The number one comment I hear from fellow parents is how they can’t stand cooking for their families. Every. Single. Day. As much as I love to cook, I agree: feeding your family is a chore, and whether it’s the planning, the shopping, the cooking or the clean up that wears on you—or all of the above—it can be draining even for the most experienced and enthusiastic cooks. There’s no magic fairy dust to whisk the drudgery of it away. Any task you must repeat several times daily is going to drag on you, let alone one that meets with frequent resistance from its beneficiaries. The eye-rolling, the cries of “Yuck!” and the inexplicable food phobias with which every parent is familiar make feeding children a particularly thankless job. And yet we have to keep doing it, because if we stop, it won’t end well. It’s like the line from Waiting for Godot: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Only the breadth of a comma separates the impossibility of continuing from the need to.

Food is a necessity, and always has been (and always will unless these guys win) but the pressure to cook for one’s family is stronger than ever. We have more food options than any previous generation of parents, but if you give your child take-out, pre-packaged or processed food every day, you are at risk of having your Good Parenting card revoked. Naturally, the increased pressure to provide “healthy meals” coincided beautifully with the rise in two-working-parent households. The shortcuts and sanity-saving solutions of our youth (Hot Pockets, anyone? Campbell’s Chunky Soup with tiny hamburgers in the soup?) are now all but taboo, according to health experts, yet parents feel more time pressure than ever before. Poor eating habits seem to correlate to every negative outcome we fear for our children: obesity, anorexia, sodium overload, poor behavior in schools, ADHD, allergies, and so on, but when are we supposed to find time to cook?

Here are a few ways to take the burden off, at least a little. You do still have to cook something: put down the delivery menu! But you don’t have to invest in a special meal program, buy a cookbook of 20-minute weeknight recipes or become some kind of super-chef to do it. Nor do you have to spend the whole weekend cooking for your freezer (though it would be awesome if you could). Changing a few things about your routine and attitude can make a big improvement in how you feel about that endless parade of family meals stretching past the horizon.

  1. Pick a couple of cookbooks and/or websites that inspire you. Unless you genuinely hate food, there have to be a few dishes or even ingredients that excite you. If you’re a novice cook, I’d start with a general cookbook like Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” or the America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook. If cooking by ingredient is more your vibe, check out Epicurious, the New York Times’ new cooking site and app, or Food 52. If you are more adventurous, pick a cuisine: if French is your thing, David Lebowitz and Dorie Greenspan both write brilliant, reliable cookbooks. If it’s Italian, you can’t go wrong with Marcella Hazan. I love the most recent New York Times Cookbook, edited by Amanda Hesser—the historical sweep of its recipes is very cool—but its organization necessitates a little extra browsing time. Do not go out and buy 10 new cookbooks, and especially don’t buy one that’s supposed to help working parents with weeknight meals: those dishes are generally meh, and you’re less likely to stick with their program than you will when you’re driving your own boat.
  2. Choose (about) a week’s worth of recipes all at once. This is crucial! At the very least, make sure you have five days’ worth of ideas lined up. You can amass these over the course of a week—I keep a running list—or all at once, but write them down. You will probably end up postponing or abandoning at least one dish, but this way you won’t run out of steam on Wednesday night, which is when my decision-making mojo tends to desert me. Deciding ahead of time rather than trying to be spontaneous helps immeasurably. Spontaneity is for young people with no kids. Plus, this means you can choose meals you know you will probably have time to make: the night you have a late meeting is a good one for something extra quick (or prepared ahead of time). While you’re at it, add everything you need for each recipe to your grocery list now. And remember: even if your week’s ideas are super simple—like omelettes and grilled cheese sandwiches—the beauty of it is that you won’t have to think about what to make again until next week.
  3. Do one and only one big grocery run every week. I get depressed when I have to keep running back to the store for each meal. This worked okay when I was single and childless, but it doesn’t cut it now. Nothing makes you feel more like a fifties' housewife than grocery shopping every day. If you plan on a dish with fish or meat that needs to be super fresh, you can delay that purchase. But putting in a really diligent effort to get (almost) everything you need for a week at one time will go a long way toward helping you conquer the existential dread of meal preparation.
  4. Make a dish that has leftovers. Whether it’s a casserole (hello again, 1955), a double batch of pasta sauce or a big pot of soup, you will be thrilled to find that food in the fridge when the will to cook abandons you, as it inevitably will. I really don’t care when my kids complain about leftovers, which brings me to:
  5. Stop telling your picky kids ahead of time what’s for dinner. Remember when you already knew your unborn baby’s name but you didn’t tell people because you didn’t want their input? This is similar, especially if you have one of those “Yuck!” children. Until they are the ones doing the shopping, cooking and cleanup, they don’t get to derail your plans. Stick to your guns. Of course, having a week’s worth of ideas means you can swap one meal out for another without any trouble if there’s a true rebellion, so you have permission to do that. But the chicken with broccoli will live to see another day, kids: I already have the ingredients.
  6. Find one way to make cooking more FUN. How is up to you. Dance to your favorite playlist, discover a cool new podcast, cook a complicated dish you’ve always wanted to make, talk to your best friend on speaker, enlist your kid’s help. There is fun to be had, I swear, and finding even a tiny taste of joy will help dissipate the drudgery a little.
  7. Most of all, take it easy: stop beating yourself up about your shortcomings as a family cook. After dread, guilt is the next most common feeling I hear about when it comes to parents and food. We so often feel (or are told) we aren’t doing enough to feed our kids the "right way." So put down that annoying article about the "glamorous" vegan family in California, tune out all those contradictory voices telling you what children should and shouldn’t eat, and put in whatever cooking time you can without going insane.

One awesome benefit of resolving to cook as much as you can for your kids, using real food, is that you will feel so much better about the nights when all you can manage is to boil up some hotdogs or order pizza. Even a baked potato with a choice of toppings or a high-quality grilled cheese with apple slices on the side counts (to me, at least). A few nights of home cooking mitigate a surprising amount of guilt. Trust me.

What I cooked this week and last:

About the Author

Zanthe Taylor M.F.A.

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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