Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. To-may-to, to-mah-to. At 5 p.m. — after a super-packed day of work, errands and wrestling with my little guys — what others might call “cheats,” I call brilliant kitchen tricks.
You’ve been there, right? That point in the day when you’ve put every effort toward being a super parent, and now the kids are looking at you with nothing but supper on their brains. That point when you suddenly find yourself going out of your way to avoid eye contact.
There are so many reasons why it is hard for even a professional chef like me to create a delicious meal for my small family of four. So regardless of how many kids you have, or your cooking skills, there are ways to work smart and turn day-after-day of mealtime prep into super moments of brilliance.
The Time Thing
There is just never enough of it. But there are strategic things I do to make the most of what I’ve got.
- Buy pre-prepped ingredients. Look for shortcuts throughout the grocery store. For example: Frozen, chopped mirepoix (onions, carrots and celery) goes great in soups and casseroles. Save even more time on soups and stews by using boxed chicken or vegetable broth. Also try canned beans. They’re ready to go when you are and are incredibly flexible — they are great in chili, bean dips and many other easy bean recipes. A meal can still be delicious and good for you, even if you’ve gotten a little help in the prep department.
- Plan meals in advance. Not whole menus, just start with a meal. Make sure to always have on hand the supplies for main courses. Plan meals that can work double-duty easily and account for leftovers in lunch plans for the week. Keep your fridge and pantry stocked with versatile ingredients like pre-made pizza dough that can be topped like a pizza or stuffed with leftovers to become a calzone. Transform eggs into flavorful burritos or full-fledged brinners (breakfasts for dinner). And whole baked potatoes can be stuffed with just about any savory ingredient you have on hand. Make sure nothing goes to waste and include your family in the planning of each series of meals.
- Put your family to work. So that they’re invested in the meal, and the process of preparing it moves along quickly, give everyone a job in the kitchen. Put smaller children on stirring and counting duties. Older children can open cans, help with the prep work and set the table. Chopping and cooking should either be left to adults or performed by older children under close adult supervision.
Of course if money wasn’t an object, you might just hire a chef to cook all of your meals — but it is easier than you might think to cook on a budget.
- Be a smart shopper. Buy a whole chicken versus just the breast; if you aren’t confident in your butchering skills, ask the butcher to break it down for you. Buy the tougher pieces of meats; short ribs are affordable and so delicious. For produce, tap into the bounty of the frozen food section; you can use just what you need for one meal and freeze the rest until later.
- Don’t waste anything. If fresh fruit is starting to go bad on your countertop, cut it up and freeze it for another day. When fresh veggies begin to brown or wilt, roast them until they’re tender. Freezing gives you an extra month; roasting buys you an extra week as well as new options for different dishes.
Experience – Or Lack Thereof
Be honest with yourself. And don’t be afraid to fake it ‘til you make it, baby!
- Know your strengths. If you are a rock star behind the grill, then grill away! If you’re looking for a quick family dinner, put some chicken on the grill and serve with a colorful mix of beans and veggies or another delicious but quick canned bean recipe. If the crockpot is your go-to tool, then use it every day. If your heart is into baking, then collect the recipes that make it happen. Cook within your comfort zone for the best use of resources and the most positive results.
- Know what you’ve got to work with. Whether it’s time, budget or equipment that present the greatest challenges for you in cooking, be prepared before you even step foot in the kitchen. Build your recipe collection and pantry within the context of your situation. Also, know your audience — beef bourguignon is not going to work for an impatient 5-year-old, just as brinner every night won’t appeal to the adult masses.
- It’s okay to turn to the pros. Make peace with the fact that sometimes homemade is not necessarily the most delicious. Take advantage of store-bought foods that nourish and satisfy your family. In these cases, there’s nothing smarter than a “cheat.”
Keep these thoughts in the same place you keep your magic lasso, Super Mom. And Super Dad, save a place for them in your utility belt. Everyday life is so darn crazy, but with some not-so-superhero strategy, you can dazzle the little guys you were wrestling with earlier with a meal marinated in brilliance.