely. Make a big lentil salad on the weekend -- that's what I'm doing tonight -- or a big bean or potato salad.

Q: What about making food in batches and freezing it? Should people leave something on the counter to defrost all day?

A: Ideally, take food from the freezer to the refrigerator. You can do this as part of the cleaning up the night before. Think of what restaurants do: They set up for the next day the night before. We should think of how they organize.

Q: What about teen-agers? What are specific things they can do to help the nightly meal?

A: Depending on their skill, they can cook something or they can cut up vegetables -- you can do a bunch of broccoli all at once and store it for a couple of days. They can cut up salad. They could have things measured out, get the ingredients ready on the kitchen counter, put the water in the pot. If kids are part of the planning they're more likely to take a role in the preparation.

The kids can be in charge of checking out what's in the refrigerator, then making a list of those things. It's a reminder that you've got a half cup of rice to throw into the soup. Leftover vegetables shouldn't be reheated. Toss leftover green beans into a salad. Or marinate them. Leftover corn on the cob can be cut off the cob. Chop up a red or green pepper, add some pesto and have that on a bit of lettuce. You need recipes for very few things.

Q: Is it OK for a family to eat sensibly and then pull out cookies and ice cream for dessert?

A: Certainly. But if I pull out the ice cream and cookies, I always pull out some fruit. If there's one nectarine and some ice cream, slice the nectarine for the family to add. Or a few blueberries or grapes. If I have cookies and some crumbs in the bottom of the jar, crumb them all and sprinkle them onto the ice cream.

Q: Does eating that way mean you have schizophrenic eating habits?

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