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5 Tips for Family Dinner: Mark Bittman’s advice on cooking for kids

Tough-love advice on how to cook for kids

By Mark Bittman |

It’s not magic, the whole dinner thing, but you can’t get around the cooking part. You can reduce the time spent cooking to 20 minutes if you plan ahead, but you can’t reduce it to zero. You need to make some time for it. I would argue – and for 20 years I’ve been arguing – that you can cook a simple meal that takes less time than microwaving a hot pocket or heating up a Mac & Cheese. If the problem is time – if you’re getting home at 7 and want to put the kids at 8, I don’t know what to say. If you want the night to be a bath and a book, that’s up to you. But to have dinner, you have to decide to make the time.

  • Be Realistic.

    If you don’t know how to cook or are a beginner at organizing family dinner, set realistic goals for yourself. It’s nice to have family dinner be social time – when everyone is making dinner and sitting down together – but if you’re not a cook, you need to focus on the art of just making something halfway decent. What it ends up being might not exactly reflect life in Tuscany as we imagine, it but it’s probably going to be better than your kids eating one thing and you two glasses of wine and leftover something else.

  • Prioritize.

    People set aside time to learn how to do all sorts of things that they want to do. They learn yoga; they learn skiing; they learn how to drive cars – which I think is pretty darn complicated! Why not set aside some time to learn how to cook? Unlike most other pursuits, this is unarguably worth it. You can do it every day and enjoy the benefits for the rest of your life. Again, it’s not magic. A little upfront investment will be worth it. I could say go buy How to Cook Everything, but I can’t make you use it. You have to decide that. It’s like a gym membership; just signing up for one is not going to get you in shape. You have to actually make sure you get yourself there.

  • Think of it as a job.

    You don’t have to talk to kids about food, and you don’t have to be preachy about it; you just have to control their diet – it’s your job as a parent. Having dinner as a family allows you to control their diets in the most effective way; you are leading by example. You’re not saying “eat more vegetables,” you’re actually making vegetables and you’re sitting down to eat them yourself. In my daughters’ minds, I was some sort of ogre who sent them to school with whole wheat bread and natural peanut butter when everyone else was getting white bread and the sugary kind. But I saw it as my job to determine their diets. And they can’t argue with the results. They are both adults now, and their diets are naturally better than mine was at their age (I grew up eating potato chips and Mallomars after school every day), because of the way I fed them. All of us who struggle with our diets now know that we are struggling with the patterns that were set in our childhoods.

  • Take Advantage of New Resources.

    People’s schedules may be busier now, but technology is responding to that. The How to Cook Everything app (out now) and the Vegetarian How to Cook Everything (due out around Christmas) let you decide what to have for dinner wherever you happen to be thinking about it (except while you’re driving!). When you head into a supermarket after a busy day without a plan and see a lamb shank, you can type in lamb shank to see every recipe that is available, then pick one and generate a shopping list for it. That helps take a lot of the pressure off. And the HTCE app not only helps with lamb shank – it helps with rhubarb, odd fruits, fish, lentils, brown rice, tofu, all the things people are learning how to cook now and ingredients that most Americans are not inherently familiar with. The technology is unbelievable to me. All the recipes on the app come right from my book – and unlike a lot of apps with huge recipe archives, I can vouch for every single one of them.

  • Don’t plead busy.

    Do not tell me you are too busy to cook and then settle in to watch an hour of TV. You can cook after the kids go to bed for the next night, then reheat it if that’s what it takes. There has to be about an hour (including shopping) built into the day where preparing food matters. If you can do that you can get family dinner on the table. If you can’t do that, I don’t know what to say. It’s a question of priorities.

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21 thoughts on “5 Tips for Family Dinner: Mark Bittman’s advice on cooking for kids

  1. Coco says:

    I wouldn’t call this advice for how to cook for kids. It’s more like someone saying in five different, condescending ways that it’s important TO cook healthy meals for kids. OK, yeah, no kidding. How about some actual tips on what and how to do that?

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree with Coco. People clicking on this article most likely already want to cook for and with their kids. It came off as a bit harsh and more than a little self-serving since the only book recommendation was the author’s own. This was a book I’ve had on my wish list for awhile, but now I’m feeling rebellious about it.

  3. Korinthia Klein says:

    (And lest people think I was being cowardly and hiding behind ‘Anonymous’, that last comment was mine, I just missed the spot about where to put my name before I hit ‘Add.’)

  4. Stoich91 says:

    I actually enjoyed this article; more moms need to practice what they preach when it comes to healthy eating for their families! And it would be nice to see some suggestions, as said below.

  5. Grace says:

    For many people stumbling block #1 to family dinner is attitude and this article gets to the heart of the matter. Yes families are under huge time pressures, but if you want to make it a priority, then make a plan and do it. No guilt or judgment intended. Try maybe once or twice a week at first, if it’s not a routine now. There’s lots of resources out there on 20 min meals and meal planning but you have to decide to make the change.

