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Cooking for kids, easy dinner recipes, family friendly dinner recipes, Traverse City, kid friendly foods, meal prep with family

Down, Dirty and Delicious: Cooking Tips for Busy Families

There was a time, before we had kids, that Heather and I would unwind after a long workday in our kitchen and, glass of wine in hand, leisurely prepare a delicious dinner. Those days are over. There is nothing leisurely about dinnertime anymore. More often than not it’s a sprint to get something prepared before one of us has to get the kids off to an evening activity.

We try to eat a home-cooked meal together, as a family, at least five times per week. It’s a time for us to have meaningful, deep conversat…okay, who am I kidding? Dinner is often hectic, with the kids hopping in and out of their seats, asking for things (Three year old: “Can I have hot sauce?” Me: “Will it cause you to stop asking for things?”), and knocking glasses of water over because they’re self-proclaimed “big girls” who don’t need to use sippy cups anymore.

Despite all the craziness, we do love family dinnertime. We have a few rituals we try to follow to balance out some of the chaos, including inquiring of the kids: “What was the most fun thing you did today?” and “What was one nice thing you did today?”. It’s an effort to make dinner an experience, not simply an activity.

These questions, and the discussions they spur, can distract the little ones from realizing – and rebelling – what they’re eating. That’s because, at least at dinner, we insist that our girls eat what we’re eating. We don’t make one dinner for us, and another for the kids. If we’re having steak, salad and broccoli, or salmon, quinoa and asparagus, that’s what the kids are having.

We stick to our guns on this for several reasons. For one, it’s easier on us. For two, it’s better for them. And finally, we want them to grow up to be adventurous eaters who love preparing food as much as they do eating it. Cooking is one of my favorite activities, and I hope to pass my love for food down to our girls.

In fact, the best thing about mealtime isn’t even the meal itself. It’s the time spent around the kitchen island prepping – me on one side of the island chopping and mixing and the girls sitting on the other laughing, chatting and helping.

Getting it Done

Marriage is all about playing to strengths. And when there are kids involved, spouses need to figure out how to divide and conquer. In our household, that means that I cook and Heather…well, Heather does most everything else. In almost all other areas of household responsibility, Heather is the undisputed general and I am her lieutenant. But the kitchen is my domain.

I learned (and learned to love) how to cook while working in the kitchen of a busy restaurant during two college summer breaks. Unless you’ve worked in a kitchen, it’s hard to envision the craziness during a lunch or dinner rush. At least in the kitchen I worked in – a large, busy restaurant filled with an eclectic and eccentric mix of personalities – things operated one notch below chaos. But it was one of the most fun jobs I’ve ever had, and I learned how to work – and cook – under pressure.

20 years later, our kitchen at home before dinner doesn’t feel much different. Kids are running around blowing off steam after school and we’re on a tight schedule to get food on the table because there’s often somewhere that one of the kids needs to be in the evening. As much as we’d like to take our time and prepare a thoughtful, slowly-cooked meal, that’s just not going to happen on most nights.

I suspect we’re not alone. Meal prep is one of the biggest daily challenges for most families. To prepare a meal quickly, that everyone will enjoy, and that is reasonably healthy takes work and foresight.

I’m by no means an expert in the kitchen – not even close. I just like to play one on the Internet. So please take this with a big ‘ole grain of kosher salt. But I do have a few dishes that are big hits with our kids that meet the Big 3 criteria discussed above: fast, tasty and reasonably healthy (which is obviously a subjective term) in the sense that all incorporate protein and a solid dose of vegetables. They work well for us, so I thought I’d share.

Also, and I know I’m being stereotypical here, but my anecdotal experience tells me that, in most family households, women still do the lionshare of the cooking. Experience also tells me, however, that family dynamics and expectations are changing, and many more men are cooking, or at least are interested in cooking. Hopefully this post spurs a few ideas for my male cohorts looking to hone their culinary skills.

