Food & Wine

How does she do it? An eater's manual for putting healthful meals on the table every night

Photo Photos By Sarah Manning/Special To The Town CrierQuartered figs, left, sweeten the Autumn Medley Salad, right, which also features pears and chickpeas.

Perhaps I’m spoiled. Growing up, my mom had a delicious home-cooked meal on the table by 7:30 every night, having spent the hour beforehand chopping, boiling and sautéing.

Until recently, I had never considered the actual time and effort involved with cooking for a family of five. As I begin to test the domestic waters in my own life, I realize how difficult preparing a healthful dinner actually is – even with far fewer mouths to feed.

Autumn is a busy time of year anyway. For parents, children have gone back to school and extracurricular activities fill the afternoons. For students like myself, a full class load and part-time work bring a demanding schedule that leaves little time for slaving away in the kitchen.

But since I have a kitchen, a love for cooking, a mouth to feed other than my own and a budget that prevents me from ordering takeout every night, I’ve decided it’s time to take what I learned watching my mom and put it to good use.

This has been no easy task, but I’ve learned a few things along the road that have simplified the process, and I like to think I’ve done the women in my family proud. Following is a list of a few common problems standing between dinner and us, and the different ways I solve them.


Problem: Budget

Solution: Meal planning

I used to go to the store, grab what looked good and roughly sketch a week of meals in my head. But recently, when I took the time on Sunday to plan each meal, take inventory of the cupboards and refrigerator and shop accordingly, I actually halved my grocery bill. Also, planning meals in advance removes the stress of not knowing what I’m going to make that night. If I already have the framework for a meal in place, it comes together much more quickly and there’s always room for improvising.


Problem: Time

Solution: Batch cooking

I cook everything in large batches and freeze in individual portions. Rice is one food that takes an extremely long time to cook, so I make approximately 12 cups at a time and freeze individual portions in zip-close bags. All I have to do is take one or two bags out of the freezer in the morning, defrost all day and quickly reheat for dinner. The same could be done with steel-cut oatmeal. Cook a large batch, refrigerate and reheat individual portions for breakfast. It’s a healthier alternative to processed quick oatmeal packets.


Problem: Fear

Solution: Assign a theme

Unsure of your culinary prowess? Start small and start easy. Have themed nights like breakfast for dinner, Greek cuisine, Mexican food or choose-your-own pizza toppings. With each of these, you need only a few key ingredients to make the dish shine – and it doesn’t have to be over the top.

“I have basic weekly goals for dinner like two nights fish, one soup, one hearty salad, one easy, one vegetarian and one meat-based,” said Los Altos resident and mom-extraordinaire Jenny MacEwen.

This helps guarantee that she feeds her family a variety of nutrient-dense foods every week.


Autumn Medley Salad

A quick and filling meal for two that uses the best of the season’s fruit, this is one of my favorite salads.


• 2-4 cups mixed greens

• 1 ripe pear, cored and chopped

• 10 ripe figs, stemmed and quartered

• 1 cup cooked chickpeas

• 1/4 cup pitted Kalamata olives, chopped

• 1/4 cup pistachios, shelled

• Goat cheese to taste (optional)

• 2 leaves fresh sage, chopped

• Freshly ground black pepper


Combine ingredients in a large bowl and dress to taste with your favorite balsamic vinaigrette.

Serve at room temperature.

Sarah Manning is a Los Altos High School graduate who blogs weekly about her culinary adventures. To read her food blog, visit

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