With a plethora of food products, restaurants and brands out there, it feels like food shouldn’t be hard, at least in the US. Yet, it’s clear that at least one eating occasion – the venerable family dinner – is still a pain point for many families. For women and women working outside the home, feeding the family remains primarily their responsibility and it’s a huge time-suck – time studies suggest that women spend between 7-9 hours per week on preparing food.
Even for women with higher-paying professional careers, who might have more disposable income to spend on eating out, this seemed to me still a major pain point. In one vivid memory from a summer internship at a giant tech firm, a female director with a stay-at-home husband was busily browsing through a cookbook called “30 minute stir fries” or something like that planning meals for the week during a Monday afternoon in the office and wondering aloud to herself why she was doing this.
So as a part of my learning process for SomaFare, I asked professional women if they found family dinners a challenge, what they did to feed their families now, and what kind of service they would ideally like. These are all women with advanced professional degrees from a top-tier university, mostly working outside the home on a full-time basis, with children under 16 living in their household. I sent this survey to 300 women in the Boston area and received a response rate of over 15% – pretty high considering that none of these women know me and in my view, a sign that this topic touches a nerve in this group.
The infographic below shows the results of the survey but would love to hear from you – Do you find making dinner day-in, day-out a challenge? How do you solve family dinner? Why do you think it’s still so hard?
It’s no secret that life today is way more on-the-go than it has ever been before. Between a full time job, keeping a house in running order, kids and pets, hobbies, interests, side-gigs, it’s difficult to find time (or energy) to keep going through dinnertime. For those who do the most for their families during the day, these weeknight dinner hacks will help save time – and even money – on food to keep you fueled for the rest of the week!
1. Create a dinner calendar ahead of time
At the start of your week, take some time to map out dinners for the week. When you know what you’re going to make ahead of time, you can spend less time freaking out about it on the day of. Mixing in themes can help keep you inspired and might even make dinner time fun. Some interesting and simple dinner themes include Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Fish Fridays, breakfast-for-dinner, and pasta night. If someone in the household has a favorite dish, you can also work it into the calendar regularly.
2. Try meal prepping
If you have a meal calendar or not, the most straightforward way to save time on dinner is prepping ahead of time. People can get discouraged or might turn away from the meal-prepping idea because it is associated with fitness/health or reaching weight loss goals, but meal prepping goes way beyond those plastic tupperware containers. Meal prepping can be so simple and versatile. By taking a few hours ahead of time to prepare, meal prepping can help you save hours a day on cooking. A good way to start getting comfortable with prepping meals in advance is to season and freeze meat in advance. On the day before, leave the meat defrosting in the fridge. When you come home from work, pop the meat in the oven, make some rice and chop some veggies. There! A simple and fresh dinner in no time.
3. Slow cooker meals
It really doesn’t get any easier than dumping your meals into a pot in the morning, turning it on, and forgetting about it for 8 hours. The beauty of slow cooker meals is that it’s the perfect opportunity to sneak in veggies into the diets of picky eaters. Since everything marinates over low heat for hours, the flavors are bursting. It’s likely that broccoli tastes just like the broth it has been sitting in, and now you have two victories in a day: a simple and a nutritious weeknight dinner.
4. Sheet pan meals
Sheet pans are perfect for simple meals of meat and veggies. On one half of the pan, you organize your meat. On the other, your veggies. Drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper and put it in the oven until the meat is cooked to the right temperature. The best part? Sheet pan dinners are totally customizable. You can add any meat/veggie combo that your household prefers and top off with your favorite seasonings. It’ll seem like it took hours to make, but in reality, it couldn’t have been more simple.
5. One pot dishes
Sometimes cooking is a turn off because of all the dishes that are leftover for who-other-than-you to clean. Enter the idea of one-pot meals. These work best for rice or pasta dishes. You can create the creamiest cheesy chicken rice with broccoli or homemade Mac n Cheese without all the dishes it would usually take you. We know it sounds magical, but it’s real.
6. Take advantage of local grocer’s prepared foods section
Sometimes, you’re just short on time. Although it’s not ideal, it happens. Instead of feeling guilty, use some of the options available where you normally shop for the household. Most grocer’s have prepared foods, like whole rotisserie chickens, but some even have full blown self-serve counters for a time when you don’t any. Keep it simple — meat, veggie, side — for a stress-free dinner.
