By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Chefs' secrets for no-pressure family dinners
Jennifer Tyler Lee Pizza
Jennifer Tyler Lee offers advice for quick family meals, including DIY pizza night. - photo by Marsha Maxwell
Cookbook author and TV chef Tom Woodbury is a food expert, but that doesnt always translate to success in his own family kitchen. Woodbury, a father of three children ages 2, 3 and 6, understands how challenging it can be to put a family dinner on the table, even for a chef.

"Kids eat what they want to eat," says Woodbury, a TV personality and the author of a new cookbook, "Eat Fresh: Quick and Easy Meals." "As much as I try sometimes my kids just wont eat what I cook for them."

The popular chef recalls making a beautifully presented meal of chicken with a fig sauce, only to have kids refuse to touch it.

"They like figs. They like chicken. They just didnt like the two of them together," he says. "Its incredibly challenging to cook for the palates of kids, because you just never know what theyll respond to."

Most parents, even if they can't cook like Woodbury, can relate. They are familiar with what nutrition expert Kellyann Petrucci calls "six-o-clock panic," that feeling at the end of the day when youre tired, the kids are starving, and you stare into the fridge thinking, "Theres nothing to eat."

While its tempting to relieve six-o-clock panic by popping a frozen pizza in the oven or picking up the phone to order takeout, those are not long-term solutions for parents committed to their familys well-being. Home cooked meals tend to be lower in carbohydrates, sugar, fat and calories, according to a recent study at Johns Hopkins University, and if the task of preparing dinner is shared, it can improve relationships as well.

Three food experts, all of them parents, share their solutions for putting fast, healthy family dinners on the table without the panic, and improving family relationships in the process. Woodbury, Jennifer Tyler Lee and Rachel Reuben all agree on three important ideas for making family food preparation less stressful.

Get kids involved

Woodbury suggests having children help with food preparation as their skill level allows. For example, let a 3-year-old crack eggs or a 6-year-old mix ingredients. Kids can also help create unique recipes that are variations on a basic concept.

One of Woodburys favorite quick dinners is a simple pan-fried chicken breast with a pan sauce and steamed vegetables. Begin by steaming some vegetables, and while those are cooking, pan fry thin pieces of chicken breast. Once the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan and create a simple pan sauce.

"Add a little apple juice, orange juice or chicken stock. Add some fresh herbs or a little butter, or some other flavors that might fit your palate. Start with a liquid that will get the chicken flavor off the pan, and then just experiment," Woodbury says. "A lot of times that is going to blow your mind. If you let the children help decide what goes into the pan sauce, they will be much more likely to eat it."

Jennifer Tyler Lee, creator of the "Crunch a Color" healthy eating game and author of "The 52 New Foods Challenge," agrees that allowing kids to customize their food encourages them to eat healthy. One of her favorite meal ideas is a "DIY pizza party." Use homemade or store-bought dough and allow each person to create an original pizza with healthy toppings like chopped vegetables. Dont be afraid to try something new; Lee recommends bacon and kale.

Another of Lees quick meal ideas is an "easy-peasy taco bar," using shredded meat from a prepared rotisserie chicken, a variety of vegetables, beans, cheese and salsa. Each person makes one taco to eat and one to share, so everyone gets to try something new.

Plan, merchandise

Its difficult to create a quick and healthy meal if you dont have ingredients on hand, so planning is crucial for avoiding six-o-clock panic. Rachel Reuben a chef, cooking instructor, mother of two grown children and winner on the Food Network series "Chopped" emphasizes planning ahead so healthy meals are easy to prepare.

"Theres no lack of resources for finding quick recipes," she says. "But the missing piece is people willing to do the planning so that they can make these recipes." Reuben recommends taking part of a weekend day to plan and prepare for healthy meals throughout the week. Weekend food preparation can be a shared task where all family members participate.

Reuben teaches a class called "Fly By the Seat of Your Pantry," which emphasizes keeping a well-stocked pantry so basic ingredients are always available. On her blog, she offers a Fly-By-the-Seat-of-Your-Pantry shopping list that can be customized to fit a familys tastes and budget.

One of Reubens practical tips for quick healthy meals is to roast a batch of vegetables to use later. "Take two heads of broccoli, a head of cauliflower, and chop it up. Put those on a baking sheet with some olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon slices, chili flakes and sesame seeds" she says. "Roast those at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, and youve got a great side you can use all week."

Like Reuben, Lee recommends preparing a weeks worth of vegetables ahead of time, but she takes the idea a step further. Take the vegetables out of the crisper drawer, and put them on display in glass containers on the visible shelves of the refrigerator. "Its basic merchandising," Lee says.

She calls this technique "flip-flop your fridge," reasoning that you and your family are more likely to eat the foods that are most visible and attractive.

Another idea for making healthy foods appealing and accessible is to organize a kids snack drawer. Let kids choose a few healthy options for snacks throughout the week, and organize these so they are visible in smaller containers in a designated drawer of the refrigerator.

Focus on relationships

Part of Lees "52 New Foods Challenge" is for the whole family to spend at least 30 minutes once a week doing something that contributes to healthy eating, whether thats choosing a new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store, washing and chopping vegetables, gardening, or something else. Lees healthy eating approach emphasizes variety, play and letting children learn through experimentation.

Woodbury admits that getting children involved in food preparation means letting go of perfectionistic expectations. "I never really learned patience until I was a dad. And cooking is one of those ways Ive had to learn to be patient," he says. "It doesnt have to be cooked with racecar speed. It doesnt have to be prepared in the way that I would have prepared it."

In addition to being a chef and cooking teacher, Reuben is studying for a counseling degree, so her approach to food focuses on relationships as well. She knows that often one person, typically a mother, is responsible for food preparation for the entire family, and that kind of burden can create resentment.

Reuben recommends that families view meal preparation as a group effort. "It takes a little time, it takes a little planning, and a willingness to say, 'This is a shared responsibility, so what part of this can you do with me?' " she says.

She suggests that a couple could plan menus and grocery shop together, or divide the tasks between them. "This could also help your marriage. Wake up on a weekend morning, have a cup of coffee, and make a list of what youre going to make for dinner," she says. "Have a shopping list, and go to the grocery store together and shop."