Five Time-Saving Cooking Tips for Busy Parents

If you’re like me, life is busy. In the past, it often seemed like I was cooking in a hurry. I’d end up cooking my ‘fall back’ dishes, which meant we’d eat the same few dishes regularly. This wasn’t great for many reasons: limited variety means less nutritional diversity. And everyone got a bit bored with the same food (even me!).

When I streamlined my approach to the kitchen, it helped a lot. Here are some tips for busy parents: practical ideas that I have found really useful.

1. Plan ahead. Make vegetable soups on the weekend and freeze them; they are very quick to heat up for a meal. There are lots of great simple soup recipes in my new book (Getting to Yum); most take less than 10 minutes to make a large amount.

2. Cook once, eat twice. If you are making a time-consuming dish, make two batches, and refrigerate or freeze one for eating another day.

3. Use a slow-cooker (or “crock pot”): it will slowly cook a stew during the day – and you’ll have a delicious meal waiting at dinner-time.

4. Don’t cook every meal. Once a week, eat an “at-home picnic” with simple foods that don’t require much cooking. When we do this, we eat chopped vegetables with dips, simple salads, nice breads, cold meats, and sliced fruit. You can prepare many of these in advance and quickly serve them when you get home.

5. Delegate by asking your children to help with cooking! Most children over the age of 7 can chop and stir. They also love to eat the food that they have cooked themselves, so this is a great way to get them eating healthy food while saving you time. Younger children can do other tasks like put away cutlery, set the table, or fold napkins. They’ll have a great sense of accomplishment.

What are some of the strategies you use to save time in the kitchen?

How to market healthy food to your kids…it’s easier than you might think!

I stumbled upon the idea of marketing food to your kids a few years ago, but didn’t realize that this was the subject of active academic research until quite a bit later.

Imagine my surprise when some of the tried and true French approaches to kids’ food education were the subject of sophisticated studies by leading American academics! They’ve proven what my French mother-in-law already knew: that positive marketing messages can convince kids to like healthy foods.

One of my favourite researchers on this topic is Brian Wansink, who is a Professor of Consumer Behaviour (how fun is that?) at Cornell University. Here’s a fun article published last month on the Huffington Post on Wansink’s insights into kids’ food.

Marketing food to your kids is the topic of an entire chapter of my new book Getting to Yum. I found it worked like a charm with my kids! Here’s a feature article published this week on some of the key tips and strategies for parents. Spoiler alert: for younger kids, positive marketing requires parents to be a bit silly! But that’s part of the fun…

The Montessori Method of Eating

Mira and kidsAfter reading French Kids Eat Everything, Mira reached out to me by email. We shared so many ideas in common! She ended up being one of the ‘test families’ for my new book. I’ve been inspired by her reflections on similarities between the Montessori philosophy and the French approach to food education. Thanks Mira!

My family was one of the test families of Karen Le Billon’s cookbook Getting to Yum, and as we’ve worked through the recipes, I’ve been reflecting on the similarities between “French eating” and Montessori education, especially the approach to food. My daughter attended a Montessori preschool, and I’m currently writing a dissertation on the parent communities at two urban public Montessori schools in Connecticut. So while Karen calls these ideas “French”, they’re similar to techniques practiced at 21,000 Montessori schools worldwide.

Here are some of the main ideas I’ve taken from both of Karen’s books and the Montessori schools I’ve observed.

Create a beautiful and peaceful environment for eating

Children at Montessori schools generally eat in their classrooms, allowing them to skip the noisy school cafeteria. But this isn’t scrunched eating at your desk. In many schools I’ve observed, the room is transformed at lunchtime, and students play an integral role in the set-up and clean-up rituals, gaining ownership over their meals. I’ve watched a preschool class of boys spend half an hour setting the table for their classmates, figuring out how to work cooperatively in creating elaborate arrangements and rearrangements of the plates and silverware.

Children can learn to use breakable materials

Like the French preschools profiled in French Kids Eat Everything, in the Montessori schools I’ve observed, children eat off real plates and glass cups with metal silverware using cloth napkins. Montessori students also practice pouring exercises in a progression of different pitchers until 2 and 3 year olds are able to pour on their own and serve themselves snack. We did this exercise at home with my two year old and he can now mostly pour on his own.

