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Don’t Let Busy Schedules Stop You From Hosting Friends on Weeknights

August 6, 2008

It’s almost back-to-school time, and that means a grueling schedule of homework every night, parent-teacher conferences and chauffeuring kids to all kinds of after-school activities, from T-ball to ballet.

There isn’t a lot of time to plan elaborate meals. But you shouldn’t have to sit down to takeout seven nights a week, either.

Do some planning and some smart grocery shopping and you can eat really well, even have the confidence to invite a guest or two over at the last minute. The main thing you need to remember: Keep it simple. A two- or three-course meal served family style will suffice.

But don’t make it boring. Have a plan, reduce the stress and dine well every night.

THREE’S A CHARM

My favorite meal is a quick and easy three-course: starter, main dish with a simple side and a no-fuss dessert. This is served almost every night at my place. My husband occasionally invites a guest at the last minute and things usually turn out just fine.

First, make an easy main dish. Grill or barbecue some fish, meat or vegetables. You don’t have to do anything but sprinkle on some rub. A dizzying variety of pre-made rubs are found in grocery stores.

Or make your own with a little salt and pepper, garlic and or onion powder and a favorite spice or two such as chili powder or ginger. Brush your meat with olive oil, sprinkle on the rub and grill.

A simple side dish can be grilled, too. Corn on the cob, zucchini strips, sweet red bell pepper halves or red onion slices get the oil and rub treatment and they’re good to go.

If you love potatoes, buy baby ones and pop them in a covered dish with a little water, then microwave for 10 to 15 minutes. Serve with yogurt, sour cream and butter.

For dessert, don’t bake. Simply set out some good chocolate and fresh fruit, or open a carton of premium ice cream. If you’ve invited a guest, let that person bring something from the bakery.

FAMILY VALUES

Sometimes the only chance for the family to sit down together is dinner. Make sure it’s stress-free by not doing anything elaborate. I’m not saying bore them. You will have to make dinner tasty and include one special dish or treat each night because feeding a family is like feeding troops or convicts: it’s a captive audience, and if there isn’t anything to look forward to, the situation can turn ugly.

So, stay away from institutional fare such as sloppy joes, Hamburger Helper, tuna casserole and Kraft dinner. If your family loves mac and cheese, make a homemade one. Cook up a white sauce and add fresh cheeses to it _ your family’s favorites. Pour that over pasta and sprinkle with seasoned bread crumbs.

Or serve stir fry: Get packs of vegetables already trimmed, chicken tenders already cut up, or frozen shrimp. There are many teriyaki and other stir-fry sauces. Cook in sesame or pepper oil for extra flavor. If you don’t have a rice cooker, get one. Then making rice is a no-brainer, and you can even throw cut-up meats and vegetables in there to make it a one-dish meal.

If you do have to break down and serve the frozen lasagna or uptick that Rice-A-Roni, make a fresh salad on the side. Get bagged, already-washed greens or a salad kit. But have something that looks homemade.

How about throwing some apple pie filling into a casserole and topping it with brown sugar, butter and cinnamon mixed with a little flour? Instant apple crisp! Or get a brownie mix and cook it in a little pan in your toaster oven. It makes a great TV snack and really keeps the stress down during homework time.

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

When a girl first gets married, every older woman she knows tells her that even if dinner isn’t planned by the time hubby gets home, she needs to set a pot of water to boil on the stove and pour him a drink so he thinks everything is under control.

I used to think this was sexist and totally stupid until I had a couple hubby meltdowns. Now I’m a true believer.

When it’s your night to cook and you’re running behind, keep your spouse at bay by offering him or her a glass of wine and looking busy in the kitchen. Keep hungry kids from rioting by setting out a plate of celery sticks and peanut butter or goldfish crackers. Pour yourself a little wine and get cracking on your entree.

Other niceties help relieve the stress. Never let your dinner table get cluttered with backpacks, mail and other junk. If you have to keep a box underneath and swipe it all off into that container _ so be it. Dirty tables are a buzz kill.

Buy pretty paper napkins and ask for help setting the table. If washing dishes is a real issue around your house, leading to massive family feuds, switch to paper plates. If you have more than one child under the age of 5, you need to be eating off paper plates every night, or you’re asking for a nervous breakdown.

Give kids fun chores like organizing the desserts. They can make s’mores or baked apples in the microwave. They can set out toppings for ice cream, such as M&Ms, gummi bears, chocolate syrup and crumbled cookies. They can frost vanilla wafers with canned icing, throw on some sprinkles and think it’s grand.

Let them pick the menu on some nights. When they participate, they really look forward to the results.

The wonderful thing about kids is they don’t care about tablecloths and finger bowls, they just want to know that when they get home, dinner is the time to put school work aside and relax for a while before they have to start that big pile of homework.

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TWO-COURSE MENU IDEAS

_ Grilled steaks and mini potatoes, sliced tomato salad with blue cheese

_ Taco salad and cinnamon churros or doughnuts with dulce de leche ice cream

_ Spaghetti with ready-made meatballs and store-bought Italian cookies

_ Fish sticks served fish-taco style in tortillas with salsa, and store-bought black bean soup

_ Deli roast beef served on French rolls with chipotle mayonnaise or beef gravy, and Caesar salad from a kit.

MORE SMOKE AND MIRRORS

_ Set the table for dinner after you finish lunch.

_ Buy artificial floral centerpieces and switch them out each week.

_ Put an iPod port in the dining room and take turns listening to a different family member’s musical choices each night.

_ Let one family member a week bring a friend home for dinner.

_ Make salad and dessert and have an entree delivered.

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EXPRESS JAMBALAYA

Yield: 4-6 servings

1 package Spanish Rice-a-Roni

3-4 chicken breasts, cut up in bite-sized pieces

{ pound sausage, Andouille or Polish

1 can tomatoes

Crushed red pepper (optional)

1. Season chicken breasts with salt, onion and garlic powder and cayenne to taste. In a large skillet, cook chicken and sausage until done.

2. Add the Rice-a-Roni, tomatoes, and the seasoning from the Rice-a-Roni. Cook for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Source: About.com: “Stay-at-Home Parents”

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(c) 2008, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Visit the Register on the World Wide Web at http://www.ocregister.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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