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Yes, You Can Make Family Dinner: Tips for Cooking Confidence


I often think about what stands in the way of families coming together for meals. One common complaint is a lack of cooking skill. Many people lament that “They just can’t cook!” If this is the case, there is no better remedy than learning by doing and starting today with a few basic recipes and cooking techniques. More often, though, the issue is not really cooking skill — it’s cooking confidence.

In our society, we seem to have dueling conceptions of a proper meal. On one hand, there are the quick, fast-food-style convenience foods. On the other, we have a “foodie” culture of gourmet ingredients and elaborate presentations à la TV cooking shows. Both extremes can undermine a person’s mojo in the kitchen.

Basic home-cooked meals fall somewhere in between, but they can be, nonetheless, rewarding, nutritious and delicious. Take-out and processed foods are okay every once in a while, but your family will eat better and will enjoy even simple food more, if you cook it yourself. Don’t let high expectations of camera-ready masterpieces from lush cookbooks or food blogs get you down; learn from them and be inspired.

Coming up with delicious, quick-and-easy meals is an important skill and takes practice. Here are some tips to boost your confidence and help you pass up the take-out for real home-cooked food.

* “Back-pocket” recipes: Every at-home cook should have 5 or more recipes that she can “pull out of her back pocket,” meaning that you can cook it up with a few basic ingredients and without much thought. This ability is crucial for weeknight meals! Think about your favorite easy meals and walk through the steps in your head, so you are confident that you could do them without a recipe. Make sure to buy the ingredients for at least 1 or 2 meals like this a week, or be able to quickly pick them up on the way home.

* Cooking videos on the web: In the time it takes to watch a traditional cooking show, you could have cooked your meal already! Short cooking videos from the web, on the other hand, are quick references that can inspire and teach cooking techniques that you can try out right away.

* “Out of the Pantry” recipes: Plan to have staples in your pantry that can be thrown together for a quick meal. The Family Dinner Book has many recipes that can be whipped up from standards in the pantry. A family favorite of ours is Linguine and Clam Sauce, which needs just pasta, canned clams, fresh garlic, and parsley.

* Add one new dish to your repertoire every month. Scour your cookbooks or cooking blogs for inspiration and, when you have time, learn a new recipe to keep your list of go-to meals interesting and fresh.

* Don’t fear failure! (Or your family’s comments.) Don’t be afraid to try new things. The only way to get better at cooking meals at home is to keep practicing. Have a sense of humor if things don’t go well. You can also use it as a lesson that family members should be grateful for the effort and the food presented, even if it is not a complete success. Even if the meal is less than you hoped for, there’s always dessert!


Grace R. Freedman, Ph.D. is the founder of, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the benefits of family meals and to helping parents make the commitment to regular family dinners, despite the challenges! Her research and academic experience includes work at Columbia University, the New York Academy of Medicine and New York University. She is the mother of three children, whose ages range from kindergartener to teen, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.



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3 Responses

  1. Littleladieswholunch says:

    Wow, great article. I’m sharing this on Facebook…

  2. Penny says:

    One of the problems we have is there are just 2 of us, so we seem to have a problem getting the proportions right as our metabolism is much slower these days.

    But for years we had all 7 of us at the dinner table, and it was a great time and place to catch up on everyone’s day.

    I just have to learn to get the buying and proportions right!

  3. Thanks for your comments and sharing! I know portions can be a challenge as family size changes. When my teen is not at dinner, we suddenly have lots of leftovers! It’s great to still have that family dinner time even if just 2!

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