Top | Features

Family fare

(article, Caroline Cummins)

[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true]

Two years ago, when my husband and I became parents, the greatest concern people seemed to have for us was sleep. "Are you getting enough?" friends would ask, brows furrowed apprehensively. "Does your baby sleep through the night yet?"

Not to belittle the ongoing struggles of the insomniac, but snooze time has never been our biggest clock challenge. Finding enough food time, on the other hand, has been known to drive me to pot-clanging distraction. (Just so you know, Le Creuset, your Dutch oven can survive smashing into the kitchen floor without serious damage. The same, however, cannot be said for the kitchen floor.)

Let's start at the end of the production line. A meal with a small child is not, generally speaking, a comfortable event, much less leisurely or even appetizing. In the early days, I was the disgusting one, devouring more food than Gulliver in Lilliput in order to keep up with the caloric demands of breastfeeding. But as soon as the kiddo started to eat solid food, she took over the gross-out role, doing her best to share her meals with her hair, clothing, furniture, floor, and pets.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Quiche is a make-ahead meal."]

Parents get used to playing nonstop janitor, of course. It's the middle management that's so tricky: balancing the psychological demands of offspring that need constant attention with the physical demands of figuring out how to feed yourself as well as your child.

If you have a baby and she's sitting in, say, a bouncy chair, she will give you approximately 10 minutes to eat before she realizes that you're not paying attention to her, and complain. If you contort said baby into a baby carrier wrapped around your torso, you have to figure out some way to convey food to your mouth without dropping too much of it on your baby's head. Covering the tot's head with a napkin lasts as long as she'll put up with it, or until you dribble hot soup or coffee on her scalp. 

If you have a toddler strapped into a high chair, chances are she'll have scarfed her entire meal before you've tried to sit down yourself. If she's a toddler who will no longer sit in her high chair, you can't really eat at all, since you're generally spotting her while she does her best to fall out of the grownup chair.

Luxuries that you once took for granted — getting to eat hot food while it's still hot, or cold food while it's still cold, or even finishing a cup of tea — you start to regard with nostalgia. Ah, the good old days. 

So. When actually eating a meal is such a hurdle, who bothers to cook? Not many of the moms I know, who didn't cook much before their babies were born and certainly don't have the time or energy to try now. 

"Sweetie, what do you want for dinner tonight?" I overheard one of these moms ask the other day, rooting around in her freezer and pulling out various boxes. "Chicken nuggets, or hot dogs?"

Parenting, I have come to realize, is the true origin of all those cookbooks and articles devoted to 30-minute meals. In our house, however, the cookbook we need is the one that tells you how to produce a hot, home-cooked meal instantly, because that's approximately how much time we have before our child starts to yell. 

But wait, the experienced parent protests. Can't you cook while your child naps? Sure, my child slept a good bit while she was tiny, but trying to cook with a baby wrapped around your chest is, as Gourmet's Lesley Porcelli so memorably noted two years ago, cumbersome at best and a fire hazard at worst. And now that my tot is older, her naps are so brief as to be negligible. Cooking chez nous_ happens in snatches while my child is distracted, or after my husband has arrived home from work.

Oh, but what about weekends? Don't all true slow-foodies spend their weekends sourcing and harvesting and braising and preserving? I'm sorry, but as much as my husband and I love to cook, we love our weekends more, since they're now our only free time. 

During our daughter's first few months, my husband tried to help out by undertaking massive weekend cooking projects, not realizing that what I really needed was a break from caretaking, not a break from cooking. I broke down on the Sunday he announced his plans for a five-hour intensive lamb project. Since then, continuous multi-hour projects have been banned during our daughter's awake time.


h1.Featured recipes

All of these recipes are good for make-ahead meals.


So how do we cook instead? Very, very quickly, or in stages. The fast meals are classic square meals: protein, veg, and starch. Grilled pork chops with garlicky sautéed chard and wild rice, for example, or pan-seared salmon fillets with a salad of cucumber, tomato, and onion next to chewy Israeli couscous. These are our version of the 30-minute meal, even if we have to bend that definition a bit by, say, precooking the wild rice and reheating it.

That rice, actually, exemplifies how I cook now. Dinners that once took me an hour or two to prepare are no longer feasible, so I break dishes down into make-ahead stages. Meatballs, for example, can be made ahead of time, then cooked (or reheated) when it's time to assemble banh mi sandwiches. Tart dough can be made (and frozen, if necessary) ahead of time, then par-baked while the filling is being prepped. A yeasty waffle batter can be whisked together the night before, and bread dough can be left alone for an entire day before baking.  

And so forth: vegetables roasted on one day for a pasta sauce that's simmered the next day, or cookie dough left in the fridge to develop nutty flavors, then baked in small batches as needed. Now that my child is a toddler, I occasionally make one-pot dishes, such as French onion soup or chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, based on two criteria: minimal prep and infrequent monitoring over a long period of time.

All these meals are made with the results of one high-speed, highly planned trip per week to the grocery store. Once upon a non-baby time, I decided what to make for dinner each day and shopped on the way home. But late afternoon ain't exactly a toddler's best hour of the day. So now, every weekend, I pick out about four or five dinners to make during the week, and on Monday or Tuesday morning, I buy everything we need in under an hour. (We do the produce section last, so my daughter isn't driven wild by her desire for, say, fresh grapes.)

None of these techniques are perfect, of course. My child gets cranky about being stuck in the shopping cart at the store, and she's not wild about Mama chopping away at the cutting board instead of playing with her. Numerous dishes haven't come out quite as expected, usually because an ingredient got overlooked when, say, the kiddo dumped milk down the heating vent. But planning ahead and breaking recipes down into stages has allowed us to still have the satisfaction of homemade food.

Now we look forward to the day when our daughter can truly eat — and enjoy — all the things we eat. Menu planning still revolves around two types of dishes: soft foods that she can eat easily with half a set of teeth, such as pasta or oatmeal, and dishes with greens in disguise, such as spinach quiche. (I know, this is the Jessica Seinfeld technique, but at least I'm not pretending that spinach quiche isn't full of, you know, spinach.) She tried crunchy bacon this morning, and didn't choke to death. And I got to finish my tea. 

p(bio). Caroline Cummins is Culinate's managing editor.

reference-image, l