I’ve been perusing a lot of kids’ cookbooks, and I realized the big problem with them is that they aren’t that practical when you think about the way a family really eats. What most families need to do is get through the day with everyone fed, reasonably healthily, and without going broke.
I’m writing this in July, 2020, when a lot of things are still shut down, so you may be like a lot of families if you are home more, with the kids home more, and possibly with less income.
My daughter is grown, but I know that the last thing I’m going to want to do is make “project meals” with her that involve buying special food and so forth when we have to eat anyway.
I also think making “special meals” with kids doesn’t teach them much about how to run a home kitchen and get the family fed.
My first priority would be training my kids to help me with the chores I’m already doing, and my second priority would be to teach them how to do this for themselves, and eventually, their own family.
And honestly, most home cooking isn’t that difficult, even when you have kids in the house, especially if you train them to help you out.
Having input into food preparation also can make kids more interested in eating.
Before you begin, see Part 1 in this series, The World’s Greatest Learning Activity: Food Preparation and Cooking at Home, to understand how food preparation supports academic learning, especially if you are facing some homeschooling in the near future. It isn’t all about workbooks and online games, in fact, neither of those are great learning methods. Real learning comes from doing and applying.
Part 2 is about organizing your kitchen: Cooking with Kids Part 2: Getting Your Kitchen Straight (before you let them in?). There’s no way you can prepare 3 meals a day, plus snacks, if you don’t have your kitchen organized. Think “laboratory”…and look at the root of that word…”labor”.
This is probably the one you are best at, but if you are shelling out money for breakfast, it’s also the easiest one to fix, both nutritionally and financially.
Stop using those expensive and environmentally unfriendly Keurig cups. Find the cheap refillable cups (sometimes you can find them at the dollar store) and fill up a week’s worth while you watch a video. Invest in a regular coffee maker…you can get one with auto shut off and “drink while brewing” for about $25. Get the type of Keurig pot that has the carafe.
D’uh. If you can’t get your kids to the table in time to eat a bowl of cereal, you’re doing it wrong. Anyway, there are little containers that have all the parts.
This product allows you to eat your cereal with one hand while you drive, if you want to do that.
C. Boiled Eggs
Keep a bunch of them in the fridge. I boil mine by starting the water with the eggs in. As soon as the pot gets to a hard boil, I shut off the heat and leave the pot on the burner, lid on, to cool down. Sometime later, I remove the eggs and put them in the fridge. Hard boiled eggs will keep for a decent amount of time outside of the fridge and make a great snack with a little salt. Or try mustard if you want more flavor. They are low calorie & high in protein so they will stick with you for a surprisingly long time…better than a slice of toast.
Consider whether there are other ways that you can pre-cook eggs that your family will be willing to reheat in the morning, such as eggs for “Egg McMuffins”.
If you are not American, note that an American “southern” biscuit is sort of like a cross between a dinner roll and a scone. It’s savory…the plain ones taste slightly buttery and salty, but it’s ok to add cheese to the batter. Never anything sweet.
Americans eat them with butter and/or jelly. They also make sandwiches from them, often with sausage, ham, fried chicken, and/or cheese.
Here is a link for a recipe from the American Bible of Southern everything, Southern Living. Note that you can easily find out how to substitute regular flour and baking powder to make “self rising” flour, which I consider an annoyance and a waste of money.
D. Deli meats and cheese
Europeans do it. They would also be great on an English muffin or a biscuit, with or without eggs.
Buy in the big tub. Those little containers are outrageous in cost. Buy whatever toppings your family likes. Honey or a little jam is good. If your family is rushed in the morning, premake snack cups with a bunch of reusable ones from the dollar store. If your kids lose them, charge for replacements.
I’m showing Tupperware snack cups, but the Dollar Tree near me has 10 for $1. It’s nice to have a lot so you can make a week’s worth of each thing at once.
