Often, a vast gulf yawns between our ideals and reality. We enroll our kids in sports programs to promote their health, yet we toss them fast food as we motor from one child’s practice to another’s game. Earlier this year, I saw this storm massing on my horizon. So I decided to write about suppers to make ahead of time and take in the car. I was going to revolutionize Sports Night.
I made schemes, I took notes. I solicited ideas from other parents. Our fridge swelled with carrots, celery, and radishes, precut and wallowing in ice water. I dabbled in wraps and quesadillas. One meal in particular, a chicken-veggie sausage on a bun with a side of sweet potato fries in a cup, seemed especially promising. The bun and cup made the food portable; the food choices made it wholesome.
But there’s a reason we don’t call my minivan a dining car. My 4-year-old can make a mess of the most neatly packaged meal. Getting him to focus on eating as I navigated early evening traffic was difficult, even dangerous. And once we left the house, I just couldn’t keep up with his need for a constant stream of ketchup.
So I blame what happened next on my ambition; surely it’s what led us to a certain fried chicken franchise that dark night after back-to-back soccer and baseball practices. We grabbed a bucket of dark meat and stumbled back into our kitchen, legs nearly buckling with fatigue. The kids’ bedtimes had come and gone, but all we wanted was a savory, greasy infusion of energy.
The next morning, though the kids seemed fine, my poultry hangover led me to some soul-searching. After generations of parents before me had struggled to feed their kids well between activities, did I really think I’d find an easy, delicious, homemade solution to the Sports Night Dilemma? As far as I knew, no one had solved the problem.
Or maybe they had, but the solution just wasn’t as neat or glamorous as I wanted it to be. As I looked back through my notes for the weeks we had games and practices two or three nights a week, I saw a pattern. We assembled baked pastas a day ahead of time to provide food for more than one meal. We cooked big pots of black beans and then used them in nachos, soups, and chilies. We ate leftovers, suddenly attractive when time got tight. The key was finding a way to make each meal perform encores. Roast chicken one night returned in tacos, quesadillas, or soup the next. It’s amazing how many foods, when tossed with noodles or rice, make a sturdy meal.
We still sat down to supper. We just ate earlier and spent almost no time in the kitchen. In fact, what mattered most, aside from minimal prep time, was that supper was attractive and tasty enough that our kids would eat quickly. I know — we tell our kids not to bolt their food. But when you have to get from Midtown to the farthest edge of East Memphis by a certain time, you might have to let go of the ideal of a leisurely dinner, and embrace the reality of a busy life.
Black Bean Nachos
1 cup cooked or canned black beans (see note below); or try leftover chicken
½ cup salsa
2 cups shredded cheese (Monterey Jack, Colby, or Cheddar)
4 cups tortilla chips
10-20 sprigs fresh cilantro, washed, dried, large stems removed, chopped
Optional: canned sliced jalapeno peppers
Sour cream or Greek yogurt
Fresh raw veggies, such as carrots, radishes, celery, cauliflower, with ranch dip
In a small saucepan, combine black beans and salsa and warm over low heat. Preheat oven to 425°. On an ovenproof serving platter, mound tortilla chips. Sprinkle half the cheese over chips.
Simmer salsa and beans until thickened and looking less watery. Spoon them over the chips and cheese, then top with remaining cheese. Bake 5 minutes, until cheese is melted and bubbly. Top with yogurt/sour cream, cilantro, additional salsa and optional jalapenos. Serve raw veggies on the side with ranch dip if desired.
Note: Inexpensive dried beans are easy to prepare. Rinse them in a colander and soak in water overnight. The next day, top off the water so there are about 2 inches above the beans. Add a bay leaf and an onion, peeled and cut in half. Over medium heat, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer very slowly, an hour or more. Beans are done when the skin splits if you take one out of the water. Try this on a few, and also taste for texture. They should be creamy, not gritty or hard. Add salt to taste, and once they’ve cooled, use them or freeze them in their cooking water.