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Hard-won lessons about weeknight dinner

Food writers learns that, with kids, meals not easy to prepare

Jo Ehlers hands around the kitchen as her mom, Andrea Weigle, serves pizza she made for her family in Raleigh, North Carolina, on August 14, 2013.
Jo Ehlers hands around the kitchen as her mom, Andrea Weigle, serves pizza she made for her family in Raleigh, North Carolina, on August 14, 2013.

Dear readers, I owe you an apology. During my six years as a food writer, I have often blithely assured you that it is easy to get weeknight dinners on the table.

Then I had a baby.

I soon learned that cooking dinner on a weeknight is not so easy to do, especially after a long day of work, especially with a toddler underfoot, especially if you have done no planning. And so, I’ve spent the last 22 months learning new strategies for tackling weeknight meals and trying to avoid the “I give up” pizza delivery order. (I don’t want to make anyone feel bad about making that call. This daily chore is hard, harder than I ever imagined, and the occasional pizza delivery isn’t going to hurt anybody.)

To make it up to you (and learn a few things myself), I asked more experienced working parents to share their advice. I pored through cookbooks and interviewed the authors. What I have learned is there are two approaches to weeknight meals: the pantry method and the planning method. Home cooks tend to fall into one of those two camps.

Those in the pantry camp stock their kitchen so well that they always have ingredients for at least a few go-to recipes. They may cook more based on what they feel like eating, stopping at the store to supplement what’s on hand. I suspect these are folks who can open the refrigerator and make a delicious meal based on whatever they find inside.

Those in the planning camp fall somewhere along a broad spectrum. Some people plan the proteins they will make during the week, and fill in on the starches and the vegetables based on what they bought at the farmers market or have in the freezer. Some people, like me, write down what they will cook each night of the week. Some are rigid about their meal plans. Others are more flexible.

The best trick I’ve found when planning a week’s menu is this: Write down not only what’s for dinner that night but what needs to be done ahead of time for the next night’s dinner. That may be making rice for fried rice or pulling tomato sauce and pizza dough out of the freezer.

Here are the best gems of advice from each person that I interviewed.

From the pantry proponents

Frank Scholle, a microbiology professor at N.C. State University, doesn’t like to plan ahead.

“I don’t know what I feel like eating on a given day,” he said. Instead, he runs to the grocery store each day after work, then picks up his 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son before heading home to make dinner. This works because Scholle avoids elaborate meals on weeknights.

He cooks simple but good food: turkey tacos, pasta with a quick homemade tomato sauce, breakfast for supper.

Jennifer Perillo, author of “Homemade with Love” cookbook and In Jennie’s Kitchen blog, also prefers not to plan too far ahead.

“I can’t stress enough that having a well-stocked pantry puts you in charge and not the clock,” Perillo said. The items Perillo always must have on hand reflect her Italian heritage: canned tomatoes, onions, garlic, fresh often assemble the dry ingredients for waffles, muffins or pancakes the night before.

“There’s something psychological about having it done and just having to crack an egg,” she said.

Robin Miller, host of “Quick Fix Meals” on the Food Network, lets the grocery store be her guide. She buys whatever protein is on sale or what looks the freshest.

Instead of buying what she will need for one meal, she buys double the amount. When she’s cooking a starch for a meal, she’ll cook twice as much as she’ll need for one meal so she has leftovers for a later meal. With starches and proteins ready to go, Miller said she can easily weave in vegetables.

Miller says parents should never feel guilty about using products that can make this daily task easier: chopped vegetables, pesto, bottled sauces.

“You are still cooking for your family,” she said. “You are still sitting down at the table together as a family.”

From the planning crowd

Merrill Hacker, a teacher who lives outside Charlotte, N.C., and the mother of three children, tries to work ahead as much as possible. Hacker will chop vegetables, marinate meats or double a batch of rice to use the leftovers later in the week. Anchoring this effort is a meal plan that she writes on the weekends with input from her husband, her daughter and her two stepdaughters who live with them on the weekends.

Jenny Rosenstrach, author of “Dinner, a Love Story” cookbook and blog, echoes that idea. If one parent is the primary cook, the other can at least help with ideas. Often, the regular cook can get stumped or in a rut and needs inspiration. The best part, if your children suggest a meal, they are more likely to eat it.

Planning ahead is key to Rosenstrach, whose cookbook details the evolution of her approach to dinner as her children have grown.

“I think planning — no matter what stage you are in — has to be part of the equation,” she said. “You should have the think work out of the way.” That way you know what you are doing when you enter the kitchen.

