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August 14, 2014
The Real Issue
Making Dinner
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

I hate making dinner. Even if I have good intentions, I run out of steam by late afternoon. As a result, we eat out way too often, and when we eat at home we stick to the same few recipes.

How can I motivate myself to cook a nice dinner for my family each night?

Answer:

I don’t like making dinner, either. I don’t find it relaxing, rewarding or rejuvenating. To me, it is more an exercise in futility: spending an hour making a mess of the kitchen in the hope that someone in the family will like what I’ve made and not complain about eating the vegetables. Then I get to clean it all up.

However, I acknowledge that providing reasonably nutritious meals for oneself and one’s family is an important parental duty. Unless you are able to eat out or order in every time you are hungry, the house must be stocked with food for the people who live there.

So I will now share the system I use to get meals on the table each night.

First, I don’t worry about motivation. To me, motivation has nothing to do with making dinner. I don’t have to feel any particular emotion to brown some beef or slice zucchini. It has to be done no matter how I feel. In fact, instead of thinking about the dinner as I make it, I like to think about something else. Like an audiobook.

Second, I put on my apron. An apron is the appropriate uniform for cooking. It protects your clothing and focuses the mind. It also signals to your and the neighbor children that you are working.

Third, I clear the kitchen. A rule in our house is that no one can play in or run through the kitchen while I’m making dinner. It’s a small kitchen, and I cannot make dinner with small boys and small cars whizzing around my ankles and knees.

If a child wants to help make dinner, of course, I happily include him. You should never refuse a child’s offer of help, even if the help is not actually helpful. But unless the child is helping, having a conversation with me, or doing something constructive that does not get in the way of dinner preparations, he is shooed out of the kitchen, preferably into the yard to run around until dinner is ready.

When the kitchen has been cleared, I put on an audiobook. I listen through either a portable speaker or headphones. I use the same secure-fitting headphones for cooking as for jogging so I don’t have to adjust them as I work. I tuck the cord into my apron so the cord doesn’t catch on anything and yank the buds out of my ears.

Fourth, once my apron and audiobook are on and the kitchen is cleared of boistrosity, I consult the meal plan on my refrigerator. Then, I make whatever is on the schedule.

To a real cook, this would probably be a soul-killing restraint on creativity and spontaneity. But my main obstacle to making dinner is deciding what to have. And the only solution I have found to this problem is to plan two weeks of meals at a time.

This is not as easy as it sounds. You can’t just sit down and write out fourteen things you like to eat. Or fourteen new recipes you want to try. Instead, you have to consider the flow of foods from night to night. Nobody wants to eat chicken or pasta four nights in a row. I try about one new recipe a week, and I don’t choose time-consuming recipes more than once a week.

I also consider our family schedule. I plan faster meals on nights when we have other commitments. And since we’re usually tired of making dinner by the end of the week, we eat frozen pizza on Friday night.

Planning a two-week menu can take an absurdly long time. I pull out my cookbooks, recipe binder, and tablet, and consult my master list of “Foods We Like.” For each day, I write down a main dish, a vegetable, a starchy item, and whatever else I think would balance or complete the meal. I also write down the cookbook name and page number, or website where I can find the recipe.

This process may take you more than an hour, especially at first. But at the end, you will have a plan for the next two weeks and a grocery list. I make a long list of items to buy before the first week starts, and a short list of perishable items to buy before the second week starts.

Fifth, I make everybody’s favorite meal sometimes, even if the rest of the family doesn’t really care for it. My eight-year-old loves stroganoff made with ground beef and canned cream of mushroom soup, so I make it for him from time to time even though my husband doesn’t like it. I include myself in this favorite-food rotation, too. And I explain to the children that eating foods they don’t like is good mission prep.

However, each family member gets a free pass on certain things. My six-year-old is excused from eating potatoes. My eight-year-old is excused from spicy foods. My husband, of course, being an adult, is outside of my jurisdiction to command. He is, however, of his own accord, a good sport about eating meals he doesn’t really like and about eating vegetables in front of the children.

Sixth, I ignore people who disdain canned cream soups, store bought salsa and white rice. In my opinion, if it’s hard for you to make dinner, you shouldn’t make it harder by imposing foodie regulations on yourself.

You’re not cooking to impress anyone. You’re cooking to put dinner on the table. So if you like foods made with unsophisticated ingredients, go for it. Making dinner is step one. Making politically correct dinner is a task for another day.

Seventh, I think it’s important to have the right tools. It is beyond frustrating to try to cook a meal when you don’t have knives that chop or a pot big enough to boil the pasta. You don’t need top-of-the-line kitchen equipment or a giant set of cookware. But you do need pots and pans that cook evenly without burning, sharp knives, and adequate measuring tools, mixing bowls, cutting boards, spatulas and the like.

Don’t make life harder than it has to be by unnecessarily economizing on the tools you use every day to perform an essential household function. Spend some money to get what you need.

Eighth, I clean as I go. If you wipe up spills, put away ingredients, wash knives, rinse out pans and throw away trash as you cook, you greatly reduce the mess left over for after the meal. Also, you can enjoy your meal more because the kitchen is not a disaster.

Ninth, once dinner is ready we eat together at the table. This is the part of making dinner that I like. The children help set the table, and once the meal begins, they are expected to try everything, to not complain, to use nice manners, and to sit there pleasantly until they have been excused. Once they are excused, they clear their plates to the sink.

My husband is not home for dinner during the week, so we have family dinner without him. On the weekend, however, he helps prepare the meals and we eat together.

Finally, making dinner, like ironing and jogging and doing the Primary music, takes practice. People who seem like naturally good cooks are usually people who have done it enough to develop skills. And although practice will probably not transform you into a person who loves to cook delicious meals for your family, it will make the process easier.


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