Cooking “On the Run”

2/9/2013 7:00 AM
By Linda Williams Southwestern Pa. Correspondent

Personal Chef Teaches Meal-Planning Tips for Busy Parents

BEDFORD, Pa. — Nearly every mom or dad has the experience of coming home from a long day at work — which usually includes shuffling kids and running errands — only to find a hungry family to feed. Even if a mom or dad is one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to bring home a paycheck, schedules are busy and there is dinner to prepare. Someone in the household has to plan, shop for groceries, and cook meals 365 days of the year. Food preparation consumes a large part of any family’s time.

It’s a problem that the clients of Carol Snyder of Bedford, Pa., do not have. Snyder is a “personal chef” who found a need for her services in the small town of Bedford. Her company is called Cinnamon and Sage, and she works mainly for professional families, preparing meals on a weekly, bi-weekly or even monthly basis.

“I’ve always liked to cook,” Snyder said. “My mom was a great cook — so was my dad. I grew up with good meals on the table. I raised my own three children knowing that dinner would always be at 5:30 p.m. After that, they could do what they wanted, but when dad came home from the office, dinner would be on the table.”

She laughs as she remembers a picture of her with a baby hanging over her arm as she stirs a pot of vegetables on the stove. Two little girls are crying in the background of the photo, and her husband, Bill, has just walked in the door.

Today, at Snyder’s house, dinner is still served at 5:30 p.m. But now, she and Bill are both capable cooks. “And, if I cook, he cleans, and vice versa,” she said.

Snyder recently spoke to the MUGS group at the Bedford United Methodist Church in Bedford. “MUGS” stands for “Mothers Under God Surviving.” These young mothers attended the event eager to learn of ways they could put good, nutritious food on the table and not have it come out of a box.

Throughout the years, Snyder said she has relied on a notebook to help with her meal planning.

“Every Sunday evening I find a few minutes to plan what we will have throughout the week,” she said.

Modern day technology is a big help. “I use my iPad,” she said. “If you have chicken and you have broccoli in the house, (type it online) and see how many recipes come up.”

She thinks that the techniques she uses for her clients can easily be transferred to any modern homemaker of today. Her job as a personal chef involves arriving at a client’s house usually once a week. In four or five hours she can prepare four main entrées plus side dishes.

“I don’t do desserts,” she said.

Her time includes cleanup. “I always use recipes, but you don’t have to. Some people are creative cooks and make it up as they go.”

Once the entrées are prepared, they are stored in oven or microwave ware.

“I look for special sales on these types of storage dishes at the local grocery,” Snyder said. “Some of my dishes are made to be done ahead, stored in the refrigerator and baked at a later time. Some warm up in the microwave or oven very easily.”

She says that if you are warming something in the microwave, always do it at 60 percent power because it warms from the middle out. She puts warming instructions on each item.

If mom (or dad) has prepared four entrees plus the sides, she said, the family is probably set for the week. There will usually be enough leftovers for at least one night of “potluck.”

So, where can a busy parent find the time to make the entrees?

Each person has to check his or her own individual schedule, Snyder said, but getting up early on Saturday and working from 8 a.m. until noon would have the next week’s meals ready and waiting when they arrive home from work that week. Or, Snyder suggests just getting up very early one day a week and perhaps soliciting help from other family members.

“Plan your meals so that, for example, if you have ground meat and you have to chop green onions and peppers to make chili, you might also make sloppy Joes. If you roast a chicken over the weekend, plan a casserole using the leftovers on Monday,” Snyder said.

A parent can cook enough pasta to make several different entrees, she said. And, she advised that prep chores should be grouped so that the final meal preparation is easier.

“When I arrive at a house, I put water on to boil to cook pasta, begin chopping vegetables, and do any meat cutting that is necessary,” Snyder said.

Another idea is to involve the men of the house (or a parent who doesn’t typically cook) with meal preparation at least a day or two a week.

One of the MUGS members is Julie Livengood, a school nurse. Her husband, the judge of Bedford County, picks one night a week to cook. He plans it, gets his necessary food items on the shopping list and does the cooking.

Snyder suggested getting husbands to barbeque the main course, especially during the summer months.

Shopping can be just as time consuming and exasperating as cooking. The Snyders simplify shopping by making their own pre-printed shopping lists which include various categories such as meats, canned goods, produce, cleaning products, etc.

Brandi Lafferty is an insurance customer-care representative who plans her menus a month ahead. Lafferty likes to cook. She and her husband visit a discount warehouse store once a month for main purchases. Then, they shop the local grocery store for discounts and sale items as well as fresh produce, bread and milk.

Lafferty said she gets up when her husband leaves for work and does prep work for dinner before she has to leave the house for school and work. If she is having, for example, lasagna, she has it ready and refrigerated. Her husband arrives home before her so he can put it in the oven. With a quick salad, dinner is ready in minutes after Lafferty arrives home.

Sara McConnell is a first-grade teacher who uses modern technology when planning her meals. She and her husband, Cory, both enjoy cooking and trying new dishes. Every Sunday, the couple sits down and plans their weekly menus. They reference meals and pin them to Pinterest (an online digital “bulletin board”) on the Internet.

“Pinterest has allowed Cory and I to search and save recipes that we would like to try,” Sara said. “Once we pick our recipes, I type in the ingredients I need to get at the store using an iPad app. When cooking, instead of printing out the recipes, I open the recipe on a viewing screen on my iPad and reference it throughout the preparation.”

If a dish involves a lot of chopping, Cory helps, and they find it a good time to bond since they both work long hours.

With a bit of planning, mealtime can be healthy, home-cooked and a bit less stressful, even for busy parents.

As a wife and mother of nearly 54 years, I personally can attest that preparing meals has always had high priority in my family. I am a bit of a nutrition nut and insisted on balanced meals from our first days of married life. Personally, I think the slow cooker is a wonderful invention. Not everything tastes good cooked that way, but it certainly lends itself to stews, vegetable soups, a turkey breast, sauerkraut or pot roast, for example.

Here are a couple of easy recipes for those days when you just don’t have time for much of anything.

— Linda Williams

Easy Barbequed Slow-Cooker Chicken

Chicken pieces (a cut up chicken or 2 chicken breasts)

Put chicken pieces in the slow cooker (they can be frozen.)


1 bottle barbeque sauce

1/4 cup vinegar

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

Cook on low, 4 to 6 hours. Serve with noodles or mashed potatoes.

Chicken and Rice Dish

This is an easy dish to make ahead and store in the refrigerator.

2 to 3 pounds of ready-to-cook chicken

1 cup uncooked long grain rice

1 can chicken broth (small)

1 10-ounce can of cream of mushroom soup

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons chopped pimento

2 tablespoons chopped onion

Salt and pepper, to taste

Paprika, to taste

Combine rice, broth, soup, water, pimento and onion in a baking dish. Place chicken on top. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and put in the refrigerator.

Bake, covered, at 350 F for 1 hour. Stir rice mixture, sprinkle chicken with paprika. Bake uncovered until tender, about 45 minutes. Stir rice before serving.

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