First tip for family dinners: Come up with a strategy

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2013 - 10:34 AM

You don’t need to be a mom to be cooking for kids, but you do need a plan if you want to streamline the process.

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Photo: Neil Nakahodo, MCT

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One certainty of life for mothers is this: The kids will be hungry at dinnertime and, well, probably before and after, too. Of course, mothers aren’t the only ones who notice this. And we certainly don’t want to leave dads out of the mealtime equation. But given that we’re so near Mother’s Day, we’re shining the spotlight on her. She can share the pots-and-pans angst, or not.

Katie Workman is trying to take that stress out of the nightly ritual. She’s the author of “The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket” (Workman, 366 pages, $16.95).

“We need to figure out how to capture some joy in the kitchen, because guess what? We get to make dinner just about every night! And we can approach this task as though we are being asked to regrout our bathtub nightly, or approach it with a certain amount of joie de vivre. We might as well pick that joie thing because ... we have to do it anyway,” she notes in her delightfully opinionated book.

The mother of two sons, ages 10 and 13, thinks it’s too easy to be hard on yourself as a cook, especially when you’re a novice. “Give yourself a break. Dinner doesn’t have to be perfect,” said Workman in an interview.

“Set realistic, doable goals for yourself that make you feel great when you achieve them. Then you’ll feel more like doing this again. Go for the easy wins and build on them,” she said.

Like any cooking mom, she’s busy. “No two dinner nights are alike. I made lasagna the night before. We’re eating at 7 p.m. and it’s lovely. But other times I’m peering into the pantry and it’s a scramble. Or I might be looking at leftovers.”

The difference between her kitchen and the empty one facing many of us?

“Even on nights when I’m scrambling, I have things ready,” Workman said.

That means she preps for meals. And, yes, that means she’s thinking ahead when she reaches for the food processor or a sharp knife on a Sunday afternoon and dices up onions, garlic and parsley she’ll need during the week, peels carrots or readies other ingredients that she will undoubtedly use.

“Sometimes the simplest things will stop you when you’re tired,” she said. If the usual ingredients are ready, she can do a last-minute stir-fry, or make a soup or casserole.

And the best thing about cooking on a regular basis, well, beyond the very pleasurable meals and at least temporarily filled kids?

“You get comfortable with cooking. You understand how to make other dishes. You know that to make a soup, you sauté some member of the onion family, add some liquid and other ingredients, and that’s it. There are no tricks,” said Workman.

But to get to that comfort zone, you need to practice.

“I have some people saying to me, ‘I really don’t cook.’ Or ‘I’m a terrible cook.’ For some, cooking dinner has become the enemy, too huge and overwhelming,” said Workman.

Take a deep breath and reach for a recipe. “Find one,” she said. “Buy the ingredients, follow the directions and make the recipe.”

Workman, like so many others who prepare dinner, is a big fan of big-batch cooking. “If I make a meatloaf recipe that is just the right size, it’s heartbreaking. If it feeds only the four of us, that’s sad. I should make it to feed someone later in the week.”

Maybe that means preparing a meat sauce to use for pasta one night and lasagna the next. Or a big pot of rice with extra to use for fried rice later in the week. If you’re roasting a chicken, why not make two?

“I’m always thinking ahead. There are certain foods that you don’t want a lot of, but plenty that can be repurposed,” said Workman.

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