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Ending the Dinner Dash

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(Part 8 in the Core Competency Moms series)

The scene: Monday night, 7:30pm. I've put in a full day of work. I've gone for a run. I've read Fuzzy Bee and Friends six times to my 1-year-old son. And yet, the aroma of rack of lamb with orzo pasta is wafting through the apartment. This is not just any rack of lamb. I've also served it with goat cheese and mascarpone, anchovy butter, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, yellow squash and zucchini.

Am I superwoman?

Nah. Just handy with a microwave and a mouse.

Perhaps I should feel guilty about this, but I know I'm not alone in taking some shortcuts on the route to a delectable dinner, in my case, ordering Chef Terrance Brennan's 4-Minute Meals from FreshDirect. The personal is political, the second wave feminists liked to say. Nothing showcases the hard choices modern mothers face like the issue of what we feed our families. We're busier than ever. The majority of moms are in the labor force in some capacity. In some neighborhoods, not enrolling your kids in ballet, soccer, and Scouts is seen as neglect. At the same time, policy wonks remind us that kids who eat dinner with their parents 5-7 nights per week are less likely to smoke as teens, and tend to have better grades than those slackers who eat together a mere 2-3 times weekly. Some generally liberal folks (I'm thinking Animal Vegetable Miracle author Barbara Kingsolver here) have made matters worse with their plea that we eschew chicken nuggets to eat local or grow it ourselves.

In theory, making quiche from your own eggs sounds charming. It might also be fun to hunt for herbs and edible plants in Central Park. But the problem with dinner is that it comes at the end of the day. Everyone is tired. "Everyone" includes mom. And yet, according to the annual American Time Use Survey, married, full-time working moms who have kids younger than age 6 spend 46 minutes per day doing food prep and cooking. Married dads of young kids? A cool 17 minutes. (Married moms also spend twice as much time grocery shopping per week as dads do).

I like to cook. But time is a zero-sum game. Unless you have your kids in the kitchen helping -- great if they're 10, less great if they're 1 -- time spent slaving over a stove is time not spent hanging out and having fun together. Time spent cooking is also time not spent at work, and in many offices, the hours of 4-6pm take on an outsized importance. It's when things actually get done.

So it's no surprise that in this era of the "Core Competency Moms" I've been blogging about here on the Huff Post (moms who focus on work and family time, and outsource or ignore everything else) a variety of solutions have sprung up to help families avoid calling for pizza delivery. In my quest to eat better, I've been investigating the options, listed here from the lowest to highest outsourcing factor:

1. Menu planning. The theory behind cookbooks is that you want hundreds of options for dinner. The reality, according to behavioral economists? Choice is exhausting. We want someone to tell us what's for dinner, just like the finest restaurants serve set menus. We want recipes designed for idiots. We want someone else to create our grocery lists. So services like Relish or Aviva Goldfarb's Six O'Clock Scramble automatically generate menus and shopping lists that stretch and tempt your palate. The plus? You introduce new kid-friendly recipes into your repertoire for less than $10 a month. The minus? You still have to go to the store and you still have to cook. A 30-minute meal doesn't shave much time off that 46 minute figure. That makes me a bigger fan of...

2. Grocery delivery. The genius of Fresh Direct (which serves the New York City area) is not that it lets you purchase groceries online. Wading through web pages to pick up a head of lettuce here, a pack of string cheese there, is almost as tedious as pushing a cart through the store (though it's easier to do while on a conference call). Instead, these services understand that anyone looking to buy groceries online is looking to cut corners in other ways, too. So FreshDirect combines sample menus with a "click to buy" option. Voila! Curried scallops! FreshDirect is also the source of my 4-minute lamb with orzo pasta. And don't get me started on the marinated chickpeas from Tabla that mysteriously landed in my cart. Yes, impulse purchases can be a problem. On the other hand, you can see your tally as you buy. Money-wise, it's a wash. Total cost: A grocery bill comparable to area stores, plus $5.79 for delivery and a $4 tip for the delivery guy.

