You'd never know it from my apron, but there was a time (not so long ago) when I didn't cook.
Or, more accurately, I hardly cooked. Like many parents, I found myself paralysed by a dinnertime conundrum. Faced with two people who refused to eat much beyond chicken nuggets and green beans, haunted by the (somewhat inaccurate) memory of a home-cooked dinner every night of my childhood, bombarded by bossy "experts" with kid-friendly cookbooks and meal planning systems to sell, I gave up.
Whisks gathered dust, prepared foods piled up in the freezer; restaurants got more than their fair share of my dollars. Then two things happened: I made a new friend who is a passionate cook. And I had a sudden realisation that I no longer wanted to eat anything that was coming out of my kitchen.
Talking about food and cooking (and making a good friend in the process) made me think about what I actually wanted to eat and about cooking projects I had long abandoned (like a quest for perfect biscuits, in tribute to my Southern food heritage). One by one, I took them up again, tapping into a rich vein of memory that ran back to my mother and grandmother's kitchen, and the desire to pass along more than a knowledge of breaded chicken pieces to my own kids.
Without even realising it, I became a cook again. And my kids got a home-cooked dinner (most nights), and learned a few things. Like how satisfying it is to make amazing biscuits. And that it might be fun to try a new food. And why aprons are a good thing.
If you've reached an impasse with family dinner and the angst that do-it-all types have heaped on it, what I learned might help you too.
In my non-cooking years, I gave in to the notion of pleasing the children, and gradually lost my will to chop, sauté, or heck, even braise. When I returned to the kitchen, I realised why: cooking food you're uninterested in eating is no fun. And in a busy life, that's a non-starter. Though I have a Southerner's inborn desire to feed people, it's important that the food be appetising to me, not just to people whose palate may revolve around buttered noodles and mandarin orange slices.
THE ADVICE: Read cookbooks, look at beautiful food magazines, eat in restaurants that don't serve chicken nuggets and find yourself thinking about tastes you enjoy. Once your mouth is watering, choose a dish, add the ingredients to your grocery list and pick a night and an appreciative adult to share the end result. Cook, eat, repeat.
When choosing dishes to cook, pay special attention to things that can easily be deconstructed into the parts of their sum. If you're making pasta, it's simple to hold some of the noodles to the side, sans sauce, for the kids to eat. Chicken Parmesan includes (ta da!) breaded chicken, aka nuggets.
THE ADVICE: While prepping dinner, look for ways to set something aside pre-spices or sauce. Be sure to offer the seasoned/sauced version to children as well, or offer the sauce as a condiment. Bonus: this line of thinking also applies in restaurants. If they've got lemon chicken, they've got chicken nuggets with the lemon sauce on the side.
MAKE PEACE WITH THE ALTERNA-DINNER
Children will eat what they eat, and if they insist on a peanut butter sandwich and mini carrots for dinner one night because they won't try what you make, so be it. Know what else is OK? Giving them a simple "kid dinner" and letting them know you'll be having "grown-up dinner" a little later on. This makes room for adults who are arriving home late from work to eat well. And it allows for even more adventurous meals once in awhile - something deliciously spicy, for instance.
THE ADVICE: Offer them everything you're eating (this is key), but don't let a refusal snarl your dinnertime. Instead, ask them to try the food, but be prepared to hand over the drama-free PBJ. They'll try your dish next time. Or the time after that. Eating good food shouldn't make anyone nervous.
LAY A FOUNDATION
Basic structures like pasta, sandwiches and salads are vessels for anything from leftovers to pantry stalwarts such as chickpeas or canned tuna. And because you choose what goes into them, they can easily be amped up for adults, streamlined for kids. Favourite sides, even frozen veggies, help round things out and keep prep superquick. I often serve tacos filled with black beans and cheese for children, substituting kale, squash, cilantro, mushrooms and jalapeno for my own version. Or I simply skip the tortilla and place my veggie concoction atop salad greens.
THE ADVICE: Choose greens, grains or bread to lay the framework, then choose fillings based on what you have on hand. Last week's roast chicken or that big pork shoulder you braised come in handy - toss the meat in the freezer, then quickly transform it into a sandwich/pasta/salad dinner by reheating in a skillet. Plain meat, maybe with a sprinkle of cheese, can serve the pickiest eaters. Set some aside, and then add spices and veggies to the pan to create a filling for more adventurous sorts.