Getting Good Food on the Table -- on a Weeknight

Alas, Pete Wells’ “Cooking with Dexter” series in the New York Times is going the way of Mark Bittman’s “The Minimalist.” (For the record, NYT, I still miss the “Eat, Memory” series, too.) I always enjoyed Wells’ tales of cooking with and for his sons -- a glimpse into another family’s food life that was inspiring, fascinating, and amusing. Like Wells, I enjoy cooking with and for my daughter, exploring various ways to work together in the kitchen. Wells’ writing made me want to do that more often, and I’ll miss his observations and adventures.

As Wells writes in his Dining Journal blog, he began “Cooking with Dexter” because he wanted to write about “the kitchen life of a working father who cooks.” In his last column, Wells focuses on how the “working” part of the equation often made the “cooking” part impossible, frustrating, or stressful. It is a conundrum that vexes many families: how do we get good, homemade food on the table every weeknight, given the constraints of working the hours that are the norm for many American families? Over on Dinner: A Love Story, Jenny Rosenstrach recently asked readers to share their go-to, simple weeknight recipe -- the ones so tried-and-true they're hardly recipes at all. 

 The author's menu planThe author's menu planAlthough the working lives my husband and I lead are less than traditional, they are close enough. We are both working artists. My husband, a composer, is also a full-time university professor who is often home by 4pm (but also often must leave again at 7pm for rehearsals or recitals). I am a writer and I teach part-time in the afternoons; I also get home between 4 and 4:30pm. We still find it challenging to put a good, homemade meal on the table weeknight after weeknight.

Monday through Thursday, dinners need to be something that can be made very quickly, or can cook in the slow cooker all day. As Wells notes, the Holy Grail many of us pursue is not simply a plate full of homemade, healthy food, but also eating that food at a table with our family at an hour that works for everyone. (One commenter on Wells’s article insisted that there is nothing wrong with making kids wait for their meal. To say I have not found this approach to work for my family is an understatement.)

This year I am seeing the real pay-off of my 2009 slow-cooker-cookbook research project -- I tried out nearly all of the slow cooker cookbooks available through the Hennepin County library system, looking for one that had lots recipes we wanted to make (and nary a can of cream of anything soup in sight). The slow cooker is one mighty tool in my dinner-planning toolbox; no-knead bread is another. Perhaps my best tool is the menu planning sheet I devised in Excel four years ago. Finally, I have a set of guidelines I’ve developed for when I sit down on Thursdays to plan meals for the week ahead:

  • Two slow-cooker recipes (these will also generate lunchtime leftovers) -- when the weather warms up, the grill will replace the slow cooker most weeks
  • Wednesday night is omelet night
  • One night a week is for homemade pizza (we try to keep some pizza dough in the freezer)
  • One night a week for sandwiches, particularly if they can be made from leftovers (as was the case with the weeknight cubano sandwiches made from a weekend’s Puerto Rican pork roast)
  • Weekends are for roasts, most curries, three-hour Bolognese sauce, and anything else that takes more than an hour to pull together and cook
  • At least one new recipe a week (my 2011 goal), whether it is a main dish, a side dish, bread, or dessert

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes throw up my hands and demand that a pizza be delivered to the door. Or that we never settle for deli sandwiches on the way home from running after-work errands. Or that we never drop a plate of butter-and-parsley noodles in front of Cora while we dig into plates of spicy curry. Or that I wouldn’t rather trade in one of those dinners for a night at the Thai restaurant across the river (I would totally swap out that omelet for a Panang curry and Pad Thai). There are days when I'd rather be writing, reading, working on a knitting project, or playing with my daughter than cooking.

I’m kept going by the love I have for cooking, the way preparing a good dish recharges me, and by my belief that it's worth the effort. I feel lucky to be able to do this. I have the time in the mornings to brown chicken thighs, sauté onions, and get them into the slow cooker with some crushed tomatoes. I have the cooking knowledge and experience to read a recipe, figure out how to speed it up, and know that it will taste good.

My family is busy. It's hard to enjoy cooking every night. It takes planning and perseverance. Almost every single night, it is worth it.


 Merie Kirby grew up in California, moved to Minneapolis for grad school, and after getting her MFA stayed for fifteen more years. She now lives in Grand Forks, ND with her husband and daughter. Merie writes poetry and essays, as well as texts in collaboration with composers. She also writes about cooking, reading, parenting, and creating on her own blog, All Cheese Dinner. Her most recurrent dream is of making cookies with her mother. This is an excellent dream. Merie's last piece for Simple, Good, and Tasty was Paneer and Other Magic Tricks You Can Do in North Dakota.