Snack cups are a big thing with me because “snack sizes” of anything are so expensive in the grocery store and also use a lot of wasteful packaging.
I personally feel a lot more civilized when I sit down with proper containers of things to eat from, but maybe that’s me. If I’m eating fast food at home, I put it on a plate.
If you are like most people, you have a bunch of travel cups. Don’t forget, juice can go in them too.
Just be sure you get the kind that’s easy to wash and can go in the dishwasher.
What kids can do
Almost everything. I would definitely teach them to do boiled eggs, especially since I don’t handle them until they are cool. Lifting them out with a slotted spoon is fun and easy.
My mother-in-law makes a lot of deviled eggs, and from her I learned to drain the water off the eggs in the pot (rather than removing the eggs), put the lid back on, and shake the pot to loosen the shells. I use that trick to make egg salad too (or just smash one peeled egg with a fork and add flavoring). Boiled eggs are easier to peel if the eggs aren’t super fresh, so boil up a batch if you are afraid your eggs might spoil. You have extended their lives as food, and you have provided a WASTE FREE snack.
All humans over the age of 8 should be able to make a sandwich. I personally require that all containers are reusable. Sandwiches should be made the night before. Lunch purchased because sandwich wasn’t made comes from allowance money.
If you really want to get into this, check out books on bento making. Japanese mothers produce multi course meals every morning that pack into boxes and need neither heating nor refrigeration.
Japanese school teachers actually check the bentos and send notes home if the food is not sufficiently health and varied. I kid you not.
Food that is cooked, cooled, and drained properly will keep and remain edible for a long time.
But in the U.S., I think any child over the age of 8 should be making his/her own sandwich after dinner for school the next day.
Slice up a bunch and keep in in a communal bowl; provide more of the dollar store snack cups for transport. I also chop up broccoli for this purpose because my kid would always eat broccoli with ranch dip…and of course, the ranch dip went in another snack cup. If your kids like grapes, they are a no brainer. Clementines are also good in the winter, and of course they have the kind that are easy for kids to peel.
Canned corn tastes fine at room temperature or chilled. In Japan, they frequently put it in tossed salads.
You get the idea…snack cup. Either do a bunch at the beginning of the week or have the kids do it the night before.
A small (and I mean small) handful of candy in a snack cup or a miniature candy bar is nice. I would actually put the candy in a tiny bowl meant for condiments if you have one. Tupperware makes them, but you can only buy them if you are a consultant (they are meant to be used as party favors). I also frequently buy instant pudding mix, which is easy to pour into snack cups before it sets. Same with Jello. If you are a really nice mommy, you can put a layer of Cool Whip on after the mix sets, or a little garnish. Pudding has milk and I think Jello is supposed to be good for your bones, so to me they are better options than candy all the time. All of that homemade food means that there is less sugar in the kids other food.
These reusable containers below are perfect for a dessert portion of candy or dips.
Keep an extra basket, the type sold for baby nipples, in your dishwasher to easily wash them.
The only thing I would ever buy pre-packaged is school milk. All those “juice boxes” are mostly a waste of money and calories. Come on, they are very sugary and you know it. Send water or a sugar free drink in a sports bottle. Please.
For vitamin C, send whole fruit. Also comes in handy, biodegradable packaging (i.e. the peel).
What kids can do: I would definitely consider getting a weekly assembly line going for all the different bits of the meal except the sandwiches, which do need to be made the night before they are eaten, at the earliest. Keeping track of how much you save by using the large number of dollar store snack cups you will use and regular sized bags of food, as opposed to the “snack bags” they sell in the store, is a great activity for your kids.
If you really want to hit the message home, let them save up for something that way. I never did that because there is no way on this earth I was going to pay for snack packs of anything. I didn’t want my daughter to suddenly “choose” them.
My daughter categorically hated having to bring her lunches with all of her containers as a kid that she had to bring home, but I will attest that as an adult she is very good about packing her own dinner and buys very few “snack packs”.