Even young children can learn to treat breakable objects with respect. With some guidance and careful observation, children learn to gauge the weight of glass cups and learn how to properly put them down on the table. I especially like inexpensive small Ikea glasses – some will get broken in the learning process! But in the long run, children can skip things like “sippy cups” and plastic plates all together in favor of real (although child-sized) tableware.

When we empower young children to handle real materials carefully, we create a foundation of care and responsibility that will last a lifetime. Your child will eventually want to drive your car! Start by giving them independence using smaller objects like glasses and plates.

Montessori utensils organizationCleaning up is part of daily education

Spills are a normal part of the school day – when they occur, children learn to wipe them up. Children are expected to learn to serve food and pour for themselves in a Montessori classroom. (Teachers prefer uncarpeted floors for ease of cleanup.)

When children spill, instead of getting angry, I’ve heard a Montessori teacher say, “I see lots of water on the floor. What do we need to do when we spill?” The child gets a rag and begins cleaning up and the teacher helps. “Do you see more water on the ground? Let’s get it!” Similarly, when my children spill at the table, I hand them a rag and we wipe it up together. And then I think about putting less water in a cup or a pitcher next time.

Through this process, children learn it’s natural and normal to make mistakes. This process helps cultivate experimentation and self-esteem.

Observing and Adapting
One of the hallmarks of Montessori education is careful observation (without getting mad!) and adapting the environment as necessary. So here are a couple of observations from my own kitchen:

Kids cooking in the kitchenInclude the Children in Food Preparation

I’ve learned that the best way to get dinner cooked is not to send children to the living room to play with their toys, but ask them to get involved. For my two year old, that might be washing some Tupperware in the sink or pushing the salad spinner, and my 6 year old has started to peel and slice the cucumbers. Sara Cotner’s cookbook Kids in the Kitchen: Simple Recipes that Build Independence and Confidence the Montessori Way (http://www.amazon.com/Kids-Kitchen-Independence-Confidence-Montessori/dp/1477542043) gives more suggestions for including children as young as 18 months in cooking.

Put vegetables first

My toddler will make a beeline for the pasta and throw a fit if you ask him to eat vegetables. So
I’ve learned to put vegetables out first without other choices. He won’t eat much that’s green at the moment, but will enthusiastically eat a plate of cucumbers while we prepare dinner.

Though I didn’t do food in courses before, I’ve observed that he is most likely to eat pureed soup if there is nothing else on the table to distract him. Similarly, I keep trying and trying again to offer him new foods. One day he was suddenly willing to bite into an apple. After hating citrus fruits forever, another day he started peeling clementines. Next hopefully he will start to eat them!

Find a school that supports good eating
Much of the credit for my children’s evolving eating habits is due to the fact that they’ve been able to attend a wonderful childcare program in Hamden, CT called Alphabet Academy which has a pioneering meal program under the direction of master Chef Kim Kim. The menu changes weekly and each meal is served family style at child size tables with real plates and silverware. Alphabet Academy also tested recipes from Karen’s cookbook, and discovered that the children’s absolute favorite was…Spinach and Salmon Lasagna. Surprised? We all were too.

Breaking it down
The Montessori approach can be done with any task, and involves breaking the task down into a series of manageable steps. Similarly, Karen’s approach to eating in Getting to Yum offers a step-by-step technique for creating a palate by moving from simple pureed soups to more complicated iterations of a particular vegetable or fruit. The philosophy, whether French or Montessori, is clear – all children, with preparation and practice, can become happy and healthy eaters.

‘Enjoying Vegetables’ Graphic: Fun!

Jess Dang photoJess Dang is the energetic and inspiring found of Cook Smarts – a great online menu planning site! When I saw her infographics, I knew we shared a food education mission! 😉 Thanks, Jess! When Karen tweeted me to ask if she could share Cook Smarts’ ‘Guide to Enjoying Vegetables’ infographic, I immediately said, “Yes!” I was even more excited when she asked if I would contribute a blog post about some of the other fun projects Cook Smarts is working on, especially since our latest project is all about how to raise healthy eaters. As a past cooking instructor, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of parents, and many of them struggled to find ways to include their children in the kitchen. The kitchen was already a stressful enough place. Adding kids to the equation would only multiply that stress. However at Cook Smarts, we really believe that getting kids comfortable with helping in the kitchen from an early age sets the foundation for healthy eating. Young kids are naturally curious and will always want to take part in what their parents are doing. The earlier they’re included, the more likely they’ll continue contributing and helping as they grow up. While their schedules will get busier with extra-curricular activities and increased homework-load, the skills they’ll build in the kitchen are just as valuable to their success in the future. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to include kids in the kitchen though. Luckily there are so many resources out there with great ideas. Karen’s upcoming book ‘Getting to Yum’ is full of fun games that parents can play with kids to expand their food horizons. CookSmarts Kids_Activities_Horizontal_Draft3We also came up with an infographic that suggests a wide range of activities for every age range. Yes, there are ways to include kids as young as 1! If you want even more ideas on how to raise healthy eaters, visit our ‘How do I Raise Healthy Eaters’ page. Jess Dang is the Chief Kitchen Cheerleader at Cook Smarts. Cook Smarts believes that health starts with a home cooked meal. Click here to explore their cooking info and tools that transform home cooks into kitchen heroes.

