Eating Chicken, Solving Problems

After a rambling conversation this morning on the way to camp that began with how digital media is taking over print, and how — according to Abby — maybe this means that trees are being saved, but how — according to Phoebe — discarded electronics account for a massive percentage of the waste in landfills, and then, naturally, to Wall-E, there was a pause. I knew the wheels were turning.

Then, from Abby, heavy with the weight of realization: “There’s so much in this world that needs to be fixed.”

You don’t have to be an 8-year-old to be overwhelmed by all that needs fixing or to be weighed down by the guilt of not doing enough to help with the fixing. And I think that’s why I was so happy with the interview I did on Wired’s Superbug with Maryn McKenna. Not the part where I’m talking, which is the same old stuff you hear me mouth off about all the time, but the introduction where McKenna unloads this theory:

I have a small private belief — for which, despite being a science writer, I can produce no data — that much of the complex difficulty of the American food system would vanish if people knew how to cook…If people trusted they could feed themselves, without much effort or advance planning, they wouldn’t be so vulnerable to the lure of fast and processed food. And if sales of those diminished, the market for the cheap products of industrial agriculture would diminish too. This I believe.

To this theory I will add my own small private beliefs: If you know how to cook, or even if you just decide to sit down to dinner regularly, you might just wind up fixing these things, too:

The Budget Problem Cooking for yourself is a lot cheaper than ordering in or going out. Especially once you get into the rhythm of doing it regularly and building from leftovers, instead of starting from scratch every single night.

The Working Late Problem If you know you have to get home to cook (or even if you know you just have to be home to eat), you will work more efficiently to get out of the office at a decent hour. I also believe that you will be twice as efficient if, before you left the house in the morning, you had the good sense to get the momentum going on dinner by marinating a pork loin in rice wine vinegar, ginger, and soy sauce. (See: How to Plan Family Dinner which includes a weekly meal plan to help with this.)

The Obesity Problem It’s not breaking news that a third of children in this country are clinically obese and that this number is expected to rise. To cook your own food is to know what’s going into your own food, and to have control over your food instead of the other way around. Not to mention dinner provides an organic opportunity to actually talk about what’s on your plate, which ingredients were combined to make what’s on your plate, and where those ingredients came from. This will hopefully lead to healthy eating outside our sheltered little world when the girls are charged with making their own choices.

The Connection Problem I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can spend all day with my kids and yet not have one meaningful interaction with them until I sit down at the dinner table. (On the other hand, I can spend half a day ignoring them as I experiment with an Asian barbecue sauce, only to watch them scarf down the sweet-and-sour chicken at the table in two minutes before asking Can we go back to playing lacrosse now?)

The Parental Guilt Problem I used to call family dinner “My Magic Guilt Eraser” because being able to make a meal for them every night went a long way towards making me feel better about being away from them all day. But more recently I’ve also discovered that dinner also has the power to erase the guilt that naturally builds due to any of the following reasons: Forgot Crazy Hat Day; Missed the baseball game when (of course) your kid scored winning run; Kept promising kids to see PiratesBand of Misfits in the theater yet never quite got around to it; Can’t quite get your 8-year-old to love Holes as much as you do, so stopped reading it halfway through, and now can’t bring oneself to either continue book or start on new one, resulting in no bedtime reading for waaaay too long a stretch of time.

Seriously, can you name any other scenario where an Asian-Style Barbecue Chicken is working that hard for you…solving all these problems for your family and (bonus!) the world? I’m telling you, it’s not an accident that the subtitle of my book is what it is: It all begins at the family table. This I believe.

Asian-Style Barbecue Chicken
Adapted from about five different recipes. I just threw a bunch of sh*t in there and, lo and behold, it worked.

6 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1/8 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 garlic clove, halved
1/2 medium onion, in large chunks
2 tablespoons rice vinegar)
1 tablespoon Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey
1 dried chile pepper
hot pepper paste or a squeeze of Sriracha (about 1/4 teaspoon)
1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs
4-5 lime wedges

In a small saucepan, whisk all ingredients, except for chicken and lime, over low heat and heat until everything has dissolved, about 10 minutes. Remove from stovetop and let cool. (You can keep the onions and garlic in there.) Once it’s cool, pour into a small bowl. (Any extra keeps for up to a week in the refrigerator.)

Prepare grill. Drizzle chicken pieces with a little oil (canola is fine) salt, and pepper. When the grill is hot, grill the chicken (no sauce yet) for a total of 8 to 10 minutes, turning all the while. Brush the chicken with the barbecue sauce and cook another 3 minutes, basting with the sauce the entire time, and turning pieces frequently so they don’t burn. Serve with lime wedges.

We served this with basic sushi rice and a shredded kale salad that had been tossed with tarragon vinegar, olive oil, avocado, and scallions.