This is more about making dinner on the spur of the moment than cooking ahead, but don’t discount that as an option. Crock pot recipes are also easy to make, so it’s something you can get the teenager to do if you don’t have time.
Also get in the habit of making a double batch whenever you make something that is good frozen and reheated, such as chili. I also buy a frozen pizza and a frozen macaroni and cheese every time I go shopping, or don’t have one, for those rushed evenings.
Also precook large batches of roasted vegetables when you have the time so you can just reheat them on busy evenings.
Here are a couple of my favorite cookbooks that focus on easy dinner recipes:
A. Protein (meat, soy, tofu, eggs)
I usually decide on my protein by lunch time if I am home and the night before if I’m not in case I need to thaw something. If I don’t have something thawed, I go with something that I don’t freeze, or in a pinch, a dish I can make with bacon and eggs.
A favorite meal in my house is bacon and eggs fried with sesame oil and soy sauce over rice. You can throw some veggies in there too.
If I have an evening with not much going on, I’ll makes some sort of stir fry in a big batch because small pieces of meat reheat well. Hearty soups are also good to make in the winter.
I always have a pack of baby spinach in the fridge. In a pinch, we put it in a bowl with some dressing & call it salad. I used to get the packs of mixed greens, but my daughter pointed out that the spinach has more nutrition, and you can also throw it into a cooked dish or sauté it, which you can’t do with mixed greens.
If I have some tomatoes or green onions, I throw them in.
Frozen green peas seem to mix in amazingly well to a lot of recipes, so they are good to have on hand. If you throw them into some cooking food, they are so small that they will be cooked and edible in minutes, even straight out of the freezer, yet since they are self contained, they won’t change the overall make up of the dish.
Roasted vegetables are good if you have the time.
People don’t put as many carbs in their meals as they used to, but we tend to eat a lot of rice in my house. As I said, a good rice cooker is really helpful. A lot of times teenagers will eat bowls of it here and there when they are at the age where they are always hungry. It’s also low fat. It usually takes about an hour to cook, but you can either set the timer in the morning or get the teenager to start it when you are on your way home from work.
I’ve also discovered that the microwave potato cookers you can get online or frequently at craft fairs are really useful because you can have potatoes ready in minutes, and for me it’s easy to cook them while I’m doing the protein on the stove.
I like bread way too much to make it a staple at my meals, but if you do, it’s quick and easy to heat up something frozen. Or keep a package of nice frozen rolls in your freezer for company if you can keep the kids out of them. I think bread is one of those things that it’s cheaper to buy than make unless your family really eats a lot of it. One thing I would do, if my waistline could take it, is make and freeze biscuits because I just wouldn’t eat anything but a homemade biscuit.
What kids can do:
First, don’t do what my mom did. Whenever I asked to help her in the kitchen, she asked me to clean, so I stopped asking.
Ask them to get you things. That way, they learn where things are and what they are called. This is also a good one to do with regular tools during home repair jobs! To this day, people, especially men in my life, are impressed that I know the names of the tools.
Give them the easy cutting or chopping jobs, or give them a little bit to work on while you do the main job. Actually, that works for any prep job.
Get your kids, if they are younger, a good child’s knife like the one below. A good, sharp knife is easier to cut with than a dull knife.
If you don’t have a good one yourself, it is a worthwhile investment because you won’t dread chopping so much! I personally find it therapeutic at the end of a long day.
Let them add things to the mix or the pan…watch them closely, of course, if you are using an appliance.
Have them read you the directions or tell you the amounts from the recipe. These are great reading skills. It’s also a good way to have them practice saying numbers and fractions such as “one eighth”, which is much different from “eight”. It’s good for them to practice numbers and especially evil fractions with real things.
Be sure they have a safe, sturdy step stool to use for all helping!
You Tell Us
What are your staples and tricks for keeping your family fed…especially if you have young ones around.