As I’ve said before, I’m of the mindset that life at home should be simple and that children need a solid framework of boundaries. However, as a new parent who never really experienced the raising of another child (such as a younger sibling) and, therefore, is starting out with a completely blank slate of knowledge, I’ve done my fair share of researching the subject rather than simply going with my instincts. How do you get a child to behave? What are the best and most appropriate toys? What effect does television have? How do you prevent a child from becoming a picky eater? Subject after subject. I read online articles, I look at parent forums, I buy books. One of the pieces of writing that has had a more profound affect on my parenting mindset is Kim John Payne’s, “Simplicity Parenting,” which is generally right in line with my own instincts and preferences. He touts the possession of fewer toys (and simple, imaginative ones at that), less technological interference (computers, phones, television), planning ahead, and uncomplicated organization, among other points. Honestly, if only one parenting book is ever purchased, I’d suggest this one, but it really depends on your own opinions.
Back to the point, Payne also touches on the family meal, suggesting a way to make it a simpler task. When you have more than two people to cook for, especially when any of those people is a child, cooking can become a burden. When a toddler is clinging to your legs wanting to be picked up in order to watch the entire process, leaning into the hot pots looking for a taste, or pulling at your arms to drag you away for some play, the effort has been made that much more frustrating and difficult. Something that used to be a joy can be dreaded. And those are only a couple examples of how cooking for a family can feel harder than cooking for just yourself or a significant other. So, what’s the solution?
Beyond the obvious pre-planning and prepping, stocking the freezer with pre-made, bulk meals, which all of us will advise…Payne’s suggestion is to establish a meal schedule. Think back to the meatloaf Tuesdays of the 50’s; each day is assigned a specific meal. Now, don’t cringe! A popular belief is that this sets you up for food boredom. “GREAT, meatloaf AGAIN.” No no…deciding that every Sunday will be a pasta dish does not constrain you to making the same exact pasta dish every single week. In fact, for me, it has opened up a whole new world of cooking. But then it depends on how specific your meal choices are. If you decide that Tuesday will be meatloaf, then you have just stuck yourself into a fairly small box of choices. If you decide it’s beef night, though, you still have endless options. Will it be steak? What cut of steak? Braised beef? Stew? Hamburgers? Meatballs? Empanadas? Meatloaf?
The point is to create a framework within which you have many options. Of course, this may still leave you open to indecisiveness, “Steak? Hamburgers? Ugh, which one!?” but then that simply hinges on your ability to make a final, quick decision and, no matter what, that debate is simpler than the debate of every main course in existence 😉 Also, you very clearly have the option to plan the entire week ahead of time, thus making the task even simpler. Either way, knowing that I’m absolutely going to be eating soup on Wednesday allows me to only research soup recipes, to simply mull over which flavor of soup, rather than to mull over every type of dish imaginable as well as which main course and which side. As someone who’s incredibly, incredibly indecisive, this has actually made my daily life run much more smoothly. I can’t believe the difference in my evenings, especially work nights, when I know exactly what main course to look for.
As I said, you actually have so many options within that framework that you’re now more able to create a diverse weekly menu, or at least that’s how it’s gone for me! Before creating this schedule, I was so indecisive that I’d essentially break down and just go with what I know, in which case we ate a lot of coq au vin, butternut squash risotto, and pasta with bolognese. What’s easier than making a dish you’ve made a thousand times, that you definitely have the ingredients for, that you definitely like?
With the schedule, though, I know to research a pasta recipe for Sunday. Will we have spaghetti with marinara? Or maybe linguine carbonara? How about stuffed manicotti? Lasagne? Orechiette with lemon and artichokes? Conchiglie with roasted broccoli and garlic? What about pappardelle bolognese? Will I make a fresh sauce or use something from my freezer stock? And the remainder of the week is the same. In which case…
Rather than having coq au vin, butternut squash risotto, pasta with bolognese, more pasta with maybe marinara, chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes, and maybe leftovers of one of these dishes the seventh night and generally repeating this week in and week out…We end up with linguine carbonara Sunday, French onion risotto Monday, burgundy beef stew Tuesday, roasted winter vegetable soup Wednesday, chicken piccata Thursday, balsamic glazed salmon Friday, and garlic roast chicken with creamy mashed potatoes, roasted carrots, and fudge brownies Saturday (that’s our “feast” night, rather like the traditional, fancier Sunday supper). Then, the next week, we have fusilli with artichokes and sun dried tomatoes in a white wine sauce Sunday, rice with eggs poached in tomato sauce Monday, ribeye with red wine sauce and Italian oven fries Tuesday, vegetable pot pie Wednesday (soup night and I count pot pie filling as soup!), curry chicken over coconut rice Thursday, pistachio-crusted whitefish with garlic potatoes Friday, and chicken Milanese with roasted tomato crostini, rosemary garlic spaghetti, and salted caramel ice cream (for dessert) Saturday.
Are you salivating yet!? I just ate peanut-crusted chicken with orange-coconut basmati rice and curry sauce and I’m already hungry again after all that!
My point in this massive list of meal ideas is this…I’m incredibly indecisive. When left with every option in the world for what to eat, I’m going to panic trying to figure out what I feel like eating and attempting to match that with what each member of my family feels like eating, as well as ensure we actually have the ingredients on hand and, if not, figure out a whole new meal or, *gasp*, trek to the store on a work night. Then, when I just can’t take the inner debate anymore, I’m going to default to a go-to dish that we’ll probably eat at least once a week, if not more. Maybe you don’t have this issue, but if you do…if you just never know what to make, take too long to decide at the last minute, can’t organize well enough to plan ahead with all those options, find the prep work each night a ton of work…then this can help you too!
And your spouse and your kids are not allowed to push you to deviate from this. “But I don’t feel like soup!” Well, that’s too bad because that’s what we’re having and once you smell it and you eat it, you’re going to love it and feel content and satisfied. The same goes for you; maybe you don’t feel like eating whatever it is that you’ve decided to make, but that will most likely change once you’ve sat down to eat. It certainly has for me every single time I’ve come into this dilemma. Once that delicious meal hits your tongue, you’re in! The point is that you have to stick with the plan or it’s rendered useless and does you no favors.
My ultimate suggestion is to create a meal schedule so that you have a framework within to work, plan a week’s meals ahead of time (then you can shop for any missing ingredients), and do whatever prep work you can beforehand. I haven’t gotten down the habit of planning the entire week ahead or doing the prep work, but it definitely helps if you’re able to get into that groove. Also, a lot of meals actually end up having the same base ingredients like, let’s say, onions. So, if tonight’s meal calls for onions, I cut up more than I need and keep the rest in a container in the refrigerator so I end up with that much less effort to make (and tools to clean) the next time that particular ingredient pops up in that week’s meals. And if you don’t end up needing it, you can freeze the rest (just research whether an ingredient can be frozen raw or needs a quick blanching first) and the same idea applies for the next time you do actually need it. I’ve ended up having zero prep to do some nights simply because it’s all ready to go in my fridge!
And beyond all this, you can use your leftovers to create a completely new meal. Mashed potatoes can be turned into potato soup or used to top shepherd’s pie; rice put into a stew or reheated with a fried egg or turned into stir fry; cooked chicken can be gently reheated with a new sauce or put into pot pie, shredded into chicken salad…don’t constrain your leftovers to the same exact dish from which they originated. I mean, this is how some of our best dishes were made! Mixing and matching leftovers to ensure every bite gets used up.
So, if cooking for your family on a nightly basis seems a daunting, even scary task, simplify your life by creating a framework within which to work, but leave that framework wide and open to let your creativity fly.