It's about 5:30 p.m. on a weeknight. My 13-year-old daughter just got home from middle school after staying late for a volleyball game she wanted to watch. My older daughter, who is 16, stays late for marching band practice; I'll be going to pick her up after 7 p.m.
This is around the time that I wander to the kitchen and start opening the pantry door and rummaging through the fridge and freezer to figure out what to make for dinner. I'm not one of those parents who schedules out meals for a whole week or cooks a bunch of things on Sunday night and reheats daily. Instead, I play it by ear, getting small batches of groceries when I need them and just making sure I have what I need to prepare basics.
On this night, I know I've got some defrosted chicken in the fridge waiting to be cooked before it goes bad. In the pantry, I've got two bags of rice, long-grain white and jasmine; I've also got a sauce packet from my local grocery store I can add to the protein to make an Indian-style butter chicken dish. A couple of days before, I'd picked up some garlic pita at the store; that would sub in nicely for naan.
I carefully dice down the chicken cutlets to smaller pieces, season them and throw them in the cast-iron skillet with a little vegetable oil. For the rice, I throw together a quick-and-dirty and tasty concoction that's become my go-to. I season the rice as it boils with salt, pepper, some minced garlic and ginger (they're already good to go; I buy them in the squeeze bottles), a tablespoon of butter and the topper: some lime zest, quickly grated off about half a lime, and the lime juice itself. It sounds like a lot, but throwing all this together takes less than five minutes if I'm quick about it. While the chicken is cooking and the rice is boiling, I set the toaster oven up to toast up the bread.
When my older kid gets home, she's got butter chicken, savory lime rice, and garlic bread waiting for her. It's not a perfect meal; if I had more time and energy I might have roasted up some sliced carrots or thrown some peas and onions into the butter chicken.
But my total time in the kitchen is less than 20 minutes and I've made enough to feed the three of us and have some leftovers for my lunch tomorrow.
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I've always enjoyed cooking and when I have the luxury of time, I like following more complicated recipes. About six or seven years ago, I started subscribing to services such as Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, carefully observing the step-by-step, photo-accompanied instructions. Those subscription box services, where they send you all the ingredients fresh and it's up to you to chop the veggies, cook the meats, and not screw up the recipe, were a great way to expand my basic repertoire of pastas, burgers, and turkey meatloafs.
I have an accordion folder full of all those recipe sheets from the meal services; I probably have 50 or 60 recipes in there I can go back and try to make on my own.
It's a lot cheaper to pick up Taco Bell or use the McDonald's app to score a two-for-one Quarter Pounder deal, but I try to do that sparingly. I have the luxury of being able to afford fresh foods, I live near multiple grocery stores—we're not in a food desert—and except for the time and energy, there's no reason I can't cook my kids hot meals as often as possible. I know my kids won't eat healthy all the time: They like chips and candy and now, the energy drinks I try to steer them away from.
But I know they appreciate it when I take the time to make them real food, prepped in a kitchen that I feel is too small and cramped, with what time I can make in between work and errands.
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My mom cooked all the time and I know that when I left home for college, I truly missed it. It wasn't just about the food; I can ask my mom for her Spanish rice recipe, or learn to make her enchiladas. It's the care that I missed. Making your kids food, seeing them fed with something you made from scratch or almost-scratch: It feels good. It feels worthwhile.
Both my kids know how to make their own meals. They can microwave a rice-and-broccoli frozen meal, or make their own ramen, or prepare a sandwich. When I do order a meal kit, they sometimes help prepare them. Only my younger kid really gets ambitious with egg-and-hash-brown skillet creations and elaborate pork stews. I'm proud of them when they recognize that the time and effort it takes to cook is a worth-it alternative to grabbing Lunchables or DoorDashing.
As my children get older, they don't want to hold dad's hand when they cross the street. They get annoyed when I hug them goodnight or tell them I love them as I drop them off at school. Cooking meals for them is a way I can express love for them that I know they appreciate and enjoy.
And Dad's gotta eat, too.