Cooking for kids is hard enough, even without a lockdown order in effect. Here’s how to plan a menu, cook smart, minimize dirty dishes, and keep the family happy and well fed

Greg Dupree

In sunnier, pre-pandemic days when my kids were little, I co-wrote The Gastrokid Cookbook: Feeding a Foodie Family in a Fast Food World, which tackled garden-variety peacetime parental cooking challenges such as dealing with a picky eater, keeping dirty dishes to a minimum, and preparing healthy kid-friendly meals you’d actually want to eat yourself. Hence recipes with yuppie mid-aughts titles like Faux Pastor and Tuscan Steak for Toddlers. Yes, I was that guy. If only things were so simple today. 

My kids are now teenagers, and with quarantine homeschooling in full effect we’re once again all sitting around the same table at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with fate dishing out extra portions of frayed nerves and financial uncertainty. Despite limited access to fresh produce and protein, we’ve managed to share some pretty great meals together thanks to a few strategies I developed over the years and have refined further in recent weeks. They’ve served us well from toddlerhood through the teen years and have managed to keep everyone decently fed and fairly happy for not that much money and with a minimum of dirty dishes.

Go High-Calorie/Low-Cost

The first time I stocked up on groceries to last me a week during quarantine my haul was nearly twice as expensive as a typical weekly run to the grocery store. And it didn’t last a week. The reason is simple: I was cooking more than I ever have in my life. No takeout lunches at the office, no school cafeteria feeding your kids. It’s all you all the time. If you’re a family of four that translates to 12 meals a day. If you’re eating animal protein at one of those meals and each person has a 4 ounce portion, that’s 7 pounds of animal protein a week. Do the same math for pastas, grains, nut butters, dairy, produce, and beverages That adds up exceedingly quickly.  Go for high-calorie, low cost foods: Pork belly and chicken thighs are way cheaper and more filling than other animal proteins.

Move Toward Meatless

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Move toward meatless in the interest of affordability and health. Build in legumes and rice at every opportunity in the way of bean, rice, and cheese burritos, chiles, and grain bowls (or salads with beans and grains mixed in). 

Everyone Eats the Same Thing

If you’re working from home, that “extra” time you’re saving by not commuting disappears quickly thanks to the demands of homeschooling, an increased marital tiff-count, and the inefficiencies of taking Zoom meetings in the laundry room. There’s no time to play short-order cook and lean into special requests. Dinner is dinner. Everyone eats at the same time and they eat (roughly) the same thing (or things. More on that later). But recipe planning is key. 

Have a Family Menu Meeting

After you’ve come up with a list of affordable low-effort family favorites you want to make, sit the family down and solicit meal requests. You’ll need a menu for the week everyone can pretty much agree on. You’ll be eating together upwards of 21 times a week, so you want meal times to be happy times.

Post Your Plan

Type the weekly menu into a spreadsheet or document, print it out, and stick on the fridge. Never again will you hear the words “What’s for dinner?”

Cook Twice as Much as Usual

Try to double your recipes when you can. If you’re working from home (or taking lunch to work because so many restaurants have suspended operations) leftovers will be obliterated in one day. Bonus: You minimize mid-day dirty pots and pans. 

Use Dedicated Dishware

Banish single use dishware. At the start of each day everyone gets one plate and one bowl and a set of utensils. And they’re responsible for keeping them clean. If you want a clean plate for dinner, you’re going to have to wash it.

Everybody Cooks. Everybody Cleans.

You’ve got a full house, so you’ve got prep-cooks, and dishwashers. Assign specific tasks like vegetable-washer, table-setter, dish-doer. This is the time to instill values and team spirit in your kids that will live well beyond the quarantine.

Ration the Snacks

This might sound a little draconian, but ration the salty snacks. Few things guarantee a family feud more quickly than a contested single bag of tortilla chips in the middle of quarantine. Take that big bag and divide it up into separate resealable bags immediately upon opening. Sharpie the kids’ name on them and, voila!, no more fights over who had more than their fair share.

Salty-Sweet Saves the Day

There’s a reason pretty much everyone on the face of the planet likes teriyaki, barbecue, bulgogi, and Thai curry: they’re all salty-sweet. Yes, a little sugar makes it go down easier. (I know, sugar is bad for you; swap in agave or honey if you’d like). Pick one of these preparations, serve it with some white rice and steamed broccoli, and you’ve indulged that take-out world tour without having to order in. 

Shop to the Dish

You’re probably only going to the store once every week or so, and you want to make it count. Your shopping list is basically your menu plan deconstructed. Be thorough. Print out your shopping list (all the better to avoid recontaminating your mobile phone) and check items off the list like in the old days No go-backs. No spur of the moment quick trips to get those shallots or sumac you forgot. No lingering in the spice aisle waiting for inspiration to strike.

And Now for the Recipes…