- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

Sometimes dinner is nothing fancy. Sometimes it was prepared yesterday and reheated today.

Families that eat dinner together on a regular basis say that the point isn't what is on the plate the point is they are all eating together. The main reason they are able to do that so often is they are organized.

"I can put a meal together in an hour," says Jackie Sponaugle, a Falls Church mother of two whose family eats together every night. "It takes a certain amount of planning. I will look and see what is on the schedule as far as sports or meetings and plan the next day's meal around that."

Mrs. Sponaugle is now a homemaker, but she worked for years as a teacher. During that time, she scoured magazines and newspapers for meals that could be made quickly or left to simmer in a slow cooker. She says she still uses many of the recipes.

Barbara Sacher, a Herndon mother of three, does not plan ahead. By 4 p.m., however, she has some idea what she will make for dinner. Mrs. Sacher says that some of the dinners she fixes meatloaf or burritos or fish, for instance are so easy that she doesn't even like to call it cooking.

"I don't have time to plan," she says, "but I have a freezer in the basement. I always have fish, chicken, pasta, carrots and broccoli around. I just make sure I have the basic staples."

One of the keys to making dinner each night is to find dishes that the whole family will eat, Mrs. Sacher says. That means many of the family meals are child-friendly items such as burritos or pasta.

"The kids eat what we are eating," she says. "If they don't like it, they can have an alternative, such as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

Offering alternatives such as pasta with no sauce or a sandwich instead of meatloaf is a good idea, says Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian and associate professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. He cautions parents against preparing separate dinners for each family member, however.

"One alternative gives children somewhat of a choice," Mr. Ayoob says, "but parents should not feel obligated to make everything a child wants. After a while, a child is conditioned to getting what he wants and not to rising to the challenge of fitting in a family. It is a parent's job to fix a healthy meal; it is up to the child to eat it. There have got to be limits."

Joanne Markey, a Reston resident who eats with her husband and four children nightly, says she likes to make meals that can be converted into another dinner the next night.

"If I am making spaghetti sauce, for instance, I make enough so we can have it with chicken the next night," Mrs. Markey says. "Or I will make chicken and rice with enough for leftovers the next night."

Mr. Ayoob says he sees many families that say they don't have the time to cook. He points out that a healthy family dinner can be made in less time than it takes to order a pizza.

"You can rip open a bag of salad or microwave frozen vegetables, which are nutritionally the same as fresh," he says. "It is OK to get everyone involved to save time. Kids can set the table."

Sheah Rarback, a Miami dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says a store-bought rotisserie chicken, frozen vegetables and five-minute boil-in-bag rice can make a nutritious meal in less than eight minutes.

"Quick does not have to mean overprocessed," she says. "It can be quick and healthy."

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