Food secrets from the West Coast: Calif Mom shares all!

by cv harquail on July 7, 2009

Calif Mom gets her own post this time! Just TOO MUCH good info to tuck in there as the 27th comment on the Groceries post. Calif Mom writes:

For the broader discussion

I can vaguely imagine for myself, in some sort of idealized parallel universe, a life in which I would have the entire week’s meals planned out to the exact serving numbers. I would also, in this imagined life, enjoy clothes shopping and trips to the pool with the kids. :-) Now, that said, this meal planning thing is a very rational and reasonable approach, and great advice if you are the kind of person who can implement it. I have, in fact, tried it, but it takes HOURS because I felt the need to then also pore through all my cookbooks and then start making a recipe I had pulled out of NYT food section and really wanted to try.

I also tried 6 o’clock scramble, but it just didn’t work for us. I felt that there aren’t too many options for families with non-dairy and non-fish requirements, and it seems more for people who need help thinking about what to make and who shop in a regular store regularly. I don’t need that — we are confessed locavore foodies from way back. We visit the farm market and various food stores through the week, but it’s kind of entertainment for us. What I really need at 6:30 when The Huns are at my pantlegs and I’m “cooked” already is implementation help.

I have not required cooking skills from our APs. Like “swimming”, I have found that an AP’s interpretation of this skill can widely vary. Neither have I expected them to shop, though find myself really missing that our current AP won’t even stop by the store to get OJ or her white bread. So she can sometimes go for days without it before I get a chance to pick it up on the next trip. She hasn’t complained; works for me.

Our first AP was interested in learning to cook. I taught her some things, and she would sometimes have a simple dinner that her mom used to make ready for us when we came home after an especially long day. That was unbelievably wonderful.

Current AP has zero interest in learning about cooking. Also doesn’t eat with us, which I’ve talked about my coming to terms with before, because she does that big, hot lunch thing in the middle of her day. She does cook this simple lunch for herself and charges who are home during the day. Her consumption is unpredictable — main courses intended as encore presentations and lunch sometimes disappear, sometimes don’t. Leftover flank steak being a conspicuously consistent exception to that — it’s a goner.

I don’t have a menu plan, but I do have a binder with photocopied recipes of dishes that are quick and crowd-pleasers. They are in sleeves, and I scribble notes to myself liberally. This has been great, especially to reduce the load of cookbooks that I only really use for one or two faves. And I can look at this binder and know that I can make something that will turn out great and I don’t have to think about it very much. (cv’s note: I have the same kind of notebook! If you do one thing about better cooking, this would be it…)

I have discovered in my recovery from a severe concussion that my not needing to think is a strong predictor of Witching Hour success.

So here’s our current strategy:
Like I said, what I really need is implementation help, but I don’t often get it, so instead, I have figured out a couple workarounds.

First, engage spouse/partner in this family-wide problem, if you’re lucky enough to have spouse/partner. Explain that if spouse truly values other spouse’s income, decent meals nightly and to save money, spouse must commit to setting aside part of a day on the weekend to being home and preferably helping us Cook Big. Took awhile to get there, but once I did this a couple times and explained what I was doing, and pointing out the payoff later in the week, it really cemented this concept and we mostly are able to maintain it now.

If it’s worth cooking, it’s worth cooking big
(for the record, we do not sacrifice quality or taste. That won’t fly in a home populated by two super-tasters). Half either is held for encore presentations or lunches (mom and kids’ lunch boxes), OR is put in the freezer. That goes for proteins as well as sides — big pot of steamed potatoes becomes mashed one night, potato salad another, and fried up with tons of garlic a third. I cook up a big batch or more of wheat berries or barley, and that sits in the fridge for several days and gets added to salads, or dressed with vinaigrette and diced veggies, or mixed in with proteins for my lunch. I even keep a big batch of “crumble” topping in the freezer so when dessert is warranted and fruit overabundant, i can throw a bunch of sliced fruit in a baking dish, sprinkle the topping and bake it while dinner is being prepped and eaten. (nod to Alice Waters for last two ideas)

