With Thanksgiving behind us, the busiest time of year is on the horizon. The chaos seems to hit overnight. School holiday parties and plays to attend, gifts to buy, decorating, family gatherings, and gift exchanges. Everyone you meet asks, “Are you ready for the holidays yet?” probably hoping to have a reason to vent about all they have to do.
It's easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed by things like your to-do list and pushy people in stores. Regardless of how hectic your life is, you have the spirit of Thanksgiving at your fingertips every day. The feeling of comfort and bliss when you connect with your family around the dinner table. Enjoying a delicious meal without being in a hurry to eat quickly and rush off. It’s so relaxing.
You can have this same experience every day at your family dinner table with a simple meal. And you need it now more than ever. This daily routine will not only help you relax, but it will also help you ward off those unwanted holiday pounds. It’s simple when you follow these effortless steps.
Have everyone take at least one deep breath before you start eating to relax and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to get ready for what is known as the rest and digest state. When you are in this state, you will feel calmer, and your digestive system will be in an optimal state to do its job.
Chew slowly, savor your meal, and spark an interesting conversation with your family. You’ll eat slower, and therefore it’s easier to eat just the right amount and avoid overeating. You’ll feel better during dinner and after.
Avoid eating on the go or grabbing a few bites while standing at the kitchen counter and then snacking later to finish filling up and be satisfied. When you are in a stressed or hurried state, it triggers your body’s sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight or flight state, which is great if you are running from a lion, but when you are eating, it inhibits proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Calories are stored as fat versus digested for energy, which is the last thing you need when it comes to managing your weight at the holidays.
Even if you grab carry out, plate it, and have a seat at the table. Treat your carry-out with care, and don’t overindulge. It is too easy to overeat when there are sizable portions, and carry-out often comes with more calories than home cooking. So, cook as much as possible.
It’s possible to consistently prepare home-cooked meals even during the busy holiday season. You just need a few tricks in your apron. The first tip is to cook dishes that are quick to prepare and can be used as ingredients throughout the week and frozen for use next week. I’ll give you some ideas when we talk about the next game-changing tip—serve dinner in courses.
Forget about trying to cook one time-consuming dish that pleases everyone or spending hours meal prepping for the week. Instead, serve a few simple courses. When you serve in courses, you can prepare dishes that require little to no cooking and still serve a balanced meal. And it offers enough variety to please everyone. Eating in courses also, naturally, creates the time to connect, eat slowly, and enjoy twenty-thirty minutes at the table relaxing with your family. Here are some family-friendly ideas for easy courses and when to cook them to save you time.
First Course- Vegetable Bisques
A vegetable bisque–style soup is an excellent first course for winter. They are packed with nutrients, are creamy, and are also so satisfying they can be a main dish. Bisques can also be more appealing to children versus a thin broth-based soup—an extra bonus for nourishing your whole family.
Make one soup this week and one next week. Make extra for both batches so you can freeze some. That way, you can serve a hearty, satisfying soup for a first course several times. You won’t get bored because you’ll pair it with different dishes to create a new menu.
Time Tip: Cook in stages. Roast the vegetables in the evening, the next day cook the soup, then puree when it’s time to serve. It’s often easier to find 10 minutes to cook two or three times than 20 - 30 minutes all at once.
Salad Dressing - It’s Not Just for Salad
Prepare a homemade salad dressing to use for the week. Even though it takes just a few minutes to make the dressing, dinner is that much easier when it is prepared ahead of time. Try a French Vinaigrette or a Caesar Dressing. The Vinaigrette will last all week, and a Caesar for three days. You can also use the vinaigrette on vegetables and steamed potatoes. The Caesar can be used for a veggie dip or sandwich spread. You can get a lot of uses out of homemade salad dressing. Plus, it tastes better than dressing from a jar, will save you money, and it’s healthier.
Main Dish - Cook and Repurpose
Roast one meat this week, serve it as the main dish one evening, and then repurpose the leftovers into several dishes throughout the week or freeze them to use next week. Besides getting several dinners out of one dish, it takes about 10 minutes to prepare a roast chicken, pork, or leg of lamb. The oven does all the work.
Time Tip: It takes just a few minutes to prepare meat to roast but several hours to cook. So, when you are home, pop one in the oven, like on a Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon. Even if you don’t serve it that evening, it is ready for the week.
Use this same idea of roasting meat to prepare a batch of your favored vegetables for the week. A medley of vegetables served with a soup and/or salad makes a meal. For example, make a Ratatouille. It takes some time upfront to make but then you can enjoy it as is, tossed with pasta, in a clafoutis, or even on a homemade pizza. Ratatouille is also excellent mixed with sausage and served as a side with eggs—a common pairing in France.
Once you have a soup, salad, and main dish ready to go, you can pull them together to make a balanced and delicious meal that is quick to prepare. You don’t even need a side, but you do need another course—dessert.
Dessert – The Third Course
Dessert is the third course, and it doesn’t have to be full of sugar. Use dessert to create a balanced meal and serve enough food to satisfy everyone—without having to cook something else. Some ideas to stir your imagination are:
Skip the milk with dinner and serve the calcium for a third course. It’s more satisfying and exciting.
Cheese and Baguette
Yogurt or Ricotta Cheese with Honey - add orange or lemon zest for an extra burst of flavor.
Goat Cheese and Honey Tartines with Fresh Berries- toast with goat cheese and honey
Fresh fruit of the season. Like a few apple or mandarin slices for everyone and a small piece of dark chocolate.
These are all remarkably simple ideas, but worthy of being on a menu in France—and some are. Try them, you’ll see how satisfying they are, especially a few fresh nuts and apple slices.
Easy Last-Minute Main Dishes
These recipe ideas will take the guesswork out of what’s for dinner and give you a lot to mix and match when you cook ahead and cook in stages. But if you need a few more ideas for quick main dishes that take less than 15 minutes to prepare, these are all winners.
Pair any of these with a soup, salad, and dessert, and dinner is ready.
A Sweet Ending
A meal lasting at least 20 minutes will relax you, maintain balance in your diet, and keep your digestion on track. All you need is dinner and 20 minutes. If you start to feel overwhelmed about finding the time to cook, consider this. In the time it takes to figure out the carry-out, place the order, and pick it up, you can chop veggies for soups, throw a roast in the oven, make salad dressing, or a batch of crepe batter. When it’s time for dinner, warm your soup, toss your salad, fry the crepes, or slice the roast. Pull together your third course, and dinner is done.
Decide on your menu for the next few weeks. Write down what you will cook, make your grocery list, and plan your 10 - 15 minutes to cook in stages, and you will have dinner at your fingertips with your ingredients ready to go.
Have everyone pitch in to help because healthy eating habits never go on holiday. And when it comes to gifts, two of the best gifts you can give your family are the tradition of quality time at the table and healthy eating habits for life. I hope this helps you relax and enjoy your family every day this holiday season. Write to me here if you have a question about a recipe idea or a meal menu.
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