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

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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