Cook Once, Eat Twice

Oh man, Pete Wells! I was so sad to read that this week’s “Cooking with Dexter” column (“Busy Signal”) is going to be his last for the New York Times Magazine. I’ve always appreciated how honestly he writes about the way food and family intersect — as you’ll read in his swan song, he never pretended cooking dinner for his kids with a full-time demanding job (in addition to writing this column, he’s the editor of the Times Dining Section) was easy or in any way regular. His wife has the more flexible work schedule so she’s the one who keeps the weeknight dinner train running. And most of the time, Wells concedes, he isn’t there for it. Or, when he is, he sometimes finds himself spending a harried half hour dredging fish fillets in homemade breadcrumbs instead of doing what he should be doing: heating up something from the freezer and chilling out with his kids. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself in this position. It happens less now — now that I’m the wife with the flexible work situation, and now that the kids are older and not as whiny about wanting to eat right this second — but when it does, I think the same thing: Who am I supposed to be connecting with here? The kids or the chicken thighs? Which inevitably leads to Tomorrow night is Trader Joe’s Pizza Night.

Perhaps sadder than this being Wells’ last column was the resigned tone with which he wrote it. It doesn’t appear there are any solutions to the family dinner problem short of passing a law requiring parents to leave work at 5:00. (Even that idea, he later decides, is not such a good one.) Here’s where I disagree. Perhaps there are no blanket solutions, but if you want to figure out how to connect with your family over dinner (that’s ultimately why you’re here right? Not because you’re trying to solve an “abstract but urgent societal problem?”) there are ways to do it. Maybe not every night, maybe not even for a few years from now when your kids are less likely to make a mockery of your pork chops with kale. When they’re old enough, you can start pushing their mealtime a little later to make an all-parties-present dinner more likely. You can allow yourself the Trader Joe’s pizza moment whenever you need it, if dredging and mincing is going to be the soul-crusher that prevents you from sitting down with your kids the next night. You can make weekend dinners really count, not just by prioritizing those meals as non-negotiable family time, but by thinking about what dishes lend themselves to second lives later in the week. (Last week, a blessed stash of Great Grandma Turano’s Sunday meatballs were revived from the freezer as these sandwiches above.) And when you can’t get home from work in time to do any of this, you can remind yourself that Pete Wells has a hard time, too. Then you can try again tomorrow.

Cheesy Meatball Sandwiches (Serves 4)

In a medium pot, reheat meatballs in their sauce, covered, over low heat. Slice a baguette horizontally, then slice into four sandwich-size pieces. (Smaller ones for the kids, bigger ones for grown-ups.) Broil or toast for a minute so bread is slightly crunchy but not brown. Place meatballs on halved baguette pieces (be sure to add sauce), then place that half on a cookie sheet, topped with slices of fresh mozzarella. Broil for about a minute until cheese has melted and bread is toasty. Close sandwiches and serve.

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The turkey meatball stash in my freezer is a godsend. When the kids were toddlers, a crumbled meatball (made with grated carrot and zucchini plus a little wheat germ instead of breadcrumbs) was an instant and easy meal.


As our children were growing up we had dinner every night as a family, almost without fail. As adults nearing 30, they have both thanked me numerous times for that. They say they are among the very few of their friends who had that routine in their lives. So much of life was lived and discussed and laughed and cried over at that table. I can’t imagine not having had that with my kids. I encourage it, or something like it, to every young parent I know. I think it is so important.


Leaving work at 5pm is great, except when you have an hour commute added to that, and the little kids must eat by 6:30pm. Then, not so great. I have the luxury of having a nanny who loves to cook. She’s also happy to prep so I or my husband can put something together when we get home at 6-ish. If not, Trader Joe’s to the rescue. Have you tried the sweet potato gnocchi?


I look back at my childhood in awe of my mother who managed to work full time in a pretty high powered job and get dinner on the table for us every night – especially since there was no dad around to help out. But her persistence is what has made me completely committed to eating together with my family every night (pretty much). I hope I am passing these values on to my kids, as well.

Can’t say enough about Trader Joe’s chili and lime chicken burgers with their sweet potato fries.



