A Week of Dinners from the Toddler Food Whisperer — For Tired Parents Everywhere
Amy Palanjian is the close friend you call when you need a clever school lunch idea or a healthy (yet crowd-pleasing) dinner recipe, or when your kid vehemently refuses to eat the very same vegetable they devoured just last week. She’s also a writer, editor, recipe developer, and blogger behind Yummy Toddler Food, a site dedicated to feeding kids (not to mention a member of the Kitchn Collective).
Amy’s philosophy is simple: “I provide easy recipes that everyone at the table can enjoy together, but I also spend a lot of time reassuring parents that their kids are normal and they are doing a great job — even when it may not feel like it.” (A pep talk that a lot of parents need more now than ever!)
We first checked in with Amy back in February, when life looked a little (okay, a lot) different. After catching up months later, here’s what her week of “new normal” dinners looks like now — complete with repetitive meals, pesto stockpiled in the freezer, and Fancy Sundays.
Weeknight Cooking Questions for Amy
What’s changed for your family in the last six months?
Where we live (about an hour from Des Moines, Iowa), it seems like the majority of people are not taking the pandemic seriously. It’s difficult to sync up what I see outside with what I know to be the reality. It’s been mentally challenging. On top of that, our kids are 1, 4, and 8 years old, so managing homeschooling and having two little kids at home was a nightmare. We lost our daycare. My husband is a professor, so he was at home trying to teach his students as well. It was kind of a mess. We have no family locally. I was just thinking yesterday, our kids have not been under the care of anyone else since March. It’s been probably the most intense few months of parenting ever.
Parents are the real MVPs right now.
There’s no break! On one hand it’s been awesome to spend more time together. But I don’t think any parent is meant to have no relief. The summer has been a bit easier since my husband has been taking the morning shift so I have more time to work. I’m trying to hire a nanny for the fall, but that’s hard. I’m saying all of this from a place of real privilege — I’m my own boss, so no one cares what I do or don’t do except me.
Being home 24/7, what’s changed about your family’s eating habits?
I’ve drastically simplified what our meals look like. There’s never a point where I’m cooking without at least one kid around. We’re eating more dinners like burgers, buns, and corn, or scrambled eggs, toast, and watermelon — three-thing meals. If I’m not feeling it, my kids can choose what they want for dinner. My 4-year-old was delighted to have cereal the other night; my 8-year-old thought that was dumb, so she made herself a sandwich. I’ve been doing a lot less recipe testing for my blog, so I’ve lowered the bar in a way that my kids are totally happy with.
How else has this time affected your blog?
I don’t know if anyone would notice that anything has been different because I’ve been posting regularly. I just can’t test as many new recipes with a 1-year-old underfoot. Instead I’ve been updating old posts with new photos. (In 2016, I didn’t know how to use a camera.) The number of visitors I have to the blog has shot up, and I’m working half the time. Everyone is looking for ideas on how to feed their kids.
Have any rules gone out the window?
In the beginning of all of this, I was trying to make sure the kids were snacking on fruits or vegetables. My 8-year-old really loves salty snacks, though. I realized that she’s super content with Goldfish or veggie straws and reading a book. That’s her thing that makes her happy every day. It took a couple of months of me trying to bend her will, but now I’m like this is her thing! I like chocolate; she likes a bowl of veggie straws every afternoon. I keep those kinds of things in the house when I wouldn’t before, like that obscenely large carton of Goldfish. I’m also buying way more convenience snacks, like applesauce pouches. Before this I would insist on putting applesauce into a reusable pouch. I just have less energy to care.
Do you get groceries delivered?
We don’t have any delivery options, but there’s one store nearby with the option to pick up. The first time I did it, though, they subbed all sorts of stuff. I wanted plain whole-milk yogurt and I got fat-free vanilla — not even remotely the same thing! So that caused more stress than was needed and I felt like it was a waste of money. Instead I go weekly, and do a bigger shop every other week for pantry stuff. In between I get produce and milk. We also started a natural foods buying club that delivers to our town on a big truck once a month. I’ll get local dairy products, organic meat — it’s a nice option.
