The Trick To Cooking For A Family Of 4 Without Losing Your Mind

How to navigate the terrain when everyone likes or needs something different.
John Wilhelm is a photoholic via Getty Images

Dinner is hard.

Wait, let me rephrase that: once you’ve procreated, dinner is hard.

As soon as that first baby is born, dinner immediately transitions from being a leisurely, pleasurable way to spend your last hours before bed, to a chaotic race to get food in people’s mouths before they peel back their skin and release the monster within. (Yes, my kids are hiding some serious monsters deep inside.)

But battling monsters isn’t even the hardest part of feeding a young family. The most challenging task is figuring out WTF to make. I’ve spent countless hours racking my brain, scouring the internet, flipping through my many cookbooks to find recipes that will make everyone happy ― and I’m a food editor. Often times I come up short, and considering the fact that I spend almost 40 hours a week at work reading recipes, this can at times feel hopeless.

You see, this dinner-for-a-family-of-four business is a tricky endeavor. You’ve got personalities (and their tastes) that have been born ― not chosen ― into a unit. My particular family of four involves a nearly 1-year-old baby (with only one tooth, still), a 3-year-old who’s learning to be picky, a carnivore dad who never feels satiated unless a hunk of meat is involved, and the vegetarian-leaning cook ― me.

Each night I’m faced with a long list of requirements that this meal has to meet. For example:

  • It has to be soft enough in texture that a nearly 1-year-old can eat it.
  • It can’t include too many ingredients, because that might overwhelm the toddler’s palate. Foods should be left as separated as possible.
  • Meat has to be present.
  • There must be vegetables, but don’t mess up the texture. (For example, spinach becomes slimy when cooked, and that will be rejected). To be safe, don’t bother cooking any vegetable that is edible raw. And never, ever offer mushrooms, winter squash or zucchini.
  • Also, no tomato sauce, no quinoa, no rice, no mashed potatoes ― actually, no potatoes of any kind ― no quiche with stuff in it, no curry, no garlic, no onions.
  • Ideally, it won’t be the kind of thing that stains when flung across the room ― babies love to throw food.
  • It should be a balanced, healthy meal because, well, you’re feeding your family. (In other words, there can only be so many pasta nights a week.)

What is left? Not a whole lot.

How does one trudge on and tackle this impossible task? Because if I don’t, no one else will.

Just thinking about tonight’s dinner looming in a few hours has my anxiety levels raising already. When this happens, there are a few crucial things I tell myself.

Remember this, and you won’t lose your mind:

First, this is a choice. Preparing a dinner for my family, allowing us all to sit down to together, is a choice that I alone am making. I could feed the baby and toddler first, but I’ve decided it’s meaningful to me that we sit down as a family. It’s important that the kids try new foods, experience new flavors and are asked to step out of their comfort zones ― even if it’s not always (er, almost never) successful. It’s a ritual I hope will last for all the years we live under the same roof.

Second, this is a privilege. Having the ability, the time, the space, the means to sit down to a dinner with this family I’ve created is in fact not a chore, it is a blessing. And no matter how hard of a task it can be, it’s one I hold dear to my heart.

Third, there will be failures. Yes, there will be dinners when my daughter says the food smells like the cat’s wet food. (That honestly happened just last night.) There will be nights when the baby will simply not open her mouth to receive what’s on her spoon. And while it might feel frustrating in the moment, it is in fact just fine.

And when all else fails, there’s always grilled cheese.

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