Living

You don't have to scramble for supper

My mother has periodically pointed out to me that what makes dinnertime simple for her is that she plots out a month's worth of meals in one sitting. She never has to stress about what she should make for dinner on a particular night, and grocery shopping is a well-planned expedition.

Finally, over the past couple months I worked to create my own dinner rotation in hopes of becoming a less frazzled mother-cook. I was so eager to try new meals while preserving longtime favorites that soon my new repertoire had grown 50 meals long. But there were plenty of inherent flaws in my system — including the fact that my rotation didn't push me to cook meals with produce that's in season and that some of the meals just required too much preparation and baking time for a busy schedule.

And just as I was settling into my rather unwieldy meal plan, I learned from my cousin and his wife (who are juggling full-time jobs while parenting their 2-year-old in Colorado) about a dinner-planning service and cookbook that helps solve those two problems.

“The Six-O'Clock Scramble” is an online service that each week delivers to subscribers' inboxes five healthy, family-friendly dinner menus designed to take 30 minutes or less to prepare and cook, along with a grocery list for the week. For the less electronically inclined, a cookbook by the same title offers a year's worth of meal plans, organized week by week.

Usually three of the menus each week are meatless, or can be made without meat, and one uses fish — a plus for me since I've been struggling for the past year to find fish recipes that my boys, especially the adult one, will eat.

I sampled the online service for a week and made four out of five meals that my husband and 3-year-old son both gave a resounding “thumbs up” and one that they were both happy to eat for a night, even if they didn't quite declare it delicious. Now we're trying a week's worth of the recipes in the winter section of the cookbook — and so far, everyone's been eating seconds each night.

The whole Scramble experience has made me feel less like a domestic slave, more like a kitchen adventurer. It's been refreshing each night to make a meal I've never made before without investing too much time in the process.

So I decided to interview the mastermind behind the meals. Scramble founder and CEO Aviva Goldfarb talked with me from her home in Maryland about her own experience as a busy mother of two determined to serve healthy food to her family. Here are some excerpts from our interview.

You launched “The Six O'Clock Scramble” in 2003, when your own children were 4 and 6 years old. How did your experience as a working mother cooking for your family help you see the need for this kind of meal-planning service?

“I started ‘The Six O'Clock Scramble’ based on my own experience — that I was having trouble at 6, when everybody was starting to get hungry, getting dinner together with what was in my refrigerator and my pantry. It was hard to cook and try to be creative, only to realize I was missing a key ingredient for the meal I'd planned to make. I was trying to be efficient and strategize about how can I do this better, and I remembered that my mom would sit down every week and plan out meals for the week before she went to the store. . . I found that that little bit of preparation and organization was almost miraculous. Once I started planning ahead I started sharing that concept with other friends who were in the same phase of life as I was, and they too were amazed by how much planning ahead reduced daily stress. What I started to realize is that you can make a lot of meals that are really simple and still taste really good. That's been my mission for the past 10 years — finding things that are simple, healthy, delicious and family- friendly.”

Your daughter is now 8 and your son, 10. Are either of them picky eaters?

“My son, especially when he was younger, was one of the world's pickiest eaters but now — through exposure to many different flavors, through family dinners, which we have almost every night, and through encouragement about good nutrition — he's a great eater.”

How many different recipes have you shared through The Six O'Clock Scramble online newsletter and cookbooks? Do you ever repeat a meal?

“Probably at least 500. If a recipe goes over well and usually it's been at least a year, sometimes two years, I repeat a recipe. For online subscribers, if there's a recipe you love you can save it in your recipe box on the Web site and use it again in future weeks. The cookbook has about 270 recipes, and each recipe is paired with a simple side dish you can make while you're making the main course.”

Can you share a couple tips for getting finicky kids to eat healthy food?

