Where Do I Begin?

This is how a conversation went with my new friend Sarah, the first time I met her a few months ago:

Sarah: I really love your blog, it gives me hope.
Me: Hey, thanks. I’m so glad.
Sarah: But I don’t cook from it.
Me: Oh…you don’t?
Sarah: No, I don’t cook. I can’t do anything in the kitchen.
Me: Yes you can.
Sarah: No I can’t. I. Really. Can’t.

That week, I had just read a profile of Stacy London and it crossed my mind that Sarah felt the way about cooking the way I felt reading that story — the way I felt trying to figure out what I was going to wear to a fancy holiday party later that month: Intimidated. A little lost.

Me: It’s not hard. You just need a little confidence and one or two solid recipes in your rotation.
Sarah: Well, what are those recipes? I have no idea where to start.
Me: I have almost 500 recipes on my blog, start there!
Sarah: That doesn’t help.

She was totally right! Someone might as well have told me “How do you not have something to wear to that party? There are 500 stores in New York City that sell perfect party dresses.”

On this blog, sometimes we get so bogged down in the (admittedly plentiful) minutae of family dinner — from the benefits of cooking for your kids to how to stay on top of Meatless Mondays to what freaking books to discuss at the dinner table — that we can forget to dial back and address the most elemental of issues: Where Do I Begin?  It’s why I recently introduced the “First Time Here” button up there on the right. And it’s also why Andy and I wrote a feature for Bon Appetit this month called  A Family Dinner Primer. Besides telling you what to make for family dinner (including this rockin’ steakhouse steak salad pictured above), we hope it goes back to the basics and tells you how to make family dinner.

As for what to wear to family dinner? I’m open to suggestions.

Steak Salad with Creamy Horseradish Dressing
If you want to do this on a weeknight, I highly recommend making the dressing and the pickled onions ahead of time. They are minor tasks, but just the kind of thing you’ll be glad you don’t have to do after a day wearing heels that were supposed to be more comfortable.
For the dressing:
In a small bowl, whisk the following. Can be made in advance and stored for up to a week:
1/2 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons prepared horseradish
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
For the salad:
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 1-pound rib-eye, flank, or skirt steak
Kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
12 ounces fingerling potatoes, thinly sliced
1/2 English hothouse cucumber, thinly sliced
6 radishes, cut into thin wedges
2 cups greens (such as arugula or torn Bibb lettuce leaves)
Pickled Red Onions

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over medium-high heat. Season steak with salt and pepper. Cook over medium-high heat until cooked to desired doneness, 5-8 minutes per side for medium-rare rib eye, about 4 minutes per side for flank steak, or 3 minutes per side for skirt steak. Transfer meat to a plate and let rest for 10 minutes.
While steak rests, wipe out skillet and heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add potatoes, season with salt, and cook, tossing occasionally, until tender, 8-10 minutes.
Slice steak and serve with horseradish dressing, potatoes, cucumber, radishes, greens, and Pickled Onions.
Photo by Gentl & Hyers.
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I received this issue of Bon Appetit a few weeks ago and knew immediately from the blurb on the cover that you guys had a big article. I read it first thing, which is highly unlike me…I like order, and doing things in order!
But I was so excited to read your latest column that I just couldn’t wait.
And it didn’t disappoint. Thank you guys for all that you do here. Your message of bringing back the family dinner is one that everyone needs to hear. So spread your propaganda Jenny and Andy! Spread it!


A word to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to Bon Appetit: Start subscribing NOW. Jenny and Andy’s columns are reason enough.


This is probably going to sound silly, but I’ve been slowly teaching myself to cook over the past decade or so and am currently teaching my seventeen-year-old son, and the biggest thing that cooks take for granted but non-cooks struggle with is chopping vegetables (IMO, of course). If you’re not used to using a knife, starting out is like beginning penmanship. It takes practice to learn how to hold the knife, how to hold the vegetables, how hard to press. And if you don’t have good knives, which many beginners don’t, it’s that much worse.

One of the dishes that I make often seems really easy to me — it’s a five minute meal — but he won’t do it. I finally figured out that for him, chopping the cilantro, green onions, tomatoes, chicken and avocado turns it into a much longer chore. If I asked my son to make this recipe, the 12 ounces of thinly sliced fingerling potatoes would have him muttering about slave labor. It sounds yummy, though!


Jenny, this is a terrific post and a great example of why I love your blog so much. I tell all my friends and co-workers to read it. I too am slowly teaching myself to cook (for the benefit of my husband and two daughters, ages 5 and 10)and your book and blog are my go-to guides, my self help manuals and dare I say it, my bibles. I never make steak at home but I am inspired to try your recipe above. Thank you!

Julie M

The ‘First Time Here’ link is so helpful, I used it the first day I found this blog. Jenny, you really have a knack for thinking outside the box and posting new and interesting articles….that is what makes this blog so worthwhile to return to. BTW, I am completely addicted to your white pizza with arugula, parmesan, and lemon, etc. I can’t stop making it!