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Amanda @ DinnersintheFourOneFive

My kids have been with their grandparents all week and all I want is for them to be back at home, eating dinner with us. I miss it so much! I thought I’d be running through the streets with excitement about all this free time I would have on my hands, but instead my husband and I take our dinners to the table and just talk about how much we miss them. In the meantime, we’ve made spicy tikka masala and your quinoa with spinach and eggs in their absence – two dishes that would never make it past their lips if they were here.


I’m the same way now, Amanda. I feel totally lost when I don’t have kids to cook for — whereas when they were little (read: exhausting) I’d be so psyched to just get some rest. (Running through the streets with excitement never entered the equation.)


once again you have said it better than i ever could, jenny! plus, that chicken looks amazing. thanks for sharing. xo!


You have changed my life in a very big way. I have been cooking with your book and keeping a food diary of my own for almost three weeks. I am happier, my husband is more than appreciative and my 2 and a half year old is ‘helping’ me cook. Thank you so very much.


You have changed my life in a very big way. I have been cooking with your book and keeping a food diary of my own for almost three weeks. I am happier, my husband is more than appreciative and my 2 and a half year old is ‘helping’ me cook. Thank you so very much.


I definitely agree with most of your argument; one of my own small private beliefs is that advertising is a key culprit in convincing Americans that cooking is hard and therefore they need convenience foods and short cuts. However, getting out of work at a reasonable time is largely a function of your job. All the smart planning on my part makes not one smidge of difference if my client has an emergency at 4.55pm. In this job market, saying no is not an option. Yes, it means trying to stay on top of having quick back-up options, etc. but it’s tough, especially on a tight budget.


Hi – I haven’t commented before but I wanted to let you know that the first meal my daughter (14) has ever cooked from scratch was your Greek-style shrimp with feta. I bought the book on Sunday, she was cooking from it by Tuesday!
I think we managed to tick off all the boxes above!

Lori@ In My Kitchen, In My Life

My own private belief is that families as God designed them to be can solve the problems you highlighted and many, many more. Family dinner is a big step to strengthening families emotionally (not to mention physically) to do that work.


Great and timely post. I was just making tomato sauce with the 7 year old. She took a taste and said, “Mama, I know this is the same sauce that you and Daddy make all the time, but for some reason it tastes even better right now.”

I said, “That’s ’cause you helped make it. Food always tastes better when you cook it.”

“Really?” she said.

I have total faith that cooking can change the world. And re: the bedtime reading, both the 7 year old and the 10 year old are loving “Tuesdays at the Castle,” by Jessica Day George. Maybe a fun way to return to bedtime reading?


Jenny, thanks so much for the call-out and the reflections on my post. I agree with everything you said. And your community of commenters, wow — you should feel so great about what all of you have built here. “…Cooking can change the world” — seriously, I get chills. xo, Maryn


I’m a newcomer to your site, but I’ve been cooking dinners for over 40 years for family (without the internet for most of that time.) I can vouch for the importance of family dinners, and while it didn’t solve all of our family problems, my adult children all cook for their friends and significant others, call me about recipes, and value good food. I am also a Reading/English teacher (whose adult children all love to read), and the children’s book reviews have been an added bonus to a lovely, and (this I truly believe) an IMPORTANT website. Great job, for what it’s worth, from a 60-year old cook.


I love all of your recipes and I read your book cover to cover when I got it. Here’s my summer qualm: no grill. That’s right, I don’t own one. But everywhere I turn, every recipe calls for a grill as soon as it’s Memorial Day. What’s a girl to do? Other than buy a grill. Is there a good way to replicate the grill experience on the stovetop without burning my house down or turning to George Foreman? All wisdom appreciated.


That was beautiful. Yes, I also believe if we could all come back to our “roots” of revolving around fresh food and allowing ourselves to embrace and enjoy it so many of these issues would lessen. And every time I read this blog I wish I could come over to your house for dinner. 🙂

Laura Miller

Defrosting chicken thighs STAT! Thank you Jenny, another great one. You inspire me so frequently. Begin patting yourself on back right now.
BTW- Made gingered green beans and brought them to a kids/adults party and they were a BIG hit with both sets (even some picky eaters!). Seriously folks: search for gingered green beans and make them too.


Big fan of your site and book! I talk about you all the time and almost exclusively make your recipes now. Can I sub chicken breasts for thighs?


That asian chicken looks amazing! I must be getting hungry…. I agree one hundred percent with you about solving the world’s problems with the right kind of food.


Yum! I wanted to let you know that I featured this today in my “What I Bookmarked This Week” post. Thanks for the inspiration.


Made this for dinner-absolutely delicious! It doesn’t look anything like yours, but I used a grill pan. I also used the sauce over steamed veggies-also delicious! Thanks for helping my Asian food taste a little different for once!


This was a big hit for dinner last night. No kale salad…instead beets and yellow beans from the garden.


Another hit. Thank you thank you. We paired it with bok choy sauteed in ginger and soy sauce for the grown ups and raw carrots and spinach for the little one. Sooo good.