Family Dinners and Small Kids
I was moved by this question on Casual Kitchen - Ask CK: Finding Time to Cook…With Small Children.
The mother of a 18 month old asked: how do we cook at home when we don't have much time? Both she and her husband work. After picking the little one up from daycare, they have an hour and fifteen minutes, then it's time to start putting the kid to bed. (Those little ones go to sleep early.)
Much to her credit, she wants to cook real food for dinner. But how is that possible in the brief window of time available?
My heart went out to her, because I lived through a similar experience. Diane was pregnant with Tim, our youngest. Tim decided after three months of pregnancy that he was ready to join us. The doctor strongly disagreed. Tim would have to wait, so Diane was put on full bed rest for the next six months. Natalie was eighteen months old, Ben was just about to turn three, and I was suddenly a short-term single parent. I was asking myself the same question - how to get dinner on the table when we all got home from daycare at 6PM, and the kids were ready for bed at 7:30?
I was already DadCooksDinner by that point. I started cooking every night back when it was just me and Diane; by the time of the bed rest, I had years of experience putting quick weeknight dinners on the table for us and the kids.
*As usual, I have to thank Pam Anderson at this point. If you want to know how to really cook, not just follow recipes, start with her How to Cook Without a Book. It pushed me out of the nest and taught me to fly.
Cooking is important to me. I was determined this would not be the end of my home-cooked meals. I am past cooking dinner because I want to, or because I'm obligated to. It has become a need. It is part of my daily routine. If I don't cook, I get twitchy. When I do cook, I feel more centered. For my mental health, home-cooked meals were not optional. Still, this was a formidable challenge. How could I squeeze in dinner, and have a little time to spend with the kids before they went to bed?
That hour and a half window between our arrival and the kids bedtime was too short. I quickly learned to move as much work as possible outside that window. A big one was cleanup. Clearing the table? Doing the dishes? That could wait until the kids were in bed. Then I could pour myself a glass of wine and start cleaning.
The other task to move was the actual cooking. I did a few different ways:
1. Pressure Cooker meals: My pressure cooker let me make tomorrow's dinner tonight. After the kids were in bed, while I was cleaning the kitchen, I would cook a meal in the pressure cooker. Once it was finished, it went in the refrigerator. The next night, the moment I walked through the door, I would scrape the fat off the top of the pot and reheat it on the stovetop. Dinner was ready in 15 minutes. And, I had an unexpected bonus. Pressure cookers are best at soups, stews and chilis. They all taste better the second day. There is something about an overnight rest that lets the flavors mingle, causing the stew to taste more complete. My dinners tasted better because they were made a day ahead!
*I also have to thank Lorna Sass. I would have been stuck without her collection of one-pot pressure cooker meals, The Pressured Cook.
2. Slow Cooker meals: As with the pressure cooker, I did most of the work the night before. I would assemble everything in my slow cooker crock, and put it in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning I would drop it in the slow cooker base, turn it on, and dinner would be ready when I got home.
There are two problems with this approach. The first one I learned the hard way - a cold crock plus a hot slow cooker base can crack the ceramic crock. (I was wondering what the spider web of cracks was…until the crock started leaking, and I had to buy a replacement.) The second problem is a crock straight out of the refrigerator takes a long time to heat up. This keeps food in the "danger zone" of temperatures for bacterial growth for too long. I never got us sick, but that was probably more luck (and really long cooking times) than anything.
The solution to these problems? I get up a little early and prep the crockpot meal first thing in the morning instead of the night before. Or, I prep the night before and store the food in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. The next morning I transfer it to my room temperature slow cooker.