Three favorite tools: a half-size chest freezer. (This also holds AP’s spare loaf of white bread so I don’t have to make a special run to the regular store when she runs out during the week.) I fought this purchase for many moons — “hub, you have to be kidding. We don’t have room. I’m not a farm wife. What are you going to put in there, half a cow? (wrong question, it got him thinking!)” etc. Finally broke down and allowed it to enter the home when our fridge was on the fritz and we needed to keep a bunch of meat cold or hold a tremendous party.

Second fave tool is a pressure cooker. This came after spending something like 8 hours simmering a big pot of NOLA-style butter beans to make butter beans. I thought, what a crazy amount of gas I just burned trying to serve less meat! I absolutely love my pressure cooker. Shortribs just like our now-former chinese takeout place in 45 mins, starting with frozen meat. I’m not kidding. falling off the bone fabulous. Cookers are very safe now, and the kids loving helping me by watching for the little button to pop up. it’s entertainment! Those steamed potatoes? entire pot done in 5 mins. after coming to pressure.

Third help is my hub’s ego.
I mean the grill! Whenever grilling, we load that bad boy up, and we can eat from the fridge the next day or more. We grill extra onions in soy sauce/balsamic that get thrown into all sorts of dishes throughout the week.

And yes, PB and J with a side dish still deserves a place on that weekly meal plan I don’t have, in times of emergency or utter fatigue.


PA Mom July 8, 2009 at 9:37 am

Great post CA Mom! I do this too. If you like to cook (I do) then it can be a fun way to spend part of a weekend (for me Sunday mornings). I shop Friday evening (way home from work) or Saturday morning (at the Amish market) and then start cooking when the mood strikes. If you are going to mess up the kitchen – why not do it big! I will make 4 main courses and freeze one-half for next month. If you do it once a month – you build up a nice stock of choices for dinner. Even if you just prep burgers, chili and meatloaf – you’ve covered 6 to 9 nights over the next few months. Marinate a flank steak and then freeze it. Same for chicken. Then just defrost in the microwave and grill or roast. Easy peasy as the kids say. Have fun cooking!

FL Mom July 8, 2009 at 11:21 am

This IS a great post! There are a few once a month cookbooks on the market for anyone who’s interested in cooking for the freezer. We’ve more or less moved to this method from the Dream Dinner idea due to dietary restrictions.

Calif Mom July 8, 2009 at 1:32 pm

You do the notebook, too, CV? Then there’s organizational hope for me, yet!;-)

Gwen July 8, 2009 at 11:07 pm

I am not quite as organized, but a big Costco shopper with 3 refrigerator/freezers. I buy meat in quantities and vacuum seal and freeze. Much cheaper and we always have a nice selection. My pantry is always full and the au pair has plenty to choose from if wants to prepare a meal. She hasn’t cooked yet, but did check out some cookbooks from the library. I am hoping that this is a good sign!! Even if I ask her to feed the kids before I get home, they always want me to make something when I get home. I have to make myself something anyway and then I end up making more or something for each person, ETC. Some nights I would just like to crash.

Anonymous July 9, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Each of my aupairs left us a copy of a recipe for her favorite food.
Sometimes , it was something she had cooked while she was with us and sometimes it was something she missed from home and sometimes it was something she loved to eat while she was here . I typed up each recipe and put it in a scrapbook with a photo of our aupair.
Several of my aupairs brought a cookbook from home as a hostess gift. I have all of these cookbooks on my kitchen shelf. It is a great gift.

