pixabay spinach

Belly up to the [fill in the blank] bar

It’s a gray early Sunday morning in Ann Arbor—even I sleep in most Sundays (sometimes even as late as 7am 🙂 ), but today is my first 5K—nope, just walking—and that’s a story for another day….

As spring slips away and summer comes into full swing, we’re playing “the single parenting game” at my house—this happens annually for anywhere from 2–4 months at a time. You can read more about this in Absence makes the self care fonder.

And just a note for you full-time single parents: I’m not dissing you by using the word “game”—I’m pointing out that my version of single parenting is akin to a child playing house compared to what you do 24/7/365! You are my parenting superheroes.

pixabay noodlesFor health, financial, and environmental reasons, Max and I committed early on to cooking from scratch and eating at home most of the time (we average 1 meal out a week), and as a result, we often share the cooking/cleanup duties when he’s home. With him gone, most of that falls on me although at 17 and 13, the kids are much more help now.

I’m often asked, “How do you work full time, manage the schedules of two active teens, find time to volunteer, and still cook every night of the week?” This is a major struggle for a lot of clients.

First, I’m the meal planning queen: Fl!p Your K!tchen introduces a system of simple recipes and a lot of tips and tricks for how to fit them together so that you can actually create 21 meals a week from scratch without spending your life in the kitchen. The big (not-so-)secret to the system is to always cook for more than one meal, and I mean always. 

If you’re saying “I don’t have time,” I warn you that I’m hearing “I don’t prioritize that,” and that’s a whole ‘nother conversation we can have some other day. Our weeknight dinners generally take 45 minutes to an hour from starting to cook to cleanup being done, and we usually cook enough to have leftovers for lunch and/or to incorporate into another meal.

pixabay spinachSecond, we don’t cook separate meals for each person but try to ensure that everyone has at least something they like at each meal. It’s kind of like that great advice for toddler parents: think of it as a balanced week, not a balanced meal. So if someone doesn’t like the meat that’s offered, there’s probably enough vegetables and carbs to make a meal. The next day, we might make a meat that person likes but a starch that someone else likes, etc. 

Don’t like anything on the table? There are leftovers in the fridge…. And yes, you have to clean up after yourself.

Finally, there’s the idea of “the bar.” We are all used to the idea of a salad bar, and I encourage you to think about other dishes that can easily be “personalized”—you’ll get a lot more buy-in when everyone creates their own meal, even if they’re not actually cooking it. The key is to have a base plus a few toppings available, and here’s where the leftovers come in super handy!

Our favorite bases are:

  • Soupy noodles
  • Cold noodles
  • Baked or mashed potatoes
  • Chili or Tortilla soup
  • Grain bowls
  • Tacos
  • Burritos
  • Nachos
  • Pizza crusts

Depending on the base, toppings normally include:

  • 1–2 types of protein (ideally, leftover cooked beans, tofu, shrimp, fish, poultry, meat—and eggs are quick to cook if you need to improvise)
  • 3–4 types of veggies (can be raw or cooked—ideally leftovers and including at least 1 dark green leafy)
  • a chopped fresh herb (cilantro is a huge favorite)
  • some cheese (grated or crumbled, mild or marvelously stinky, depending on your audience)
  • some chopped chiles if you have some fire-eaters
  • some condiments (salsa, marinara, salad dressing, fermented veggies get you extra nutrition points!)
  • some crunch (nuts, seeds, and bacon)

pixabay chilesOf course, this is only a healthful approach to meals if you remember a few cardinal rules: focus on whole foods, omit highly processed foods, and make vegetables the largest part by volume. Loading up on the condiments and bacon is akin to going to a salad bar and picking only the macaroni and potato salads….

If “the bar” is not a place you often go when meal planning, try it out! I’m linking here to a downloadable recipe for Buddha Bowls—those ever-so-popular grain bowls that are popping up everywhere.

And if you’re a regular at “the bar,” share your favorite version(s) in the comments below!