"Way too many families are in that situation," says Cat Cora, the nation's first and only female Iron Chef, as well as a busy, pregnant mother of three young sons. "But it doesn't have to be that way. My mom was a nurse with three kids. She was busy, but we had family meals. Now, even though I'm always swamped with work, my family cooks and eats together."
Eve Felder, an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, agrees.
"I have three girls under the age of 9," she says, "and I work full-time, but we manage to have home-cooked meals together virtually every night. I don't want to sound smug. But it can be done."
The experts' suggestions:
1. Learn to cook. It may sound counterintuitive, but learning to cook, or refreshing rusty skills, is the quickest way to fit healthy foods into a jam-packed life. "If you know how to sauté, braise, and stir-fry, you can make a variety of meals very quickly," Felder says. "Stir-fry beef and asparagus with oyster sauce one night, then chicken and peppers with hoisin sauce the next. It will seem like a completely different meal, but the methods are exactly the same." Don't have time for cooking classes? "YouTube has videos covering every technique you can possibly imagine," says Mark Rubin, the director of the Culinary Arts Center for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee in Nashville. "Type in 'Dice an onion.' There are dozens of video demonstrations. I watched one the other day on how to clean a squid. Fascinating."
2. Set aside blocks of time. "Think of your weekend as seven distinct three-hour blocks of time," says Julie Morgenstern. "There's Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening, and the same for Sunday. If eating healthy is important, you need to devote one of those blocks to cooking and family time."
3. Let your fingers do the shopping. Grocery stores are a time drain. Avoid them. Instead, "plan the meals you want to have in the coming week or two, including snacks, make a comprehensive list of what you need, and get on the Internet," Morgenstern says. Almost every city has at least one grocery store that allows online ordering. "Most deliver for free, too." In later weeks, you can conveniently reorder with a single click, adding or subtracting ingredients as you go.
4. Organize your kitchen. "Take one weekend afternoon to tear through your kitchen drawers. Throw out everything you don't need. Be ruthless," says Lori Greiner, an organizational expert. Ditto for cupboards and fridge. Then reorder drawers and your refrigerator with hard-nosed precision: "Line up cans of tomatoes, front to back." Do the same with all your staples. "If you're going to assemble meals quickly," Greiner says, "you have to be able to see exactly what you have and what you need."
5. Prep, prep, prep. "Run your home kitchen like a restaurant kitchen," Rubin says. "Cut things up in advance." During your weekend block of time, clean and chop carrots, celery, onions, spinach, and broccoli—all of which keep well after being prepped—stuff them in ziplock bags, and put them in the refrigerator. Your meals are now half-complete.