By Nina Garin
Anytime I serve my preschool-aged daughters a lovely, home-cooked meal — whether it’s a fancy vegetable dish or mini cheeseburgers — that’s what they say. Not exactly the most encouraging words for anyone to hear, let alone someone as new to the kitchen as I am.
I may be a wife and a mother, but up until this year, I didn’t know how to cook. With all the great local restaurants, not to mention the frozen foods section at Trader Joe’s, I never had a reason to learn. But now that I have a young family, paired with the down economy, making meals at home is a new necessity.
So in January, I set out to be the kind of person who brings homemade food to a potluck and not the girl who passes off tuna salad from the supermarket deli as her own. And the journey hasn’t been too easy.
The first few months of this project were promising, just like the start of anything new can be — everything is exciting and wonderful.
Over the winter, I truly enjoyed learning handy ways to cut an onion and how to make my own cake frosting. It was fun stocking my kitchen with new gadgets, and there was finally a legitimate excuse to buy one of those chic Anthropologie aprons.
At first, I was making all kinds of dishes — from homemade mac and cheese to skillet chicken and gravy — which were pretty tasty. Or, tastier than I expected. I even got subscriptions to Cooking Light and Real Simple magazines, and learned to read recipes with the same enthusiasm I thought only existed for my fashion magazines.
But not everyone was excited about the new food.
One particularly ambitious night, I made a fancy meatloaf that called for three different kinds of meats. I even had to approach the butcher’s counter, something I’d never done before. But now that I know you get perfect portions in wonderful brown paper packages, it’s become my favorite part of shopping.
When my 3-year-old daughter, Marina, saw a plate of meatloaf and potatoes on the table, she burst into tears and screamed, “Never do this to my dinner, again!”
Trust me, kid, I won’t.
Even when I do try to please her with something like stuffed shells or panko-crusted chicken strips, Marina still won’t eat it. For her, the best flavors come from a Kraft or Campbell’s package. My 2-year-old, Ella, is a bit more adventurous. But she’d rather please Marina than me, so if the consensus at the table is that the dinner is “gross,” then Ella won’t eat, either.
Then there’s my husband. He gets home hours after dinnertime, and either he’s already eaten at work or he’s too hungry to wait for reheats (at least that’s what he says). So he rarely eats my food and opts for more immediate options like cereal or English muffins or a bag of Mint Milano cookies.
So after a few months of this demoralizing treatment, I quit cooking.
Before long, it was back to serving frozen fish sticks, pizza and corn.
My girls gobbled up their dinners without a fight, and they’d say things like, “I love what you made, Mommy!” and, “Can you make spaghetti with Ragu every night?”
Our evenings were drama free and lovely, plus we had more time to play in the evening since there wasn’t a messy kitchen to clean.
But as the weather warmed up, my feeble attempts to make dinner turned into complete laziness. We’d be at the park, and it was so much easier to go to Burger Lounge across the street than to go home. Or on the way back from play dates, I’d stop for McNuggets.
And sure enough, I was back to my old habits and feeling terrible about myself.
Apparently, this frustration is pretty normal. Katie Shea, a chef who teaches healthy cooking courses at Grossmont College, said it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the thought of making homemade meals every night.
“You need to be realistic,” she said. “You have to ask yourself how much time you really have. A half-hour? One hour? Fifteen minutes? Figure out what you can and can’t do, and set a goal, like two home-cooked meals a week instead of every night.”
Shea, who also does in-home cooking lessons, said not everything has to be from scratch, either. Rotisserie chickens, frozen vegetables and even pre-made mashed potatoes are all good options for quick-fix meals.
“When you’re short on time and the family is hungry and cranky, people tend to blame the cooking,” she said. “And so it sometimes gets a bad stigma. It’s OK to take shortcuts. My favorite thing is to get rotisserie chicken, some coleslaw mix, put it in the frying pan with a little bit of Hoisin or teriyaki sauce, wrap it in a flour tortilla and you have Mu Shu chicken.”
So, perhaps I’ve been too ambitious. Maybe in my quest to be the perfect homemaker, I’ve sucked the fun right out of it.
Not everything has been so disastrous. Over the last six months, I discovered that my girls and I really enjoy baking.
On weekends, we’ll sometimes make cookies instead of watching “Cinderella.”
Marina loves to organize things, so gathering ingredients and measuring them out is something she genuinely enjoys. And Ella, who is more of a wild child, loves to eat things she shouldn’t, so she entertains herself by sneaking off with chocolate chips or nibbling on drops of batter that fall on the table.
Our favorite recipe is one from a parenting blog called Mihow.com, written by the Brooklyn-based Michele Howley Boudreaux. She also loves to bake and has devoted a section of her blog to simplifying recipes for busy parents titled “Mom It Down.” She has simple ways to make everything from applesauce and spelt crackers to vegan muffins and mini cheesecakes.
Our family favorite is the whole wheat banana chocolate chip muffins. The recipe is fast and easy, and it gives us a chance to be in the kitchen together without stress.
We make these muffins so often that the girls even know when substitutions are made. Once we didn’t have the plain yogurt needed, so I grabbed some milk instead.
“WE NEED YOGURT!” Ella said and then grabbed a handful of flour and shoved it in her mouth.
Summer is the season of potlucks, and, historically I’ve been the person who signs up to bring plates, cups and napkins.
But over this last Memorial Day weekend, I was invited to a few different parties and figured this would be my chance to emerge as the new Nina: The Nina Who Cooks.
Still, between the girls being home from preschool and everyone lounging around at my mom’s pool, there wasn’t a lot of time to prepare. But now that there’s a collection of cookbooks and magazine recipes in my cupboard, I was able to find a simple dish: oven-baked asparagus and olive oil, topped with Parmesan cheese.
And thanks to my new kitchen gadgets, I had a paring knife and a serving dish on hand. For a different party, I whipped up carrot pineapple muffins in less than an hour. The only thing that wasn’t already stocked in my kitchen was crushed pineapples.
That’s when I realized that despite the many, many obstacles I face, I’ve already made subtle changes without even realizing it. I have a collection of spices. I read cooking magazines for fun. And one day, I will get my kids to eat meatloaf.
Nina Garin writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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