Grace @eatdinner

This conversation rings so true! When I tell friends that I write about family dinner and that we actually have family dinner nearly every night, I often get blank stares. I think the key is making family dinner a manageable commitment. Just to start: commit to a couple of weeknights and a weekend meal. Make a plan, divide up the tasks, schedule it and go from there. If you can make family dinner a habit (whether that’s every night or a few nights a week), it goes a long way to keeping the habit and making it more fun and less daunting. Of course, some confidence and basic recipes help too! Congrats on the BA article.

Dana Van Nest

I was planning on making the Parmesan Chicken Cutlets for dinner tonight, but Bon Appetit says ONE serving is 750 calories. How can that be correct? Does that sound right to you for one cutlet? Thanks!

A Life From Scratch

This article is so true! I have friends that tell me the same thing…they log on and read what I have to write but do nothing else besides that. I always just assume people WILL cook from it, yet I suppose that is a big assumption to make.

As far as what to wear to dinner – you always look very stylish in what photographs I’ve seen!

Heather M

Ha, yes, Sarah gave you a great gift by sharing her perspective there. I am pretty much in her camp. For some reason, it was the Chicken Pot Pie recipe that gave me my Where To Start. It was something I had been buying from our local co-op, but thinking every time I need to learn how to make this! You made it easy. Thank you!

erinn johnson

As to what to wear to the dinner? I say go with whatever makes you feel fab. I am a stay at home mom with four kids (13, 11, 9, & 8) and sometimes the soccer field is as good as it gets, so if I want to wear my CHRIS BENZ to the soccer fields, I do. Really, it is about what makes you feel good.


I loved your article in the latest issue of Bon Appetite, and actually made this for dinner tonight! It didn’t look as pretty as this photo, but it was delicious, the kids ate the parts they liked, and I drizzled the horseradish sauce over everything and then may have licked a little extra from the bowl. Success! Thank you Jenny and Andy!!


Oh my gosh, I loved this post. My teens have to cook a dinner once a week. My son, age 19, made the spicy oven fries from your book tonight for dinners along with grilled cheeseburgers. I chopped the potatoes for him this time – he had made them once before and it took him SOOO long to cut up 9 potatoes (big family here and we all love the recipe!). Long story short, learning to chop veggies and meats is so important but if I help with that part for now and he focuses on the rest of the cooking/baking/grilling, he won’t be intimidated in the kitchen. So yes, help us help new cooks feel success.


The ingredients are sitting on my counter (and fridge) I tore this out of my BA and am making it for Shabbat dinner tonight.


Thank you! I’m still in that “living by myself, I love good food but I’ve never spent a ton of time in the kitchen” phase! I do surprise myself every now and then when I get a wild hair to really cook something (small) and it turns out! But your absolutely right, that’s not going to turn me into someone who cooks. I need the beginners course! I need to learn the stand-bys, the basics. I want to get creative and have confidence in the kitchen, but I can’t just start there! I’ve been following your blog as motivation (and to drool), but I am so glad you’re going to talk about starting from square one! Again, thank you!


I love reading your blog and being regularly re-inspired to cook cool, interesting things with low intimidation. As for what to wear – accentuate your best assets, accessorize something simple, and if you can walk in them, wear heels 😉


I love the article and love the blog post. I would only add – I think the most important part of family dinner is The Plan and The Shop – sitting down with your calendar on a Saturday and making a dinner plan for the next 7 nights that corresponds to the week’s activities, and then doing a grocery shop on Sunday to make sure you have everything. If I have the list on the fridge of what to make, and the ingredients in the fridge, then family dinner happens with no problem. It’s skipping those first 2 steps that get me into trouble.


Also, here is a tip I got from a friend on making The Plan. I made a list of every main dish I could think of that our family regularly enjoys (I think on my first pass I thought of about 20 meals, and I keep updating the list as we find something new – Stromboli! – or get entirely sick of something old). Then I roughly categorized them into beef or pork, chicken, seafood, soup, pasta. As I sketch out my weekly meal plan, I have the list in front of me for general ideas, usually doing one from each category so our overall plan is somewhat balanced. Having that a list of family favorites is a big mental energy saver, since I don’t have to brainstorm on what we actually like to eat every single time.


I just made this recipe last night. I thought it was SO good…especially the horseradish dressing. Just wanted to share a shortcut – since my kids aren’t big fans of potatoes and I didn’t have any fingerlings on hand, I substituted tater tots. Let’s face it, even adults love tater tots. And it made the kids think it was really fun to eat a salad!


Jenny and Andy, what a terrific and beautiful article – I read it the moment Bon Appetit landed in our mailbox! Wanted to let you know that we made a double-batch of the peanut sauce tonight – oh my gosh it is heavenly! Had it with kale tonight, and plan to have it with shrimp tomorrow. Also, I ate several spoonfuls straight-up (my fiancee threatens to drink it for breakfast). Thank you!