CV July 16, 2009 at 12:02 am

I am loving all the posts on Au Pair food issues! Thankfully, Au Pair eating habits haven’t been big problems for us (at least not this year), but weekly menu planning is always a challenge! I found this “weekly calendar” which other folks might find useful; so feel free to include if you agree (and you can make the link work):

I ask our Au Pair to write her requests on the grocery list on the left. Next, I (usually with my husband’s help) write out dinner ideas on right, then create the corresponding grocery list on the left. After grocery shopping, I leave the calendar/list on the kitchen counter throughout the week, so our Au Pair knows our dinner meal plans. This has worked for us, and has been most helpful in preventing the Au Pair from giving the kids hot dogs for lunch on “Hot Dog night”!

Thanks again for a great blog I enjoy and learn from everyday!

–Southern Host Mom

Soccer Mom February 20, 2010 at 11:43 pm

I have been searching for posts about meals for kids, and just found this. I love this post, but need more ideas besides Mac & Cheese or Hot Dogs to have the AP make for the kids. Obviously preschoolers have limited tolerance for adventurous foods, and our AP will only cook things that are super simple, but I am always looking for ways to expand the options. HD & I do not have the cooking skills of Calif Mom or CV either. We wrote out a menu of 10 dinner options and told her to not to feed them the same thing 2 times in one week (after she was making the same thing 2-3 nights in a row!) I would love suggestions from other HMs who have their APs feed their kids dinner as to what simple, yet healthy things (that kids actually eat) are on the menu.

Calif Mom February 22, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Here’s our au pair’s one dish, which the kids love: cubed chicken breast browned/sauteed in seriously huge amounts of garlic and a little olive oil. Served with broccoli, or peas she heats up with more garlic (or garlic powder), and a little salt.

Each kid’s MMV, but give them lots of chances to reject things before deciding that preschoolers won’t eat many kinds of foods. At 3, my eldest’s favorite meal was duck. Both loved warmed up tofu with soy sauce, and salmon made like tunafish for sandiwiches. Hard boiled eggs. (check out author Ellyn Satter, RD’s classic books for more on feeding kids). I really don’t like the idea of sneaking broccoli puree into brownies (that book that came out last year or whenever) — if you sneak healthy stuff by the kids, they will figure out they can’t trust you. The second message from that is that healthy food must be covered up with chocolate. As much as I love Vosges and Valhrona, that’s not the message I want to send.

One more thought: everything’s better with butter (or better yet, hollandaise!).

Mom23 February 21, 2010 at 9:31 am

This is a great post. We have had various interest in shopping and cooking. I feel that it is important for us all to sit down as a family at dinner time yet getting home at 6, I don’t have time to prepare dinner and the kids are usually starving if we wait too much longer.

Some things that we have done are that we have a list of foods that the kids will eat and ask that au pair prepare one thing from each column — one protein, one vegetable and one starch.

We also buy lots of food from Trader Joe’s — the bag of teriyaki chicken, pre-seasoned meats, pad thai made with tofu, pizza are all easy and things the kids will eat.

Soccer Mom February 21, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Mom23 – Just curious if that means your kids have always eaten already when you get home, or do you somehow have family dinners? We are in a very similar boat to you, and I am sad that the kids are always finishing dinner as we arrive home. Besides not having a family dinner, my husband and I are instantly in charge as her shift literally ends in 2 minutes, or 2 minutes ago depending on traffic, and she runs away to hide. My husband and I “grab” something for ourselves for dinner while alternating who eats and who chases the preschoolers. I think it will get easier as the kids get older and can eat a later dinner, but for now the only time we eat together is on weekends.

Mom23 February 22, 2010 at 10:19 am

I have school aged children, so sitting down for a family meal is easier at that age, but we find that giving the kids an after school snack and sitting down immediately when we get home at six, we are able to do it probably 4-5 days/week. Here are some of the benefits of family meals:

We don’t demand that the au pair stay, although it is nice when they do. We have found that the kids really want to tell us about their days, so I think that the au pair sometimes feels excluded. This year, as one of my kids is very interested in science, we have started doing a “science fact of the day.” I bought one of those page a day calendars. They love it.