7. Accept that sometimes, take-out is OK
So far, none of the tips come as close to being as simple as just ordering a box of pizza or your favorite stir fry. It is important to keep take-out to a minimum for health and nutrition purposes but also because the money adds up. However, take-out isn’t terrible from time to time and should certainly be used as an escape when needed.
8. Make use of leftovers
We know leftovers might not sound as appealing as fresh food, but they do still come in handy. The trick with leftovers is to use your leftovers to create something new. Turn your leftover rice into a quick fried rice with by adding egg, some frozen veggies and some soy sauce. Got leftover meat? Chop it up, pan fry it with some veggies and you have a deliciously simple stir-fry.
9. Assign dinner duty to someone else
If you have an extra set of hands in the house, put them to work! You and your partner can alternate making dinner each night of the week, that way, a little stress is relieved from the other having to come up with five delicious meals. Did you cook today? Tomorrow’s dinner is your significant other’s responsibility. This is a great way to split the work. If your kids are old enough to help, we promise it’s not too early to get them started, too. Even small hands can be useful.
10. Use a weekly meal delivery service
There is a rise in services dedicated to providing fresh, home-cooked meals to families (SomaFare.com being one serving the Boston area!) These home cooking delivery services offer weekly or daily deliveries, and depending on the company, you can get fully-cooked meals that only need to be reheated. Meal planning, grocery shopping, washing/chopping/prepping, and cooking are all done for you in advance! All you need to do is reheat to enjoy a homestyle gourmet meal.
When I tell people that I’m starting a food company, they sometimes ask me why. How did I choose to start a company in this area over the many others I considered? After all, my previous working experience in the corporate world had more to do with data analytics and healthcare (though I did do a little bit of work in consumer and food). And food is a pretty competitive industry with not a lot of examples of very attractive business models.
To be honest, sometimes I ask myself the same question. Starting a company is an incredibly difficult endeavor in most cases, and doing so in food might even be harder – there are a lot of logistics involved, it’s not a hyper-scalable business like many tech services, it’s not sexy, you are dealing with a wide range of consumer tastes, and there’s a ton of stress trying to produce a good product every time (to name a few of the challenges!). I’m still interested in many other topics and hope to start non-food business also in the future, but when I asked myself what is the problem I most want to solve right now, what I would feel proud of having made a contribution towards, it was… the dinner problem for working moms (ok working parents).
First the dinner part. I grew up in one of those families where good food was paramount – a common background for food entrepreneurs I guess. When I was young, my family didn’t have a lot of money but if the main dish for dinner was burnt or the meat smelled even a bit weird… forget about eating it – we went out. My grandmother was a fabulous cook and one of my earliest memories is sitting in her kitchen, helping her roll out the dough for dumpling wrappers and cutting out the circular pieces with a cup. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen as a child, first washing the dishes and taking out the trash, then being a sous chef for my mom, then finally cooking dishes and entire meals on my own. In my family, food was and is a love language. It’s still one of the ways that I feel like I can best show care for my family, friends and community.
And the mom part. I just became a mom four months ago and I’m working – on SomaFare as well as picking up freelance corporate gigs to bootstrap this venture. Before my husband and I had a child, my mom would cook for us and so when we got home from work, I never stressed because there was always something delicious in the refrigerator that we could heat up to eat.
My friends (many of whom were moms) often commented that they wished they could have the same type of help. Let’s face it – for a woman (or a man) with a full-time professional job, leaving work, picking up your kid, and running a few errands means that you won’t get home until 6pm at the earliest. Children often need to get to bed by 7:30 or 8pm – so between 6 and 7:30 you are supposed to cook, feed your family dinner, help your kids with any homework, bathe them and get them to bed – so basically, it’s impossible. People were telling me that they relied too much on unhealthy takeout food, that they were barely able to get something decent for their kids together but they themselves were subsisting on bars or chips, or that they were hiring babysitters to watch their kids during the precious weekend hours while they spent the whole day cooking.
I started SomaFare because even with the many options for food out there, I felt that there wasn’t a solution that was designed for working parents. As a working mom, I want food that is tasty and wholesome (high in protein and vegetables) but with little time and brain power required on my end. I want to feed my family well but also be able to spend quality time with them rather than chopping onions. This is what SomaFare is trying to be – it isn’t perfect yet, but this is the goal.