Suzanne Tobias

August 20, 2014

Planning for family dinners worth it

I greeted my advance copy of Jenny Rosenstrach’s new cookbook, “Dinner: The Playbook,” with a level of enthusiasm and joy normally reserved for the return of the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte.

As I’ve shared before, I believe in family dinners. I think gathering around the table provides unity amid the chaos, and I think it’s worth any amount of shopping, nagging, arranging and working for.

Much like making the bed every morning, the family dinner is a tiny way to bring order, calm and peace to your world. I don’t even mind the cooking, given at least 30 minutes and a foolproof recipe I know by heart.

But, oh, the planning! That, dear readers, is the Road Runner to my Wile E. Coyote – elusive, frustrating, forever leaving me a pathetic, deflated heap on the canyon (er, kitchen) floor. Too often my grocery shopping seems mindless, my dinner plans ambiguous or incomplete.

I see flank steak on sale and throw a couple into my cart, vaguely recalling that recipe on my Pinterest page. But I forget we’re out of balsamic vinegar, and then I can’t think of a side dish my son and daughter will agree on, and then the meat goes into the freezer and I never remember to thaw it in time. So we order a pizza or fetch Chinese take-out.

Rosenstrach’s book, scheduled for release Tuesday and subtitled “A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal,” may be just what I needed, starting with a swift kick in the pants.

“I can give you all the recipes in the world,” she writes. “I can share my mental archive of time-saving, money-saving, sanity-saving kitchen tips; I can give you pep talks until you want to suffocate me with my pom-poms; but without the conviction to make it happen, it won’t be possible.

“There is no magic button. … Once you realize that it’s going to be a little work, once you embrace that work, your head will be in a much better place.”

She had me at “Step 1: Commit.” And also at a recipe for baked chicken that calls for exactly two ingredients (chicken, barbecue sauce).

Before long, I was logging my first real menu plan into a spiral notebook and jotting notes like, “fried rice (pg. 76), leftover chix & rice, FRIDAY.”

On Sunday, I made my list and shopped. Sunday night, I made beef and black bean burritos. On Monday, lasagna with garlic bread and salad. On Tuesday, salmon patties with cilantro-lime rice and green beans. (The lasagna was frozen and the green beans were canned, but THAT’S OK, because everyone ate, no one starved, and the kids talked about their new teachers while we passed the lemonade.)

As I write this, I have planned our dinners through the rest of this week and next. I have followed little gems of advice such as whisking a vinaigrette on the weekend, washing greens ahead of time and even filling a pot with water for pasta before I leave for work so I can switch the burner on as soon as I get home.

I also have enlisted help from my husband and kids – choosing recipes, prepping ingredients, setting the table and cooking simple dishes – which the author wisely recommends.

Will the dinner-planning magic continue? Who knows. Are rotisserie chickens and frozen pizzas history at my house? I sure hope not. But I’m willing to give this playbook at least 30 days, in part because Rosenstrach seems so confident in my abilities, and in part because 30-day trials have worked for me in the past. (See also: making the bed, giving up soda.)

Now excuse me. I have a flank steak to slice.

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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