April McGreger, owner of Carrboro, N.C.-based Farmer’s Daughter Brand pickles and preserves and the mother of a 2 ½-year-old son, takes another approach. Instead of planning a week’s worth of meals, she identifies the proteins and starches they will eat that week.

She’ll roast a whole chicken on a Sunday and use the leftovers as a base for a second meal. She will make a double batch of rice or pasta. She blanches vegetables in batches.

Overall, McGreger, a former pastry chef at Lantern restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., finds herself cooking more like her mother did. She uses a slow cooker, which she never thought she would.

She refers to the community cookbooks that her mother did. She cooks simple meals and then puts out condiments, like hot sauce or chowchow for her husband and herself.

“This is the time of fairly simple cooking,” McGreger said. “We’re not having spicy Thai curries for the next few years.”

Meala Culpa: Food planning with an app

Melissa Ashcraft, a marketing executive for an Oregon technology company, wanted a technological solution to her weekly meal planning dilemma. Her complaint was that most meal planning apps required users to choose what meals to cook each week. Ashcraft wanted that decision made for her.

So she designed a $2.99 iPhone app called FivePlates, which will be available early next month. Each week, users receive a list of five meals with recipes using whole ingredients that take an hour or less to prepare. Users can swap out one recipe for another if a family member won’t eat fish or despises olives. The shopping list can be edited based on what the user has on hand. Info:

A reading list

Here are some cookbooks I found helpful or were recommended by others:

“Homemade with Love,” by Jennifer Perillo (Running Press, 2013) — Perillo offers a few recipes that have become staples in my house, including an all-purpose baking mix that can be used to make pancakes, waffles and muffins. Her pie dough and quick tomato sauce recipes, shared below, are made in batches to put in the freezer.

Perillo’s blog:

“Dinner, a Love Story,” by Jenny Rosenstrach (HarperCollins, 2012) — Rosenstrach shares the recipes she turned to as her family evolved: the indulgent ones she and her husband made as a young couple, the harried ones they made after their girls were born and up until age 3, and the ones they make now that everyone sits down to enjoy a more traditional family dinner. Her writing style is inviting and reassuring to those on the same journey.

She also has a blog by the same name:

“Robin Takes 5 Cookbook for Busy Families,” by Robin Miller, (Andres McNeel, 2013) — Fans of Miller’s Food Network show will enjoy these recipes that take advantage of convenience foods to take the stress out of making dinner. Miller’s cookbook offers recipes for breakfast, lunch, snacks, desserts and dinners, including a whole chapter for the slow cooker.

“The Mom 100 Cookbook,” by Katie Workman (Workman, 2012) — Workman offers 100 recipes that “every mom needs in her back pocket,” as the tagline says. She offers building-block recipes and variations and solutions to various dilemmas that working parents encounter.

Check out her blog:

The freezer stash

These days, there are three things always in my freezer: pizza dough, pie crust and tomato sauce in two different size containers, small for pizzas and large for pasta. Here are my go-to recipes:

Pizza Americana Dough: In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, combine 5 cups bread flour, 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 teaspoons table salt or 3 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, 2 teaspoons instant yeast, ¼ cup olive or vegetable oil or solid vegetable shortening, 1 cup whole or low-fat milk and ¾ cup room-temperature water. Using the dough hook, mix on low speed for 4 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes and then mix an additional 2 minutes. Divide into 4 equal pieces. Rub with olive oil and place each one in a ziptop plastic bag. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes. Then freeze. On the night before you plan to make pizza, place dough in refrigerator and pull out to sit on the kitchen counter 2 hours before you plan to bake it.

Foolproof Pie Crust: Combine 1/3 cup yellow cornmeal, 1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour, ½ teaspoon sea salt and 1 teaspoon sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse once or twice to mix. Add 1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into 16 pieces. Pulse again until dough looks sandy. Add 1 egg, 1 ½ teaspoons vinegar and 2 tablespoons ice cold water. Pulse until it forms a solid ball. Dump onto floured counter and knead a couple of times until it comes together. Divide in two. Wrap in plastic and place in a ziptop plastic bag and stash in freezer. Defrost overnight in refrigerator before planning to use.

20-Minute Marinara Sauce: Heat 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil in a 2-quart pot over medium heat. Add 2 whole garlic cloves and cook until golden and fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Squeeze whole tomatoes from a 28-ounce can over the pot and then add remaining juice in the can to the pot. Add handful of torn basil leaves, sea salt and black pepper to taste. Reduce heat to medium-low and let cook for 15 minutes. Once done cooking, puree in the food processor, if desired, then divide sauce into containers and freeze.

From “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza,” by Peter Reinhart (Ten Speed Press, 2003) and “Homemade with Love,” by Jennifer Perillo (Running Press, 2013).

©2013 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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