Once upon a time, before you became a parent, you enjoyed certain freedoms. You could sleep in on weekends, make impromptu trips to the movie theater, and spend your evenings leisurely preparing dinner. Dinnertime as a busy parent is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face. How on earth, after a long day, is anyone to be expected to prepare a delicious, healthy meal for their whole family -- let alone enjoy the process?
Since you became a parent, times sure have changed. These days, a herd of baby elephants tramples through the space that used to be the dining room. The stereo blasts with the sounds of alphabet singalongs. Your martini shaker is full of Legos and the sink is full of dishes from the day’s previous meals.
It may not seem like it, but it’s not only possible to conquer dinner, you can actually enjoy it again. With a few secrets up your sleeve, your family meals can more closely resemble the attractive dishes you prepared before the munchkins came along. Best of all? Working some gourmet magic in the kitchen might actually make your little ones even more excited to chow down. Bonus!
1. Lean on your freezer.
Well, not literally. But, your deep freeze can offer untold support in your endeavors to make delicious and appetizing meals for your family. There is absolutely no shame in reaching into your freezer to grab already-sliced bell peppers, pre-chopped onions, or a stash of last summer’s basil. With the addition a few extra gourmet-ish techniques, nobody will even realize the ingredients were frozen in the first place.
You have some options here. Find twenty minutes of time to clean, cut, and store your veggies in advance. Your prep time may be on the weekend, during naptime, or while the kids are at school. Investing just a little energy ahead of time will save your sanity when everyone is asking, “What’s for dinner?” Either create “meal packets” with a mixture of veggies you might want for certain dishes (like a stir fry or Italian blend) or store each variety individually to mix and match later.
Fresh herbs can also be easily frozen. Hearty herbs, like rosemary, can be stored in a freezer bag, while more delicate herbs like basil or cilantro hold up better if pureed with a little olive oil and frozen in ice cube trays. Whatever your method, be sure to label everything well so you know what you’re grabbing when it’s time to cook.
2. Dress up any recipe.
You don’t have to prepare a fancy recipe in order to eat like a gourmand. Nearly any dish can be “gourmet-ified” with a few slight tweaks. The most important thing to remember here is that gourmet food doesn’t have to be fancy. It just needs to look, smell, and taste amazing.
Eye appeal is the number one way to transform a regular dinner into a gourmet meal. Look to the rainbow and use different colored vegetables to brighten things up. Additionally, experiment with how you put food on the plate. Layer or stack meal components for a vertical display of deliciousness.
Just need a finishing touch? Get creative. Use a squeeze bottle or even a paintbrush with a brightly colored sauce to decorate the plate with dots or schmears. Don’t be afraid to play. Your kids might not eat that part, but they’ll think it looks pretty cool.
3. Don’t underestimate the powers of slow cooking.
Most meals that come from a slow cooker taste fantastic, but don’t really look gourmet. Although there are a lot of things you can do to dress up a slow cooker meal (see above), the real benefit of the slow cooker comes from its ingredient-prep abilities.
Slow cooking is an easy way to to cook large quantities of dry beans and legumes for freezing, with hardly any hands-on work. Cooking your own beans saves a ton of money, but also allows you to control flavor and salt content. Homemade tomato sauce is also easy to make in a slow cooker, even when starting with canned tomatoes. Bonus points? The money you save by making your own tomato sauce will help pay for time-savers like pre-cut veggies.
4. The proof is in the broth.
Homemade vegetable broth can also help you harness gourmet flavor in almost any dish you prepare for your family, and it’s really easy to make in either a slow cooker (overnight) or a pressure cooker (in a matter of minutes).
Simply collect your veggie scraps after washing and cutting up veggies to freeze, and use them to make a delicious broth overnight. A container or freezer bag is a great place to collect your bits and pieces, and when it’s full, add a couple of onions, cover with water and cook either in a slow cooker or pressure cooker. Once cool, strain the solids and transfer to freezer-safe containers in pre-measured quantities (like 16 or 32oz). Simply pop out of the freezer in the morning or run under a hot tap to defrost!
5. Think like a restaurant.
If you’re feeding more than one kid, you may already feel like a short order cook. But the restaurant tip that will actually help you has nothing to do with designing a lengthy menu. It’s not even about what’s on the plate. It’s about the plate itself. Using plain white plates will show off any dish you create.