The Best of Both Worlds podcast is almost a year old! We just released our 50th episode. Back in the fall, Sarah and I did another episode on meal planning and getting dinner on the table. We got some nice feedback on that one — it’s a popular topic! — but also some feedback pointing out that neither of us is actually the person getting dinner on the table during the week in our homes. We both have been this person in the past. For me in particular it was a major source of stress, and so about two years ago I started outsourcing it.
Anyway, we wanted to revisit the topic with practical strategies from a real expert. So we were excited to welcome Tiffany King to the podcast today. King owns Eat at Home, a meal planning service, and is the author of a forthcoming cookbook called Eat at Home Tonight. She is a mom of four mostly grown kids who she homeschooled.
Eat at Home Tonight (the book) features more than 100 recipes organized around various obstacles that keep people from, well, eating at home tonight. Sample recipe sections: “I only have 15 minutes tonight” and “Everyone’s on a different schedule tonight,” and “I’m out of the house all day and won’t have time to cook tonight” and so forth.
Among her tips for easing dinner stress:
Meal planning is crucial, but the plan doesn’t have to come from you. It’s not that meal planning itself takes a lot of time, it’s that looking up recipes online can turn into a total rabbit hole. You can have a general rotation, or subscribe to a service (like King’s) to take the brain work out of it.
Grocery shopping doesn’t have to be a family affair. In larger families, sometimes it’s nice to take one kid, solo, to the store. But navigating a crowded supermarket on the weekend with multiple children adds to the meal-making stress. King loves ordering groceries online, and wishes she’d had that option when her kids were little. If that’s not an option in your area, consider going on a weeknight after the kids are in bed (if your partner is there), or while the kids are with your partner, or at an activity on weekends. If you’re the party responsible for getting dinner on the table, your partner can definitely take the kids while you shop. If you do need to take small kids, I’ll note that the stores are least crowded in the early mornings. I have taken my youngest shopping with me at 6 a.m. on a Sunday at Wegman’s during his early-rising phase.
Master the 15 minute meal. A meal need not be a chunk of protein plus two sides. Certain bases can incorporate any ingredients you have on hand. King’s recipes include “Eggs run through the garden” — basically scrambled eggs with veggies — or “Mexican rice and beans” — which is beans, rice, and salsa, plus whatever you want to add (use quick cooking rice to get yourself under the 15-minute mark). Cheese ravioli with veggies cooks fast too. Saute a leftover protein plus cut up veggies and put that on lettuce and you’ve got a hearty dinner salad.
Sheet pans mean almost no dishes. Chop up veggies (or buy them chopped!), put on a protein, add some olive oil, herbs and salt/pepper, and cook around 400/425 degrees. If you line the pan with tin foil or parchment paper, you pretty much have zero clean up. Bonus: an older child can definitely turn on the oven and stick this in. Sample King recipes: One-sheet Asian salmon, snap peas, and potatoes; one-sheet chili-honey-glazed pork chops, butternut squash, and green beans. She notes that you can actually stick frozen chicken nuggets on the sheet pan too, if you have a child who will be eating that (and eating that every night…)
Get a good knife and a good cutting board. These can make prep pleasurable. In addition to a sheet pan (see above), King also recommends a good garlic press (though jarred garlic works fine). She succumbed to the Instant Pot craze and loves it. She notes that you do not get dinner in 2 minutes as sometimes advertised. It has to heat up. However, it does cook fast and well. A slow cooker is good for making soups and stews that are ready when you get home from work.
Shortcuts are great. Rotisserie chicken from the grocery store plus a bagged salad is definitely dinner. It’s still going to be cheaper, healthier, and quite possibly faster than the drive-through. (Have you noticed this? We sit in the drive through lane forever!)
Leftovers don’t have to be boring. One of my favorite sections of Eat at Home Tonight is called “I want to cook for tonight and tomorrow,” which has two days of dinners based on the same food. So, for instance, slow-cooker African pulled beef is served with Greek yogurt pitas tonight, and tomorrow becomes beefy baked sweet potatoes with crumbled feta. One night’s pulled pork Cuban sliders becomes the next night’s tamales.
Dinner isn’t just about the meal. It’s mostly about the conversation. You can eat cereal and fruit and have a great family dinner. King’s book has various conversation starters to make the family meal more fun. “What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re bored?” or “What’s your favorite thing to do online?” or “Who helped you today and how did they help?”
Add wine and music. If you’re feeling resentful about cooking, both of those can help the process. The kids can dance to Katy Perry while you’re plating fruits and veggies, and having your own little happy hour.
What are you liking for family dinner these days?
In other news: Our Q&A has to do with kids and pools — both what to pack, and our various safety considerations. Feel free to share your kid swimming tips here too.