We really hate to eat and run, but ...

Maybe Ozzie and Harriet could pull it off, but these days, the dinner hour is getting hard to schedule.

On any given evening, one child is coming in from football practice at 5:30 while another is pedaling off to the soccer field. One child probably has to be dropped off at radio club by 7 o'clock, and you have a 7:30 p.m. board meeting. Nevertheless, the family has time for a stimulating and delicious meal together, right?

In your dreams. But that doesn't mean that it has to be ditched. With the right menus and some forethought, the entire household can skate through supper — sometimes together, sometimes individually — psyches intact, without the executive chef needing to be chained to the stove for the duration.

For eat-and-run meals, the key is preparation — emphasis on the PRE. Main-dish salads that have been diced, shredded and tossed can be dished up straight from the refrigerator to one or more people. Pocket-bread meals that have all the fixings stored in the refrigerator on a single tray make it easy for even younger family members to fend for themselves on the nights when assembling the entire group at once is an impossibility.

Soups and stews are excellent make-ahead meals because you can make them when you have time — even weeks before — and freeze, reheat and serve at a time when you don't. If you lack a Crock-Pot to keep everything hot, then bring the mixture to a boil in a pot and transfer to a large, preheated thermos

Dinner in a thermos may not sound glamorous. But let's face it, at this juncture, neither is your lifestyle.

A big part of preparation is having everything you need on hand. Try to keep shopping down to once or twice a week and force yourself to look ahead to a week's worth of menus.

During down-time (usually weekends or late evening), think ahead and handle the little things that quickly become big things when you only have moments to spare: Cut carrots, celery and other fresh vegetables into finger sizes for quick side dishes (store sealed in a container after spritzing vegetables with a bit of water to keep them fresh). An entire three-pound block of cheese can be grated and stored in the refrigerator for quick access during salad and sandwich construction.

And for nights when sitting down together is out of the question, a set of instructions posted clearly on the refrigerator door will help members who are able to pitch in to do their own thing.

The accompanying recipe for gazpacho — a wonderful summer-into-fall treat — came about when I needed to make a batch quickly. So I cheated by starting with a container of my favorite store-bought, fresh salsa. It was absolutely wonderful! This can be a great, quick family meal, especially if you pile on the condiments like crumbled corn chips, fresh-cooked corn kernels, dollops of sour cream and diced avocado.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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