7 Simple Steps to Delicious, Stressless Family Dinners
By Radha Marcum
When my kids were very little, I was an editor at a health and cooking magazine. The magazine had gorgeous recipes—tantalizing, fresh, inspired. Our entire staff attended monthly tastings to sample and critique these (mostly) incredible new combinations of healthy foods.
Much to my family’s chagrin, not much inspiration made it back to our home kitchen—aside from the small to-go containers of tasting-lunch leftovers. True, I was nursing an infant and wrangling a prekindergartener. True, I had never been so bone-tired in my life!
I’ll call those the BC (Before Creativity) years. We cooked more elaborate meals on weekends—brimming with seasonal veggies and herbs from the farmers’ market or our backyard—but I could still only muster enough creativity for three-ingredient pasta dishes, veggie burgers and sautéed tofu during the week.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Now I know. For us to enter the AD (Always Delicious) years required a lot of myth busting, plus a library card, a dry-erase board and a deep love of real food. Now we’ve got it down to a simple, nearly stress-free weekly formula, one that anyone—you, too!—can implement and enjoy.
1. Covet trustworthy recipe sources. Are you under the spell of the Food Network? Do you believe delicious dinners consist only of thirty-plus ingredients brought together in complicated steps? No. No. No. You do not need to pull out your entire spice rack or drive miles to specialty shops to track down rare ingredients. What you do need: Several reliable recipe sources that you trust to deliver flavor-packed dishes, with a simple list of ingredients that you can get wherever you normally shop.
Some of my favorite family-schedule friendly cookbooks: Isa Does It (Isa Chandra Moskowitz), Herbivoracious (Michael Natkin), Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker (Robin Robertson), Supernatural Every Day (Heidi Swanson), and the classic Feeding the Whole Family (Cynthia Lair). For fresh inspiration, we scan cooking blogs and new cookbook titles from our local library.
2. Tool up to save time. Every family can benefit from a slow cooker, rice cooker, decent food processor, immersion blender and minichopper. If you don’t have these, put them on your wish list now. These essentials save countless hours.
3. Choose fun, open-ended themes. Our theme nights leave a lot of room for interpretation, yet they narrow the potentialities enough to bring focus to our planning. For example, rather than “Taco Tuesday,” we chose “Street Food,” which opens it up to all kinds of fun and fast ethnic foods. This week’s street night menu includes Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches and a raw-veggie slaw with peanut sauce on the side. Other theme ideas: Slow Cooker (great on Monday), Soup and Salad Night, Noodle Night, Grill Night, etc., etc. Bottom line: Which kinds of foods excite your family? Go there.
4. Time it right. Pick one night to go out for dinner (for us, this is Friday night), and a night to go all out, cooking an elaborate dinner at home. We love to make more involved dishes on Sundays when we have time to play in the kitchen. For the other five nights, ask yourself which theme fits each day’s schedule best. Schedule themes to fit your time constraints. For us, every Monday is slow-cooker night. We’re busy getting back to work, school, etc., and it’s a big relief to walk into the house to the incredible aroma of ready dinner. On our busiest day—pasta night—we have staggered activities going until 7:00 p.m., and I have to prepare dinner quickly, in short stages.
5. Embrace organization; find your groove. We sit down on Sunday morning with the iPad and a stack of cookbooks to choose recipes for the week. I aim for a mix of favorites and fresh recipes to keep dinner an adventure. (Our cookbooks are fringed with sticky notes marking recipes that appeal to us.) I ask both kids to weigh in and make sure that they are each excited about at least one dinner that week. Menus go onto our family whiteboard.
6. Shop one store, once per week. In summer, supplement with farmers’ market picks. I write the shopping list into my phone, which I am less likely to forget or lose at the bottom of my bag. That list is also easy to text to my husband if he happens to be the shopper that week. At the store, I focus only on my list and avoid the temptation of buying those beautiful artichokes because they’re on sale. (I’ll note that for next week, though.)
Also, I love this tip from Christine Carter, PhD, whose book The Sweet Spot inspired me to refine my shopping routine even further: Always buy the same brands, unless you are truly unhappy with a previous choice. When I shop at the same store, take a list and buy my usual brands, I often cut shopping time in half. We also save money and waste less food.
7. Take photos; share recipes. It’s as true in the kitchen as it is in any area of life: The more we share our creations, the more we enjoy them—and the more likely we are to keep creating. When you’ve found a dish you love, one that looks beautiful on your plate, snap a photo. Dare I say it? Post it to your social networks. Share the love.