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Having a young child around presents a dinnertime choice: will you cook fast and simple, and sit down to toddler-friendly fare before 6 pm, or will you feed the kid, put him to bed, then cook and eat an adult meal? For the longest time, we tended too often towards the latter on weeknights. Leo got microwaved leftovers from the night before, or super-simple menus like scrambled eggs, toast and avocado. Back then he was usually in bed before 6:30, and I would spend as much as an hour cooking before sitting down to dinner with Aaron close to 8. This was nice for our marriage, but had some real drawbacks.
As Leo’s bedtime got later, it made more sense to eat with him, especially since he eats better that way and feels more included. Plus, we were sick of eating so late that after the dishes were done the evening felt over. So family meals have mostly become the norm. And this has its own set of compromises.
Aaron gets home after 6 most nights, and Leo is in bed by 7, so everything about dinner has to be fast. Often Aaron runs into the house, washes his hands and sits down to a family meal that lasts minutes. The whole thing is enormously speeded up. And seriously unfancy. But you know, more often than not, it is balanced, and tasty. And like most things these days, it’s all about Leo.
Last night, I took Leo to playgroup after school, so we got home after 5:30. I hadn’t done much in the way of thinking ahead, but I did have raw broccoli cut up in a container. I asked Leo if he wanted to help make pizza and broccoli for dinner, and he was thrilled. Thankfully, we’d come home from playgroup with a paper shopping bag full of the plastic containers I’d brought over to my friend’s for Halloween. While Leo busied himself unpacking and arranging the containers, I put water up for the broccoli, preheated the broiler, and warmed a heavy saucepan over low heat. Leo transferred the broccoli from one container to another as I dumped the contents of a large can of tomatoes in the blender. Then he pressed the pulse button five times while I threw the broccoli into the steamer and put oil, crushed garlic and dried oregano in the saucepan.
When the garlic-oil was fragrant I added the tomatoes, and Leo and I turned our attention to grating mozzarella. The sauce simmered for 5 minutes, during which Leo filled a small pot with toy food and carried it around with a potholder. Then it was time to make pizza!
We laid flour tortillas (ahem) on a baking sheet, I spooned a little sauce onto each one, and Leo spread the sauce. Then he sprinkled on mozzarella and parmesan and I popped them under the broiler for a few minutes. While we waited, Leo set and reset the kitchen timer, then decided to sprinkle a little parmesan on the broccoli too. We consulted on how many pieces to cut each pizza into (five, he decided) and dinner, such as it was, was served. Aaron walked in just before 6, sat down and said “wow, thin crust pizza! Very thin crust…” “I spread the sauce and put the cheese on Dad,” Leo bragged. Three minutes later, dinner was over.
It’s a trade-off, but I enjoy cooking with Leo and eating as a family, so I’m satisfied with tortilla pizza and steamed broccoli on a Tuesday. And for our anniversary later this week, it will be even more special to have a meal out with Aaron that involves wine, salad and dessert, plus time to eat and talk.
Does your family eat together? Are there things you won’t compromise on when it comes to dinner? And what are your speediest recipes?
Zoe Singer is a freelance food writer and cookbook editor and co-author of The Flexitarian Table. Food Editor and blogger for The Faster Times, she tries not to eat for two now that her son is a toddler.