*although I’ll confess I wrote this Thursday night.
I was looking through some of my instagram photos and noticed that I have quite a few photographs of food on my countertop. If I went through my regular photo files I’d find dozens more. For some reason when I’m cooking there always seems to be time in the process where the effort starts to resemble a still life – at least on those days when I start the cooking or baking process with a clean countertop. That’s always a goal, but not always reality.
We have inexpensive black laminate countertops which are just fine. There are many beautiful countertop options out there, but when we first took on this renovation project we had to be very careful where we spent our limited dough. Investing in a good quality cabinet is always a sound idea – countertops are icing, and it’s always easy to lick the icing clean and install something different down the line. Twelve years later and they still work – my only complaint is that they make a lousy backdrop for photographs. So I have a large collection of photos of ingredients on black. Whatever. Sometimes you just have to work in a kitchen to know what really makes a great kitchen. Get rid of the magazine pages and the pins and look at how things work. And how they don’t work. Or just use what you’ve got. Most of my favorite food bloggers work from a kitchen the size of the galley in my first apartment. Galley kitchens with amazing north light, I guess.
I’ve been thinking lately about the dinner table. I thought about it during one of the debates when a candidate described a woman-friendly workforce as one that allows flexibility for women to leave early and get home to put dinner on the table. Let’s take a moment to move past the gut reaction in the room to that idea (M: I’m the one that puts dinner on the table most work nights. Me: The dinner hour is not a negotiating point against the concept of equal pay for equal work) and just look at the idea of the dinner table. I thought about it again when I read this post on The Yellow House about opinions and misconceptions about the complexity of putting real food on the table each night. I love reading about other’s struggles with drumming up the energy to cook when six o’clock rolls around – and the lightbulb moment when you realize that you can put something together with the nothing in your refrigerator. I’m happiest when I find myself along in the car on a Saturday afternoon and I catch Lynn taking a phone call and coming up with an on-the-spot recipe with a few random items in someone’s pantry. And there’s always Amanda’s honesty about the sometimes need for popcorn (or your own version of dinner alternative) when the day gets away from you, and your energy does as well.
There’s nothing magic about it, but it does require some sort of a system. Here’s what I find works for us. And what I’ve found doesn’t work.
Just Say No
To fast food. I’ve found the only thing I really, truly need that can be obtained through a drive-thru window is Starbucks. “Need” might be a stretch, but it’s a stretch I’m willing to take.
Just Say Yes
To eating out as a family. I think it’s a great idea to support your neighborhood and local restaurants as often as your wallet allows it. Seeking out the best of the best and rewarding them for their talents and ingredients and menu offerings and cuisine diversity means that they can continue to do that. It’s a great way to try new things, and for kids to work on their table manners. Wasn’t an issue with the older one, is an issue with the younger one, but she’s improving. We also try to frequent places that don’t offer a children’s menu – or to skip the children’s menu entirely and order an adult portion for the girls to split. We had a really great dinner recently at a nice restaurant (the linen tablecloth, change your silverware out between courses kind of place) and the girls split a steak burger and are still talking about it to this day.
Plan the Week’s Menu Ahead
We use a weekly calendar and I try to remember to put things on it first like soccer practice or a late meeting. On the nights that are really hectic we usually plan an easy to throw together meal that doesn’t require a lot of stove / oven time. And lots of our favorite meals might actually take an hour or longer to make, but a good portion of that time might just be getting the water to a boiling point, or 40 minutes of roasting in the oven. I usually send an email mid-afternoon to M and tell him to get the water going first thing, or the oven preheated when he gets home. Or we’ll chop vegetables and get them in the oven to roast and throw the kids in the tub while everything’s in the oven. There’s a finite time in the evening to play with, but no one says everything has to happen in the same order. Except on pesto night – that night* requires dinner before bath.
*If you haven’t seen that video, please click on the link so that you know what our dinner was like the other night.
Make a Grocery List Based on the Menu / Purchase Over the Weekend
This usually falls to me, and I often visit two grocery stores to get it done. I love having so many options for food shopping, and I don’t mind the grocery (especially if it’s just me and no kids!) I never go without a list. I don’t clip coupons and I don’t shop sales – not because I’m made of money, but because I just don’t have the time or patience. I’m sure I could save money if I did, but I also like the menu to guide me, not the price of food. I work hard at not wasting food – I’m not perfect at it, but I have developed enough of a recipe repertoire to know just what to do with that extra buttermilk that’s about to expire. Pancakes anyone? Herbs are where I fall short. I will personally give myself a gold star once I’ve either learned how to successfully grow herbs year round or at least managed to use the leftovers before they turn into a blackened mess in the back of the fridge.
Eat Seasonally and Eat Less (or No) Meat
I’ve gotten better about purchasing food in season – particularly at the Farmers Market – and then bringing it home and planning the rest of the meals around it. It makes rotating recipes easier, and more natural, so that we don’t get sick of eating the same thing over and over again. And since we have one vegetarian in the house we are typically a no-meat family. Sometimes I’ll add turkey meatballs in for the girls, or fold ham slices into an egg and cheese dish, but other than the occasional hot dog (my oldest daugther’s favorite food) we are meat free. We eat a lot of grains, a fair amount of pasta, and eggs too. I have so many favorite cookbooks and I continue to make and remake the adult favorites and feed them to the girls. F is not picky, E is – but she is getting better. I never make E a separate dinner, but I do know that if she’s more likely to chow down on the individual components of a meal vs. a mash up of all of them, I try to give her that option. I credit the culinary arts program at her school with really driving home the message that different flavors are a good thing. F was born with that gene. Don’t get between her and her food.
Skip the Processed Food
If I can see all the individual ingredients beforehand, I’m going to feel better afterwards. Simple as that.
When in Doubt, Serve Tacos
Food you can stack high and pick up with your hands means that everyone at the table has control over the flavors they like and the technique they use to get it into the mouth. Taco stacking is an art form in our house, and if there are leftovers they are great scooped up with tortilla chips. And chips are a whole separate food group around here.
What are you finding on your table these days? I’d love to hear about your favorite cookbooks, and hope to post on mine soon.