Efficient Eats: How to Cook for the Whole Family

Photo by Jess Dang

Photo by Jess Dang

Finding meals that can please both adults and children is not an easy task. Because parents do not have the time to run their kitchens like made-to-order restaurants, here are a few mealtime solutions that will ensure both child and adult have appealing options. And no one will have to spend all day in the kitchen.

Make a two-in-one meal

If your child is still eating baby food, combine the process of baby food making with preparing delicious and hearty soups that adults can enjoy as well. For example, if your baby loves sweet potatoes, you can easily make her a batch of sweet potato puree along with a batch of sweet potato soup for your own dinner. To do this, peel and chop two sweet potatoes, cover with a bit of liquid (e.g., water, stock or broth), bring to a boil, and then simmer for about 15 minutes. Puree with an immersion blender and set aside a few servings for your baby. To the remainder, add a bit more liquid (about 1 to 1.5 cups) to thin the puree so that it becomes a
soup, and season with salt and pepper to adult tastes. You follow this plan with an array of vegetables. With summer coming up, some great soup bases are asparagus, avocado, pea, potato, and zucchini. Mix and match these with ingredients that are available year-round such as broccoli, carrots and cauliflower.

Give your child options

If your child has reached an age where he’s become somewhat picky about his meals, you’re not alone. Psychologists have come up with a host of strategies that parents can try to tackle picky eating. One of the most common suggestions is to present children with several options at the dinner table so they feel like they have some control over their eating decisions. One way to do this without spending your entire day cooking is to create menus that include a smorgasbord of ingredients, and allow both adults and children to “personalize” their meals. Some dishes to which children can easily add their own choices are fried rice, pasta sauce, tacos and pizza. To save even more time, fire up the grill on the weekend, and throw on a few types of vegetables (e.g., asparagus, broccolini, corn, eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini) and proteins (e.g., chicken breasts, tofu, flank steak). Then, chop up all of the ingredients and present them at different assembly meals throughout the week.

For example, to do a “Make Your Own Fried Rice” night, steam or microwave your rice of choice. Then, fry the rice in a wok or a sauté pan with a little bit of oil, soy sauce and perhaps an egg. Next, heat up the ingredients you grilled earlier in the week. Of course, your child’s favorite frozen chicken nuggets are also a fine protein option to include. Then present everything, cut up into bite-sized pieces, in a mini buffet line, allowing each member of the family to assemble his or her own fried rice bowl. Your child can season his bowl with more soy sauce if he wants.

The same thing can be done for pasta sauces, tacos or pizza. Just make the base for each meal (tomato sauce and pasta; tortillas and ground meat with onions; and premade pizza dough, sauce and cheese, respectively), warm up the precooked vegetables and protein, and let your child “create” his own meal.  Your child may not choose the healthy vegetables every time, but it gives you the opportunity to present them to him again and again, so that he always has the choice. Plus, you and your spouse don’t have to make a separate adult meal.

Treat your child like an adult

Another way to avoid preparing separate meals for children and adults: Don’t think about them as separate types of meals. Children really can eat anything that adults can eat; the idea of “kids’ meals” is something that the food industry has created. This doesn’t mean that a 2-year-old should be wielding a steak knife at the dinner table, but there are ways to involve your kids in the meal process so that they feel their opinions are valued. You could ask them to choose one or two meals a week that they think everyone in the family would like (stressing the “everyone” part, of course). Not sure if your child is ready for dinner planning responsibilities? Start off with asking them for input on dessert, which is meant to be a bit indulgent anyway.

Yet another way to give kids a voice in the kitchen is invite them in when you’re cooking and ask them, “Can you taste this for mommy/daddy? Do you think it needs more salt?” You could even have them add a dash of salt and re-taste with them. When children are trusted to do things they consider to be in the adult domain, they develop independence and a greater sense of responsibility. In this case, asking them to help with cooking will have the added benefit of transitioning them away from the idea that their parents should cook them a separate meal. With kids home from school, summer is the perfect time to start getting them involved in the meal planning process and giving them more responsibility in the kitchen.

Implementing a few of these ideas will save you time and make mealtime more pleasant. Then you can think about doing the things you really want—like taking that long-awaited trip to the spa.

Jess Dang is the owner of COOK + SMARTS, a cooking consultation business based in Menlo Park COOK + SMARTS provides cooking lessons and meal plans for busy moms that are personally designed to help them meet their kitchen challenges and cooking goals. Contact her at jess@cooksmarts.com and learn more about her business at http://www.cooksmarts.com.

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