Monday, September 15, 2014

Shift Work Cooking and 3 Menus to Get You Started

This summer has been one of crazy change and growth, where I've done things I never thought I'd ever do again. Nothing glamorous mind you, but I went back to a place where I once worked long ago and am, if you can believe it, starting over. It's both exhilarating to be out of the confines of the job I've been in for 20 years, along with slightly scary and utterly exhausting, but I'm so, so happy.

So happy.

Along with this increased pace in my life, as well as getting used to shifts being all over the map, the family dinner is changing. Our family has changed, too. I don't think anyone talks about that when they speak of the family dinner-kids grow, circumstances and budgets change, and what may have worked for you at one time isn't feasible or practical during another. Kevin is now more than capable to take on cooking duties and John is also more than able to re-heat, or start something and they both can assist with clean up.

This is something I've never done before; delegate cooking or clean up duties because I'm working or tired, but in conversation with fellow moms on Twitter, it's a matter of survival when you are working shifts. Everyone needs to eat, and it becomes a team effort rather than one person shouldering all the responsibility. Previously, I didn't mind and even enjoyed it-now I just can't do it all nor do I even want to try.

A particular issue that came up is getting dinner on the table when you work the evening shift and want to get dinner prepped ahead of time, ready for kids and/or your spouse to finish when dinner time rolls around. I've had to deal with this over the summer since sometimes my shifts start in the late afternoon and run through dinner into the evening. What have I been doing to combat this? Well, a few things, and since I had three evening shifts last week I'll show you how we managed.

The important thing is, give your family members a job. Leave behind written instructions stating what the menu is, and put their name beside a job that needs to be done. If they need a recipe, leave that out as well. 

When I've talked about kids cooking, Moms often respond that it takes more work. Well yes, initially-but look at that work as an investment. By making your kids responsible for helping to put dinner on the table it teaches them life skills that they will carry into adulthood, make them feel like part of a team, and eventually, they may take on an evening's cooking by themselves.

Kevin cooking dinner
Kevin frying up some meatballs
The trick is, I think, to start small. Teach them how to make rice. Write down the instructions in a book for them to refer to when you aren't around. Then, how to make salad. If you're worried about them using your big scary knives, direct them to something smaller and show them how to use it, as well as where the band aids are if they accidentally cut themselves. In all the years I've worked with kids and food, I've never once had a kid cut themselves. Show them how to cut various vegetables, wash them, etc. Starting with basic skill will give them the practice they need and build confidence.

More good skills to learn:

-boiling pasta
-hard boiled or scrambled eggs
-heating things up, such as pasta sauce or soup and following basic directions
-steaming vegetables
-oven fries

..and much more. You know your kids best, just get them to take on something when you think they are ready. Even if it means you chop the veggies for something and have them assemble, it gives them practice following directions, which is really what a recipe is all about. Just make sure to keep your directions short, to the point, and even include doodles if you want. How about some sample menus?

Dinner #1: Tacos

Tacos, or any "top it yourself" dinner is perfect for everyone to pitch in.

Jobs to delegate:
-brown and season meat
-chop/slice toppings (peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, onions)
-grate cheese
-make guacamole

To prep ahead, take on the job that you feel you do best, which in my case, was making tortillas. Then the family can do the rest depending on age or ability-there's no reason an 11 year old can't make guacamole, shred cheese, or chop up some peppers.

Dinner #2: Pulled BBQ Chicken Sandwiches

Things for you to prep ahead: the chicken filling for the sandwiches

Jobs to delegate:
-toast buns
-make a salad
-oven fries (optional)

This recipe is made in the slow cooker, which makes things easier. I prepped it ahead and turned it on before I went to wok so that it would be finished by dinnertime. Sometimes, I make particular side dishes optional. If my family REALLY wants the oven fries, they'll make them, but there's a chance they won't-and that's okay. If they don't want the salad, they can substitute raw veggies with some dip. Kids like it when they are given a choice, so delegating but allowing the cook to decide what they want to make gives them some ownership over it as well.

Dinner #3: Soy sesame steak, rice, steamed peas

Things for you to prep ahead: marinate the steak

Jobs to delegate:
-cook the steak
- make rice
-steam peas

This dish is super easy and a great one for teenagers to practice their cooking skills with. The steak is sliced so thinly that you barely have to cook it, and then only thing they have to remember is to keep the pan hot and not crowd it. If they do, it's not the end of the world.  An 11 year old can easily make rice and heat up some peas in the microwave, and there you go! Dinner! You can, if you wish, add in other side dishes, but we try to keep things as simple as possible.

If steak isn't your thing, try making drumsticks, or homemade chicken fingers. All are very easy and an older child should have no trouble. Make sure there is some discussion around handling raw meat so that kids know they have to wash their hands well.

Then just sit back and let them play. Sure, the rice may be a little crunchy. The lettuce could be ripped into pieces a bit large, or your meat a little overcooked but praise them for trying. It's all a learning experience, after all. For some of us, it's learning to hand the spatula over to someone else and let them have a go.

Go on, you can do it!

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