Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Mom Puts Family on Her Meal Plan
The New York Times
Mom Puts Family on Her Meal Plan
By LESLIE KAUFMAN
Published: July 11, 2007
FOR the past 10 years, I have starred in my own reality series: “Working Mom Cooks Weeknight Dinner.” Think of it as “Survivor” meets “Iron Chef” with a bit of “Deal or No Deal.”
In the show’s long-running history there have been stretches in which the entire tribe was forced to subsist on scrambled eggs, tuna sandwiches and reheated Chinese food. But together we have overcome obstacles, gained wisdom and reached a point where my husband and I and our two boys eat balanced and even inventive home-cooked meals most nights.
This achievement is a bit of a wonder to my peers. So many of them struggle to eat dinner together, often waiting until the last minute to boil pasta and toss it with store-bought sauce or, more likely, dining on the leftover macaroni and cheese the babysitter fed the children. Some friends, otherwise civilized and professional, confess they resort to cold cereal.
The pitfalls of the modern family meal are well chronicled: the varying schedules, the demanding diets (low carb, no wheat, no meat) and the fact that all too often the dinner so proudly displayed is greeted by a cheerful “Oh, that looks disgusting.” For most working parents, even a 30-minute meal seems like a June Cleaver-era indulgence. By the time I walk in the door at 7:30 my children are off-the-wall hungry, even having had snacks. Ideally, dinner will take 15 minutes or less to put on the table.
But despite the challenges, I tell you it can be done. I committed to cooking a family meal when my first son was born, in 1997, not because of any psychology study about the well-being of children, but because it gave me comfort.
Every working mother has to draw the line somewhere. Maybe my children would take their first steps with a babysitter, or perform in school plays with only their grandparents in attendance. But mom would cook their dinners.
At first I rotated the dozen recipes I kept in my head over and over. But if my family grew tired of endless reiterations of chicken piccata, sloppy Joes and pasta puttanesca, they held their tongues.
Over time I developed a routine that allowed for more variation and less last-minute cooking. The key to long-term success is not so much the food but the pacing and organization of the meals. Recipes are important, of course, and I am ever vigilant about finding high-impact, low-labor inventions. But that is the easy part. These days there is no shortage of outlets that offer menu planners and ideas that are clever and quick.
I am not offering a shopping list but rather a game plan, tried and true. These are the rules of play; follow one or two each week and you will never have to eat Cheerios after 5 p.m.
Sunday Is Not a Day of Rest
If you are going to cook dinner every day of the week, you will have to do most of your shopping and some preparing ahead of time. This is particularly the case, if, like me, you live someplace that does not have a market for last-minute supplies nearby.
Yes, this means planning menus for the week. Don’t wince. This is good. It means freedom from the painfully frequent question, “What are we going to eat tonight?” By Sunday, you will know.
Getting some meals ready ahead of time makes sense for people who like to cook, because weekend preparation can be as languorous as you allow.
In spring and summer, when my boys dog me to pitch baseballs and my herb garden calls for fussing, I keep it simple. Advance work might include buying the ingredients for a composed salad and chopping and roasting whatever can be done ahead of time without sacrificing freshness. I might use the most basic techniques: steaming artichokes, for example, instead of braising them.
In winter, depending on my mood, I could make a chuck roast in wine and herbs (10 minutes of browning and stirring, three hours in the oven) instead of concocting a stew that demands that the meat be cubed, floured and browned and copious vegetables be diced. Or, I could do just the reverse.
As often as not, I don’t cook the food right away but prepare it for the moment it is to be popped into the oven. For food that looks great and entices children, I find it is easy to stuff a flank steak or chicken breasts ahead of time, secure them with twine, wrap them well and just roast them when I walk in the door.
Whatever the season, my habit is to get at least two meals done on Sunday. For at least one of these meals I make a double portion and freeze half to serve a week from the coming Tuesday. Among my standbys are chili (vegetable, chicken and white bean, or beef), Bolognese sauce, fish cakes, pesto (in ice cube trays) and soups, especially split pea, minestrone and carrot-orange.
If you are disciplined, shopping and cooking (not including time in the oven) can be kept to two hours on Sunday, setting you up for dinners through Tuesday.
The Foods of My Mother
The kitchen of the Greenwich Village apartment that I grew up in was long and narrow and had but one window, facing north. Still, in my mind’s eye it is a particularly warm room, often full of teenagers draped on counters or stools and eating everything in sight. When I was young I attributed our popularity to the fact that I was one of three gregarious female siblings. But in retrospect it seems possible my mother’s pot roast was the real magnet.
There was always a leftover roast chicken, meatloaf or pot roast in our refrigerator. Always. The reliability of these offerings was something of a joke among my friends, but they did end up in my kitchen stuffing themselves after every school event. Who could blame them? Even today few foods are more satisfying than my father’s warmed brisket sandwich on rye with mayonnaise and chili sauce.