Fun "food art" for kids: One amazing Malaysian mom’s story

A great way to encourage reluctant eaters is to make food visually appealing. .
One of my favourite examples is Samantha Lee, a Malaysian mom who makes stunning “bento box” style dishes for her children, like the one pictured here. Check out a video of her amazing “food art”, here, or visit her wonderful blog: eatzybitzy.com. She’s an amazing artist — and has attracted worldwide attention with her work (check out her blog for food art interpretations of Lady Gaga, Brave, and the Eiffel Tower!).

My attempts tend to be more mundane, but successful nonetheless. Simple happy faces are much appreciated in our household! Bon Appétit! 😉Happy Face Salad

Marketing Food to your Kids Really Works! Read about Lori’s success story…

Strawberry Jackpot - Lori's Getting to Yum storyLori was one of the devoted ‘test families’ for Getting to Yum, who has been blogging about kids’ food for the past couple of years. She’s had some inspiring experiences with teaching her children to love healthy food. In fact, she was so inspired that she’s been posting regularly about applying the Getting to Yum lessons with her own two daughters!

A while back, Lori blogged about her experiences using positive marketing messages with her kids; this is a powerful approach that quickly becomes a (fun) habit, and can work wonders. Check out her great blog here!

Thanks Lori! 🙂

 

Tender chicken with ‘sauce chasseur’

I am very excited, and honored, to be doing this guest post for Karen. Her work is so worthwhile. I am a French mom living in LA,  writing my FrenchFoodieBaby blog about my journey in educating my son’s taste buds and teaching him to be a healthy eater.

Here is one of Pablo’s favorite recipes when he was 12 months old. Adults can eat this dish too – it’s that tasty!

Tender Chicken with Sauce “Chasseur”

 

Serves 4

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 15 + 10 minutes

Serving to babies: 12 months and up in small quantities, pureed as appropriate. For babies who are already chewing, the mushrooms make a good finger food.

 Note that you can use the sauce with any poultry dish; for toddlers, you could also serve it with a morsels of chicken, or a even a whole roasted chicken.

 

4 pieces of skinless chicken (either breast or thigh)

1 lb mushrooms, washed and sliced

6 tbsp of butter

4 shallots, peeled and minced

2 heaping tbsp flour

1/2 cup white wine (or white grape juice, or juice from canned mushrooms, if you want to go alcohol-free)

1/4 cup chicken broth

1 tbsp of tomato concentrate

1 bouquet garni (in a piece of hollow celery rib, put some thyme, parsley, sage, 1 or 2 bay leaves, cover with another piece of celery rib and tie with kitchen tie.)

Salt & pepper

5-6 sprigs of fresh chervil (if you can find it, I’ve had a hard time finding it in LA), stem removed, minced

5-6 sprigs of fresh tarragon, stem removed, minced

 

Cut the chicken in strips and set aside.

 

For the sauce:

In a saucepan, melt the butter and sauté the mushrooms. Add in the shallots, and cook for a few minutes.

Sprinkle flour, stir and let it get a bit of color.

Stir in the wine and broth. Add the tomato concentrate, bouquet garni, salt & pepper.

Stir and bring to a boil. Cover and let simmer over medium low for about 15 minutes.

 

At this point, you can keep warm, covered, on very low heat, while you cook the chicken.

 

In a frying pan, heat some olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the chicken strips until cooked. Salt & pepper to taste.

 

Before serving the sauce, remove the bouquet garni, and incorporate the minced chervil and tarragon.

 

Pour sauce over the meat and serve immediately!