I never really intended to be able to write "homemaker" above the occupation section of the joint tax forms I share with my husband, but "parenting blogger and budding freelance writer" doesn't quite fit in the designated space. Yet, this is the situation in which I now find myself. As a "homemaker," it is generally expected that I will plan, shop for and prepare the family meals. Individually, each step is doable, but the trifecta has proved problematic.
As a consequence, my kitchen abilities are weak. I can read and follow recipes, and I enjoy adventurous food, but I definitely lack the motivation to experiment.
Interestingly enough, before procreating I was an avid reader of cooking magazines and eagerly tested new recipes each month. If an article touted the wonders of Chinese long beans, I would search the local Asian groceries until I located the mysterious vegetable. Words like "braise" and "batonnet" intrigued me, and I devoured biographies on Julia Child and Ruth Reichl. However, since the title of "homemaker" found its way onto my mental business card, I find myself rotating between the same 10 dishes. It didn't help that my first little offspring's demands of an all-beige diet made it impossible to create one meal for the whole family.
Still, I wanted -- no, needed -- to change this mind-frame, and in order to kickstart my new attitude, I needed a project. I decided I would create a realistic guide to feeding a typical family of four.
Here are the parameters I set for my venture:
- Each dinner must take no more than 15 minutes to prep and cook (from playground to table in a quarter of an hour).
- The meals must be healthy, organic if possible, and not be laden with processed, prepared foods (no frozen pasta in a bag).
- The meals must be affordable, around $15.
In addition to my three primary rules, I also needed to find meals that would be appealing to both my husband and my two young daughters, one of whom is so incredibly picky that she will only eat certain shapes of pasta (penne: yes; spaghetti: no).
Furthermore, to keep this challenge doable, I decided to buy all of the ingredients for each meal at either Whole Foods or Trader Joe's (the prices will reflect that).
As a reluctant chef, I use numerous shortcuts to make the idea of preparing a family meal seem less intimidating. Here are a few of my favorites:
Trader Joe's frozen organic brown/jasmine rice. A box with enough rice for two full meals is less than $4. It comes fully cooked, with no preservatives; all you have to do is microwave it for three and a half minutes.
Dorot Frozen Cube Trays of minced garlic, cilantro and basil. For about $2, you can have a ready supply of crushed garlic and other herbs. No need to cut, chop or get your hands stinky. Simply toss in a cube of garlic (one cube = one garlic clove).
Whole Foods' Rotisserie Chicken. No work necessary -- you can transfer it to an actual plate, but this is not mandatory. This chicken is also healthfully prepared, and raised without antibiotics or growth hormones.
Barilla Plus Pasta. What kid doesn't love pasta? My oldest would happily subsist on butter noodles for three meals a day, seven days a week. At least with this pasta, I feel better knowing that she is also getting ten grams of protein with each serving.
Herewith, the meal-plan I put into practice during my 7-day Reluctant Chef Challenge:
I began my seven-day program with a dish that was a core meal for my own working mother -- chicken and broccoli pasta. Luckily for me, the three main ingredients are on each family member's palatable list and are readily available in my refrigerator. At 5:45, I placed a large pot of water on the stove to boil. I added a dash of salt to hasten the process. On another burner I heated a large skillet/wok with a few tablespoons of olive oil. I then tossed a cube of Dorot Frozen garlic and a sliced chicken breast into the skillet and cooked until the chicken was no longer pink. I then tossed in a bag of fresh organic broccoli florets from Trader Joe's and a ¾ cup of chicken broth, and reduced the heat to a simmer. While that cooked, I boiled the Barilla Plus Penne Pasta (yeah added protein!). When the pasta was ready, I combined the penne with the chicken and broccoli and added salt and pepper to taste. I served this dish in pasta bowls and sprinkled a bit of Parmesan cheese on top of three plates (one of my kids has deemed Parmesan offensive; I am scheduling her psych evaluation). My husband, as always, added some Siracha to his dish. The Verdict: 3.5 thumbs up (one child was slightly upset that a few broccoli greens stuck to her chicken... she wiped them off with her napkin). Total Cost: about $12 Total Time in the Kitchen: 15 minutes
