It may seem like I am quite the prolific writer for a blog that is only two days old, but after being a single Dad for more than 16 months, there is still a lot that my family has gone through that I have yet to post about. I figured the next topic to tackle would be something that single Dads (and single Moms, for that matter) can have some trouble with: Cooking and Meal Planning. Not only can it be a tall order for any parent to find a delicious and nutritious meal that their preschoolers will actually eat, but it adds to the difficultly level when you have to find the time before or after work to prepare and cook this amazing meal.
I am lucky in that I have always been a good cook, a skill that not every new single Dad is immediately proficient in (I am an even better baker, but am pretty sure that my girls cannot eat cookies and cupcakes for dinner). To get after the initial step of becoming a chef that your kids will be proud of, I would suggest to start small; if you are already a decent cook, feel free to skip this paragraph and the next. It may sound extremely condescending, but get out a package of ramen noodles, read the directions in their entirety, and then cook it on the stove top according to those directions (while the microwave and Rapid Ramen Cooker are both extremely efficient, with the latter being frankly amazing, for the purposes of this exercise, they are considered cheating). This is how easy cooking is, because it is essentially just following a simple set of instructions. After enjoying your delicious ramen (my nostalgic college food), step it up with a simple box of macaroni and cheese. Your kids may be picky about the specific cheese flavor, texture, and/or character shapes, so take this into account when making it for them (for instance, my daughters prefer buying Kraft Star Wars Shapes Macaroni & Cheese, but will only actually eat Annie’s Shells & White Cheddar). This is just slightly more advanced than ramen, as the only additional steps are draining the pasta, adding the cheese powder, milk, and butter, and mixing. And there you have an excellent side dish that your children will enjoy (the nutritional value can be debated, but hey, they are eating, right?). With this knowledge and a good marinara or alfredo sauce, you can essentially serve your kids any shape and flavor of pasta they want. Throw in steamed vegetables and you are two-thirds of the way to a full meal.
My girls absolutely love chicken and pork, and to me, nothing is easier than buying a pre-seasoned pork tenderloin for our main meal. Simply set the oven according to the package, open the bag (or after cooking, in some varieties), place in the oven, and 40-50 minutes later you have a delicious main meal. My daughters love it so much that they still like to tell the (true) story about when they ate so much pork tenderloin that Dad was consigned to eating nothing more than rice and broccoli for dinner. As for chicken, I like using boneless chicken tenderloins for a few reasons. They cook faster, they are easier for your kids to envision eating (as opposed to serving them an entire chicken breast), and the greater number allows you to season them all differently, giving your kids a variety of available options. This really helps you prepare for the next time you have chicken, especially if they eat all the lemon pepper-flavored tenderloins, yet you see only a single bite on the ones that were flavored with curry powder. An important note, for both safety reasons and to prevent possible lawsuits, ensure that you fully cook your chicken and pork products at the recommended time and temperatures; no one wants you or your little ones getting sick.
Now that you are thoroughly exhausted from cooking or reading about cooking, you are probably thinking “How in the heck am I supposed to plan for and cook this every night?!?” First of all, you do not have to do this every night. Leftovers can save you some time and still taste amazing, so always cook enough for more than just one dinner (or in case they decide to have seconds or thirds). And it never hurts to throw in a visit to a restaurant once a week to ease your burden (and make someone else do the dishes). Secondly, meal planning and preparation are key to making this work. To aid in this, I created laminated meal cards that represent main meals, side dishes, and vegetables (if anyone is interested, please let me know if you want the full list of cards or the template). I sit down with my girls every Saturday evening, prior to grocery shopping on Sunday, and we plan our next week’s meals together. For each weekday, the girls have to choose one card from each of the aforementioned categories, with some meals, like lasagna, tostadas, or pizza, covering multiple cards. This not only gives them buy-in for what they are going to be having for dinner (and hopefully leads to them actually eating), but it is a fun activity that the whole family can enjoy together. One of our rules is that you cannot use a card twice in the same week, which helps bring more variety to the table and prevents them from saying something like “Broccoli again?” Also, we always cook something new on Saturdays that is not already on a card. This allows the girls to try something new that they may or may not enjoy, with the possibility of them loving it and wanting to add it to the stack of cards. And as I mentioned before about leftovers, we rarely cook every meal on the list in a given week, so we usually already have our Monday meal picked out for the following week.
Third, just like them helping you with meal planning, it is always a good idea to get them involved in the meal preparation, if it is safe and convenient to do so (while my oldest is not yet ready to tend to the grill, she loves to help in stirring, mixing, and seasoning). Consider meatloaf night, which is currently Elaina’s favorite meal. After I throw all the ingredients in the bowl and she washes her hands, she absolutely loves mixing it by hand and then placing it in the loaf pan (followed immediately be more hand washing). Gabriella gets the same enjoyment and sense of accomplishment when making meatballs for spaghetti. Kids love to be included, and if you can get them involved in cooking early, it can really be a fun family activity that you all can enjoy for years to come. While dinners can sometimes be problematic to start getting them involved (due to either time or safety), I find that weekend breakfasts are perfect for this. Both of my girls love mixing up the waffle batter and pouring it onto the waffle iron. They both love cutting the strawberries or bananas that are going to top their waffles. They also aid in cracking and mixing the eggs before I cook them or by flipping the sausage patties. Not only are the tasks simpler and safer during breakfast, but you are usually not pressed for time on the weekends, so they are not rushed in their task (and you are not stressed by the lack of prompt completion).
Lastly, while some who have additional spare time might consider it cutting a sacred corner, already prepared food always helps shorten the time it takes to put dinner on the table. I have never made my own lasagna and never plan to, as the frozen variety at the commissary tastes just fine. While fresh vegetables are always preferred, the steamer bags in the frozen aisle are great in a pinch. And I make superb homemade pasta and alfredo sauce, but on most days, boxed fettucine and Classico get the job done. Just remember that as long as you are continually putting nutritious food on your family’s table, your children are going to eat it and appreciate you preparing it for them.
And as a bit of parting advice, it never hurts to have a bag of chicken nuggets or fish sticks in the freezer. Cheers!