These are school-night-had-to-run-to-grocery-store-have-30-minutes-to-get-food-on-table dishes. Given that it’s the middle of winter, I chose to share dishes that don’t require outdoor grilling. These are three of my go-to, cold weather, classic comfort food dishes – tacos, meat sauce with noodles, and burgers – taken up a notch. Nothing fancy here – just a few simple meals to prepare in a crunch. Unless otherwise noted, these recipes feed two adults and two-three kids (provided your kids aren’t all busy playing high school varsity sports and cleaning out the refrigerator on a daily basis!).

Steak Tacos with Green Salad, Chips and Guacamole
  • 5 pound steak – NY Strip, T-Bone, Ribeye
  • 1 yellow onion
  • 1 red or orange pepper
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 6 oz. queso fresco or feta cheese
  • 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Yellow corn tortillas
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Season steak liberally with kosher salt and rub with a bit of olive oil. Sear steak in a cast iron skillet (or other oven-safe frying pan) heated to a high temperature (about two minutes per side) on the stovetop, and then transfer the skillet into the oven to finish cooking at about 400 degrees. When cooked to desired temperature, remove from oven and let steak sit for a few minutes, then cut into bite size pieces.

Chop onion and pepper and sautée with a tablespoon of olive oil. Chop cilantro. Mix Cayenne pepper and mayonnaise (or you can use plain mayonnaise without pepper or guacamole in lieu of mayonnaise).

Here’s the key to this recipe: Char the tortillas using the flame from your stovetop or grill.

Once all ingredients are prepped and tortillas are charred, spread a bit of mayo on tortilla, then add steak, peppers and onions, cheese and cilantro.

Sides: Serve with simple red leaf lettuce topped with your favorite berry (blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, etc.), walnuts or pecans and dressing made of olive oil (about ¼ cup), balsamic vinegar (2-3 tablespoons to taste) and the juice from ¼ lemon. And, of course, you’ve got to have chips and guacamole. If you don’t have store-bought guacamole on-hand, make your own with using a mixture of garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt and lemon juice.

Fun Note: Heather was in a “Cooking Club” with a number of girlfriends in our old hometown. It was a poorly kept secret in the club that I did most of Heather’s cooking for her. One night the theme was tacos, the women split into pairs, and a couple of the husbands were brought in to judge who made the best tacos. Heather and her friend used this recipe and won! To this day it remains her finest cooking moment.

Re-Purpose: You may have a bit of steak, peppers, onion and cheese remaining. Mix them up with some eggs the next morning for a tasty, healthy scramble.

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Meat Sauce and Noodles with Chopped Salad
  • 1 pound ground Italian sausage
  • ¾ cup chopped yellow onion
  • ¾ cup chopped carrot
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¾ cup chopped grape tomatoes
  • 6 ounce can of tomato paste
  • 5 ounce can of stewed tomatoes
  • ½ of 8 ounce can of tomato sauce
  • ½ cup full-bodied red wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil
  • 3 teaspoons dried Italian seasoning
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine sausage, onions, carrots and olive oil in large saucepan and cook until meat is browned and vegetables tender. Add all other ingredients. Bring to a low boil and reduce to simmer for twenty minutes (you can simmer for longer if you have time). Serve with spaghetti (or whatever noodle you prefer).

Sides: Serve with a salad of iceberg lettuce (and, preferably, another leafy green such as baby spinach) chopped thin, along with chopped grape tomatoes, cucumbers, black olives, chickpeas, grated parmesan or mozzarella cheese and, if you like a little saltiness, small strips of salami. For dressing, combine ¼ cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, juice from ¼ lemon, 1 tablespoon fresh basil, salt and pepper to taste. Toss salad with dressing. Serve with warm, crusty French bread.

Re-Purpose: Make a few mini-pizzas for the kids for lunch the next day using leftover sauce. Pour sauce over pizza crust, english muffin or extra French bread. Top with leftover cheese, and toppings such as tomatoes, basil, salami or pepperoni and bake in oven.

