Advice from a magical kitchen to yours—
Dear Kitchen Witch,
I work evenings and my spouse works a regular 9-5 schedule. By the time he picks up our kid from daycare and gets home, there is a very small window of time to cook dinner. What are some kid-friendly meals that I could do the prep for before I leave for work so he can throw it together when he gets home?
—What a Way to Make a Living
Dear What a Way,
I surmise from the mention of daycare that your child is likely quite small. Thus, before I name a few prep-ahead entrees that fit your criteria, I would like to recommend three things as side dishes for basically all your weekday meals when your spouse is pressed for time: cut-up raw vegetables; some form of dip, or dressing that can serve as dip; and bread or even crackers. Prep a ton of vegetables into cut-up batons or chunks at some time when it’s convenient—Sunday afternoon, or some morning when the kid is at daycare—and bust those bad boys out at dinner more often than not, especially in the summer, which fast approaches. Cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, carrots, red bell peppers, fennel, celery—whatever you and your kid like. (For the adults I usually keep a spicy flavored salt on the table to go with these.) Would you like, ideally and eventually, for your child to eat lovely salads with interesting dressings, or perhaps some kind of widely varied stir-fried vegetable mélange (on which more later)? Sure! Absolutely! There is plenty of time for that later in your child’s life and/or when your evening schedule is more forgiving. For now, I would just gently suggest having on hand healthy choices that require between zero and three minutes of prep—like, opening a box, a bag, or a drawer in the fridge—so your child, if needed, can start ingesting some nutrient-containing food while a protein centerpiece cooks.
If you do want to include cooked vegetables in the repertoire, I like to give kids (and, well, myself) roasted veggies, and this is a good prep-ahead option as long as you use vegetables that won’t go brown if cut up a little ahead. You can put cut-up broccoli or cauliflower or those prepped shaved Brussels sprouts on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with a little kosher salt, and just leave it in the closed, turned-off oven and have your spouse turn it to 400°F-ish upon arrival at home. Voila, 20-25 minutes later, browned and crispy vegetables. I can’t vouch for all children eating cruciferous vegetables when exposed to them by this method, but mine do, and they won’t eat fruit at all so it’s not like they’re not picky. By the way, this exact same thing with a few precooked sausages thrown on top is not just a side dish; it’s a sheet pan supper and it’s perfect for the prepped-ahead, thrown-together meal.
While I would pretty happily eat a giant bowl of just vegetables roasted this way and seasoned with something spicy as my dinner (maybe with an egg on it), such is generally not the case for children. Generally, they do best when plied with a little more protein and carbs (that bread)—though I will also say that when my kids were small, dinner was almost always their very worst meal. They were tired and had often snacked and they just didn’t eat much and it was fine. When I was in my arrogant 20s with lots of time to cook, I was sure I would make fascinating braises and inventive I-don’t-even-know-what on a nightly basis instead of, like, the simple protein-veggie-carb meal structure that my mom, like many another moms, relied upon to feed me. Guess what? Now I’m tired and I mostly make the tripartite structure and I understand why my mom relied on it and I’m sorry I doubted her. Anyway!
I think, especially now that it’s almost summer, marinating protein is going to be your best friend. Lately, my favorite marinade riffs on one that Melissa Clark has in her cookbook Dinner [ed: it’s also this month’s Edible Communities Cookbook Club selection!]: fish sauce, citrus juice, brown sugar, a hot pepper. It’s great on flank steak or skirt steak, which you can then grill. A favorite combo of mine to put on boneless skinless chicken thighs is something I stole from Nigel Slater: yogurt, harissa (you can go easy on this if your kid is anti-spice but the yogurt does tame it), lemon juice. You can mix up lamb burgers with chopped fresh mint, cumin, and garlic and shape the patties for your spouse to grill or pan-fry. Marinate sliced chicken breast with coconut milk and a little fish sauce and curry powder for quick cheater satay-ish skewers (bonus if you buy a peanut sauce for dipping it and those cut-up veggies). Shrimp are also a great thing to spice up, thread on skewers, and grill or broil very quickly.
If you want to go a little more elaborate, you can prep a stir-fry without too much effort: cut up your meat, toss with soy and garlic and cornstarch (and any other flavorings you want), and have your cut-up vegetables alongside. Tofu, pressed and cut up, will stir-fry up even faster than meat. Noodles (especially thin rice noodles) cook to go with this faster than rice, but rice only takes about 20 minutes.
In chillier times, a pot of soup or chili is going to be easy to simply heat back up, if you’re up for making that ahead. Cooking meat or beans for taco filling and assembling a few fixings also puts dinner together fast. Omelet prep—a few cut-up vegetables and some grated cheese—will make for a super-fast and easy supper; there’s no shame in breakfast for dinner, either, or sandwich night. As I’ve mentioned in this space before, the thing is that kids expect to eat dinner every single night, even when you might prefer to zone out with a large bowl of roasted vegetables and binge-watch all of Fleabag—a pursuit that prepping ahead makes all the more likely.
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