Updated on 12.02.11

Some Thoughts on Dinner With My Family

Trent Hamm

For most of 2011, I’ve been posting a regular series entitled “Dinner With My Family” on Friday afternoons. In those posts, I’ve discussed inexpensive homemade meals that my family has enjoyed for dinner. Some of these meals were also incredibly quick to prepare, and I made an effort to try a variety of meals to appeal to everyone.

I plan on continuing the series on an irregular basis, but doing the series each week has taught me some worthwhile lessons about food, frugality, and time management.

Experimentation has rewards
One of the big reasons for us to start doing this series was that we both enjoy experimenting with our cooking. We love trying new meals and, believe it or not, our food adventurousness has rubbed off on our children as well. I’m amazed when we have friends with children over (or visit them) and their children refuse to eat most of the items on the table. Our children try them with relish.

The biggest reason why I love experimenting is that I am constantly discovering new ingredients. For example, I would have never even thought of getting fresh tarragon, chopping it up, and putting it into scrambled eggs. I tried it on a whim due to a suggestion of how to use tarragon – and I found that it made the eggs wonderful. Now, whenever I can find some fresh tarragon, I make some amazing scrambled eggs.

Try a new vegetable or a new fruit or a new herb or spice or a new type of cheese. You might find something that you really enjoy that you never expected. Even better, you now have something new to look for during food sales as well as a broader repertoire of ingredients you feel good using in your kitchen.

At the same time, there’s always another meal
Of course, the immediate drawback that many people point to with such experimentation is that you might wind up with a meal that you don’t like at all.

My philosophy on that is this: I usually try new ingredients when I can get a good discount on them. That way, if it turns out that I don’t like it, I’m not out very much money. Most of the time, though, I find that I do like this new ingredient. Even during the worst case scenario, where I find the meal inedible, I can always find something else to eat if I’m hungry.

The upside to discovering something new that I like is far greater than the downside of a dollar or two lost and the potential prospect of remaking a single meal.

A regular repertoire of meals is invaluable
We’re a two income family with three children, two of which are in multiple activities. The simple reality of things is that we don’t have the time in the evening that we would often like to have. Quite often, one of the parents is on autopilot when it comes to dinner preparation. We simply want to be able to prepare something easily, something that we know how to do, and something that will please everyone while being reasonably healthy.

When we try new meals, we’re often asking ourselves whether this meal should become part of our regular meal repertoire. However, most nights, particularly during the school year, we just pull a meal from that repertoire and assemble it for dinner.

Adventuresome meals are fun, but they often don’t work in the context of a typical day at our house. The vast majority of the time, we rely on things we know how to make or variations on those themes.

Preparing meals in advance is invaluable, too
Along with that tactic is the incredibly useful tactic of preparing meals in advance. We’ll often prepare a full meal, store it in a sealed container in the freezer, and pull it out the night before or in the morning of a day when we know that dinner plans are going to be tight. Sometimes, we actually just pull out a kit we’ve assembled from the freezer and just add it to the crock pot. Other times, we put out a frozen casserole dish with a note saying “put this in the oven at 350 degrees at 4:30.”

These meals prepared in advance also make being adventurous a bit more difficult, as you don’t want to prepare a quadruple batch of something before you’ve tried it out with the family. Thus, our premade meals are invariably old standbys, like tuna casserole or vegetarian lasagna.

Having these meals on hand makes it possible to get one kid to soccer, another kid to dance, and still have a good meal on the table when everyone converges at home.

Let what you have on hand lead you
People often get stressed out about following recipes and finding a bunch of obscure ingredients. You really don’t have to do that. Just use what you have on hand and you’ll almost always come up with something good.

What really works well is when you have a “framework” recipe, like the flexible casserole recipe or ratatouille. These are recipes where you can basically plug in whatever ingredients you happen to have and make something that works. At least a couple of the “Dinner with My Family” posts resulted from this type of experimentation.

Instead of panicking about what to have, just throw open your cupboard door and try to assemble something. Keep an open mind and you’ll be surprised at what you can come up with.

Let what’s on sale in the grocery flyer lead you, too
We love using fresh ingredients in our meals, but they can often be expensive at the store. So, often, we just buy whatever produce is on sale and use that as the backbone for our meals for the week.

If cabbage is on sale, we’ll make some sort of cabbage rolls or cabbage-based soup. If eggplant is on sale, we’ll make eggplant lasagna. If spinach is on sale, we’ll make a spinach alfredo and have spinach salads with other meals. If bananas are on sale, we’ll eat one bunch and use another to make a loaf or two of banana bread.

Again, many of our “Dinner with My Family” recipes have resulted from just this type of purchase. We buy some vegetables that are on sale and make a dish based on them. It’s cheap, tasty, and fun.

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  1. chuck says:

    some great tips there trent thanks!

  2. Anne says:

    I’m just waiting for you to publish a cookbook!

  3. Michelle says:

    I do basically the same thing, when I’m making my menu, I make 2/3rds of it recipes I have either made before and I can make with my eyes closed (or with little recipe consultation) and 1/3rd more adventurous, and thus attention consuming meals. Honestly, most of those flop. BUT, when they do go well, that’s one more recipe to add to the “make it quickly” group. My schedule is also highly irregular, so I have to be flexible, so having easy meals already planned is great for those nights when I don’t have much time.

  4. Jenny says:

    If you like tarragon in your eggs, you should try rosemary. It’s pretty strong-flavored though, so just use a couple leaves at a time and cut up very small. Fresh is best, but dried is okay too.

    I had a plant for a couple years, and then when it died I saved all the dried leaves and pretty much have a lifetime supply of dried now (at least as long as it stays fresh).

    I like flexible meals too. One of my favorites is shepherd’s pie. Just take ground meat (if you eat it, if not I’ve heard lentils make a good substitute), mix it with whatever veggies you have and some kind of sauce (usually just gravy with some sort of extra flavor added for me), then top with leftover mashed potatoes and broil until heated through and the top is toasty brown.

  5. Carole says:

    I think your post was good and enjoyable, but I wonder if it is wise or frugal to have a 3 year old and a 5 year old in multiple activities.

  6. kristine says:

    Carole, My in-laws do the same thing. Kids not yet in grade 1 in multiple activities, eating up time and money, when they would be just as happy in the backyard making mud pies. The expenses as kids get older go up, not down. Some parents think that once the kid gets into grade school, extracurriculars will be free. Far from it. Filed trips, uniforms, etc., and the cost goes up, not down. More every year, then there’ s college! I do not understand the normalization of activities that were once only for the extremely wealthy. Whatever happened to playing catch? People today seemed terrified of an unscheduled moment. It’s not just the writer here- it’s everywhere.

  7. Andrew says:

    Carole and Kristine–you have no idea what Trent meant by “multiple activities.”. You have no idea what these activities cost, or whether they cost anything at all. For all you know, mLimg mud pies and playing catch are two of the activities.

    There is a lot to criticize Trent for, but extrapolating an entire family dynamic from a two-word phrase and then criticizing it like a couple of censorious prigs is ridiculous.

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