Finally: Time For Dinner (Cookbook Review)

09.01.10: Leo's 27th Month

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“Some days you feel like supermom, some days you are exhausted, some days you fully intend to make the chicken potpies…and never get around to picking up the chicken,” writes Pilar Guzmán in the intro to Time for Dinner: Strategies, inspiration, and recipes for family meals every night of the week (Chronicle Books). In this new cookbook, three former editors of the erstwhile parent’s lifestyle mag Cookie knowingly address the challenges mothers of young children face around the dinner hour.

Moms writing exclusively to moms (though dads willing to overlook the fact that they aren’t mentioned will find the book equally useful), authors Pilar Guzmán, Jenny Rosenstrach and Alanna Stang know their audience. And after testing ten of their recipes, I’m ready to wholeheartedly recommend this source of inspiration, encouragement, refrigerator problem-solving, kitchen-floor toddler-entertainment, and fun, simple recipes.

An attractive design, with 250 photos and gorgeous tea-towel print endpapers, always helps. The graphic layout will be familiar to former Cookie readers. In the chapter I kept coming back to, titled “I Want to Use What I Already Have,” each two-page spread features a photo of one ingredient along with 3 simple, illustrated recipes for it. So, for example, when I had an eggplant, I chose between baba ghanoush, eggplant and ricotta pasta, and eggplant “burgers.” Vegetable fritters from the page on wilting vegetables (and who doesn’t have those in the crisper?) were a hit with my three-year-old niece as well as the teens and adults in the house, though Leo seemed to find diced veggies in pancake batter odd, rather than cool.

Our “Let’s All Have a Playdate” Pizza Party was, frankly, more hectic than I’d hoped, but we had a lot of fun and very tasty pizza. Two may be a bit young for the concept, but in a calmer setting, Leo would love making his own pizza with some of the tasty, super-fast toppings suggested.

From the chapter “I Want Something Simple, Fast, and Hard to Screw Up,” Muffin Tin Potato-Chip Frittatas were wildly popular with children and adults and Rigatoni Casserole with Tofu was a sleeper hit. Who knew tofu would be good blended up in baked pasta? I profess to dislike the ‘sneaking it in’ approach, but tofu is a mild, protein-rich food, and there’s no shame in jazzing it up. Hey, my kid ate spinach and tofu for the first time in months!

I felt almost dumb following the tasty recipe for Sesame Noodles with Extras from the chapter called “I Want to Have a Family Dinner Where We All Eat the Same Meal.” But that’s the thing: dumb days happen. If all it takes is a bottle of Annie’s sesame dressing to become the Martha Stewart of those moments when you’re thinking ‘I can’t be bothered and I have no ideas,’ then I’m in.

The book is chock-full of diagrams, ideas and tips, from Babysitter in a Box, a list of kitchen tools good for keeping a young child busy, to The Solid Food Roll-Out, which suggests purees for a baby, along with grown-up uses for the same purees, including a couple cocktails. Gear, Pantry, Fridge, Freezer, Meal-Planning, Picky Eaters…The authors have useable advice on everything from how to make wholesome foods more appealing (dinner in the dark with flashlights anyone?) to how to cook ahead on the weekends or identify a nourishing mix-and-match meal (cheese stick plus edamame plus corn apparently counts).

Aaron and I happily ate every recipe I made from this book, Leo ate at least as well as he usually does, and I felt more assured with three cookbook author—moms backing me up. True, some kids just eat plain pasta, but the authors maintain that you still get points for serving up a real meal since they learn from seeing it prepared and enjoyed by others. This is the first book on cooking for kids that really seems pitch-perfect to me, and it’s no coincidence that it acknowledges we may sometimes serve sandwiches for dinner, or frozen chicken tenders, or take-out. Thoroughly grounded in the realities of the task at hand, it advocates powerfully for cooking and eating dinner as a family and enjoying the whole process. And in doing so, it raises the question, what is dinner anyway? Guzmán, Rosenstrach and Stang define dinner as a daily opportunity to embrace the life you’re living; preferably while eating food made lovingly with real ingredients, ideally to be shared by everyone around the table.

An excerpt from the book below:

Open-Face Night

There are any number of circumstances that call for Open-Face Night: You’re back "¨from vacation and the refrigerator is empty. Your daughter is due backstage at "¨six and must eat something, butterflies be damned. Or it’s Tuesday night and you "¨just can’t deal. So slice the bread, set the table, pour the milk. Totally legit.

smashed egg & salt on toast

Smash your hard-boiled eggs (one per eater) with a fork, adding a little mayonnaise, if that’s your thing. Spread the mixture on seven-grain toast and add salt to taste.

goat cheese & strawberry preserves

Use the freshest goat cheese you can find. (It spreads best at room temperature, but if it’s been in the fridge for a few days, don’t let that stop you.) If you aren’t a fan of the sweet-tangy play, you can go with ricotta, too.

avocado on sprout bread

Mash a ripe avocado with a squeeze of lime and salt. Spread the mixture on toasted sprout bread. Top with split grape tomatoes, if desired.

sardines & lemon on white toast

Spread butter on toasted white bread (Pepperidge Farm is magical here) and top with chopped sardines, a little lemon zest, minced parsley, and minced garlic. Try to get the kids to at least take a taste.

minted-pea puree with mozzarella

In a mini food processor or blender, whirl 1/2 cup of thawed frozen peas, 1/4 cup of olive oil, a handful of mint, a tablespoon of grated Parmesan, and a squeeze of lemon. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread the mixture on ciabatta and top with mozzarella.

almond butter & baby bananas

This is tricky, so pay attention: Spread almond butter on bread and top it with sliced bananas.

To try the Muffin Tin Potato-Chip Frittatas featured in Fit Pregnancy's Recipe Finder, click here.

Time for Dinner: Strategies, Inspiration, and Recipes for Family Meals Every Night of the Week, By Pilar Guzmán, Jenny Rosenstrach and Alanna Stang, Chronicle Books (July, 2010).

Pizza Party photo upper left by Marcus Nilsson. Open Face Night photo by Marcus Nilsson.

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.