If I told you there was one simple habit that could help you maintain a normal weight, improve your relationships with your children and significant other, improve your kid's grades at school, decrease their chances of becoming alcoholics, drug addicts, or jailbirds, and that would save you money and possibly time to boot, would you want to adopt that habit?
I'm sure you would. Especially since there is such a habit, and it's actually not a difficult one to put in place.
And that habit is...
Eating family meals together. At home.
Really. I've read research that makes all of the above claims about family meal times, and more.
The "food is just fuel" idea is big in some circles, and it may be true, but meals are not just for fueling up. People aren't cars--we're social animals who need regular time to connect with those closest to us. And in pretty much every culture that's ever existed, that time to connect has been at meals.
I lost that sense of connection for a while. In my teen years, the members of our family went every which way, and we no longer ate together as a unit. When my kids were young, we did eat meals together, because my husband cooked, but except for a few specialist meals (meat loaf and fried chicken, mostly) that I learned as a child, I couldn't cook. When I moved out on my own, over seventeen years ago, meals became things I gulped down out of takeout containers, or cooked up in the fry pan. Except for fried chicken, I very rarely made the effort to cook anything good.
Then just over a year ago, I made a startling discovery. I had cooked something nice (I don't remember what it was) on a night that my ex came home late from work. (He's a teacher, and the drama club coach.) Feeling a bit sorry for him, and lonely to boot (I really don't enjoy cooking for one), I invited him for dinner.
His normally grumpy self disappeared as soon as his stomach was full of food. We had time to talk about our days, and about the kids. He actually expressed appreciation for something I'd cooked.
I decided that night that I'd cook regularly for him and me (the kids are in their twenties and old enough to fend for themselves now). And I've found that all of the above claims about family meal times are most likely true.
My kids, of course, are long past the formative years--they're now functioning adults. But they did grow up eating family meals, and they did grow up without becoming alcoholic drug addict cons. In fact, the two oldest are university grads, and one is in seminary. My youngest, being severely disabled, is of course not of that level, but he is generally well behaved, which is not necessarily the case for all of his peers. Not that I can prove it was the family meals that did it, but they almost certainly were at least a small factor in their current success.
But the more recent benefits are manifold: I have saved money, and I've decreased my eating out. I have lost over 20 pounds in the last year, and have maintained that weight loss. My ex and I have better communication, which means fewer misunderstandings about our family's insane scheduling needs. And he increased my spousal support to cover the cross of the groceries, without complaint!
I've also increased not only the number of dishes I can cook well, but the number of flavours I enjoy eating. For example, I never really felt the need or desire to try Mexican food. Then I came across a recipe for chicken tacos done in the crock pot that met all of my criteria for "new recipes I'd like to try" (those criteria will come later), and I thought, "I'll try it!"
Now it's a standard go-to recipe.
I do have criteria for recipes:
1) They should have a limited number of ingredients.
2) Prep time must likewise be limited.
3) Cooking time must be longer than 2 hours (because I'm usually out of the house between 3:30 and 5:00, and dinner is generally scheduled for 5:30, because that's when I'm ready to eat it...) or total prep + cook time must be less than 30 minutes.
4) Ingredients should be known to me, and not terribly expensive.
Chicken tacos in the crock pot met all of those requirements except the last--I'd actually grown up to be 51 years old without ever having sour cream on anything! I wasn't particularly fond of taco seasoning, but I had eaten tacos before, at Taco Bell, under pressure from my ex who DOES like Mexican (as do the kids.)
That was the tipping point--even if I wasn't sure about the recipe, it would be something that would at least be appealing to him. We had it. I loved it, he liked it, and it was super, super easy. So I've made it again, and the ingredients are now staples in my pantry.
So, here's the recipe:
1) Layer 2 or more boneless, skinless chicken breasts (I prefer at least 4, for leftovers) in the bottom of your crock pot.
2) Dump a jar of prepared salsa on top.
3) Add a package of taco seasoning (I use reduced salt).
4) Mix that stuff up, put on the lid, and turn the crock pot on low for 8 to 10 hours.
At supper time:
1) Chop up tomatoes, shred lettuce and cheese, and put out taco shells and sour cream. (You can heat the shells if you insist, instructions on the box).
2) Transfer the meat to a bowl, and shred with two forks. Mix in the sauce from the pot.
3) Call your family to the table, put the tacos together, and enjoy!
The leftover meat keeps well in the fridge for a few days, and tastes even better the next day.
I haven't tried it yet with boneless, skinless thighs, but I wouldn't hesitate to use them instead of breasts if they come on sale.
What I've found out this past year is that meals are important, even for the single person. This coming year, my goal is to cook three times per week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). That will give me leftovers for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. My ex cooks for me on Sunday.
I started off last night with another standard go-to meal: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and mixed vegetables. It only took me longer than 30 minutes to make (I have the prep for this down to a science) because I added an apple pie to the mix. But knowing in advance what I was cooking, I was able to get the papers delivered earlier, and I put supper back to 6 o'clock, so I had the time to do it all in one go. Like many of the recipes I have tried, the apple pie recipe wasn't exactly up to my standards, but it's almost there, so I'll play with it a bit, then maybe post it. :)
Oh, and how do I do fried chicken? I was going to say simple, simple, simple. Then I started to write out the instructions, and found out that it's simple mostly because I've been doing it since I was a kid, and that the instructions are more involved then I thought they'd be. I will post them, hopefully with pictures, in the near future because it's my most used recipe. The technique requires a bit of explanation, though because I don't always use a deep fryer, and I have a couple of tricks that ensure both safe cooking and enjoyable results every time. Plus, I want to do the pictures. (And it gives me a reason to have fried chicken again, not that I need one...)