Dinner :: Dinner in 20 minutes

Working parents and their children can sit down to a nutritious dinner 20 minutes after arriving home by following three simple steps: Plan, Prepare and Participate. Marjorie Fitch-Hilgenberg, associate professor of dietetics at the University of Arkansas, offers practical advice to make meal preparation easier and more satisfying, including instructions for her proven-popular spinach quesadillas.

?With a little planning, advance preparation and family participation, it?s as easy to make a healthy, satisfying dinner than to pick up a pizza ? not to mention faster and cheaper,? Fitch-Hilgenberg says.


?Think about making your life easier up front,? Fitch-Hilgenberg advises. ?Having the right supplies and a sketched-out plan for the week gets you started.?

At the grocery store, look for large packages of meat or chicken that can be the basis for several different meals. Fitch-Hilgenberg also advises families to keep some simple convenience foods on hand, such as canned beans and frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, which retain much of their nutritional value thanks to quick processing.

Having a wide selection of spices and condiments can make it easy to have baked chicken on Saturday night and chicken fajitas during the week, two entirely different meals from the same bird. She calls such dishes ?planned-overs? rather than left-overs.

?And don?t forget a good quality pasta sauce. It has so many uses for quick meals,? she says. ?Just be sure to read the label and choose a sauce with lower levels of sugar and salt.?


The key to the 20-minute meal is preparation, Fitch-Hilgenberg says. It begins when food arrives from the grocery story.

She suggests washing and separating cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce and other greens. Carrots, celery and cucumbers can be cleaned, cut and stored in see-through plastic containers. Melons become a ready-to-go food when they are sliced, seeded and stored in containers in the refrigerator. Open a can, rinse the beans and store them in a plastic tub for quick addition to salads.

Packages of meat, poultry and fish can be divided into meal-sized, easy to cook portions before freezing. Fitch-Hilgenberg advises slicing chicken breasts and other thick pieces to less than an inch thick for easy defrosting and quick cooking later. With a small counter-top grill, chicken or meat can be cooking while the salad is assembled and the ?planned-over? rice is re-heated.

?You and the kids can munch on carrot sticks while you assemble supper, and it?s easy to transform carrot sticks into diced carrots. On the days you?re eating on the run, there?s something everyone can grab, washed and waiting in a little tub,? Fitch-Hilgenberg says.

Fitch-Hilgenberg suggests assembling a meal without trying to follow a recipe during what may be a hectic time of the day. She grew up on an Arkansas farm and remembers that her mother had to pull together quick meals scheduled around the demands of farm chores.

She suggests parents think of a traditional farm dinner for quick meal preparation:

?What?s a farm table look like? There is always a salad. It may be lettuce or other greens or may be as simple as sliced tomatoes. There is probably a little meat and some pinto beans. Mother set out dishes of pickled beets and applesauce. She had lots of little toppers like onions or scallions that could go on the pinto beans or the salad, depending on individual taste. We might have rice or potatoes, and often there was cornbread.?

Fitch-Hilgenberg takes a keep-it-easy attitude toward dessert. Blending some fruit ? fresh, canned or frozen ? and topping it with ice cream or flavored yogurt can be a delicious finish to a meal.

?When people are on the run, no one should feel guilty about not having a baked dessert like cake or pie,? Fitch-Hilgenberg says. ?Go with fruit and pat yourself on the back for the nutritional value and the money saved.?


?One of the great advantages of planning is that whoever gets home first can start the meal,? Fitch-Hilgenberg says. ?Even children can get things out of the cupboard and pull out fresh veggies for snacks and to be diced.?

Children can also be involved in washing vegetables and choosing which fruit the family will have for dessert.

?When other family members participate in meal preparation, there?s the added value of giving everyone some responsibility for their own well-being,? Fitch-Hilgenberg says.

Fitch-Hilgenberg offers simple instructions for spinach-cheese quesadillas, a popular dinner dish or simple, delicious snacks that children can help assemble. Anyone old enough to operate a microwave can finish the preparation:

?Begin by thawing a package of frozen spinach. Once it has thawed, squeeze out all the water until the spinach is as close to dry as possible. This task is particularly fun for young children. Mix the spinach with shredded cheese, using about as much cheese as there is spinach. At this point the quesadilla filling can be refrigerated for later or can be spooned into the center of a tortilla. Fold the tortilla and, if you?d like, add salsa. Fold or roll the tortilla and microwave until the cheese melts. Eat!?

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