A few years ago my friend Julia and I toyed with the idea of starting a business. I've got the culinary background, she's got the business acumen, and we're both food obsessed. Of course, not all good ideas get actualized, and ours was no exception. But at the time, we took our research seriously.
To try to solve the "what's for dinner?" question that vexes working parents everywhere, we held a series of focus groups with women in our community. We wanted to pinpoint exactly what triggered the meal-related stress in their lives. Too little time to shop? Too little energy to cook? Too few basic kitchen skills?
The answer: none of the above. The one theme that emerged loudest and most frequently was this: busy mothers (and fathers, but our friends happened to be women) feel more angst thinking about what to serve than about the actual shopping, prep, execution, or even clean-up. One friend even said to me, "On my commute home at the end of every day, I start to panic about what I'm going to serve for dinner."
Now this isn't stop-the-presses news. With an overwhelming number of options, it's tough to make simple decisions about what to serve even 3 days a week, much less 7. Throw in a desire for healthful, quick food, a whining child or two, and a work-spent body and you just may reach your breaking point.
I do fine with dinners -- it's lunches that give me agita. I tend to write well past the normal lunchtime hour, and by 2:15pm I realize I haven't eaten since 7am. Too hungry to cook, I grab a yogurt or slap peanut butter on crackers, but I'm pissed at myself: why can't I just plan ahead?
My in-laws are visiting from Texas this week. I walked into the kitchen on Tuesday and my mother-in-law Clifton was chopping vegetables and dumping them into my biggest Tupperware. Pearl barley bubbled on the stove. Bottled dressing graced the counter.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Just making a big chopped salad. Then we can eat it all week."
In went some green beans, grape tomatoes, zucchini. Walnuts. Cranberries. Diced red onion. Yellow squash, red pepper, and, when it was cool, the barley. She lubricated the salad with vinaigrette and slid the container into the fridge. With all the bright colors, it was a stunner.
It was also brilliant. Why on earth had I never thought of this?
Because you use only hard vegetables (rather than, say, lettuce or mushrooms), the salad actually gets better the longer it sits. And it's a prime example of how a little forethought can go a very, very long way.
Recipe for Clifton's Chopped Salad
Here's my mother-in-law's go-to salad. It's as versatile as it is lifesaving because you can pick at it all week and it just gets better over time. Proportions are vague and unimportant. Just strive for a mix of colors; cut the veggies into uniform sizes; and supplement with protein (roasted chicken, beans, cheese) when you serve, but only if you want. Store in a large container in the fridge. As my in-laws say, you can even use defrosted frozen vegetables "if you've got a baby crawling at your feet." (They watch my baby nephew every weekday, so chop-time is often limited.)
Diced yellow squash
Diced red onion
Halved grape tomatoes
Diced red bell pepper
Cooked and cooled pearl barley (or grain of your choice)
Newman's Own Light Balsamic Vinaigrette (or dressing of choice)
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir. Store in the fridge.