I got a new Instant Pot electric pressure cooker for Christmas. The first thing I made in it was frijoles negros, which worked beautifully, last week.
The second thing I am making in it right now is chicken stock -- I hope -- from two rotisserie chickens which I chilled overnight and picked not-quite-clean of meat in the morning.
The third thing, I will make in it right after the chicken stock is done: soup with barley, leeks, and carrots, to which I will return some or all of the chicken meat at the end.
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This soup is for lunch on a co-schooling day, along with a loaf of whole wheat bread from my bread machine and a clementine or two for everyone. While the pressure cooker I thought I'd stop and write a bit about hot lunches in general for the homeschooling family, and then about hot lunches on co-schooling day.
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If I could poll a hundred homeschooling families and get a detailed answer out of all of them, I think I'd love to ask this question: How do you manage lunch? Not because I can't manage it: After eleven-plus years of trying to feed children in between their lessons and studies, and especially now that I am out of the nothing-but-small-ones years, we have a system that works pretty well. (More on that below.) No, I just am curious to hear about the ways that diverse families have solved the problem.
And it is a problem, in the sense of a series of questions to answer:
- How long after breakfast do you have lunch?
- Must you clear off a schoolwork surface to make room for cooking and eating?
- Is lunch to be a dinner-like occasion, with a set table and everyone at their places on time?
- Does everyone eat the same thing? Do all the kids eat the same thing but the parent has something different?
- Who makes lunch? Is it the parent? A particular child? Do children take turns? If children make lunch, may they choose the menu? Do people make their own lunch from what's available?
- Is lunch-making time a time for the parent to teach food preparation to young children?
- Do you insist on a balanced meal or that children eat their vegetables at lunch time?
- How much time can you take for lunch?
- Do you have a rest time or "recess" afterward?
- Do you decide what to make in advance?
- Do you try to use dinner leftovers in your lunch?
- Do you have a regular rotation of lunches-of-the-day? Or do you often eat the same thing day after day?
- Who cleans up? Will you completely clean up the lunch before going back to the rest of your day, or will dishes wait till later?
Different families: different lunches.
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I keep it relatively simple in my three at-home days. This year, the regular rotation is sandwiches on Tuesday, pizza (usually from frozen) on Wednesday, and quesadillas on Friday; all with fruit on the side.
On Thursdays, when I host, there are twelve to fifteen people here for lunch, and the adults have quite a lot to do. You would think I would want to go even more simple on those days, but in fact I do not. Here is why.
Point one: Scale-up.
It turns out that it is not actually simple or quick to prepare most sandwiches, frozen pizzas, or quesadillas for twelve to fifteen people, nor to let those twelve to fifteen people prepare their own sandwiches.
- Assembling large numbers of sandwiches is a surprisingly fiddly, messy affair.
- You can really only do a couple of frozen pizzas in your oven at once. That'll feed maybe five children?
- Quesadillas also have the sandwich problem combined with the heat source problem.
No, what you want to feed people simply and easily in your house is probably a couple of deep pans of something you can cut into pieces, or a vat of something scoopable.
Point two. The co-schooling kids' time is better spent on schoolwork than on lunch.
On our home days, helping me put lunch together is part of my kids' job. My "simple" lunches for days at home are chosen in part because I need to be able to bark down the stairs, "Elder Teenager! Please start the quesadillas while I clean up this mess!" or to be able to ask, "Younger teenager, can you put the pizzas in the oven at eleven-ten so they're ready when I get home from toddler music class?"
But the co-schooling time is short, and we really need all of the kids to be either productively schooling or productively having recess together most of the day. I'm not going to have them make their own sandwiches by digging through my fridge looking for the fillings they like best (although sometimes in warmer weather I'll set out a tray of meat and cheese and a basket of buns on the table). Usually there comes a time in the late morning when the students are working independently, and that gives me time to set out lunch trays.
We do assign a pair of children each day to be "servers." It's the servers' job to keep the water pitchers refilled, to fetch second servings, and to retrieve condiments from the fridge (in between bolting down their own lunches). This little innovation from a few years ago made it a lot easier for us parent-teachers to sit down and eat. Servers also have to clear the table so it's ready for schoolwork.
Point three. Once you've got comfortable with a dish that really works, it's not always all that hard.
Chicken noodle soup from scratch is, on the surface, a bit complicated. One must immerse the whole chicken in a big pot of cold water, add a few flavoring vegetables, bring to a boil, and turn down to a simmer. One must skim the scum that floats to the surface, then an hour or so later remove the chicken and let it cool. Diced vegetables go into the pot, and that boils again for thirty to sixty minutes; meanwhile the meat must be picked off the bones, and the broth salted and tasted. Towards the end, in go the noodles, and you must stir so they don't stick. Once the noodles are all done, the meat goes back in. If you are frugal, you'll put the bones to boil again in another pot, because there's another pot of broth left in them.