“I like to say that there's no chicken sauce that can't be washed off. So if something's too flavorful for the kids, just take the chicken breast or noodles and wash them in the sink. I think the key is some of the things that nutritionists have been saying for a long time. It's really important to offer your children a variety of healthy foods presented in different ways. And then sit down to dinner, have the model of the whole family sitting down to dinner together and keep offering different things…. Try to make it positive. We keep a running list of foods our kids do like. Instead of making a big deal if they don't like something, say 'Well I'm glad you tried it. Our taste buds mature as we get older so maybe next time you'll like it.'”

Scramble menus are designed to be healthy, which you say means “lower fat, whole grains, less processed.” Do you also give much weight to what produce is in season as you design menus?

“I do definitely but it can be a little bit confusing since there's so much food being shipped from all over and since we're such a big country with so many regions. Especially in terms of the main courses there's going to be more soups and stews and casseroles in the colder months and more salads and sandwiches in the warmer months. . . I think about what seasonal fresh produce is available. I keep an eye on the seasons but we're not locked to it. Frozen produce and canned beans can work for many meals.”

Your Six O'Clock Scramble cookbook offers a year's worth of Scramble menus and grocery lists. What do you say to people who are weighing whether to subscribe to the e-mail service or just buy the cookbook?

“I guess it depends on if you're at all technologically oriented. You have a lot more flexibly with the online system but if you're somebody who really likes to have a cookbook on your counter, then the cookbook's the book for you…” (The online system allows users to customize their weekly menu, adding in more than five meals or swapping out meals for previous Scramble recipes in an online database of more than 150 recipes that can be searched according to various categories — including vegetarian meals, nut-free meals, kosher meals and more. And as users swap out meals, their grocery list is automatically updated accordingly. Online subscriptions are $29.50 for six months or $54.50 for one year. The cookbook cover price is $17.95.)

How many Scramble subscribers do you have now?

“3,000 current subscribers — a lot of people come and go. They stop for a while after they think they have enough recipes and then they come back. It's a total of 10,000 to 12,000 who are active at some point.”

Do you have a few time-saving tips for making meals quick and simple?

“I recommend three things: Plan ahead for at least a few meals so you can shop for several meals at once. Keep meals simple, including easy side dishes. I like recipes that take 30 minutes or less to prepare and have 10 or fewer ingredients. And involve your kids in the process, so they learn about cooking and nutrition. Kids are also more likely to eat something they've helped prepare or shop for. Before you know it, the kids will actually be helping you, and may even be in charge of making a meal each week.”

How do you find or develop your recipes?

“I'm like a treasure hunter when it comes to recipes — I search high and low for ideas, asking friends what they made for dinner, surfing the Web, looking through old cookbooks and books from other countries. I also get some great recipes sent to me by Scramble subscribers, which I often modify to make them easier or healthier. Some of my best recipes also come from what I call the sixth night scavenge, which is the night I clean out my fridge and try to use up the ingredients I have before returning to the grocery store the next day — like last week I made a moo shu vegetable wrap with all these leftover veggies and hoisin sauce and it was an unexpected delight.”

You have a nutritionist on your staff. What's his role in the process?

“For each recipe, we give detailed nutritional information, so customers can know what they're eating, and can shape their meals to fit into special diets like Weight Watchers or a low-sodium diet, if needed.”

Do you think the recipes keep getting better with each year?

“Sometimes I liken it to dating. The most recent ones are the ones that stand out in my mind but then I go back and find old favorites that I love.”

You are active in local and national movements to improve school lunches. How much do you think parents should be concerned by what their children are eating in school cafeterias — and do you see improvements being made in school menus?

“I think they should be just as concerned about what their kids are eating outside the home as inside the home — whether it's schools or restaurants. . . The federal guidelines that regulate school lunches are improving over time but there are still a lot of loopholes. One of the things that I recommend is that people go to school and have lunch with their kids at school. Be active, go see what they're eating and try it yourself.”

