Please help me cook less!

Less is more. For you.

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An international witch wrote in with a question in response to last month’s newsletter about areas of lowered expectations, and how, for sanity’s sake, I’ve stopped making reliable, beautiful, comprehensive and interesting Proper Family Dinners (#PFDs). She needs help leaning out:

The dinner thing is killing me these days. Most nights, after my kid is in bed, I'm preparing the next night's dinner and then cleaning up, and it's getting old having basically no down time. I don't know how to change this. I love to cook (but I'm getting resentful: by the time I get home, I have 30 minutes to get dinner on the table. I don't understand what people mean when they say they don't cook. Like what do they eat? I can't eat takeout every night. Prepared/frozen meals are not really a thing here in the Netherlands where I live. We do like store bought falafel or veggie burgers once a week. I don't want to not cook—I'm still happy doing it some nights—but please help me cook a bit less!

First, I got some professional witchy advice from Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct, who covers feeding and kids for the New York Times Parenting newsletter:

“I cook Something Big on Sunday (stew or pasta) that will make leftovers enough to be lunches or one other dinner during the week. Monday is chicken or fish with a roast vegetable (all on one sheet) and a side of pesto pasta so my kids eat something; Tuesday is taco night; Wednesday is pasta or soup with bread (often something I've frozen from an earlier Sunday cooking or repurposing Sunday's meal). Thursday we eat out due to kid activities and Friday and Saturday I refuse to have anything to do with dinner, so my husband either gets takeout or roasts a chicken (his one move). Narrowing it down to just 4 nights and having a clear concept of what each night is has helped me so much—I know I've got the picky eaters covered with those dishes, I know they are things I can make with minimal prep in under 30 minutes (except the Sunday thing) and if I do have more time or am in more of a cooking mood, I can riff on the theme —like make a fancy cabbage slaw for the tacos or some such. (But taco night can also be ground meat or scrambled eggs, storebought guac and cheese, done.)”

She adds, “Something I think about a lot: #PFD doesn’t mean you eat a perfect meal (or anyone else does). It means you spend some quality time with your family around food OF ANY KIND. I really think so many family meals would go so much better if we dropped the hyper nutrition agenda. It’s too much work and it means on the nights when we fail to meet that bar, we act like the meal didn’t even happen or isn’t worthwhile. Which is a fucked up message for our kids. Me eating grocery store sushi while my 2 year old eats a yogurt pouch and a doughnut happens almost every Thursday and it is still a Family Dinner because we are family and we are eating dinner.”

Tell ‘em, Virginia!

Here’s some other advice from witches on how to put a little less on the table:

“I'm a big fan of meals that roll into each other. I'll make a vegetarian red pasta sauce (it's not really marinara, because I add roasted eggplant and loads of mushrooms and peppers). I'll cook that with meatballs for the kids and my husband (I eat veggie meatballs). I make sure to make a ton of extra sauce. The next night, I'll make an approximation of shakshuka. I add olives to the sauce and then poach the eggs in them. We eat that with bread. Or, I'll cook something that needs rice one night and intentionally make a boat load of rice so we can eat fried rice the next night. (Notice, all my second night options basically are just eggs cooked in some leftovers).”

“We struggle. The teenager demand for food is high, and I don’t get home until after 7 most evenings. We order take out more than we should, but have gotten better in the past year or two—partly to cut down on the expense and partly because we’re all so sick of the places we order from and can’t agree on other ideas. I’m not good (at all) with prepping ahead but I am good am making more than one meal out of an item. I made pork tenderloin for Thanksgiving—a lot of it—and after Thursday’s meal, I recycled the leftovers into tacos (adding fresh guacamole and cilantro and grilled onions), and chili. If I make a chicken dish, I cook up an extra chicken breast and make chicken salad the next day. My kids don’t like it, but one chicken breast can make enough for 2-3 adults easily (one dinner and lunch for me the next day.) Using the Instant Pot has helped me branch out more.”

“This is an extreme example because I'm emerging from a rough month, but tonight for 4:30pm ‘supper,’ I'm eating soft cheese on crackers, about 1/2 a jar of petite dill pickles, olives, and scotch. Other nights I eat my kids' grilled cheese crusts, make breakfast for dinner, or heat up soup or another ready-made something from the grocery store. Very occasionally I cook the kind of simple and healthy supper I used to make before kids: fish or chicken and roasted vegetables in the oven. It just all feels like a lot these days.”

“We eat snack-y dinners all the time. Bread and cheese, some cut up raw veggies and fruit, maybe a sausage, maybe a bagged salad. My preschooler is super picky so he gets cereal many nights and/or bread and butter many nights. We eat a lot of leftovers. We always have corn tortillas in the fridge to made quesadillas, Sometimes I'll make a big batch of Smitten Kitchen zucchini for the quesadillas, and add some spinach (my children will not eat this). If we have sliced bread, grilled cheese. We eat dinner together almost every night, but often don't have #PFD; we're just scrounging for food. My husband will make a nice dinner one or two nights a week and we'll have leftovers from that. We'll get pizza once a week, but my little kid will eat pizza whenever possible—it's one of his few food groups. If we order takeout Indian or Asian food, we always have enough for a second night and probably lunch, too. If we have absolutely nothing else, we'll make a quick pasta.”

“I make a giant pot of black beans and keep some in the fridge because my kids will consider black bean tacos one night, black beans and rice the next night, and black bean nachos another night to be three different dinners. Same beans, cheese, and avocado, with different starches.”

“I aim for one meal a night that I cook and we sit around the table and it feels nice. The others are a combo of Tovala meals for me and my husband, takeout, omelette a for the kids- EASY. We don’t get home until 6pm and at that point the boys are hungry, I’m tired and cooking real meals gets lost on them so I just make something easy and feed them and I scavenge while I do that. I also love to entertain and while my boys won’t look back at their upbringing with many fond memories around the table for frequent family meals, they will remember (I hope) how we had lots of parties and dinners with friends and families and I can throw those together easily. So hopefully those are happy memories.”

“My ‘I'm exhausted’ meals are: scrambled eggs or omelette (maybe with cut up cherry tomatoes and cheese) plus easy fruit (grapes) or veg (carrots) and toast. Grilled cheese and canned soup. Frozen sausages (veggie for me) and an easy greens salad. Also pancakes. From a box or scratch. No shame!  Also roasted chickpeas, rice, and sliced avocado. Tonight the kids and I ate home fries and a green salad because it was what I wanted. Tasted good. They’re full. ✅”

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I hope you enjoyed today’s issue of Evil Witches, a newsletter for evil witches. Please pass it along if you know someone who'd like this sort of thing a few times a week.

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