10 Parents on the One Family Dinner Recipe That Always Works
I recently spoke with 10 parents across the country — their jobs ranging from farmer to business analyst, and the age of their children spanning a year old to high school seniors. While the perspectives varied, a common theme surfaced with the majority of parents when the subject of dinnertime arose: anxiety.
The responsibility that comes with making family dinner is deeply emotional. Budget, lack of kitchen confidence, complicated schedules, and unsolicited feedback from picky palates makes for an absolute pressure cooker of an experience. When things don’t go right, you’re left with cranky kids, food waste, and an underlying sense of failure. Oh, and you still have to do the dishes. Even for those who love to cook, the monotony of the everyday can be overwhelming.
But when things go well, the dinner table can be such a restorative experience that is so much more than just the food. It’s an opportunity to connect over the day, pass down and create new food memories, and find joy in the laughs resonating from full bellies. Every family has that go-to dish that hits the table and is met with cheers. Read on for the family favorites these 10 parents put together when they need a winner dinner.
Anna Pittman, 35, barista/bartender
- Location: Austin, Texas
- Members of the dinner table: Herself, husband, 3-year-old
- The dinner recipe that always works: Pastalaya
Anna recently returned to work after three years of being a stay-at-home mom, a job she took seriously. “Because we were a one-income family, that was my job: to save money by cooking every meal. I tried to shop around for what’s on sale, and meal plan based on what I could afford that week,” she says. But it wasn’t just work: Anna loves cooking for comfort and is a sucker for a good meal and sharing that with her daughter. She makes a lot of Tex-Mex food that she learned how to cook from her mother-in-law.
Anna grew up in Louisiana, and really loves sharing classic Cajun flavors with her own family. Pastalaya — a pasta variation on jambalaya — is her go-to for that nostalgic comfort. “It just makes everyone happy,” she says with a satisfied sigh. “The smell that fills the house; the celery, bell pepper, and onion. When my husband comes home from work and he opens the door and he’s like, ‘Ahh, smells like it’s going to be a good dinner tonight.’” Putting it together is second nature for her at this point, with the bonus of easy cleanup. “I know what I’m gonna do and it’s gonna be delicious.”
Try a recipe: Pastalaya from BudgetBytes
Brianna Fisher, 36, preschool teacher
- Location: Glendale, Arizona
- Members of the dinner table: Herself; husband; 15-, 10-, and 8-year-olds
- The dinner recipe that always works: Enchiladas
Brianna has never been a confident cook. “I got thrown into it. I got married and had to cook,” she says. As her family has grown over the years, she’s fallen into habits that work for her. She shops on Sundays, making note of what she needs to use up from the week before, and then stocks up on staples she knows she’ll use. “I’ve tried meal planning, but it always seemed like my family didn’t fit the mold of what I would see on Pinterest,” she laments. “I finally just gave up and decided I have to stick with what works for me.”
She leans heavily on recipes for guidance, but still struggles if things don’t go as planned. “I don’t have the confidence to know how to fix something if it goes wrong with a recipe,” Brianna says about her reliance on recipes. “When I do all the things and it still doesn’t come out, nothing kills my mood more. I did all this work and it fell flat. It’s one of the worst things ever.” But one thing Brianna knows she gets right is her enchiladas. “They always get an ‘oooh’ from the kids.” Her process was handed down from her mom, and she doesn’t need a recipe for them to come out well. Having a familiar favorite and muscle memory she can rely on is a big win when just the thought of dinner can be a trigger.
Try a recipe: Enchiladas Verdes
Imran Ali, 47, business analyst
- Location: Oak Park, Illinois
- Members of the dinner table: Himself, wife, 6- and 3-year-olds
- The dinner recipe that always works: Yellow tofu curry
Imran handles most of the cooking for his vegan household. Does he enjoy it? “I enjoy the end product,” he laughs. “I appreciate the effort, but it’s a chore. I’m not one of those people who enjoy the process.” He will take the weekend to tackle more complicated things like lasagna or prep dal for the week ahead. “I’ll create a meal plan that I never follow. So I sort of just wing it,” he explains. He keeps things quick and easy with go-tos like vegetable pastas and bean tostadas.
Work schedules for both parents are busy, and clashing palates are another challenge. “My daughter especially, she’ll be like ‘Oh I don’t like this,’ and I’m just like, ‘What do you mean? You just liked it the other day!’” he says. “My 3-year-old is picky, but it’s more about foods he’s familiar with. He likes curry and Italian and Mexican, so it’s not that he doesn’t like diverse flavors or varied things — it’s just based on how familiar he is with the food.” But he’s empathetic. “You have to adapt with the changing whims of the kids. They’re also figuring it out too.”
