Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Simple Meals for the Busy Family

aka Grab-n-Go or the Four Bin Food System
A healthy, eco-friendly alternative to depending on fast food restaurants in the age of travel soccer

I have four athletic kids.  Three of them are on travel soccer teams.  Three different teams.  And one is a senior in high school who plays varsity volleyball and lacrosse.  We have practices and/or games almost every day of the week in the fall.  Plus school and work.  Yes, we are a little crazy.  But, we are also fun.  We are game.  Our kids are much happier when they get lots of physical activity. So we Do. It. All.  When we signed up the third kid for the third travel soccer team, I had a moment of panic.  I pictured us going through the dreaded tunnel under the big yellow M every night of the week due to lack of time and planning.  I screamed inside.  Noooooooooooo!  I am organica mom.  I am happy chicken, grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, and farm-fresh veggies from the lovely folks at Backbone Food Farm and Round Right Farm.  I gag when forced to use styrofoam and single-use anything. I ride my bike to Farmers Market, people. I cannot drive my "Be a Localvore" bestickered soccer-mom van through the exhaust-ridden (oh how convenient!) bastions of high-calorie, low-value, too-little-love, consumeable ill health packages.  (Have you seen how huge those cups of HFCS-colored acid water are getting to be???)

My Slow Food Vehicle

So, I needed to come up with a system.  I woke up the next morning with a picture of a fridge full of home-cooked food that could be thrown down the gullets of the athletes as they run out the front door.  Brilliant!

Step 1: Get the bins
Find two two-quart containers and two four-quart containers.  I bought Rubbermaid BPA-free containers at Kroger because I knew if I waited until I went to a kitchen store or Target or ordered them online, I would lose my momentum.  Rubbermaid also makes glass ones with lids, and Pyrex makes some glass containers with lids. My bins are square and stack really well.  Create space inside your fridge for these containers to be stacked at all times. You’ll also need a place to store bread and muffins outside the fridge. An area in the fridge where you keep packages of tortillas is also a good idea.

Step 2: Fill the bins
In the beginning, you’ll need to devote a half-day or so to filling up the containers mainly because the first time you do it, you’ll think it will take way longer than it actually takes. You can either fill up all the containers every weekend, or fill each one as it is emptied.  For example, if you run out of rice on Wednesday, just cook a batch of rice and refill it on Wednesday night or Thursday morning.  Whenever any container gets close to running out, figure out what you’ll cook to fill it up again, and the time you will be able to do so.

Container 1 (four-quart): Grain or legume (lentils, people)
Container 2 (two-quart):  Meat or beans
Container 3 (two-quart): Cooked veggies
Container 4 (four-quart): Salad greens 
Breadbox: bread, muffins, and/or rolls

Some examples

Grains and/or Legumes:  Rice, cous cous, quinoa, barley, pasta; lentils, split peas, yellow peas (mix two for variety and complementary proteins)
Sometimes, I add some peas or other veggie to this so the kids who don’t tend to eat a variety of veggies get some by default.  The trick is not to overwhelm the grain with too much of the veggie.

Meat or beans:  Roast a chicken or other meat and slice, cut into small pieces, or shred OR Soak beans overnight, then cook and season to taste. Other options: hard-boiled eggs, nuts, and cheese.

Cooked veggies:  Pick the ones that are in season, cut them up, and steam or roast them with simple seasonings. 

Salad greens:  Pick out the ones that look good, wash, spin, and tear into small pieces.  Store with a paper towel to absorb extra water.  Sometimes I just cut up a bunch of carrots and celery for this bin.  Store in water; drain to serve, fill up again to store.

Bread:  Buy yummy bread from the local bakery, and/or make muffins or rolls. Also have tortillas on hand because if the kid needs to grab food and go, wrapping it up in a tortilla will save on messes in the car and prevents the sad loss of dishes and silverware.  New Day Bakery makes our family go around the table "I'm grateful for..." list on a regular basis.  I don't know about you, but for me, one of the best things in life is Good Bread. I don't get to bake bread often with my work and soccer mom schedule, so I spend good money on good bread.

Additions:  kids can add grated cheese, sour cream, or condiments, as desired. 

Step 3: Kid Training
Show the kids the containers and tell them about how the containers will be filled with food and kept in the fridge.  Tell them that each container will be filled soon after it is emptied and washed. To make a meal, a person should pick the kind of bread they want and at least three of the other items.  Show them what one-third to one-half cup looks like, and tell them to put about that much of each chosen item on their roll or in their bowl.  No fair taking two cups of rice, one chunk of chicken and a lettuce leaf!  Also, condiments are not to be piled on to make the taste of the food disappear!  A dollop of sour cream, not a half cup!  A sprinkling of cheese, not two handfuls.  Watch kids the first few times, and help them understand that a variety of foods is how they will get all the nutrients they need.  Teach them about “complete proteins.”

Also, put a calendar menu on the fridge.  Decide which nights will be “get your own” and which nights will be sit-down together meals. Be sure to have kids check the menu before they get their own meal. It might help to have a reference page posted above the counter where people will make their meals.

