I will never forget when I realized I cooked dinner wrong. My hungry preschooler had just triggered a Category 5 breakdown when I was making burritos – which took about 30 minutes if I was using half a dozen pots and dishes. When my husband came home later, he tossed the cold beans, rice, and cheese on a tortilla, put them in the microwave, and sat down peacefully to eat – all within two minutes. Why hadn’t I thought of the microwave? I realized this was burrito night!
As a former cookbook editor and kitchen appliance reviewer, I take pride in being a good cook. But since having kids, I’ve learned to simplify my approach, which allows me to spend time with my daughters.
For many families, the job of preparing dinner is with a parent, and figuring out what to do each night, let alone what kids want to eat, is hard work. “The proliferation of food blogs has taken the idea that it’s fun for everyone and that it’s relatively easy to find something easy to eat when it’s not,” says Lesley Téllez, author of Eat Mexico : Recipes from the streets, markets and fondas of Mexico City, who cooks for her two young children every evening.
To find better strategies, I asked seasoned home cooks and cookbook authors – who are also parents – for their practical tips on making meals easier and spending time with family more relaxed.
Invest in time-saving tools
As I learned after Burrito-Gate, there is probably no better friend than a microwave for parents with a lack of time (Wirecutter has several recommendations). “We live and die with our microwave,” says Francis Lam, host of The Splendid Table. He often makes dinner in the morning and his wife later heats it up in the microwave to feed their 3-year-old daughter before Lam returns from work.
Electric pressure cookers and slow cookers require little attention – just add the ingredients and press a button. If you have some time before dinner, go for an electric pressure cooker that will cook something in half the time (sometimes less) it takes in the oven or stovetop. Téllez uses hers to make beans from scratch in 45 minutes. (Wirecutter recommends the Instant Pot Duo 6-Quart in its manual for electric pressure cookers.)
If you’d rather let the food cook overnight or while you work, choose a slow cooker. “Slow cookers were something that made me totally turned around in my career as a chef, and I now think they’re awesome,” says Sarah Copeland, author of Every Day Is Saturday: Recipes + Strategies for Easy Cooking, Every Day of the week. She braises pork shoulder or short ribs overnight and then stows the food in the refrigerator in order to later serve dinner for her 4 and 8 year old children. (Wirecutter recommends the Hamilton Beach Set & Forget.) NYT Cooking offers a variety of easy slow cooker recipes.
Another device that doesn’t require attention is the rice cooker, which allows you to cook more than just what its namesake suggests. “I throw up the rice cooker with rice or quinoa or a mixture of whole grains to get a blank board going for dinner,” says Copeland. (Wirecutter recommends the Zojirushi Neuro Fuzzy NS-ZCC10 in its Rice Cooker Guide.) I regularly use a rice cooker and instant pot together and set both of them to cook before I pick up my kids so dinner is ready when we go back Come home.
Tara O’Brady, author of Seven Spoons and a mother of 11- and 13-year-old boys, uses an upright mixer to quickly make pureed soups. “They come together in a flash in a blender, especially in a blender with a cooking function,” she says. “The rest of the dinner might consist of grilled cheese sandwiches, but there is a hearty homemade soup and I think that’s a win.” (The Vitamix 5200, which Wirecutter recommends in its mixer instructions, heats soup even though it doesn’t actually cook the ingredients.)
Sheet pans can also be used twice for baking and for simple dinners. (Wirecutter recommends Nordic Ware half-sheet pans.) “I love my sheet pans: It’s a way to cook delicious dinners with minimal cleaning (that’s key),” said Emily Weinstein, assistant editor for the New York Times food section and editor of NYT Cooking who has a 21 month old daughter. Weinstein stacks vegetables and egg whites on one pan (she recommends this recipe for tin squash and sausages served over farro or herbs) or she bakes carrots on one pan and meatballs on another (she recommends these four simple shapes). and baking meatball recipes).
Maximize your freezer
On the nights when you’re cooking something special, take advantage of the hassle by doing extra to freeze. “I always try to make double the amount of Bolognese, meatballs, or falafel, or just boiled beans in their broth,” says O’Brady. “Quinoa, pasta, and cereals also hold up well in the freezer. I fry a second chicken or plan extra if I braise or grill meat and vegetables that are freezing or that have a good shelf life. ”
Frozen dinners certainly extend beyond the meals you have prepared. “I love frozen or prepackaged dumplings or tamales from Trader Joe’s, or buy packaged and frozen from our big local vendors,” says Copeland. “These are two things I serve about once a month that feel like a full night off.” And freezing the specialties you love can help refine even the simplest of meals. Téllez freezes freshly made tortillas from a tortilleria near her home in Queens and thaws them as needed.
Collect a couple of dinners in your back pocket
During times when you don’t have a meal plan, try to learn a few dishes that you can always refer to. For Téllez, this often means that hot dogs are wrapped in Pillsbury croissants and baked, served with ketchup and mustard, with frozen vegetables or a spinach salad. For Lam, this is generally spaghetti aglio e olio – pasta mixed with garlic sautéed in olive oil – combined with whatever vegetables he has on hand. It’s a breakfast classic for Weinstein: “My dinner, which is simple now and forever, consists of scrambled eggs with toast. It’s one of my favorite foods and I can always do it no matter how tired I am. “
And dinner doesn’t always have to be cooked. “I rely on platter-style grazing meals at least once a week and a lot more in the summer,” says Copeland. “That way I can serve all things – meat, cheese, crackers, vegetables, dips, olives, bread, hummus, or whatever we have on a given day – in new and inventive ways that are always a request – every meal . ”
Those nights when you’re really out of energy – maybe a child is sick or you come home late from work – it is worth budgeting for take away, especially if it relieves your stress. “I try to leave one day a week when we order,” says Téllez. “It’s really nice to only have a day off. I try to keep a Wednesday or Thursday when I’m in trouble. “
Do what works for your family
“I believe one hundred percent in the power of a family that gets together every evening to eat together. I also know that this is not possible every night, ”says Lam. “You don’t have to beat yourself up.”
This forgiving approach extends to rethinking what meal time is like for your family. With a busy schedule, Copeland has made breakfast the main meal in her household. “All in all, the evening is our most worn-out time of the day. So if we keep dinner simple and something that doesn’t necessarily have to tick off all boxes, we as parents have taken so much pressure off and made our evenings much more airy and enjoyable. “
If (and when!) It feels like a chore bringing dinner to the table, best advice is to keep it simple. “In all aspects of parenting, my goal was to make everything as simple and cautious as possible when I can,” says Weinstein. “When I’m lost in details or stressed about reaching a goal that is ultimately not particularly important, I just won’t be my best self for my daughter.”