So yes, many steps, spread out throughout a whole morning. But if I am in the kitchen anyway -- and I teach my co-school students in my kitchen -- I can make chicken noodle soup practically in my sleep. I have done it so many times that I know exactly when the pot will come to a boil, when to skim, when the chicken will be done, how long the noodles have to go and when to wander back and stir them. So a vat of chicken noodle soup is something I can make for a co-school day. It sounds hard. But because it's one of the things I know how to make work for me -- I make it work for them.
It can be even easier than that. A perennial favorite is meatballs (read: from a bag, frozen), heated all morning in my crockpot in a simple tomato sauce (read: straight from a can -- even plain crushed tomatoes will do because the meatballs flavor them). I boil spaghetti -- that's the most complicated part -- and serve with buttered rolls and green beans (frozen, steamed in the microwave). Another is chili (it all goes in the crockpot in the morning) with tortilla chips and a bowl of cheese to pass around. Mashed potatoes (made in the morning, kept warm in the crockpot) and a tray of oven-baked chicken legs is another. I also like to do a pot of coconut rice (thanks, rice cooker) with plain poached chicken breasts, steamed broccoli, and pineapple chunks. Give them a bottle of soy sauce and those are some happy kids.
H. tends more to casseroles than I do, and usually preps them the night before so they can be popped in the oven. The three things she makes most often are a ridiculously plain and ridiculously delicious salmon loaf (it's so great, you must try feeding it to your kids), a sort of cheesy noodle bake made with mostly parmesan, and ... hm, I think number three might be little mini meatloaves. I hope so, because I love mini meatloaves.
These things are not as hard to get on the table as you might think, at least not once you have the routine down.
Point four: You might want to eat something tasty, too.
Let's be real: although my children are happy to eat it, I do not want frozen pizza for lunch. Certainly not every week. I do like quesadillas and eat them sometimes, but not every week.
On the other hand, I would be perfectly happy to eat H.'s salmon loaf or meatloaves or cheesy noodle bake every week. They are yummy. A bag of steamed vegetables on the side of any of those, and I'm very happy. (Salmon loaf especially makes me happy. We make a sort of rémoulade of mayonnaise mixed with homemade hot sauce for it, and it's really nice.)
Likewise, I could eat chicken noodle soup -- my own homemade chicken noodle soup, that is -- every week for the rest of my life, and I would not tire of it, at least if I had copious amounts of saltine crackers and black pepper. Or mashed potatoes and chicken, or even the spaghetti and meatballs.
Co-schooling days are very busy, especially traveling to the other's house in the morning -- what with gathering together all the stuff and piling it in the car, fighting morning rush hour traffic, setting up all the stuff again -- and it's nice to have a good meal to look forward to, shared with a friend.
Point five: It's welcoming.
I can get stressed out by the details of hosting everyone, to be sure. But in the long term, I want my house to be a place that kids remember fondly being a guest in. Sometimes I get frustrated when I teach. Sometimes I get irritated picking up after people. I'm sure the kids see this all the time. But I do hope they like sitting around my table with their friends scarfing down my chili. Maybe they'll remember that as a good time, remember a feeling of being welcomed and fed and among friends once or twice a week (between being hounded for their history homework and quizzed on their Latin grammar). I have to believe that it makes a real difference to them to sit down to (say) a bowl of hot soup with fresh rolls and a piece of fruit.
Point six: You can always order pizza.
Which sounds like a jokey way to end a post, but in fact, it is actually a real point. Once, maybe eight years ago, H. and I sat down and worked out about how much it cost per serving to feed the kids a home-cooked lunch. I am sure the price has gone up significantly since then, partly because food prices have risen significantly, and also since we now have some teenagers. If I remember right, we figured that we spent about $2 per serving back then.
That turned out to be a very useful thing for us to have calculated, because we realized that it didn't actually cost us significantly more to order Domino's pizza for the kids (at $5.99 for a two-topping medium pizza, the lunch special that has been going for years in this area).
We didn't want to order pizza all the time; we wanted to have balanced meals that would be good for everyone, as much as possible. But we'd also been assuming that pizza delivery was kind of a luxury, and so we definitely didn't want to order pizza all the time.
Turns out that it's not. I think it might even be less expensive relative to home-cooked meals now, because the prices of a delivered pizza have not risen as fast as the prices of groceries. (Although four teenage boys can put away a lot of pizza, it should be noted -- probably more pizza than salmon loaf.)
Anyway, the point of this is that if your home-cooked meal backfires somehow, or if you wake up in the morning and you just can't stand the idea of cooking, you could order pizza (provided you live somewhere that you can get it). H. and I have given each other carte blanche to resort to pizza whenever that seems necessary. I think we're both committed to making a good-faith effort to a lunch that is not pizza, for the sake of balance and variety; but we're not fanatics, and sometimes the pizza is the best thing to happen to the day.
Remember to tip the driver, and then make your peace and get back to your school day.