How do you decide what to eat in a day?
We try to have a loose breakfast schedule with two choices each day to give some structure. My 4-year-old loves to have oatmeal in the middle of a plate surrounded by plain yogurt mixed with jam. It has to be in a circle. So that has become a thing. On my good weeks, I pack lunch boxes before I go “to work.” Today I gave everyone a choice of pesto pasta, clementines, and cucumbers or hummus and crackers. My husband is in charge of snacks.
For dinners, we eat a lot of versions of the same meals. Repetition has definitely gotten a bit worse, but the kids know what to expect and it’s things that are easy to make. Tuesdays we do quesadillas, Wednesdays are almost always pasta. Thursdays is a stir-fry of some sort. Friday is frozen french fry night with hot dogs or burgers. Saturday is homemade pizza night. Sometimes I have to make myself a totally different meal to get out of a rut and feel like I’m having what I want.
Speaking of ruts, how do you find inspiration in these times?
I don’t know If I’m finding inspiration, to be honest. I do think having a garden is helpful. I’ve been making a giant batch of pesto every week to put in the freezer. That’s one thing that makes me feel like there’s something to look forward to in the future. We have like 20 bags in there now and every week I add five more.
What was your most memorable food moment of the last few months?
We started this tradition of Fancy Dinner Night. On Sundays, we dress up in fancy clothes, put music on, have a theme. My 8-year-old writes out menus and makes invitations. We make a special dessert. In the beginning when everything felt so awful, it was a nice way to have something to look forward to and to have one day feel different than the day before.
A Week of Dinners from Amy Palanjian
Pasta with Summer Squash
We have a CSA share and a garden, so we tend to have a lot of summer produce. This easy skillet pasta dinner is one that I’ve been making all summer. My kids like that it’s less saucy, and my husband and I love it topped with fresh basil and extra cracked black pepper.
Get Amy’s recipe: Pasta with Summer Squash
Easy Taco Buffet
My girls randomly love black beans, so we always have them in either tacos or quesadillas on Tuesdays. And in the summer, I go with the easiest version of this idea with a no-cook taco buffet. I simply put all of the filling options onto the table — warmed frozen corn, warmed canned beans, cheese, tortillas, and assorted toppings — and let everyone help themselves. And as long as I make sure the dishwasher is emptied before the meal (so all of the bowls can go straight in after), this is a super quick and easy meal to serve and clean up after!
Get Amy’s recipe: Easy Taco Buffet
Spinach Pesto Pizzas
We make a lot of pesto during the summer to stash in the freezer for future pizza and pasta meals, and my kids love it when I use it in personal pizzas. The pizzas are quick to make and only require three ingredients. I also love that they have a dose of veggies in the mix and that my 1-year-old loves them as much as the rest of the family. We typically add a simple salad and sliced fruit on the side.
Get Amy’s recipe: Spinach Pesto Pizzas
Baked Chicken Tenders, Cheesy Rice, and Corn on the Cob
While I could happily eat vegetarian meals all week, my family are all meat-lovers, so I try to hit a balance throughout the week. We all love these baked chicken tenders, although I often happily eat the cheesy rice (we most often have the version with cauliflower added into the mix) and corn so they can have more chicken among themselves. Cheesy rice is also super easy for my little one to feed himself, and since the grains tend to stick together it makes less of a giant mess than regular rice does!
Blueberry Zucchini Muffins and Veggie Smoothies
Breakfast for dinner is fun and easy — especially for Friday nights when I tend not to want to cook much. Plus, by the end of the week I tend to have too-ripe bananas that are perfect to use in these muffins. Some weeks we all share a smoothie (well, not my oldest, who really is not a fan!) or we add scrambled eggs to the table. It just depends on what we happen to have in the house!