My life is a juggling act. I'm a single mother of two sons; I've got a busy work schedule and limited resources. But there is one thing I don't worry about: When I come home at night, dinner is already started. A typical weeknight at my house looks like this:
My youngest child is snapping the ends off the greens beans.
My eldest is mixing up his secret salad dressing.
The babysitter is working on the shopping list for tomorrow's dinner--a lasagna the kids want to make.
I throw on an apron, send the babysitter home and join my kids in the preparations for dinner.
Sounds too far-fetched for your home? It doesn't have to be. If my family can do it, any family can.
Our meals weren't always such happy group efforts. Seven years ago, my life was shattered by divorce, leaving me with a 6-month-old infant and a very angry 7-year-old. I had no family nearby and very little money. The burden of rebuilding my career as a food writer and publicist and caring for my children seemed insurmountable.
While I did my best to work during my youngest's nap times, by day's end I was physically exhausted and emotionally depleted. Typically I shooed the boys out of the kitchen so I could perform yet another chore--making dinner. When I got the meal on the table, I left them to eat alone so I could have five minutes' peace. Retreating to my bedroom, I collapsed onto my bed and cried. I felt horrible about my family life and helpless to change it.
A year passed, but not much improved. At the end of my rope, one evening I thrust some basil at my youngest, who was then 18 months old, so he'd leave me alone. Lo and behold, he spent 10 minutes happily tearing the basil into little pieces. I was shocked at how he stayed on the task without uttering a peep.
Suddenly, I saw an opportunity. He wanted to help me and I sure needed help. Why not let him cook with me?
So he and his older brother began doing lots of tasks in the kitchen: peeling vegetables, grating cheese, pushing the blender and food processor buttons, plucking the leaves from herbs, tearing up salad greens, kneading dough, stirring risotto and even helping me make homemade pasta!
It was incredible what they could be persuaded to do--all because I invited them into the process and believed in their ability to really help. Yes, it got messy at times. And at first I would feel rushed and I often sabotaged the moment by grabbing something away because they were taking so long. Then I realized I no longer had any reason to be in a hurry. As long as the kids were with me in the kitchen, they were not whining about dinner. They were busy and content. I decided to stop worrying about the mess or about the time it took to cook the meal. And though it was hard to stick to it, I decided to enjoy the process of cooking with my kids and not worry about the meal itself being perfect.
We started to laugh a lot at dinner time. And my eldest son began to rely on that time of the day to share his worries and fears. We would talk about tutors and help for him in school, and, over time, his problems lessened. He was getting the quality time he needed.
With this mind-set, you won't make the mistake of getting tense and impatient, grabbing food or tools away from the kids because they're too slow. The kids won't end up running off in tears. You'll just be talking, going along cooking and soon you'll realize that new lines of communication and strong bonds are forming.
Family cooking has another tangible reward. The meal will be prepared and you'll actually want to sit at the table and enjoy it together. It may well become your favorite part of the day.
Children are never too young to be brought into the kitchen. But involve them in stages. For children under 3, the goal should not be what they accomplish; rather, the focus should be on developing their sense of pride in helping. By 8 or so, they have developed sufficient motor skills so that they can use kitchen tools and can be given independent recipe steps or simple recipes to follow.
(The three recipes that follow are from "Cooking Time is Family Time" by Lynn Fredericks, Morrow, 1999).
Stephan & Alex's Quick Lasagna
My boys love making basic lasagna but they hate waiting for hours for it to be assembled and baked. After some discussion, we went shopping and decided to see how much time we could shave off the process by purchasing ready-made sauce, precooked noodles and already grated cheeses.
When we got home, we preheated the oven and had the entire lasagna ready just about the time the oven buzzed, indicating it was hot enough. Forty minutes later, the lasagna was on the table, giving us time to prepare a salad, to do a bit of homework and for me to enjoy a glass of wine, unharried.
In the past it had taken us over an hour just to get it to the oven. Of course, if we have our own homemade sauce on hand, that is preferable, but we were quite satisfied with the finished dish when using the shortcuts indicated here.
Nonstick cooking spray
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 pound ground beef
26-ounce jar spaghetti sauce
Kosher salt to taste
Half of 16-ounce package precooked lasagne noodles
15-ounce container ricotta cheese (whole or part-skim)
8-ounce package grated mozzarella cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with the spray oil.
In a large skillet over low heat, heat the oil. Kids 8 years and older can help you dice the onion. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 10 minutes.
Increase the heat to medium-high, add the ground beef and cook, letting the kids "smash 'n stir" with long wooden spoons, until the beef is no longer visibly pink. Drain the fat from the beef. Stir in the spaghetti sauce and salt to taste and simmer for 5 minutes.
The children can ladle about 1/4 of the meat sauce into the bottom of the prepared baking dish, spreading it around with a spoon to cover the bottom of the dish. Divide the lasagna noodles into 3 portions. With 1 portion, make a layer to completely cover the sauce, breaking up the noodles as necessary. Now have the kids ladle another 1/4 of the meat sauce over the noodles. With a spatula or wooden spoon, carefully spread 1/3 of the ricotta cheese over the meat sauce. This is kind of tricky, but it does not have to be a perfectly even layer. Next have the kids add a second layer of noodles, followed by another layer of meat sauce, followed by another layer of ricotta cheese. Repeat with 1 more layer of the remaining noodles, meat sauce and ricotta cheese. Sprinkle the lasagna with the mozzarella cheese.