Have containers on hand for packing grab-n-go meals.  The plastic ones from some Chinese restaurants are a good size, sturdy, easy to eat from, and can be reused many times. By the way, don't use plastic in the microwave!  I store containers with the lids on, even though it takes up more room, because it saves precious time when we are in the grab stage of grab-n-go. In the car(s), be sure to have a roll of paper towels, some wet wipes, and a garbage bag.  In the kitchen, you could have pre-packed meal bags that contain a spoon and fork, a cloth napkin, and a mint.  The kid makes dinner in the plastic container, grabs one of the bags, and goes.  When done eating, just place the container in the bag and bring it all in the house when you get home.  There could be a small laundry basket in the kitchen so the bag gets unpacked right away – rinse and stack dishes and silverware, put cloth stuff in the laundry basket.  You could make fabric bags for this.  In your dreams. No, really, you could.  My kids just throw their food in the front pocket of their soccer bags.

Also, each person should have a BPA-free water bottle to fill and take everywhere.  Camelbak makes a sturdy one in different sizes and colors.  Each person can have a different color so everyone can keep track of their own source of water.  Kids going to athletic events will probably need more water than fits in one water bottle, so having big water container in the car for refills or having extra water bottles is a good idea.

And, remember; always have a book with you.  Everywhere you go.  Because you never know when mom will decide to sit and read in the car while the rain comes down on the soccer field instead of driving all the home and back again and you have to wait for your brother and sister sitting in the boring car. Hmph.

Step 4: Gratitude
The beauty of this system for me is that I can cook when I feel like cooking.  Yes, there are times I actually want to cook.  They are generally NOT at 4:30 pm after rushing home from work to hurry and get in the car to go to drop off H and A at LP fields, take R to get new cleats, pick up J from practice, pick up H and A from soccer practice and go home to get kids in the shower and to bed. I can cook after the kids go to bed, I can cook at six in the morning while I sip my coffee.  I can cook when it is time to clean out the fridge.  And my kids are still getting to eat healthy, home-cooked, good food.  Nothing makes me feel like a failure as a mom more often watching my kids scarf down crappy, chemical-laden, processed, automated food that came through the window of my car.  This is my personal version of the Slow Food Movement, thank you very much. 

The system in practice
I didn’t plan to cook this morning, but this is what I did when I woke up at six.  Tomorrow night is three-kids-at-soccer-and-one-kid-at-volleyball night.  Two bins were empty and in the dish drainer.  (See, this is a visible signal to me that cooking needs to happen.)  My partner is away, the kids have no school, and we are going away this weekend so the fridge needed to be cleaned out.  


First, I put on the rice. Six cups of water and three cups of rice cook up to fill a four-quart bin very nicely.  You might make your coffee first, but for some reason, I had the presence of mind to start the rice, then make the coffee.  Someday, I'll follow my partner around the kitchen and tell you how to make the perfect cup of coffee.  Today, I fended for myself.

Then I snapped the beans and put them in the steamer. 

I wanted to put some protein in a bin, but I forgot about soaking the beans last night. Since I'm going away this weekend, I don't want to get into the beans or meat work.  (Flexiblity is one key to happiness!)   I found some split peas in the pantry. I can hide some of those little green lovelies in the rice.  Well, not hide exactly, but mix in a way that prevents the children from avoiding them completely.  Mwaa haaa haaaa...  I was going to just throw them in with rice, but figured I should read the instructions first.  I had to put my glasses on... okay... I'm fifty... whatever.  Found out I needed eight cups of water for two cups of peas, so it's a good thing I didn't just throw them in with the rice.  That is them on the back left burner... cooking up in all their evil greenness. This, my friends, is cooking by the seat of my pants. 

Next, I sipped coffee and relished the quiet house. Then I chopped up lots of onions and about the same amount of squash.  My Ethiopian kids LOVE onions.  Threw in some salt, pepper, and chili pepper.  Oh yeah, garlic, too.  Lots of garlic. Helen is going to squeal with delight when she wakes up smelling these onions.


The other two bins already had some raw veggies, so I got them out for the photo op.  I had to put the green beans in one of my handy Pyrex dishes.  I could have chopped them up and added them to the rice or the onions and squash, but I use the grab-n-go for my lunches at work. I love plain green beans.  A mom needs to take care of herself, too.


See how nicely they fit in the fridge? 

This is a lesson in abundance.  It helps heal my Ethiopian kids' food-power issues from living in a children's home for five years and not having any choices around food at all. And mine, too.  My mom had a lot of rules around food, because her mom did.  Cycle of food stress.  I'm trying to break it.  This four-bin food system is one of my tools.  It works well for now. 

My boys are cooking up some breakfast and they just made me a second cup of coffee.  Life is Good.



2 comments:

Jamie said...

Found your blog and love it!

We're also an ethiopian adoptive family as well.

This is an awesome post! Thanks for sharing.

Meg said...

Wow what a great system! Someday when I come up for air I would love to get somethign like this going in our home. I am stopping over to thank you for your response to me on the Older Siblings message board. Your reassurance was just what I needed. Feel free to drop by my blog anytime: by-dirigible.blogspot.com. I am not updating as often as I'd like, but hope to again once we settle in some more. Meg B