March 10, 2013 at 4:35 PM ET
As a huge fan of Food52, I was—to use a very English expression—extremely chuffed to be asked to write about the essential and everyday theme of how to fix family dinners. As a working mother with three children, it's a subject all too close to my heart. And since we're all in this together, it seems only right to share my strategies and culinary coping mechanisms with you here.
I'm not a chef, but a home cook—a statement I make proudly—and so feeding my family is at the center of every recipe I write. I have three teenagers to feed, and three different degrees of pickiness to cater to: what one child loves, another detests, and working with three palates means that the number of dishes they'll all eat enthusiastically is more limited than I might wish. But I've always felt that like the sonnet, the art of cooking is defined by the constraints, so I try to make them work for me.
This isn't a hard thing, not least because just as children like having the same stories read to them again and again, they seem to like eating the same meals. I must confess there are some weeks when I feel that pasta has been featured a little too often, but that’s only because I feel bad about it, recognizing it as a feature of my lack of organization or just downright laziness: my children will never turn down a carbohydrate.
I think all children feel comfortable with repetition and the everyday rhythms that become tradition. My paternal grandmother was rigidly structured about meals. You could tell what day it was simply from what was served. My mother didn’t belong to that school, but I was brought up in the strict, old-fashioned English tradition, which meant that as a child one got no say in what one was given to eat, was forced to finish every mouthful, made to sit at the table for as long as it took and, if any of us refused, found that at the next meal the same plate of cold food would be put in front of us until we ate it.
Unsurprisingly, I rebelled when I had children of my own to feed. I vowed I would never make eating a duty. Eating, like reading, should be encouraged for the pleasure it yields; the notion of pressing a meal or a book on anyone because "it's good for you" seems almost tragically counter-productive. Still, my rebellion cost me: hopeful idiot as I was (the mark of the new parent) I actually asked my children what they wanted to eat every day. Too much choice, I learned, is as bad as too little. For one thing, they often didn't know what they wanted, and felt slightly panicked by having to make such a momentous decision; for another, when they did have strong views, they all had different ones, so I either caused dissension amongst the ranks, or turned myself into a short-order chef.
So I took matters into my own hands. I chose what to cook and when, and although I insisted they try new foods, I never make them eat anything they didn't like. And although I don't actually write up schedules for the week’s meals, I make sure there are patterns that make it easy to cook without forever going to the store. (Everyone makes a great fuss about how long something takes to cook, without realizing that it’s the shopping that can be the problem.)
And so, I'm often found cooking a ham in Coca Cola for family supper, which lets me make a huge favorite with my children—my pasta with ham, peas and cream—another night. We're also very fond of pea soup (I use frozen peas unashamedly) with some of the leftover ham, shredded and warmed through in it, with grilled cheese on the side or not. My pea and pesto soup is one of my go-to instant suppers when I have a pack of hungry marauding teenagers to feed: pesto is in the cupboard; peas in the freezer.
The other thing most children always seem ready to eat is bacon in any manifestation; I'm with them here. We're really more of a pancetta household, although my fridge is always stashed with American bacon, too. Even broccoli becomes desirable when a little bacon is cooked first and then the steamed broccoli is tossed into the bacon fat and the crisp bacon crumbled on top. As for pancetta: there's scarcely a week in my household when spaghetti alla carbonara doesn't feature, but at the moment, the supper my children request most often is the world's simplest recipe: a kind of faux risotto made with orzo pasta, pancetta and peas. This recipe, from Nigellissima, is pretty much an answer to the harried working mother's prayers.
Nigella Lawson is the bestselling author of nine cookbooks, including Nigellissima: Easy Italian-Inspired Recipes (Clarkson Potter, $35.00). Visit her at www.nigella.com and follow her on Twitter: @Nigella_Lawson
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.