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Burgers with Sweet Potato Fries
  • 1-1.5 pounds of ground sirloin or ground turkey
  • 3-4 tablespoons BBQ sauce
  • 2-3 tablespoons breadcrumbs
  • 2-3 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1-2 teaspoons pepper
  • Hamburger buns
  • Sliced cheese of your choice
  • Leafy lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Avocado
  • Your favorite burger condiments

Combine meat with BBQ sauce, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper. Form into patties. Sear each side of pattie over high heat in cast iron skillet (or oven-safe frying pan). Transfer into oven set to 375 degrees to finish cooking, approximately 8-10 minutes. When done, remove from oven and top with sliced avocado and cover avocado with sliced cheese. Place back in oven for approximately 60 seconds. Cheese will melt and form a cheese “force field” over the avocado, which hopefully will keep it from repeatedly slipping off your kid’s burger and he/she will actually eat it. Then top with lettuce, tomato, and any other favorite toppings (bacon!). Add condiments – my favorite is mayonnaise mixed with some cayenne pepper.

Sides: Peel four medium-sized sweet potatoes and cut into french fry sized sticks (big ones, like steak fries). Toss in a mixing bowl with 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread onto a large sheet pan and cook in 400 degree oven for 15 minutes (flip halfway through). When tender, place under broiler to brown, but be careful not to burn. Serve with sour cream or ketchup.

Re-Purpose: Saute ½ cup of chopped onions in a little olive oil. Once onions are tender, add left-over sweet potato fries (chopped) and strips of salami and cook until hot. Serve in a charred corn tortilla with sliced avocado and a spoonful of salsa for a tasty taco lunch.

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Tips and Tricks

Between work, kids, and trying to fit in a few minutes for yourself, there’s very little time left to even think about, let alone actually do, the meal planning, shopping and preparation required to get food on the table.

It need not be this way. The rule we follow in our household? Try two new recipes per week, then fall back on the staples for other meals. In the winter, our staples include the dishes above, plus things like beef stew, sautéed vegetable salads with chicken or salmon, chili, pot pie, minestrone soup, grilled cheese and tomato soup, and lots of simple beef and pork dishes in the slow cooker. By mixing new recipes with old, it takes the stress out of cooking new stuff every night, not to mention the frustration of hunting for new ingredients in the grocery store. Plus you can have the peace of mind, on most nights, of knowing that your kids will not complain (at least too much) about your cooking.

A few final thoughts:

Tools: The tools that are most important to success in the kitchen are not gadgets sold on infomercials, but rather old-fashioned, high quality implements that have been used for centuries. In the winter, when I’m not grilling as much, I use a cast iron skillet almost every day. For example, with a cast iron skillet you can sear meat on the stove top and transfer it directly into the oven to finish it off, or do the same with something a bit more delicate, like a breakfast frittata. And, of course, a high quality, sharp knife is essential.

Key Ingredients to Keep On-Hand: Kosher salt, quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar, lemon, some fresh herbs, including basil and rosemary, chicken stock, eggs and real butter. If you have these ingredients on hand, plus some sort of protein and vegetables, you can quickly and easily whip up a good meal.

Salad Dressing: There are few things you can do that are as simple, and impactful, in the kitchen than making your own salad dressing. Just combine good olive oil with vinegar (balsamic, red wine, white wine, apple cider, etc.), a bit of seasoning (salt and pepper do just fine) and you’ve got a great dressing. Take it a step further by adding citrus juice (lemon, lime, orange, etc.), honey mustard, poppy seeds, fresh herbs – there are countless options to make a tasty dressing.

Seasoning Protein and Vegetables: One of the big lessons I learned while cooking in a restaurant (plus listening to great chefs like Michael Symon) is not to be afraid of seasoning. According to Symon, the number one mistake that amateurs make when cooking protein and vegetables is under-seasoning. A good dose of kosher salt, alone, can transform a dish from bland to delicious. Season liberally.

Looking for more ideas on how to make family mealtime more enjoyable? Check out Traverse City’s own Lisa Maxbauer Price’s book, Squash Boom Beet, for inspiration.

What are some of your favorite go-to, family-friendly recipes? We’re always looking to try new, delicious dishes!