I don’t always eat with the kids, but I sit while they do. On the occasions that I have been running late, and have told the au pair to start the kids eating, the kids have usually opted to wait until we are home.

Sara Duke February 22, 2010 at 12:26 am

I do most of the cooking in our house, because I get home at 4:00. However, when my APs cook, I always encourage them to make something from their countries (because they cook it so much better than “American food”). Both of my kids have pretty wide palates, and if they don’t eat what the AP makes, HD will. Some things bomb (like the time our Chinese AP tried to make steamed wontons with spinach wonton wrappers – HD ate a lot that time), but other things have succeeded well.

If the AP is cooking for the kids, we ask her to put the ingredients on the shopping list and include them in the weekly shop, or give her money to buy them from her favorite store.

I have to be very careful about food that comes from a box. I have to watch my daughter’s salt intake and processed food is usually extremely high in sodium. I have had to stop APs from salting her food (because she eats it so much faster – yes maybe, but the cost is too high!!). We do keep some frozen dinners on hand, but only Lean Cuisine and Smart Choice because the salt is so much lower.

When my husband cooks meat for the kids, he often makes a crock pot meal, because the meat is tender enough for my daughter to chew and the meal is done when he gets home.

Soccer Mom February 22, 2010 at 10:56 am

Thanks for sharing! This is so helpful – and I do know that family meals are important, so I want to try to make them happen, even if it is just for 3 days a week. Mom23, does your au pair make enough food for the entire family then, or do you prepare your own to eat with the kids when you get home? I am wondering if it is “ok” to have the AP cook extra of whatever she cooks for the kids so we can eat as a family when we get home – or is that asking too much since the parents’ meals are not part of her childcare responsibilities?

Mom23 February 22, 2010 at 12:24 pm

We have never asked that she make something different for us, but I usually leave enough food so that, there is enough for the kids, her and us. I only ask her to cook four days/week and I really do try to keep the meals simple.

My feeling is that I have an au pair so that I can spend more quality time with my kids. This allows me to do that.

DarthaStewart February 22, 2010 at 1:12 pm

My au-pairs frequently cook enough for all of us. The only times we don’t do that is if there really won’t be enough time to eat.

Soccer Mom February 22, 2010 at 1:33 pm

DarthaStewart – do you mean time to eat while your AP is still on duty, or do you just mean time to eat before bed, or another scheduled activity? I just want to make sure if I ask my AP to cook enough for all of us, and she goes off-duty when we get home to have family dinner, that is ok. Of course we will want her to join us, but our current AP likes to do her own thing – that is one of the reasons I am unsure about asking her to cook enough for us. Maybe our next AP will want to join us (our past APs had more of a balance between family time, social life, and alone time – current AP chooses to have no family time).

Sara Duke February 22, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Our current AP has decided to become a vegan. This is no big deal for me, as I am a severely lactose-intolerant vegetarian (who occasionally eats fish and seafood) and my son hates eggs and cheeese (the venn diagram of what to eat is vegan most nights). I have been cooking 3-4 vegan meals a week since she arrived.

Two nights a week she goes off to college the minute I get home, but two nights a week she works into the evening while we juggle kid activities and my own foreign-language class. On Tuesday nights I take my special needs child to therapy and get home just in time for dinner.

In order to make that mealtime more inclusive for my AP (who has a long stretch of time with my typically developing son with whom she has not developed a strong bond), I have asked her to start cooking that meal. This insures that one meal a week she absolutely gets to eat what she wants in a family setting (she is always welcome to cook a separate meal for herself on other nights). It also gives us an opportunity to share her culture.

I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong in asking the AP to cook a family dinner (including parents). I would consider it one of the household chores because I cook from scratch myself. However, if the AP wasn’t a cook (and I have had one) or hated cooking, then I wouldn’t ask. We have a rule in our house – if you cook for the family then you don’t do dishes (but you also don’t get to leave them for the AP to do in the morning!).

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