Tips for making dinner a pleasure instead of a chore

You’d never know it from my apron, but there was a time (not so long ago) when I didn’t cook.

Or, more accurately, I hardly cooked. Like many parents, I found myself paralyzed by a dinnertime conundrum.

Faced with two people who refused to eat much beyond chicken nuggets and green beans, haunted by the (somewhat inaccurate) memory of a home-cooked dinner every night of my childhood, bombarded by bossy “experts” with kid-friendly cookbooks and meal planning systems, I gave up.

Whisks gathered dust, prepared foods piled up in the freezer, restaurants got more than their fair share of my dollars. Then two things happened: I made a new friend who is a passionate cook. And I had a sudden realization that I no longer wanted to eat anything that was coming out of my kitchen.

Talking about food and cooking made me think about what I actually wanted to eat and about cooking projects I had long abandoned. One by one, I took them up again.

If you’ve reached an impasse with family dinner, what I learned might help you, too.

Go modular: When choosing dishes to cook, pay special attention to things that can easily be deconstructed. If you’re making pasta, it’s simple to hold some of the noodles to the side, sans sauce, for the kids. Chicken Parmesan includes (ta da!) breaded chicken, aka nuggets.

While prepping dinner, look for ways to set something aside pre-spices or sauce. Be sure to offer the seasoned/sauced version to children as well, or offer the sauce as a condiment.

Make peace with the alterna-dinner: Children will eat what they eat, and if they insist on a peanut butter sandwich and mini carrots for dinner one night because they won’t try what you make, so be it. Offer them everything you’re eating (this is key), but don’t let a refusal snarl your dinnertime.

Know what else is OK? Giving them a simple “kid dinner” and letting them know you’ll be having “grown-up dinner” a little later on. This makes room for adults who are arriving home late from work to eat well. And it allows for more adventurous meals once in a while — something deliciously spicy, for instance.

Lay a foundation: Basic structures like pasta, sandwiches and salads are vessels for anything from leftovers to pantry stalwarts such as chickpeas or canned tuna. They can easily be amped up for adults and streamlined for kids.

Favorite sides, even frozen veggies, help round things out and keep prep quick. I often serve tacos filled with black beans and cheese for children, substituting kale, squash, cilantro, mushrooms and jalapeno for my own version.

Choose greens, grains or bread to lay the framework, then choose fillings based on what you have on hand.

Last week’s roast chicken or that big pork shoulder you braised come in handy — toss the meat in the freezer, then quickly transform it into a sandwich/pasta/salad dinner by reheating in a skillet.

Plain meat, maybe with a sprinkle of cheese, can serve the pickiest eaters. Set some aside, then add spices and veggies to the pan to create a filling for more adventurous sorts.

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