So what does the whole family agree on? Yellow tofu curry. Exposing their kids to a variety of flavors is central to how Imran and his partner raise their kids. Their version of this curry is a bit of a mix up of the Indian flavors Imran grew up with and Thai flavors both him and his wife love. It’s a way for their family to explore cuisines in a different but familiar way, leaving them all satisfied and nurtured.
Try a recipe: Yellow Tofu Curry from Plant Based on a Budget
Heather Wong, 38, pastry chef
- Location: Burbank, California
- Members of the dinner table: Herself, 7-year-old
- The dinner recipe that always works: Family sushi night out
Heather is not a cook. After spending eight to nine hours a day in the kitchen baking, the last thing she wants to do when she gets home is stand over the stove. So she stocks her freezer with her 7-year-old’s favorites from Trader Joe’s and lets him pick what he wants to eat. But it’s not all cake and freezer foods: “I do spoil him when it comes to good food. He definitely understands what quality food is,” she explains. “He’s such an LA kid. He wants his avocado and his smoked salmon, or his yellowtail rolls,” she says, laughing. “We spend our money on good food; I just don’t cook it.”
Saturday night sushi has been their way of doing family dinner. Heather’s boyfriend doesn’t live with them, and while that’s the plan for the future, the three of them still make an effort to find a way to regularly come together for dinner. “It’s something my son looks forward to weekly. While it’s only one day a week, it’s something he can rely on and that’s really nice for him.” Heather’s confident that she’s doing what works best for the two of them. “It’s what he knows and it’s perfectly fine because he’s happy and well-adjusted. We’re just a little bit different than the traditional situation.”
Tillie Fell, 34, advertising, client services director
- Location: New York City
- Members of the dinner table: Herself, husband, 3- and 1-year-olds
- The dinner recipe that always works: Turkey lasagna
Tillie has always found cooking and baking to be enjoyable. The Food Network regularly played in her shared dorms and apartments as a young adult. She picked up basic cooking skills from her parents, and found a lot of fun in cooking and learning together with friends. But now with two young kids, cooking is different. “I cannot do anything fancy. I have no patience for anything that takes too much time. Even what people say is simple like roasting a chicken, it gives me anxiety.” The weekly meal plan feels particularly hard for her right now. “I feel bored. I think the pandemic has taken something that I love and made it more tedious than I ever thought it would be,” she says.
She does, however, still finds a lot of comfort in putting together a turkey lasagna. “I learned how to make it from my mom,” she says. “Really anything that’s covered in sauce with a noodle and cheese is good for the fam.” Cooking and sitting down at the table at the end of the day is an important ritual to her. “I’ve found that both of my kids eat more and are better behaved and more interested in dinner if we sit down and actually eat the meal with them,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to talk about our days and have conversation, but they’re just too young for that right now. Dinner with this age of children is just very quick.”
Try a recipe: The Best Turkey Lasagna
Leslie Wiser, 44, farmer
- Location: Sebastopol, California
- Members of the dinner table: Herself, partner, 10- and 8-year-olds
- The diner recipe that always works: Taiwan beef noodle soup
Leslie’s partner, Sara, is the everyday cook in the family, but Leslie makes it a point to set aside regular time to cook heritage foods with her kids, too. Leslie connects deeply with the food traditions from her mixed-heritage upbringing. “My most vivid meal memories are from when I was a teenager and went to live with my grandparents in Indianapolis,” she says. “They provided a safe, stable home for me that I needed to really thrive. The cooking was very significant to me.” Leslie wrote down her German-Polish grandmother’s recipes while her grandmother was still alive, and still cooks favorites from those handwritten recipe cards. Her kids love breaded chicken cutlets, and Leslie is particularly fond of a roux-based kohlrabi dish.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup is another hit with everyone in the house, and tells the story of her family’s immigration from mainland China to Taiwan. “Food, in my opinion, is the last way to hold onto your cultural identity,” she explains about her priority of getting her kids with her in the kitchen. It’s a practice for her, addressing the urgency she feels to stay connected to the stories and ancestors who came before her in an everyday way.
Try a recipe: Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup
Rob Lombardi, 47, training instructor for the DEA
- Location: Triangle, Virginia
- Members of the dinner table: Himself, wife, 17-year-old twins and 14-year-old
- The dinner recipe that always works: Dad’s sauce
Rob was initially reluctant when he got into cooking. He joined the Air Force out of high school and was pushed into attending the military’s culinary school. He had never envisioned a military career in food service, but he’s grateful for the opportunities it’s provided. His family spent 2010-2015 stationed in Spain and Belgium. Rob and his wife did their best to expose their young kids to new cultures and food. (While also relying on the commissary for those American staples the young kids couldn’t do without.) “My wife and I loved the cultural options, but it was mostly us eating it and them eating chicken tenders,” he jokes.