We’re on the Anti-Cancer diet, our 16 yr old 4th child, is on the “why does this dinner suck” diet. We meet in the middle by sharing salad and good bread… the main course for us: fish and broccoli, for her: the bread and sometimes cheese.
Not a perfectly balanced meal by any means, but the fact that we’re all at the table discussing our day makes the unbalanced meal fade into the background.
Sometimes it’s not about the food, it’s about the fact that we’re connecting at the dinner table.:)


I am so sad to see “Cooking with Dexter” go too. I love how this last article he wrote reminded us that even he struggles with getting dinner on the table. But there are a lot of working moms and dads who have figured out how to cook simple fast dinners for their kids and who take great pleasure in what many think of as a chore. But yes, as you mentioned here, most of those people (I’m one of them) have older kids. I think that’s important to emphasize. Thanks for the post.


I work full time with three kids- two meals I live by almost weekly: 1) I have made this a couple times and the kids love it, all from Trader Joes- Israeli CousCous- Microwave it and pour in a large glass bowl, add microwaved zucchini melange (it has a tomato sauce with little chunks of mozz. cheese) and stir in the frozen grilled chicken strips. Dump it all in a casserole 350 for 15 minutes and its a dinner my kids really enjoy.. 2) The chicken lime burgers rock with guacamole or pineapple on them!! Love Trader Joes!!


I know. I’m going to miss Pete’s stories so much. Not that my cooking experience is anything like his, or that my children will experiment in the way Dexter does—but I aspire to both.


You are all making my case of Trader Joe envy flare up again. We’re 200 miles from a Target, never mind TJ or Whole Foods. But we stock up when we can, and eat dinner as a family almost every night.

I’m sure moms with little ones appreciate hearing that it will get easier, but I want to add, that it’s not too soon to start. There is a window—between 3 &7 yrs of age when it is easy to create traditions ala “this is the way our family does it”…if you wait too long, it can be harder to get them on board.


I think the most important point of your post is to just keep trying. Dinner happens (in some form) every night. Some nights it’s a great gathering moment for the family. Some nights it’s just a matter of getting some food in everyone’s stomachs. (Or, perhaps, on everyone’s plates–can lead a kid to the table but can’t make him eat!). Rather than beat ourselves up for the nights we don’t meet our own standards for family dinner, let’s vow to move on and see tomorrow night as a chance to try again.

Rivki Locker (Ordinary Blogger)

I love the title of this post! As a working mom of four kids, I try very hard to menu plan and cook what I can over the weekend. A recipe that does double duty and can feed is for two nights means more quality time with the kids!


We rarely have leftovers (4 kids, 3 of whom are boy-men) – but we definitely have tj’s pizza night, meatball sub night and breakfast for dinner nights as go-to meals. I appreciate your encouragement in the daily battle, no matter what kind of meal, to sit together around the table.


Just wanted to chime in – as you say family dinner isn’t always easy – but I do think it is worth the effort. As a mom with a flexible work schedule I have the luxury to eat with my kids every night even if my husband can’t and even if I haven’t made it from scratch. My kids notice, even at 4 and 7, for on those odd nights when I have a meeting to go to and am not eating with them boy they let me have it. And yeah to double duty recipes!

Rocky Mountain Woman

I remember those days. It was like walking a tightrope trying to balance putting a good meal on the table and spending time with my boys after working all day.

sigh…we did a lot of burgers on the grill, a lot of stir fry and a lot of take out!

Grace Freedman

I wrote a post about the same thing (as did The Lunch Tray, who you might want to check out.) The thing that bothered me most was Pete Wells’ seeming “defeat.” Damn, even your kids don’t expect it to be perfect. They just want some consistent time with you that they can count on. That time becomes so important as they get older, and easier too becuase they are also busy with HW and activities. I can honestly say that family dinner is the reason I have such a close relationship with my teen and tween. (And it allows our “picky” 5 year old gets some time with them too.)

Grace Freedman

Just wanted to clarify: I meant “easier” as kids get older becuase they can eat later without becoming unglued. Harder, of course, becuase there are all those extra activities to juggle. Still family dinner can/should be made a priority in the parents’ and the kids’ schedules!


Amanda – Freeze them cooked. Freeze sauce in a separate bag. Flatten that bag before you freeze so it thaws quickly under running water.


This post brought a tear to my eye. As a mom to an “eat right now” toddler, the lover of cooking, and the spouse with the LESS flexible full time job than my husband, everything you said hit home. It reminded me and inspired me to keep connecting, keep cooking, and to shake off the guilt for the occasional frozen pizza. As a new reader of your blog, I can’t thank you enough. For your writing, your food, and especially tonight, your perspective. Cheers!

Sarah O.

I see that the Transformative Law of Retroactive Nutritiousness has been applied here… 😛 And these meatballs look great!