The next night I decided to serve a dish my children had yet to let pass their lips: steak. To make this less intimidating, I cooked it in a stir-fry, a preparation that was already a staple in my household. I began by pre-heating the wok with a few tablespoons of olive oil. While that was warming, I sliced an onion and a three-quarter pound New York Strip and tossed them into the wok with a Dorot frozen garlic cube. I added a few dashes of soy sauce and a tablespoon of brown sugar. After the beef browned, I tossed in a quarter cup of water and a full bag of Bean So Green frozen veggie mix (broccoli, cauliflower, green beans and peas) from Trader Joe's and let the ingredients simmer in the sauce. As the stir-fry cooked, I opened two bags of organic frozen brown rice (from Trader Joe's), combined them in a microwave-safe bowl and nuked them on high for 3½ minutes. To serve, I spooned the meat and veggies on top of the rice (or next to, depending on the demands of the child). I also placed a small dish next to each kid's bowl (this is where the onions and cauliflower spent most of the meal). The Verdict: 3.5 thumbs up. Both my husband and I were satisfied, and my older daughter decided that she loves meat. The two-year-old ate three spoonfuls of brown rice, then spent the rest of dinnertime singing Top 40 songs to the table -- she especially loves Katy Perry. Total Cost: $14.50 Total Time in the Kitchen: 12 minutes
This meal is my go-to/no-brainer. It's fast, easy and inoffensive. As soon as I got home from the park, I pre-heated my oven to 425°. As it was heating, I opened a two-pack of Vicolo Cornmeal Crust Pizza shells (available at Whole Foods) and spread a few spoonfuls of jarred pizza sauce on top of each shell. I then sprinkled pre-grated mozzarella and Parmesan cheese onto each. On one pizza, I also added sliced salami. As the pizzas baked in the oven for ten minutes, I prepared a simple salad using prewashed, bagged butter lettuce, cucumber, carrots and sugar plum tomatoes. It is important to note that I did not dress the salad, so that the picky eaters among us could easily find their favorite vegetables, uncontaminated by vinegar and herbs. The Verdict: 4 thumbs up. Who doesn't love pizza? Total Cost: $16 Total Time in the Kitchen: About 15 minutes (depending on how quickly your oven heats).
A $10 rotisserie chicken from Whole Foods provides enough meat to prepare two meals for my finicky family. On the first night I serve simple carved chicken pieces, being sure to leave at least one full breast and a bit extra for the next day. To accompany the carved chicken, a simple couscous makes most of my family happy. Using the directions on the back of the Near East Couscous box, I substituted chicken stock for half the water to add a bit more flavor. When the water/chicken stock came to a boil, I whisked in the couscous, removed the pot from the burner, and allowed it to sit for five minutes. While the couscous absorbed the liquid, I sautéed some green beans with olive oil, salt and pepper. The Verdict: 3(ish) thumbs up. The girls were pleased, but both my husband and I found the meal a bit boring, yet still satisfying and healthy. Total Cost: $11 Total Time in the Kitchen: 9 minutes
Surprisingly, this meal proved to be the most labor-intensive of my seven-day adventure. Even though there was not a lot of actual cooking, I did have to chop a few vegetables. First I made the corn and bean salad by mixing rinsed and drained cans of black beans and corn with chopped green onions and diced red pepper. I then dressed it with a bit of fresh lime juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. For the quesadillas, I simply grilled flour tortillas filled with pre-shredded cheddar cheese and leftover shredded rotisserie chicken in a large frying pan. On the table I placed a tub of premade guacamole, fresh salsa and carrot sticks, because I knew with 100% certainty that my children wouldn't even allow the corn/bean salad within six inches of their pink plastic plates. The Verdict: 3 thumbs up. A combination of cheese, avocado and salsa is always a hit for me; my husband loves corn; and my two-year-old would eat cardboard if it had melted cheddar. However, about 18 months ago, the four-year-old decided that quesadillas are gross, and this did not persuade her to change her mind. Total Cost: $16.75 Total Time in the Kitchen: 14 minutes
Both my daughters are disgusted by fish, in all forms and flavors. Even though neither one has actually tried it, they are 100% confident that it is horrible. Needless to say, I was not looking forward to preparing this meal, which explains why I saved it for the end of the week. However, my good friend, who has raised two fantastic eaters, swears by this recipe. For the fish, I poached two Tilapia fillets in a mixture of coconut milk, Thai Yellow Curry Sauce from Trader Joe's and a bit of soy sauce. While that cooked (about 5 minutes), I sautéed a bag of organic spinach with olive oil, a dash of soy sauce and some sesame seeds. I served this with two bags of frozen Organic Jasmine Rice (also from Trader Joe's). The Verdict: 2 thumbs up (the children ate rice, but the adults enjoyed the delicate Talapia). Total Cost: $17 Total Time in the Kitchen: 10 minutes
Okay, I confess. By the seventh night, I was too exhausted to cook another meal for my fussy foodies. So we went to a local Chinese restaurant and the kids ate brown rice, orange slices and fortune cookies while my husband and I nibbled on Pot Stickers, Shanghai Chicken and Sesame Beef. It was delicious. The Verdict: 4 thumbs up Total Cost: $45 Total Time in the Kitchen: None (and no dirty dishes)!
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