In Dana Sawyer's household, the combination of a busy single mom and somewhat picky kids has made for some less-than-successful dinner times.
Sawyer, of Rodgers Forge, has two daughters, Cameron, 7, and Lauren, 4, and a full-time job as a paralegal. When she gets home from work around 6:15 p.m., she finds she makes the same time-tested recipes with chicken or beef and potatoes or noodles and falls back a bit too often on pizza, Chinese food and Boston Market.
Sawyer knew she needed to learn some simple meals that were healthful, incorporated more vegetables and could get to the table before 7 p.m., when "everyone is starving and grumpy." The problem was finding recipes that fit the bill and the whole family wanted to eat.
Sawyer turned to The Sun's Make Over My Meal series for help. We called someone who could sort through the likes and dislikes and come out with some new recipes and tips for the time-starved mother.
Rachel Rappaport is the cook behind Coconut & Lime (coconutlime.blogspot.com), a four-year-old blog where she shares her original recipes, uses for leftovers, thoughts on food and ideas for stocking the pantry. She's also a food writer, instructor and commentator.
We sent some parameters: Cameron will eat most foods, but in the vegetable category she'll eat only corn, peas and broccoli. Lauren doesn't like broccoli, and she's not so keen on typical side dishes and soups. Sawyer herself isn't that big on tomatoes and cucumbers.
One recent day, we converged on Sawyer's house just after she'd taken one of her staples, Nana Stiles' Chicken and Rice, out of the oven. It's one of those Campbell's cream-soup casseroles that involves little more than a baking dish, a can opener and some time in the oven.
Rappaport had in mind something a little less caloric and a little quicker to the table: her Peanut Butter and Noodles with snow peas.
"What kid doesn't like peanut butter?" she said. "This is an easy recipe and you can use different kinds of noodles and vegetables - broccoli, carrots, frozen veggies - depending on what you have in the house. You can eat it cold the next day for lunch."
She whisked some peanut butter together with soy sauce, some water and some ground ginger as the pasta water was boiling. She dropped whole-wheat spaghetti in the water and once the pasta was tender, she drained it, gave it a quick dousing of water to cool it down, transferred it to a bowl and then poured in the sauce. She used scissors to snip the green part of some scallions on top.
The whole effort took about 10 or 12 minutes, a full half-hour less than the time it usually takes Sawyer to get dinner on the table.
Rappaport said the recipe could serve as a side dish or a main dish because the whole wheat and the peanut butter provide fiber and protein, and the snow peas serve as the vegetable. For meat eaters, some cooked chicken pieces would go well.
Some kids won't eat 100 percent whole-wheat pasta on the first try because the texture is different, so regular pasta would also work, Rappaport said. So would a pasta blend or a shape such as a spiral or ring appealing to little ones.
But try to get everything into one bowl on weeknights, said Rappaport.
"Drop the separate side dish," she said. "It's easier and faster to just mix it all in. Hide some of the vegetables by chopping them really small."
She suggested adding chopped carrot to tomato sauce, where it kind of "melts" and disappears. Hide carrots under the tortillas in quesadillas or even in the mac 'n' cheese.
Rappaport suggested making homemade tomato sauce - something that at first made Sawyer raise her brows a bit.
But Rappaport said in the time it takes the pasta water to boil, she can chop an onion, two garlic cloves and a carrot, saute them with olive oil and add a 32-ounce can of tomatoes. Herbs are optional.
It's quick and it doesn't have the preservatives and corn syrup that can be found in jarred sauce.
The simplicity and speed of Rappaport's method turned Sawyer around.
"I'm looking forward to trying to make sauce," she said. "I've never done it before and it seems healthier, and I can be a little creative."
Sawyer also liked Rappaport's idea of making extra beef, chicken or pork to use the next night in quesadillas, salads, soup or pasta. And the suggestion that she plan, shop and chop vegetables on the weekends to save time during the week.
Rappaport said not everything has to be a complicated recipe or completely from scratch to be healthful and tasty. Variety can come from whatever is left over and whatever is in season or on sale at the market that week.
It's a matter of getting comfortable trying new things and learning what everyone in the family likes, she said.
As for the kids, it may be a matter of slowly expanding their repertoire, offering them food over and over until it's not new and unappealing, and hiding the vegetables in foods until after they've decided they like it or they're a little older. (Then it's a good idea to tell them so they learn proper nutrition, Rappaport and Sawyer agreed.)
In the meantime, would Lauren eat the peanut-butter noodles with snow peas?
As is typical for a 4-year-old, she declared before she'd seen what it was: "I don't like it."
After an explanation that it was both peanut butter and spaghetti, two foods she likes, she slowly closed her mouth around a small forkful.
"Good?" asked Sawyer.
The ends of Lauren's mouth turned slightly upward and she gave a small nod. No spitting out or name-calling - which made it a fairly good review for a youngster on her first try of a new meal.
Sawyer said it was already scheduled for dinner the next week.
Peanut Butter and Noodles
Serves 4 to 6
8 ounces whole-wheat spaghetti
1/2 cup snow peas
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup minced scallions
Cook spaghetti per package directions, tossing the snow peas in during the last 5 minutes of cooking time. Whisk together the peanut butter, ginger, water and soy sauce until smooth. Set aside. Drain spaghetti and snow peas and toss with sauce. Sprinkle with scallions. Serve warm.
Courtesy of Rachel Rappaport of Coconut & Lime
Per serving (based on 6 servings): 260 calories, 11 grams protein, 11 grams fat, 2 grams saturated fat, 33 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams fiber, 0 milligrams cholesterol, 321 milligrams sodium