“Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” was given a click-bait title when people posted it on their Facebook pages – “The Tyranny of the Home-Cooked Family Dinner.” Amanda Marcotte wrote a piece describing an NCSU study that examined a small sample of families and determined that for working mothers, the stress of preparing home-cooked dinners seems to outweigh the benefits of those meals. She implies that the home-cooked meal is an antiquated, romanticized notion.
She’s wrong, of course. On almost every possible front. Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist and Joel Salatin published rebuttals, seizing on the holes in logic and the faulty underlying attitudes articulated, making all sorts of snarky comments. They took shots at Marcotte, society, and (at least in Hemingway’s piece) women who work outside the home. And great job, you two. You showed us how smart you are. You were bitchy, you were superior, and you completely missed the point. Yes, there are serious flaws in the NCSU study. Yes, poor women all over the world manage to cook. Yes, family meals are important. Yes, fast food is the worst, and picky eaters are no excuse for not trying to broaden their horizons.
But you advanced your superior intellect at the expense of giving meaningful advice to the people who find themselves in the position that Marcotte describes. She highlights the frustrations that many people encounter when they make an attempt at preparing home-cooked meals:
“It’s expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway. If we want women—or gosh, men, too—to see cooking as fun, then these obstacles need to be fixed first. And whatever burden is left needs to be shared.”
These are important concerns. A lot of people don’t know how to get from “I hate this – it’s not worth the hassle” to “Making meals is simple and is vital to our health and happiness.” So instead of offering snark, I would like to offer a few suggestions to help people surmount the obstacles that Marcotte mentions.
This post is for the people who read “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner” and saw their own experiences. The people who are busy, who are tired, who are constantly feeling judged and put-upon.The people who are tired of figuring out meals only to have their families complain about the food they’ve prepared.
Maybe preparing a home-cooked meal on a regular basis can be simple enough that it no longer feels like futile drudgery.
Here are a few suggestions to simplify the meal-planning and preparation process, along with a few easy recipes that can help in your quest to bring your loved ones to the dinner table.
Plan your meals so that they work together
That’s the trick, really – to plan meals that are not going to make you dread heading into the kitchen and that aren’t going to break the bank when you buy the necessary ingredients. One reason that eating fast food is so appealing is that when push comes to shove, you don’t want to come up with an idea for dinner at 5:30, then execute it from scratch. Even those of us who love cooking can be cowed by a rumbling stomach, a limited time frame, and the knowledge that an hour of work and an hour of cleanup are awaiting us if we decide to start making dinner now.
Take some time to plan how your meals will work together to save you time and money. Here are a couple of ways to do that:
Double-dip on ingredients:
If a dish calls for chicken, make sure that you have another meal planned that week that will use the leftovers. Same deal with rice, taco meat, french bread, marinara, fresh herbs, or that giant bag of onions. Tostadas, burritos, fried rice, and omelets are great meals to plan for using leftovers.
Double up on prep
At least once a week, make something that is easily doubled or tripled so that you can pop the extras into the freezer for a later date. Pasta sauces and soups are particularly good for this technique. It takes virtually no extra time to double a sauce or soup recipe – use a big pot and simmer away! It also tends to be cheaper because you can buy in bulk.
Each time you do this, you build up your reserves of homemade fast-food. It’s so much easier to make a home-cooked meal when all you have to do is thaw out something you already made.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes to double (or triple):
White chili: This is a great one for home cooks who aren’t super enthusiastic about cooking. Most of the ingredients can be bought pre-fab (very inexpensively so) and thrown together. If you have some leftover chicken, this is a terrific recipe.
Black bean soup: This one is a little more involved, though you can use canned black beans to cut down on the cook time and work load. This recipe is DIRT CHEAP, even if you use canned beans and canned chicken stock. And every single person who has tried it has loved it. My daughter calls it Love Soup (“because I love it so much”).
Beef stew: Meat, potatoes, vegetables. One pot. No need for side dishes.
Meat sauce: A single batch makes enough for 3 meals. A double batch fills your freezer for WEEKS.
I can’t believe it’s not bacon: Vegan Pinto Beans. Terrific as a side dish or a main event.
Mexican Lentil Casserole: This one is inexpensive and so tasty! It’s great on its own and in tacos, burritos, and quesadillas.
