When her daughters were 4 and 5, Jenny Rosenstrach fell into a rut familiar to many moms with picky young eaters. She was cooking what she calls the “lowest common denominator” meals of pasta, pizza, and more pasta. Rosenstrach, a contributor to Bon Appetit and author of the blog and cookbook “Dinner: A Love Story,” decided it was time to make a change. “I thought, we better work on expanding things immediately before I die of turkey burgers,” she says.
The author, 43, and her husband, Andy Ward, launched a plan to cook 30 new dinners in 30 days. Pitching the plan as a “family adventure,” the Westchester County, N.Y., couple got their daughters to agree to try a bite of every meal. Rosenstrach shares what she learned in “Dinner: The Playbook.” A combination planning guide, tutorial, and family cookbook, the author sees her group of recipes as teaching how to cook along with what to cook.
“Real life cooking has to be strategic and isn’t as romantic as we wish it was,” says the author. “It’s down and dirty and roll up your sleeves.”
Q. When did you decide you needed to change dinner?
A. My husband and I were big eaters and cooks before we had kids. We remained big cooks while they were little because we were eating separately. Once we decided to have family dinner, we realized we were cooking the plainest thing my picky eater would eat.
Q. Was it difficult to get the kids to try new foods?
A. First of all, you have to be committed. When we did it, we said, You’re going to give us grades. You’re going to tell us what you like and what you didn’t. We want to make dinner the most exciting place ever and you’re going to be part of it. It’s important to spin this as a really fun adventure.
Q. What did you hope the kids would get out of it?
A. We wanted them to appreciate good food. The important thing for me was coming to the table with an open mind and being ready to expect something new. I feel like that’s a nice talent to have, not just at the table, but in life. Did that happen 100 percent? Of course not, but I worked with that principle in mind.
Q. What did dinnertime look like that month?
A. I would walk through the door at about 6:30. We always had some sense of what we were going to make before then. I think that was a crucial part of making this work. Then I would get started. I would do some fun snack like chips and salsa while I was cooking. We had a game called “chips for details.” I would give them a chip for every detail of their day that they gave me. My husband, Andy, would pitch in making a salad dressing or setting the table.
Q. How much time did you allot for prepping and cooking?
A. Never more than a half hour or so. We are not making osso buco on a Tuesday night. We are making a simple roast salmon and asparagus. Or we’re making chorizo tacos with avocado and slaw. When you start with chorizo or sausage, you’re halfway done with dinner. That’s a really easy dinner. And then we would eat. Sometimes dinner was 3 minutes and 7 seconds, but it was worth it.
Q. Explain what you call “deconstructed” meals.
A. For example, I make a grilled Thai steak salad. It’s a steak that’s been marinating in soy sauce and beautiful vegetables. If you don’t want the whole thing mixed together with the sauce, you can just have the steak, the tomatoes, and the lettuce. Someone else might want to have different components. There’s flexibility with the meals.
Q. Is back-to-school a good time to make a change like this?
A. There’s never going to be a good time. If you’re looking for the right week or month to do this, you’re not going to find it. The point is to embrace the chaos and cook dinner every night within the chaos. That’s not easy.
Q. Any tips for how to start?
A. It involves some planning and weekend think work. To get really nuts and bolts, you come up with a lineup for what you’re going to make this week and go for your weekly shop. Keep it simple. Once you see you can make it happen within the swirl of back-to-school and sports and play rehearsals, you’ll see it will be addictive. In the middle of all that chaos is when you need to sit down and spend some eye-contact time with each other.