GODDESS CHICKEN WITH ARTICHOKES AND SUNDRIED TOMATOES

Prep: 10 minutesCook: 30 minutes

2 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts14-ounce jar artichoke hearts, drained and chopped into -inch pieces3 ounces julienne-cut sundried tomatoes (or cut sundried tomatoes into strips) (about 1 cups) cup Annie's Naturals or Trader Joe's Goddess salad dressing (or use creamy Italian or Caesar dressing) cup reduced-sodium chicken broth2 tablespoons orange juice or orange marmaladeGnocchi Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the chicken breasts in half crosswise and place them in a large baking dish with sides. Spread the artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes around the chicken.

In a large measuring cup, whisk together the dressing, broth, and orange juice or marmalade and pour it over the chicken and vegetables. Turn the chicken several times to coat it with the sauce.

Bake the chicken, uncovered, for 25-30 minutes until it is cooked through, flipping the chicken once and spooning the sauce over it. (Meanwhile, prepare the gnocchi according to the package directions.) Makes 8 servings

Note: Anyone who's ever tried Annie's Naturals “Goddess” dressing (it has a creamy tahini-lemon flavor) on a salad or as a dip, knows how delectable it is. This sauce, made with Goddess dressing, was suggested by our friend, Jennifer Simon. Serve it with gnocchi (Italian potato dumplings).

Tip: Cutting boneless chicken breasts crosswise before cooking them allows them to cook faster.

Nutritional Information per serving (% based upon daily values): Calories 320, Total Fat 13g, 20%, Saturated Fat 2g, 10%, Cholesterol 90mg, 30%, Sodium 590mg, 25%, Total Carbohydrate 14g, 5% Dietary Fiber 4g, 16% Sugar 5g, Protein 36g

Nutritional Information per serving (with cup gnocchi) (% based upon daily values): Calories 547, Total Fat 18g, 28%, Saturated Fat 2.5g, 13%, Cholesterol 90mg, 30%, Sodium 1032.5mg, 44%, Total Carbohydrate 58g, 20% Dietary Fiber 6g, 23% Sugar 6.5g, Protein 4g

TORTELLINI SOUP WITH SPINACH AND TOMATOES

Prep, cook time: 20 minutes 1 tablespoon olive oil1 teaspoon minced garlic (about 2 cloves)32 ounces reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth9 ounces whole wheat or regular cheese tortellini (sold refrigerated)15 ounces no-salt added diced tomatoes, with their liquid1/4 teaspoon black pepper1/2 teaspoon dried basil1/2 teaspoon dried oregano3 cups baby spinach 1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, or to taste

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sauté the garlic for 1 minute, then stir in the broth. Bring it to a boil, then add the tortellini, tomatoes, pepper, basil and oregano.

Reduce the heat to keep it at a low boil for 7 minutes, then add the spinach. Simmer it for 2 more minutes, then remove it from the heat and serve it immediately, topped with parmesan cheese. Makes 5 servings, about 2 cups each.

This recipe is great for a time-pressed weeknight, and can easily be doubled for bigger families. Serve it with whole grain bread which is also great for soaking up the broth.

Tip: Buitoni now sells a whole wheat three cheese tortellini that is tender and delicious and much higher in dietary fiber than their traditional tortellini.

Nutritional Information per serving (% based upon daily values): Calories 254, Total Fat 10g, 16%, Saturated Fat 3g, 16%, Cholesterol 36mg, 12%, Sodium 431mg, 18%, Total Carbohydrate 27g, 9% Dietary Fiber 7g, 27% Sugar 4.5g, Protein 13g Nutritional Information per serving (with 1 piece whole grain bread) (% based upon daily values): Calories 354, Total Fat 12g, 19%, Saturated Fat 3g, 16%, Cholesterol 36mg, 12%, Sodium 611mg, 26%, Total Carbohydrate 47g, 16% Dietary Fiber 10g, 39% Sugar 7.5g, Protein 16.5g

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