Regular chili: This recipe stretches a tiny amount of beef into a huge meal.
Butter beans with bacon: Do you know what makes everything better? Bacon.
You might be seeing a theme here: vegetarian or mostly vegetarian meals. When meat takes a back seat, you can really stretch your food dollars. If you don’t like beans, start working your way up to them. Those little powerhouses of protein are worth their weight in gold.
Cheat a little:
I’m a creature of habit. New recipes mean more work and the potential for a failure (which will mean coming up with a backup meal on the fly). Who needs that? Well, we all do. But we don’t have to do it for every single meal, do we?
Our family has a list of standby meals – dinners that everyone likes, that are relatively healthy, and are easy to prepare. If you have a mental list of 6-7 of these meals, try to make sure that 3 weekly meals are from your standby list. Then, you have a few no-brainer nights that you know are likely to be successful.
Here are the standbys that figure heavily in our meal plans each month:
- Eggs and smoothies
- Burritos (tortillas, pinto beans, rice, lettuce, veggies, cheese, leftover meat from earlier in the week, salsa, greek yogurt)
- Tostadas (all of the ingredients from the burritos, but on a store-bought tostada shell)
- Rice and beans
- Pizza: We have a make-your-own pizza night once a week. It’s always a home run. If you don’t feel like making your own crust, you can buy pre-baked crusts or use sourdough bread or pitas.
- Roasted chicken: This was not an easy meal for the first few times we tried it, but now it’s old hat. And it makes a TON of great dishes later in the week. If you don’t feel like tackling this cooking challenge just yet, a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store works very well.
- Chicken and rice (the leftovers make terrific fried rice or chicken & rice soup)
- Pasta and sauce
- Tortellini sautéed with ham and veggies.
There are also times when a “home-cooked dinner” means cooking macaroni & cheese or frozen pizza at home. There’s no shame in this. Having a frozen pizza available has saved us tons of time and money when dinner plans go awry.
About Those Ingrates:
When it comes to picky eaters, I hear you. Believe me, I hear you. You hate trying to come up with new meal ideas because you know they’re going to dig in their heels. You don’t want to spend 2 hours making something that they then refuse to even try. Mealtime becomes a battle, and you have no desire to come home after a long day just to head into a combat zone. Here are a couple of ideas:
Make dinner the main event. Limit or prohibit snacking (we do a small after-school snack, but it can’t be within an hour of when dinner will be served. It’s supposed to be a piece of fruit or a vegetable, but we sometimes fall short on this) so that everyone is truly hungry at dinner time. Try to eliminate distractions, too. I understand that not everyone has a schedule where the whole family can gather for dinner every single night. But make it a priority to do it whenever you can, and when you are at the table, no TVs, phones, or other distractions. Pay attention to the food and to each other.
Don’t be a short-order cook. Make and serve the meal. If they’re hungry, they’ll eat it. And if not, they’ll be extra hungry at breakfast the following morning and will know better the following evening at dinner time.
Don’t set yourself up for mutiny, either. So that thing I just said? It’s going to be a mess as everyone transitions to the new
regime routine. Make sure that each meal you plan includes an element that they will eat. Serve a starch or vegetable side dish that you know that your minions like when you are dishing up something new and potentially objectionable.
Share the load: Especially if they complain (and especially ESPECIALLY those fussy partners you mentioned). Let them help you plan and execute a meal or two during the week. Kids are more likely to try something that they’ve helped to prepare. This can be very messy and time-consuming, though. Don’t plan it for a night when you’re super busy and trying to get food into your troops in between work, school, homework, and extra-curriculars. Find a weekend day when you have enough time to let the kids practice chopping vegetables or roll out their pizza dough. It’s not fair for one person to always have to be in charge of planning, making, and cleaning up the meals. I don’t care what The Federalist says. Ask for help and make sure there are opportunities to do so. Or put them in charge of a certain meal or day of the week.
It’s not easy, but it’s important for all of us to develop good food practices. Our kids need to know where food comes from and how to make it. In most of our cases, the grown-ups need to learn these things, too. The benefits of a family meal are worth the investment of time and energy.
Take baby steps – commit to having 2 or 3 well-thought-out homemade meals per week. Gradually increase that number as you get more comfortable and less irked in the kitchen. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the economy of time, money, and whining you achieve.