Naturally, when I began to cook I disdained such pedestrian offerings or reconfigured them to epicurean standards. My mother’s meatloaf consisted of Lipton onion soup mix and white bread soaked in milk. Mine had to have diced vegetables, sautéed and cooled; three kinds of meat (I ground my own sausage); and spices like cumin and nutmeg.
I have now come full circle, and appreciate the genius of my mother’s approach. I have four core dishes: meatloaf, pot roast, roast chicken and meatballs. I prepare the most basic, pared-down version of each dish. By now it is reflexive. I could do it in my sleep. Perhaps I have. My basic roast chicken is covered in oil and sprinkled with kosher salt and paprika, and that’s that.
Every week I make at least one of those dishes and leave it in the back of the fridge to do emergency duty, as in: “I am not eating anything stuffed with spinach. That’s disgusting.” And like a great friend, it never fails me in a crisis. It can be reheated as a meal, sliced for sandwiches, diced for a pasta sauce and used with cheese to fill a tortilla or a twice-baked potato.
And there is always hearty food at the ready for children: mine, yours, whoever drops by.
Incredible Disassembling Meals
When my first son was little, I fed him puréed chunks of whatever my husband and I had for dinner. I congratulated myself when he showed a precocious affection for capers. The trick, I explained to friends who were amazed at his willingness to eat chopped broccolini, was to resist the child’s capricious demands for separate meals. Fortitude, I counseled.
Then, of course, came No. 2.
My second son has stubbornly adhered to a diet of mostly white foods for nearly six years: pasta, rice, cheese, bread, potatoes, chicken. He also eats red meat, baby carrots and chocolate. Recently, in what is being regarded as a green revolution, he has added edamame and string beans.
I refuse to cook to suit him, yet I cannot not feed him. What we have learned together is that no meal is greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, I plan each meal with the thought that it will be consumed in pieces. Some of every pot of pasta never gets sauce. Mushrooms or pickled things are added at the table and only for volunteers.
If everybody eats something, I call it a victory.
Take a recent night when I cooked a household favorite, meatball “pizzas” on whole-wheat pitas. My husband and I indulged in the works: two cheeses (fresh but grated by the store), meatballs (which I shaped and browned over the weekend), thinly sliced red onion and tomato, red pepper flakes and mint from the garden. Assembly took five minutes, the time under the broiler seven. (We paired this with a plain green romaine salad.)
My older son, Sam, 9, ate the salad and pita with a light covering of mozzarella. Joe, who is 6, ate meatballs with ketchup in the pita and baby carrots for his vegetable.
The next night we had lamb cooked on the grill, couscous with olives and lemon and okra pickle. My husband and I ate everything (and drank a nice zinfandel); Sam had lamb and couscous; Joe had couscous, cottage cheese and baby carrots. Needless to say, no child touched the okra.
Perhaps by now you have noticed we are not all the way through the week. I’ve helped you plan Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. If you’ve done your job well, Friday will be leftovers night. On Saturday everybody’s out and about. But what about Wednesday and Thursday?
This is why you must memorize five or six dishes that can be prepared in a snap. If you use only one a week, say on Wednesday, they will not get old or tired.
As someone who watches carbs, I make here a painful admission: pasta is the best bet (ask your babysitter or children to have the water boiling by the time you get home). Goat cheese mixed with a little hot water makes an easy, tangy dressing. I serve it over fusilli and mix in vegetables. Olives, sautéed red peppers and onions are favorite additions. My older son is partial to pasta carbonara with turkey bacon and eggs. In fact, he has learned to cook it himself.
Quickly seared meats like lamb chops and thin steaks are satisfying (cooked with little more than olive oil and sea salt) and just right over spicy prewashed greens and served with bread. (Children may omit greens and go straight for the baby carrots.) The trick for flavor here is a salad dressing with an extra twist, like puréed sun-dried tomatoes or chipotle peppers. The dressing, of course, can be made ahead.
Stir-fries are immensely popular with children but require planning if they are to hit the table in 15 minutes. I slice steak, chicken and vegetables in the morning and store them separately. It makes assembly in the evening easy. Teach the children or the babysitter to make rice or it will delay the meal.
Pan-grilled sandwiches with a mix of meat and cheese, and pickled onions and sweet pickles as condiments, are also popular. The adults can add red onion and tomatoes.
Fast vegetables are also important. Asparagus can be sprayed with olive oil and roasted in seven minutes. Prewashed baby spinach can be tossed in the wok and on the table in about as much time. Shredded cole slaw from bags can be assembled in under five.
What About Thursday?
Thursday is takeout night! You’ve earned every mouthful.
Labels: Diet Tips