3. Meal Preparation Franchises. There's no doubt that cooking is easier if someone else sets the menu, buys the ingredients, chops the veggies, and cleans up after you. All you have to do is assemble the dishes, freeze them at home, and shove them in the oven before dinner. That's the principle behind the meal assembly franchises like My Girlfriend's Kitchen and Dinner by Design that are popping up across the country (one recent census counted 1500 such spots). Joan Abraham, owner of two My Girlfriend's Kitchen franchises in the Phoenix, Arizona area, says that before she discovered the meal-prep concept, "we were eating a lot of fast food. I felt like a terrible mom doing that all the time." So rather than let the McDonald's Happy Meal Bags pile up in the backseat, she started traveling long distances to the existing My Girlfriend's Kitchen franchises scattered around Arizona. There, she would assemble 10-12 nights' worth of entrees in about two hours. The cost came out to about $4/serving. Now, at Abraham's franchises, menu choices include such intriguing dishes as Apple Valley Pork Chops and Sweet Dreams Chicken Lasagna. "You can easily save about 6-7 hours a week," she tells me. "Making dinner 365 days a year is a chore... to do it well night after night is just hard."

4. Meal Delivery.
Many nights, an insulated black bag mysteriously appears outside my neighbors' door. Money laundering? Drugs? Nope, just delivery from Nu-Kitchen, a pre-made meal service here in New York (Zone Chefs, DineWise and other companies offer the same service in other regions). Having all your meals cooked and delivered is not cheap. Breakfast (for example, "hot millet and caramelized fruit") is $7.95. Lunch (e.g. Hainese chicken) is $10.50 and dinner (steak with mushroom ragout) is $12.50. A five person family would be looking at a $1000 weekly bill at that burn rate, even without snacks. But for certain critical times, having a service prepare your meals might be the only way to eat well. For instance, Nu-Kitchen's NuMoms program is designed for those first hectic postpartum weeks. "Since we provide all of a new mom's daily meals, more time can be devoted to other essential activities during this critical period," Nu-Kitchen's website says. Like not sleeping. Then again, you can always just...

5. Hire someone to cook for you. Extremely wealthy families have long employed their own cooks, but the "personal chef" business is starting to take off among -- if not the middle class -- at least the upper fringes of it. Lyn, a Nashville mom of three and co-owner of a small business, used to hire a woman she affectionately called "The Crock Pot Lady" to come to her home on busy days. For $35, the Crock Pot Lady would make a Crock Pot meal in the morning. When Lyn finished with work, the finished stew would be bubbling away. "I don't have that 'Mom, when's dinner going to be ready?'" whining she says. "It's done. All I have to do is clean up the dishes."

Finding a personal chef is easy. A quick trip to the American Personal and Private Chef Association website yielded referrals to more than a dozen businesses in my area. I clicked through to one called "Lorraine's Table." This particular chef, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, will come to your house and, for $200 (plus the cost of groceries), cook you three nights of meals. $300 will get you six.

Of course, all these solutions to the dinner dash seem to cost more than the old-fashioned method of having mom go to the grocery store and whip up the tuna noodle casserole everyone loves to hate. But we think of these options as "expensive" only because we do not traditionally value women's time. Hiring a professional to cook six meals a week costs $300 here in New York. Why do we expect moms -- who often have full-time paid jobs outside the kitchen -- to do it for free when many of their full-time working husbands get a pass?

The answer is that we've long roped the task of food preparation into the broader job description of "mom." Certainly, it's a parent's job to make sure his or her children eat well every day. But while we have to eat every day, we also have to get dressed every day. And yet we no longer expect moms to sew their kids' clothes. We recognize that the Babies R Us suppliers can do it faster and better. When moms sew, it's generally for fun, or to create a unique piece you can't get elsewhere.

Over time -- locavore revolution or not -- this will happen more and more with food. In the meantime, my rack of lamb with orzo pasta beats Cheerios for dinner again.

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