We all go through cooking evolutions as the seasons of our lives change. I would call my early 20’s the “Discovery Phase,” where I binge-watched Food Network and read Ina Garten Cookbooks with religious fervor. Next was the “Dinner Party Phase.” My husband and I were newly married and child-free, as were most of our friends. We started up a dinner club, hosting elaborately-themed parties where whole weekends were dedicated to the execution of complicated menus. Friends of ours, no joke, actually re-created the seven-course dinner served on the Titanic (naturally we were assigned real life passengers and expected to stay in character throughout the night). Then, we all started having babies. Like many first-time parents, we expected life to go on as it had before. There would just be some cute rug rats added to the mix, that would stick to our schedule and happily attend these parties. But that of course is not what happened. Lets just call this the “Trader Joe’s Frozen Mac ‘n Cheese Phase.” The thing about this phase is once you’re in it, you feel like it will last forever. But then one day you look up at your 4- and 7-year old and realize that everyone is perfectly capable of sitting through and entire family dinner together, and also generally sharing the same meal. You have survived.
My cooking has certainly evolved in this era of sitting down to family dinner most nights, shifting heavily on the side of simplicity in both flavor and time. I try not to cook separate meals for my kids now that they are of a certain age, but I have also been at this parenting gig long enough to realize that you can’t really force your family members to eat something they don’t like. I want dinner to be an enjoyable time where we convene as a family at the end of our individual days, not a battle of the wills. Here are some simple tips for getting a full, nutritious meal on the table that everyone enjoys (especially if you have a picky eater in the mix like I do).
- Cookbooks Are Often Not Your Friends (but Sometime Food Packages Are). One of the most important lesson I’ve learned through my cooking evolution is that making food that taste great does not need to be complicated. It often actually tastes better with less fuss. Extremely simple recipes with limited ingredients don’t tend to sell cookbooks. These days, it seems, celebrities do. Do I really need to read for the thousandth time a very slightly altered version of roast chicken, that is now somehow better because it includes an ingredient I’ll most likely never use again? When you are making dinners that need to appeal to a variety of tastes, I find the simpler the better. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to follow the recipes provided on the grocery store packaging of whatever starch, broth, condiment, protein, etc., you’re buying. The simplest chicken noodle soup, lasagna, or perfectly cooked rice. Honestly, just read the box!
- Salt and Butter Make Everything Better. Children often prefer simple flavors, and a pat of butter and sprinkle of salt (kosher or sea preferably) can elevate the humblest of dishes to delish status. This dynamic duo is also what typically makes restaurant food taste so good. We serve steamed veggies, such as carrots, broccoli, or green beans, as well as all sorts of starches like noodles, rice, dinner rolls, and couscous with the simple finishing touch of butter and a sprinkle of salt. These dishes are always universally loved by my family, and quick and easy to pull off. I occasionally add some fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon juice, but really that’s it. The funny thing is, I really don’t miss all the fussy flavors that can be added to these things. I’ll save the kung-pao broccoli or 7-layer quinoa for dinners out.
- Large Bowls of Fruit and Veggies are Perfectly Acceptable Side Dishes (and Pretty Too). A well-executed family meal is more about balance than complexity. For me that means getting a starch, some heathy fats and proteins, and of course sides of fruits and veggies on the table. A well-known mom trick is to place the fruit and veggie portion of a meal on the tablewhile the rest of the meal is finished cooking. That way when the inevitable “I’m hungry” chorus begins to be sung, you can encourage your family to snack on the most nutritious elements of the meal first. I recommend simply placing one or two types of veggies (steamed or raw) and fruits in a couple of large white bowls, making sure the mixture includes at least one variety everyone loves. Large groupings of fruit and veggies, rather than a salad-like mixture, tend to have the added bonus of being more attractive to the eye. And as we all know; you eat with your eyes first.
- I Dip You Dip We Dip. Finding the giant bowls of fruit and veggies a bit boring, are we? Bring on the dips! The benefits of dips can be two-fold. First off, my kids probably wouldn’t eat nearly as many veggies without a side of ranch, nor would they gobble down a pile of homemade chicken nuggets if there was no ketchup. While my husband and I eat the same mains, we like to class our sides up a bit with honey mustard, sriracha, and blue cheese dips.These are always available to our kids if they want branch out and expand their palates.Second, dips can also be a great way to covertly add some protein to the meal. For instance, hummus is a great, protein-packed addition to almost any veggie. I also make this peanut butter-honey yogurt dip on repeat that is a lovely pairing to sliced fruit.
- Head to the Bar. Wait, what, you say? Aren’t these tips about family dinner? I’m not talking about a bar where you throw back a pint here, but rather a meal that has several individual components where diners create their own final concoction (but of course the other kinds of bars are fun too). Taco bars are the most obvious example of this, but there are many other great options such as baked potato, panini, pasta, and even homemade pho and chili bars, just to name a few. Allowing individual diners to layer on flavors to a family meal is a great way to only make one meal, yet allow for varying tastes.
Are you like me and enjoy cooking, but find it challenging to either please everyone at the table, or are you simply limited for time? Try my 5 simple strategies for making meals the whole family will enjoy. And don’t forget, the most important thing is that you all are there sharing a meal, not that everything (or anything) is gourmet. Food never has to be complicated to be delicious.
- Copper Bowl and Individual Casserole Pots by Mauviel, found similar style on Amazon.
- Crock Pot by All Clad.
- Tablecloth by Beauville.
- Napkins by Williams Sonoma (2018 pattern, from private collection)
- Vintage champagne bucket, glass cake plate and Gorham Old English Tipt sterling flatware (from private collection)
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Feature photo by ChantalS.