We spoke with Jenny Rosenstrach, author of Dinner A Love Story blog and co-author of "Time for Dinner," about her tips for cooking with kids, five ingredients that guarantee a quick and easy meal, and the permanent fixtures in her refrigerator. Check out her advice and recipes below.
Do you actively try to involve your kids in cooking with you? If so, how?
“Actively” is overstating it. There’s nothing I dread more than the four words 'Mom, can I help?' when I’m in the middle of the dinner scramble and the clock is ticking. Because “help” from a kid in this situation is almost always the opposite – it is a total rhythm-breaker. I might as well put down the wooden spoon and read a chapter of Harry Potter. I would be further along in the cooking when I returned and there would be less to clean up.
But having said that, when I do have time, and I’ve psychologically earmarked a meal or a recipe as a “project” with extra time built in, I love to involve them. I think the best ten bucks we ever spent was on our Ikea kitchen stool. It’s always pulled up to the stove or the counter. I think the best way to start is to first just accept that it’s going to be a disaster and a mess. Cause if you don’t, it can be frustrating. Took me a while to figure this out.
Could you list five ingredients that you could use to create a quick and easy meal for kids?
I ran this recipe (called The Six-Kid Crowd Pleaser because when my friend cooked it for a dinner party every single kid devoured it) on my website devoted to family dinner, and my readers went crazy for it.
In an ovenproof skillet or Dutch oven (sorry photo does not show either), brown 3- 4 large boneless chicken breasts over high heat in olive oil, about 2 minutes a side. Remove breasts from pan. (They do not have to be cooked through.) Turn down heat to medium-low and add one onion (finely chopped) and 2 cloves garlic (minced). After about 2 minutes, stir in one 15-ounce can chopped tomatoes and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Stir in 3-4 tablespoons mascarpone and a handful of roughly chopped basil. Add chicken back to pan, immersing them in sauce. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes.
What are five things that you always have in your refrigerator?
I am pretty much never without the following in my pantry: whole wheat pasta, quinoa, frozen organic spinach, eggs, onion, and Parmesan. There are endless variations of eleventh hour meals you can pull out of your hat when you have these ingredients on hand: an omelet, of course; whole wheat pasta with caramelized onion, spinach and Parmesan; quinoa with spinach, soy, caramelized onions, and a fried egg on top; whole wheat pasta with sautéed spinach, artichoke, and onion. If kids won’t eat any of those, you can always fall back on plain pasta or a scrambled egg. Unless you are my kid, in which case you will not go near an egg if it was the only food left on earth. Not my words. Theirs.
What about in your pantry?
See above. I’d add every shape and size of pasta (bowtie, rotini, rigatoni, wagon wheel, penne) for my little one. She’s obsessed.
Are there certain foods you’ve found that kids enjoy making?
Um. Sweet foods. It’s all about licking the bowl and the beaters for my kids. Oh, and my 8-year-old has decided she invented a salad which she would make every night if we let her: lettuce with tomatoes, carrots, and Japanese ginger dressing. It’s pretty delicious – I have to say. Even if she hasn’t quite mastered the ratio of lettuce to dressing and it ends up resembling soup more than salad.
I love the concept of ‘babysitter in a box’ that you mention in the book, which makes kids feel like they’re helping in the kitchen, but also allows you to actually make dinner. Could you list 3 or 4 of the items in the box that work the best and why?
Well, in the book’s box, we suggested squeeze bottles, small-hole spice jars, oil dispensers, funnels, lots of little Tupperware containers and one big one for the all-important cauldron. (How else to make Witches Brew?) My kids, who are 7 and 8, are too old for it now so I usually just pinch off a piece of pizza dough and find that will entertain them for decades.
For the Juice-Box Salmon recipe that we are featuring, is there a juice brand in particular that you find works the best? Or what should people look for in the juice box they use in this recipe?
I actually can’t answer that question. It was from recipe developer Victoria Granof, but I believe she would tell a dry juice box with easy finish. Nothing too sweet.
For the Tomato Egg Cup recipe, what would you suggest eating this with?
Green salad, crusty bread, quinoa salad. I think the question is: What can’t you eat it with? Best thing is that the kids don’t really need any more than that. It’s a veg and a protein all wrapped up in such a sweet little presentation. Like a little gift. That is, unless your kid literally announces she must leave the kitchen if an egg is being cooked. Just saying.
The Braised Pork recipe that we are featuring is a great way to use leftovers, how do you find ways to use leftovers in new recipes?
I think figuring out ways to use leftovers is one of the ways people can teach themselves how to cook. In addition to eliminating the intimidation factor (can be really defeating to start a meal from zero every night all week long), it inspires improvisation, which is the bedrock of cooking (and parenting, too!). In the book we show how a bowl of barley can be used as a Sunday side dish with the pork, then the next day used to stuff a pepper, then the next day mixed with oranges and beets and cheese for a vegetarian main. That meal can come together in about 5 minutes – which means if your kid doesn’t like beets and barley and oranges, you won’t feel so beleaguered about spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread for a “separate meal.” There are lots of other inspired ideas, but that one is my favorite.