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Rhiana Maidenberg

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The Reluctant Chef

Posted: 04/16/2012 12:36 pm

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:

  1. Each dinner must take no more than 15 minutes to prep and cook (from playground to table in a quarter of an hour).
  2. The meals must be healthy, organic if possible, and not be laden with processed, prepared foods (no frozen pasta in a bag).
  3. 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:

Night One: Chicken Broccoli Pasta
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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


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