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How to get 3 meals on the table for your family every day — and stay sane

Life under lockdown may be challenging, but here are 10 ways to make cooking for your family easier.
Image: Family cooking tips
If you have younger kids, you can even work a basic math lesson into it (how many thirds are in a cup?).Catherine Delahaye / Getty Images

Sheltering in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 has left many of us cooped up in our homes with our partner and kids. We’re tending to our families — in some cases homeschooling our children — and working, while also trying to pay attention to the everchanging news of the global pandemic. Getting three meals on the table each day is a challenge for just about all of us. Figuring out what to make, keeping the menu fresh with limited ingredients, trying to stave off the fatigue of cleaning up one meal only to have to turn around and start prepping the next, and maintaining a happy (or at least peaceable) household — it’s a lot. But there are things you can do to make it easier. Here’s what’s been working for me — and other culinary-minded moms.

1. Prep in advance

First, take an hour on Sunday (or hey, any day, since time is a little fluid lately) to prepare for your week. If you’re a meal planner, review the recipes you want to make, identify the ingredients that can be prepped ahead and get them recipe-ready. If you don’t like planning meals in advance, you can still save time by prepping ingredients you’re likely to use. This might include mincing garlic, chopping onions, peeling carrots and cutting them into sticks, zesting and juicing some citrus fruits, peeling and cubing butternut squash, grating some hard cheeses, making bacon or roasting meats and veggies.

2. Get the kids involved

Enlist your kids to help with tasks that are appropriate for their ages, such as zesting, juicing and grating for young kids or mincing, slicing and chopping for older ones. As we navigate these coming weeks, remember that getting your kids involved in the meal-making process is likely to boost their interest in cooking — and in eating the results. Pride in one’s work goes a long way.

Mandy Maxwell, a culinary producer and food stylist sheltering in place with her husband, son and in-laws in Maryland, is making an effort to find at least one thing that her 20-month-old son can do to help with each meal. “This way, it creates an activity with a delicious reward,” she says, adding that they’ve also been a little more lax about what constitutes a “meal” these days. “A slice of toast with peanut butter, sliced bananas and a sprinkle of chia seeds is not only a sufficient breakfast or lunch, but it’s also totally OK for dinner now too.”

Cooking with a child isn’t always easy. Even as a culinary professional, Maxwell says it takes a lot of patience. “But the upside is that it gives everyone something to do.” When her son makes a mess, she says they do a group-clean together. Learning how to use the dust buster has been a bonus activity. “It’s hilarious how much joy a tiny vacuum can [give] to a toddler. Which is the perfect way to briefly forget all of the other things currently happening in the world.”

3. Make it fun

Katie Chin, an award-winning cookbook author, food blogger and mom of 11-year old twins, has jumped right into quarantine cooking. Her idea of fun is planning a weekly quick-fire challenge for older kids: Choose a surprise ingredient (such as eggs) and challenge every member of your household to create a dish with it using the ingredients in your pantry. “The winner,” she says, “[gets] out of helping with the dishes that night.”

I’m also tasking my own kids, who are 17 and 20 years old, with checking our kitchen for ingredients and Googling recipes they think they can make with them. (You can also type the ingredients you have on hand right into any search engine to see results that include those ingredients. For example, typing in chicken breasts, oyster sauce and frozen broccoli will get you a stir-fry recipe.)

4. Teach your kids how to adapt recipes

Kids can also look for recipes in cookbooks and adapt them according to the ingredients you have at home. For instance, you may not have black beans, but you could use that can of chickpeas. Out of sour cream? Grab the Greek yogurt. Understanding how to swap out equivalent ingredients can turn into a valuable life skill. After all, cooking with what you have on hand is the strategy a lot of us rely on — even in non-pandemic times.

5. Relax with cooking videos

Chin recommends watching cooking videos on YouTube together — they can be educational and entertaining. She recently started doing her own series of Facebook Live broadcasts with her twins. In "Cooped Up Cooking with Katie," Chin shares easy, healthy recipes and practical cooking tips for families. In a recent episode, she and her daughter Becca made white bean turkey chili.

6. Cook in batches

Another one of my favorite meal prep strategies is big-batch cooking. Why in the world would I make a pot of turkey meat sauce just big enough for one meal when I could double or triple the recipe and make enough to freeze for five more dinners in the coming weeks? Dishes that freeze well, such as pasta sauce, lasagna, chilis, soups and stews, are ideal for making in big batches. To pack up meal-sized portions, Chin suggests creating an assembly line with your kids and putting the portions in appropriately sized freezer-safe containers or bags.

7. Set up a DIY meal bar

Meals that are interactive help make the dining experience more enjoyable, plus it’s always fun for kids to choose their own toppings. Create a top-your-own baked potato bar (baked potatoes are easy and cheap — and potatoes last for a long time), a nacho bar, a taco dinner, a make-your-own quesadilla station, or for breakfast, an oatmeal bar. All you need to do is prepare the base ingredients and put out toppings your family enjoys.

8. Challenge your family with a cooking project

We often need meals that we can get on the table quickly and easily, but sometimes it’s rewarding to make one that’s not just a meal but an activity. Pizza dough is a great example. It’s fun for kids to mix up, knead and shape, and then top with their favorite ingredients. And really, it’s just as easy for everyone to make their ownpizza as it is to make a larger one, if not easier. You can also make mini pizzas, which are especially appealing to younger kids.

9. Aim for zero-waste

Katie Grieco, a meditation teacher who lives in New York City with her husband and teenage boys, is being “more thoughtful” about how she’s cooking during the quarantine. Grieco says she has “a bit of a wartime mentality — no-waste.” Before the pandemic, she says, “I might’ve thrown out a few extra carrot sticks that got a little dried out. Now we're finishing up everything — or I'm using it in a salad or in my kitchari, et cetera.” She’s also looking closer at what's in the refrigerator and pantry, and planning out meals in advance, which is something she wasn’t as invested in previously.

10. Reap the benefits of baking

Grieco adds that baking is another good activity to help pass the time during the quarantine. It’s engaging for the kids — and everyone gets a treat at the end. If you have younger kids, you can even work a basic math lesson into it (how many thirds are in a cup?). “Baking projects are a way of bringing joy [and] keeping people busy,” says Grieco. “My 15-year-old son baked bread for the first time ever yesterday — ciabatta. It was really good for a first effort!”

More family dinner ideas

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