We make a point of eating dinner as a family most nights. It’s the way I grew up, and it’s still the time of day when getting everyone together works. We all seem to get up at different times and no one has the same idea of what constitutes a delicious breakfast, everyone is scattered to the four winds at lunchtime, so that leaves dinner as our family meal. I hope when the kids get older we will still be able to get together around the table regularly, it’s one of the few rituals we have going for us.
When the kids were babies, I read Ellyn Satter’s book Child of Mine, which counsels against preparing separate foods or meals for your children, but rather to present them with the same food the adults eat and let them choose how much they want. We do aim for this approach — I admit to relying heavily on the corollary that you should include at least one thing the kids like in each meal — but I also have a few tactics for getting dinner on the table for everyone without doing too much short-order cooking.
1. Break it up!
This is a time honored one. Our kids don’t belong to the “no foods may touch” school of thought, but they’re also not subscribers to the “anything is better with ketchup/ranch dressing/sauce” school. So when I have a dish that mixes a lot of things together, or includes a spicy or other strong-flavored sauce, I often plate up the kids’ portions first, with the components separate so there is less chance one less favored item will be the kiss of death for the whole meal. I also try to put the grown-up version on the table in a serving dish so if the kids are feeling daring, they can try the finished version. This has actually worked on several occasions!
2. Put it together
DIY counts for a lot with our kids. It incorporates a bit of the former tactic, which is putting everything out in separate dishes and letting the kids choose what they want to add. Several of our dinners on repeat fall into this category:
This one you probably know. Make or buy dough, heat up the oven, give each kid a blob of the dough and let them go to it. Use a pizza stone if you have one, I have the kids make their individual pizzas on parchment paper to make it easier to transfer them — you can slide the paper out from under the pizza after 3 minutes or so to get the crust crispy. Toppings you might try:
- sauce: just open a can of crushed tomatoes, maybe add some oregano, and you’re good to go!
- cheese: no need to stick to mozzarella, try something smoky or a blue cheese for fans of the stink.
- sausage or pepperoni
- any sliced deli meat
- canned or frozen artichokes
- sliced peppers
- spinach or broccoli (blanch the brocc for a minute or two, or cut into very small florets)
- Spring Rolls
I first offered these assuming the kids would fill the rice wrappers with rice noodles, but they surprised me by using plenty of veggies. It’s a lot of chopping/grating but almost no cooking, so a good one on a hot day. Put out on the table:
- Shredded cooked chicken, cooked shrimp, or tofu cut into matchsticks
- small lettuce, separated into leaves
- Grated/julienned carrot
- thin-sliced cucumber
- Grated/julienned radish
- cooked rice vermicelli (boil until soft, then keep in cold water until just before serving so they don’t clump)
- sliced green onions
- dipping sauce: soy sauce, or try a mixture of soy sauce, peanut butter, rice vinegar and a little sugar
Have the rice paper wrappers ready, and a dish of water big enough to dip the wrappers in. At the table, just dip one wrapper at a time so it gets coated with water. Put it on your plate, pile up your choice of fillings (lettuce leaf usually goes first as a kind of inner wrapper), and by the time that’s done, the wrapper should be soft enough to fold and roll.
Same principle as spring rolls, really: everyone gets some rice, then piles up the toppings. I’ll let Bon Appetit explain.
3. The Last Resort
Make it fun. My first standby is Breakfast for Dinner, which isn’t so bad if the kids will eat an egg or some bacon along with their pancakes or waffles. French Toast is a pretty decent dinner, actually, if you don’t float it in syrup. A new favorite is the “toothpick dinner”: kids like bite-sized stuff, they like poking things with sticks, what’s not to love? I usually put out some combination of the following, with fancy toothpicks for serving:
- Chunks of cheese
- Chunks of apple
- Rolled up cold-cuts
- Cherry tomatoes
- Sugar snap peas
- Hard-boiled egg
- Beans or chickpeas
- Orange segments
I’d love to hear what works at your house. Do you let your kids choose dinner some nights? Or even help make it? That’s the next frontier here, I think.