I’ve found I have some of the best times with my kids when I cook with them. The older ones are very chatty and the younger ones are more than happy to stir and help. The stereotype out there for dad meals is unhealthy junk food or drive-thru. It is not hard to make your dad meals enjoyable and fresh. For me, I’ve found easy meals my kids love and I’ve saved them. One positive for divorce is that, as long as the other parent has some visitation, you don’t have to account for every dinner. This means your bullpen of recipes doesn’t have to be too deep. The evenings they are not with you, they are getting variation from the other parent. You may feel like you are always cooking something you’ve done before, but as long as they love it, they will look forward to it and not get tired of it. That’s because there is space in between the meals provided by the meals the other parent prepares. The point is to not go overboard. You are likely busy enough with work. You can experiment every now and then, but you just need a few homerun meals and you are all set!
One of my main fallbacks is pasta. All my kids love it, and I’ve found with a few minor changes, I have several options available to rotate to make each meal seem different, when in fact I’m just changing the sauce and meat. You can also change the pasta and give the appearance of a whole new meal. With spaghetti, bow time, penne, and many more available, try different types to give it a facelift.
The pasta is the base. After that, you have a foundation to build a different meal. I generally use chicken on top of the pasta before the sauce. The variation there comes in whether or not you have chicken. When I do put chicken on top, it is either grilled/fried or breaded. Having the choice adds variation. The grilled/fried chicken cooks faster. The oven baked breaded chicken is easy to prepare, then stick in the oven while you get the pasta ready. Both recipes start with plain, boneless chicken tenders. They are cheap and easy to buy. The variation comes from how you prepare:
- sprinkle both sides with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning
- fry on both sides in nonstick pan or grill until done
- cut into strips
- 1 cup Italian seasoned panko bread crumbs (or plain and mix in Italian seasoning)
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper
- Fresh basil (about 2 cups)
- 2 cloves of garlic (usually 2 tsp of the chopped or crushed jar stuff)
- 1/4 cup pine nut
- 2/3 cup olive oil
- 1/2 fresh grated parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1 clove garlic, crushed (about 1 tsp of the jar stuff)
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 cups fresh grated parmesan cheese
- 2 big cans crushed tomatoes
- 1 can tomato sauce
- 2 dried bay leaves
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 small chopped onion - a few links of cooked Italian sausage
Chop your onion to your desired size. Some kids don't want that in their sauce, so make them big to get the flavor, but make it easier to pull them out. Cook the onions in some oil for a few minutes until they are clear. Dump in your cans of crushed tomatoes and sauce. Try different brands, but stick to the same brand. I usually go to the Italian section of the grocery store and get what's there. As that's warming, add your bay leaves, maybe some basil leaves if you want, and drop in your cooked Italian sausage links. I fry those to the side and cut into a few pieces. They mainly add flavor to the sauce. You can pull them out or eat them. Add the rest of your oil, salt, pepper, and add some Italian seasonings as you like. Let the sauce warm and simmer until you like it. This makes a lot of sauce, but you can freeze what you don't use for several months and use it later.
I haven't met a kid that doesn't like to cook. Getting them together in the kitchen to get dinner ready creates that time together, away from homework, tv, texting, and all the distractions to allow us focused time to catch up. Now that I don't have every day with them, I want to seize the time I have. For the meals, I like to keep it simple. Dinner at dad's house should be fun, but it doesn't have to be fast food. Pancake night is always fun, but you need to have good meals in your toolbox as well. Pasta is simple. By changing the noodles, changing the type of chicken, and having different sauces, I can rotate the dinners and keep it new. I recommend you try it out on your own first to get an idea for time. The pesto is the quickest while the tomato sauce takes some time to simmer. For that reason, pesto is a weeknight sauce while tomato sauce is made on the weekends. If you have some good, easy ideas you use, shoot them my way and I'll get them out there for the rest of us solo fathers!