Bake in the preheated oven until parents can see that the noodles are soft when tested with a fork, about 40 minutes.
Per serving: 648 calories, 40 gm protein, 37 gm carbohydrates, 38 gm fat, 155 mg cholesterol, 17 gm saturated fat, 1,015 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber
Roast Chicken With Lemon
My kids love this roast chicken stuffed with lemons. Alex thought the lemons in the chicken were weird, but he was totally taken with the way they perfumed the meat and penetrated its flavor. As a mom, I love this chicken because it is so easy to prepare and lemons are always available.
6-pound roasting chicken
Kitchen twine or thread
2 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 415 degrees.
Help your children remove the chicken from the packaging and wash the chicken thoroughly under cool running water. Be sure to remove any organ meat from the inner cavity and wash the entire chicken. Set aside. (Be sure that everyone washes his hands in soapy water after handling the raw chicken.)
Kids 8 years and older can help slice the lemons. Turn the chicken on its back and place the lemon slices inside the inner cavity. Loop the middle portion of the kitchen twine around the tail of the chicken, then bring the ends of the twine around the legs. Pull the twine taught and make a knot.
The kids can drizzle the oil over the chicken and, using their hands, coat the chicken with the oil. Little ones can sprinkle the salt evenly over the chicken. Transfer the chicken to a roasting pan and roast in the preheated oven until the juices run clear when pierced with a knife or fork, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Remove the chicken from the oven and let it rest for about 10 minutes before serving.
Per serving (with skin): 376 calories, 45 gm protein, 0 gm carbohydrates, 21 gm fat, 141 mg cholesterol, 5 gm saturated fat, 174 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber
(6 to 8 servings)
You can add vegetables, other cheeses, legumes, meat sauce or just herbs to this basic recipe; the more creative you get, the more you and your children will "own" and enjoy your original creations. I always keep Arborio rice, chicken broth, a bottle of white wine and some Parmesan cheese in the house. Then, when someone needs help deciding on a dish for dinner, we "resort" to risotto since everyone adores it.
It is important that the kids not get impatient and add too much broth at once; this will affect the texture. Risotto is creamy because of the slow cooking of each ladleful of broth, which coaxes the starches out gently and keeps the grains of rice intact.
2 quarts chicken broth
1 medium onion
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Arborio rice
1/3 cup white wine, such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt to taste
In a medium saucepan, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until ready to use.
Children 8 years and older can help you dice the onion. Meanwhile, parents can heat a large pot over medium heat. Children 7 years and younger can measure 3 tablespoons from the stick of butter and cut it off with a table knife. Then add the butter to the pot with the oil. When the oil and butter are hot, reduce the heat to low, add the chopped onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 10 minutes.
Let the kids stir the rice into the onions. Increase the heat to medium-high and continue stirring slowly until each grain of rice is coated with the onion mixture and the rice is glistening from the oil and butter. Small children can do this once they practice and learn a controlled stirring motion. "Slow and steady" is what I repeat as they work to get the hang of it. Make sure the stirring hand is protected with an oven mitt.
Pour the wine into the rice mixture, stirring constantly, and wait for it to be absorbed completely; you want the flavor, not the alcohol. You are now well into the constant stirring process necessary for good risotto. The children can put on an oven mitt and, using a long-handled ladle, pour a ladleful of the simmering broth into the rice mixture. Stir continuously until the broth is absorbed. Repeat this process over and over, until the rice is cooked through but not mushy, using as much broth as necessary. The goal is a creamy consistency--slightly soupy, but not watery. You may have stock left over; this recipe allows for extra since some will evaporate during the constant simmering.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and the Parmesan cheese. Salt to taste but you may find that none is required, depending on how salty the broth is. If you're adding mushrooms or vegetables or anything else, they should be precooked and stirred in at this point, just before spooning into individual serving bowls. Serve immediately.
Per serving (based on 8): 215 calories, 6 gm protein, 15 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 21 mg cholesterol, 6 gm saturated fat, 159 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Lynn Fredericks, the author of "Cooking Time Is Family Time" (Morrow, $25), is deputy director of the Food Studies Institute and gives cooking classes for parents and kids. She lives in New York with her two sons.
Making Cooking Time Family Time
Ten Rules for Beginners
1) Turn off the television at cooking time and mealtime. TV is a big distraction when you want family conversation and interaction.
2) Share responsibility for all aspects of the meal with your children. Start by deciding together what you'll be having.
3) Shop for ingredients with your children. Give them an opportunity to pick the vegetables, meats and starches themselves.
4) Establish a budget and make them keep to it. Have kids compare prices of fresh and prepared foods.
5) Start with recipes you know they love. They are more likely to be interested.
6) For apathetic eaters, start by having them make dessert. While they are working on that, engage their help with the main meal.
7) Make the dinner table sacred by keeping it permanently set with a tablecloth and cloth napkins (all washable). Be sure to not let the table get piled up with mail and things that need to be put away.
8) Give dinner a ceremonial aspect. Wait until all family members are seated and served before permitting anyone to eat.
9) Make it clear to your children that they can have your attention, but only if they are in the kitchen. Don't let them call to you from all parts of the house.
10) Keep dinner time discussion (during cooking and eating) to topics that will be of interest to your children. This is not the time to get down on them about homework or problems in school.