The more I think about family dinner, the more I think it's all in the prep. Believe me, I'm not one of those super-organized people who can plan a week's meals in advance. Whenever I make a detailed shopping list, I lose it. Except for chicken stock, I don't reliably cook make-ahead meals.
Still, I know that a modicum of advance planning saves me, and dinner, night after night. The main planning I do is at the grocery store. I do a huge grocery shop every week, keeping a mental tally of how many dinner main dishes and veggies I've thrown in the cart. I keep freezer and side dish staples well stocked at home.
I also prep right before dinner. At 6pm, my panic button goes off and I realize that I have to soak the rice, wash the veggies, or stage any number of items for dinner ("mise en place" is the fancy, cooking term). I often "pre-boil" the water for pasta. I put a pot of water on, and when it boils, I cover it to keep the heat in. Then when I'm actually ready to make the pasta, it only takes a couple of minutes to boil, not the usual 15 minutes or more. If I have a long, slow-cooked meal or something to marinate, I have to remember to start prep before school pick up or earlier in the day. If I forget to start early enough, I might shift that dish to another night. This advance prep usually takes no more than 15 or 20 minutes. The actual cooking then goes much faster and more smoothly once we are all home and ready to eat.
More articles on prepping dinner:
Racket in the Kitchen, Ruckus in the Crib. NYT, 02.27.08 Best line, "I am the silent chef." This article is about prepping dinner early so as not to disturb a sleeping newborn (wise papa), but is applicable to advance prep for all family dinners.
Make Meals Easy with "Mise en Place". Any cook can benefit from the professional chef practice of "mise en place," which means having all the ingredients chopped and organized before cooking.
Mom Puts Family on Her Meal Plan. NYT, 07.11.07 Hey, if you can be this organized, more power to you.