From the Dinner Files: Case Study #231

Who: Frank T.
Age: 44
Lives in: New York, NY
Kids: Daughter Julia, Age 7
Marital Status: Divorced
Custody Situation: Joint; Weekends + 1 Weeknight
Dinner Dilemma: In Frank’s words: “My daughter is finally starting to expand her repertoire — it’s not only Mac ‘n Cheese and nuggets anymore. On the nights she’s with me, I want to stop relying on takeout and learn how to make a few really basic healthy dinners for her.”
Also: “I wouldn’t mind eating healthier myself.”
Dinner Dilemma #2: “I’m basically cooking in a bachelor’s kitchen. When it comes to equipment, I have nothing. Like nothing. I need to know where to begin.”
Revealing Detail #1: “I live in a small apartment and I hate waste or having anything extra lying around. I want bare minimum when it comes to both cookware and food.”
The DALS Prescription: Don’t be overly ambitious. It’s like deciding to get in shape — if you decide to run six miles seven nights a week, you’ll burn out after two weeks. Pick five easy recipes that you know Julia will like, buy only the equipment that those dishes require, and report back in a month.

Five Starter Recipes (+ Equipment You’ll Need to Make Them)

1. Roast Chicken with Vegetables
Nothing could be easier, or more delicious, as long as you remember to remove the giblets from the cavity before roasting. This takes about an hour and 15 minutes, so probably better for a weekend dinner. Equipment: Pyrex Roasting PanOxo Silicone brush (to brush melted butter on chicken), Peeler for Carrots, Pure Komachi Knives (Set of Six) for Chopping Vegetables.

2. Grilled Fish with Steamed Vegetables and Rice
I know you love a simple fresh grilled fish — even in the winter — so here’s one recipe that fits all: Take 1/2-3/4 pound of your favorite grilling fish (halibut, tuna, salmon, mahi mahi, please check Seafood Watch for responsible buying guidelines), cut in two pieces and marinate flesh-side down in 3 tablespoons olive oil, about a tablespoon soy sauce, salt and pepper. About five minutes before you cook fish, squeeze some fresh lime on its flesh. Heat grill pan to medium-high, and using your silicone brush, coat with a little olive oil. Grill fish about 3 minutes a side (no poking and prodding while it sears) until it feels firm to the touch (but not rock hard).  Equipment: 9 1/2 inch Pyrex Dish for marinating; Lodge Pre-Seasoned Cast Iron Grill PanCalphalon Slotted SpatulaChef’n Veggie Steam Silicone Steamer for vegetables; Cuisinart 3-quart pot for rice. (You already have knives for chopping)

3. Angel Hair with Shrimp and Steamed Vegetables
This is perfect for a weeknight with Julia — it comes together superfast. Just be sure to pick up the shrimp the night before she comes over if you don’t have time the night you plan to cook it . You don’t want seafood to sit around for more than a day. Equipment:  Cuisinart 12-inch Skillet for shrimp and onions; ExcelSteel 3.5 quart colander; Cuisinart 1 1/2-quart pot for steaming. (You already have knives for chopping and 3-quart pot for boiling pasta.)

4. Breaded Chicken Cutlets (page 11 Dinner: A Love Story) with Roast Potatoes
The classic. The important part to remember here is to make sure you pound your chicken breasts (between saran wrap or wax paper) to even thickness. Equipment: Other than the skillet, steamer, Pyrex 9-incher (for potatoes), chef’s knife, and saucepan mentioned above, you’ll need a meat pounder and three dinner plates for your egg-flour-bread-crumb dredging, and saran wrap or wax paper.

5. Fish “Presents”
This is so up your alley. Everything — protein, starch, veggie — is cooked at the same time in the same way. (And if you call them “presents” Julia will love them, too.) The trick is to make sure all your vegetables are sliced very thin, especially the potatoes, so everything cooks through. Equipment: You have all the cookware you need for it, but make sure you have some foil or parchment paper lying around for the giftwrap. (I know you hate creamy sauces, but Julia might like to dip her fish in a mixture of yogurt-mustard-and-dill — see the bottom of this recipe for instructions.)

The Result: Keep us posted Frank!

Pure Komachi Knives. Their Six-Pack is one of the best deals out there. (Not to mention, the coolest looking.)

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This is the best post you have ever done! After my parent’s divorce I remember eating meals with my bachelor dad that were seriously horrific: we used what we could find at the convenience store around the corner. Sad, sad.

You’re a genius for addressing this truly dire scenario.

eliza twist

Such practical advice! I read DALS cover to cover nearly a year ago and I finally got myself a little book to keep in the kitchen. I’ve been planning out dinners by the week for years, but I’ve always done so on scraps of paper that turn into piles that I don’t know what to do with. A tidy little book makes me feel that much more organized. It’s these sort of organizing tips that are very helpful for creating new habits. Thanks for sharing!


I love this – I feel like I should print it out for my husband for nights when I’m not home!


If Frank only has 2 dinner plates, a dredging station can be set up using plastic Chinese take out containers


I love this post so much. My parents divorced when I was three years old. My dad was the master of baked potato dinners and my mom would spend an entire Sunday making a week’s worth of frozen dinners for me to chose from for those nights she worked late. What do I remember the most from those days? My dad accidentally letting a potato explode in the oven. Sounds like Frank is doing great.


How did turkey burgers with spicy oven fries not make this list? I could eat those fries every night!!!


Truly, this is the most loving, kind, intelligent post I’ve ever read. Presented with a clear, honest description and request, you’ve provided a well-organized, detailed plan that presumes competent follow-through. Good equipment and clear instructions ensure success. Many thanks.


Breaded chicken is one of my dad’s best recipes, and FYI, you don’t need a meat pounder to get the pieces to even thickness – just use a flat bottomed drinking glass (over the wax paper or plastic wrap)


Best post ever! I’m a minimalist and keep having fantasies about throwing out all my kitchen stuff and starting over with only the minimum for a half dozen recipes.


use sandwich bags or freezer bags for pounding the chicken and i’ve used a piece of 2×4 or the side of a hammer in a pinch and a rolling pin. I didn’t have a meat pounder until two yrs ago. My former psycho daughter-in-law bought it for me and now everytime I use it I think of her. It’s one of my fav kitchen gadgets.

Carrie S

I usually am 100% with you on every post – but as the mom of a 7 year old, I have to say – the only recipe on your list my daughter MIGHT be willing to eat is the roast chicken. I wish Frank all the best in learning to cook & exploring food with his hopefully less picky kid. but – I whole heartedly agree than no matter what is on the plate, it is the act of coming together as a family to eat that is the key.


Great selection of recipes and list of tools, though I disagree with a couple of things.

If Frank is only going to be cooking for himself and his daughter, I think a 12″ skillet is unnecessary. I cook for one or two and never need a 12″ skillet.

Also, he probably only needs a chef’s knife and a paring knife. Those, along with a bread knife, are the ones I use day in and day out and don’t need more.