Rob and his family moved back to the States, and he retired from the Air Force in 2018. He does the majority of cooking at home. The kids aren’t expected to help cook, but they do take over the cleaning once the meal is over. The biggest challenge he faces is getting his kids away from their technology and to the table. “Getting them to sit down at the table is a production. I’ll announce or text them dinner’s in 10 to 15 minutes, then 15 to 20 minutes after we should have started I’m still trying to get them to the table,” Rob says. But when “Dad’s sauce” is on the menu board, he knows he can count on them to show up. The recipe comes from his grandmother Sweetie, and is a deceptively simple marinara flavored with basil, garlic, and anchovies. “It’s very basic but it brings back some very specific memories for me of eating it at my grandmother’s house. It means not only a lot to them, but a lot to me as well.”
Trisha LaMorte, 41, stay-at-home mom
- Location: Millford, Massachusetts
- Members of the dinner table: Herself, husband, 7- and 5-year-olds
- The dinner recipe that always works: Slow cooker chicken tikka masala
Trisha has a daily 4 p.m. alarm on her phone that she laughingly refers to as the bane of her existence. “But that’s when I turn to the kids and I’m like okay, what do you guys want to do tonight?” she explains. “They’re way more apt to eat something when they’re involved in the process than when I just pick it.” Trisha homeschools her kids and uses cooking with them as a learning opportunity. “It’s math and science, and reading a recipe, all of it together instead of compartmentalizing the subjects.”
The kids will often eat on their own first. Trisha and her husband make another meal for themselves after the kids are in bed. When the whole family does sit down together, their number-one go-to is slow cooker chicken tikka masala. “I didn’t grow up eating Indian food at all,” she laughs as she explains how this ended up being a family favorite. Introduced to it when dating her now-husband, she immediately fell in love with the dish. She turned to it as something easy to throw together in the slow cooker when her now-7-year-old was an infant. At some point, Trisha had the thought to remove a portion and add a small can of tomato sauce to cut the spiciness before giving it to her kids. That small modification (plus a lot of naan) turned the spicy dish she loves into something the whole family enjoys. “You know that happy feeling you get when you see your kids eating? You don’t have to ask them to take more bites, you know everyone’s going to go to bed with a full belly, there’s just so much less stress.”
Try a recipe: Slow Cooker Chicken Tikka Masala
Astrid Henao, 36, software implementation consultant
- Location: Phoenix, Arizona
- Members of the dinner table: Herself, 13- and 10-year-olds, occasionally her mother
- The dinner recipe that always works: Chicken flautas
Astrid’s two children split their time between the home she shares with her mother and their father’s home. When they’re with her, she really likes having a menu for what they’re eating. “Otherwise, it’s total anxiety when they ask me what’s for dinner,” she says. The three of them work on the meal plan together over the weekend, thinking about not just dinner, but breakfast and lunch as well. “The kids are really big breakfast fans and they like for me to make it, but I can’t every morning. So if it’s a heavy cooking morning then we tend to have a lighter lunch and something we can prepare in the slow cooker or the air fryer in the evening.”
Astrid’s daughter’s busy softball schedule is also a huge factor in their meal planning. With practice 45 minutes away on a good day, there are a lot of logistics (and traffic) to manage. When they have the time, she loves getting the kids to help her put dinner together — especially when it’s chicken flauta night. The kids can help roll up the tortillas and stick the toothpick in while she fries. “They’re so crispy and delicious. We never have leftovers. As many as I make, they disappear somehow.” Continuing the food traditions and culture that she grew up with is important for Astrid, while recognizing that their lives are much different from how she was raised.
Try a recipe: Chicken Flautas
Heather Fusco, 42, lawyer and stay-at-home mom
- Location: Nashville, Tennessee
- Members of the dinner table: Herself; husband; 10-, 8-, and 3-year-olds
- The dinner recipe that always works: Homemade beans and turkey tacos
Heather grew up with a mom who focused on health, making special trips to health food stores before Whole Foods was a thing. She is grateful she grew up in a home that taught her to be conscious of what she eats, but tries to relax a bit about her own home. “The way I grew up is now very common, but in the ’80s it definitely was a little weird.”
Heather and her husband enjoyed leisurely cooking before they had kids, but priorities have shifted for their family of five. The weeknight game plan tends to be about efficiency and getting things done quickly. She saves the cooking projects for the weekend. “Now it’s just, get food on the table that we know everybody is going to eat,” she says. But her family’s go-to dinner recipes bring the fun back to the table. From the time Heather’s oldest daughter was 7 or 8 months old, her Guatemalan nanny always had a pot of black beans cooking on the stove. A decade later, Heather still makes a version of those beans from those early days of motherhood. She serves them with baked turkey tacos, a nod to the health-centered food she grew up with. A classic pairing pulled from two caretakers, the meal represents the village coming together to feed a family.
Try a recipe: Crunchy Baked Turkey Tacos from The Defined Dish
What’s your family’s go-to dinner that everyone loves? Let us know in the comments!