  6. JCF says:

    @Korinthia–Even if you didn’t like the article, still buy his cookbooks/apps! I own both HTCE and HTCEV and they are literally falling apart–like chunks of them actually fall onto the floor when I open them if I’m not careful enough. They’re fantastic, realistic, and full of delicious recipes!

  7. Korinthia Klein says:

    Thanks! That’s good to know. I’ll keep it on my wish list.

  8. Ceri at Sweet Potato Chronicles says:

    It may seem harsh but it’s true that lots of parents who enroll their kids in sports, art classes and every other imaginable activity feel too overwhelmed to make food for their families. It’s not that food is more important, but surely it’s as important. And I think a great strategy is deciding what your arsenal is going to be: five or six dishes that you can make without re-inventing the wheel. Then if you do have more than a minute to think about it you can try a new dish and build up your roster. And get your kids involved! They’re more likely to eat food they help prepare and it’s a nice time to be together.

  9. Cincinnati Claire says:

    Whatever you think of this article, if you are interested in cooking healthy family meals, you should definitely buy, check-out, or borrow “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” The index is brilliant, and the arsenal of techniques totally useful. I’ve got a huge library of vegetarian cookbooks and classic cookbooks, but I still learned a ton from Bittman. We have more interesting meals and I’m much more efficient, because instead of making separate trips to the market for each meal idea, his endless variations allow you to work with what you’ve got. Brilliant if you want to cook seasonal, with a CSA, for example.

  10. NYC Single Mom says:

    I agree with 1, 2, 4 and 5. I already think of cooking as a job hence why i hate to do it 7 days a week. it can get boring. For me, he is right, I always say I am too busy but come home and relax in front of the tv vs cooking. Whats 20 minutes to cook a good meal? Thats why I have DVR. No more excuses and I know he has a great book, I guess I should use it.
    One reader thought he was being condescending, I dont. This article is more of bop on the head.


  11. Sara Elstrott Roadman says:

    Coco- you are so right- I was hoping to get some tips reading this article but there were no actual cooking tips:(

  12. Anne says:

    I love Mark Bittman, but I agree with the other commenters that this article was uninformative. Here’s a resource (from Mr. Bittman) that I use all the time to plan super-quick meals:

  13. Rosana says:

    I agree, “it’s a question of priorities.” Planning ahead is everything when you are a mom because it helps you think about the details before you are in the situation. Like when I finish lunch at work, I am already thinking about what am I going to cook for dinner at home. Some co-workers think I am crazy, but I figure it out after lunch and when I get home I start dinner right away and play with my kids while the stove is cooking. If I wait to figure out everything at the moment, then I will be cranky and the time I will be giving my family will have no quality.

  14. FabricandPaper says:

    Oh boy. I totally agree that the food we feed our families is unmistakably important. The time we take to nourish our bodies and the bodies of those who we have charge over is time well spent. I’m disappointed, like some you who previously commented, with the advertisement quality of this article including the harsh tone. And, no one can convince me to buy a book who can’t be sure their blog post is well edited. (The phrase “put the kids at 8″ seems sloppy to me.)

  15. Mary H says:

    I’m also disappointed with the assumption that we’re all sitting home watching TV instead of nourishing our families.
    Thanks Mark for perpetuating a steriotype!

  16. NMNY says:

    Perhaps Mark would like to come cook some meals for tomorrow after my kids are in bed- maybe when I’m in bed too. I like MB but I think he should focus on cooking and stay out if the advice business. These “tips” are part no- brainers and part rantings of the sancti-chef. Honestly, he, Pollan and Oliver are becoming so full of themselves it really makes me start to question the things I liked about them.

  17. Anonymous says:

    I can see how this may come across as “condescending” but I think the problem is that Babble gave the piece a misleading title.

    Agree with NYC Single Mom, it’s a good bop in the head. I don’t think it’s so much harsh, as it is just very matter-of-fact.

  18. Harold Levinston says:

    Meditation is also effective stress remedy to provide relief from stress as it diverts the mind to some good thoughts.

  19. terram says:

    Advance planing is key. Also helpful is only planning for 3 dinners a week. I make enough of those meals for 3 other days of leftovers, and allow one day for eating out or something super easy, like “waffle night,” “sandwich night” or “cereal and salads.” Dinner is my still biggest and often most dreaded chore, but we first made it a priority and it soon became habit. On the very rare nights that we don’t all eat as a family my 4-year-old now actually tells us he misses dinner time together – what a huge incentive to make it happen!

  20. Anonymous says:

    YES! I so agree. As a nation we spend a lower percentage of our earnings on food, spend less time making in and even less eating it and enjoying it. Family dinners may not solve all of society’s problems, but instilling the importance of a good family meal, delicious, wholesome choices, the art of conversation and the importance of time spent together are all great starts.

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