Up all night with a colicky infant or cranky toddler? Dinner's probably the last thing on your mind. Food writer (and Parents contributor) Debbie Koenig has some sanity-saving tips for frazzled moms and dads. Read our interview; then check out recipes from Debbie's cookbook, Parents Need to Eat Too.

Parents Need to Eat Too
Credit: Jessie Jean/Getty Images

Parents: What inspired you to write this book?

Debbie Koenig: I wouldn't say it was inspiration so much as desperation. After my son was born I was shocked by how challenging it was to do the simplest things, like eat a healthy meal—and I'm a food writer! It took a while, but eventually I figured it out. I broke up recipes into short spurts to prepare during Harry's naps. I also found some great shortcuts, like super-simple ways to use the slow cooker, and meals I could eat with one hand, so I didn't have to skip dinner when Harry was fussy. When other moms started asking me for tips, I realized I'd cracked the code for feeding yourself after you have a baby.

Parents: You wrote a story for Parents.com about wrangling your picky eater (son Harry, then 4.) Are these recipes picky-eater approved?

DK: I got loads of feedback about what went over well with the toddler and preschool crowds. Still, every picky kid is picky in his own way, so even books that promise to work magic on those kids won't please everyone. Harry was definitely flexing his picky eater muscles while I wrote the cookbook. But because the recipes are intended for parents,and also used for baby food, I didn't sweat whether or not one picky kid liked something. I had a small army of new moms who tested the recipes for me. If the recipes worked and their families liked them, I knew other folks would feel the same way.

Parents: How old is Harry now? What are his eating habits like these days?

DK: He's almost 6, and his eating habits are just as frustrating as it was when I wrote that piece. Lately it's more a question of capriciousness: One day all he wants to eat is cream-cheese-and-jelly sandwiches, and the next he insists he's always hated cream cheese. I've become a bit more Zen about it, which has helped my blood pressure, at least. Harry's going to eat someday; I know he will. But it's clear that the more I push, the more he pushes back.

Parents: Any tips for encouraging adventurous eating?

DK: Oh, yes! I know exactly where we went wrong with Harry: We didn't eat very much in front of him. For most of Harry's first year on solids, my husband was working crazy hours. I was desperate for some grownup time, so I'd wait until he came home, usually after Harry was in bed, to eat dinner like an adult. I adapted our food for Harry just as I do in the cookbook, so he never ate from jars, and I never cooked specially for him— phew!—but he hardly ever saw us enjoying the food I was feeding him. For a long time this was just fine, but eventually he started to balk, and that's when I started to push, my other big mistake. I couldn't understand how he could go from devouring my Balsamic Beef Stew one day to hating it the next, so it became a war of wills. And I can tell you from experience: When you're fighting a stubborn toddler, we parents will lose almost every time.

It comes down to two pieces of advice: Enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods in front of your baby. And if he starts to turn things down, shrug and move on. Don't make something new—you do not want to become a short-order cook—just make sure each meal has more than one element, and let him eat as much as he wants of whatever he does like. Then try again another day.

Parents: How do you balance making food delicious for adults and palatable for little ones?

DK: It's not hard, really. We're so trained to think that babies and young children need bland, boring food, but that's totally not true. If your family is free of food allergies, once he's used to the mechanics of eating you can feed your baby almost anything you're having. Spices are fine; just use a lighter hand initially. Salt is fine in moderation too. I worked with a pediatric registered dietitian on all the recipes, and she pointed out that our bodies actually need sodium, so using just a little to bring out the flavor in your food isn't a bad thing. The concern with sodium and little ones comes much more when you're using processed foods, which often have much more sodium than you'd expect.

Parents: What's your favorite kind of cuisine? Any takeout dishes that you can't resist?

DK: I'm a sucker for anything Italian, but that's so ubiquitous it hardly even counts as ethnic any more. Lately I've been playing with Korean flavors a lot—there's a recipe in the book for slow cooker Korean Beef Stew that's pretty mind-blowing, and last week I made my first-ever japchae, a stir-fry dish made with chewy, slippery glass noodles. When it comes to takeout, I've got my local Thai place on speed-dial.

Parents: What are your go-to, never-let-them-run-out pantry items?

DK: Whole-grain starches by the bushel: pasta, brown rice, couscous, bulgur. Canned beans —I buy Trader Joe's or Eden Organics, to avoid BPA—, and aseptic boxes of chicken broth and chopped tomatoes. And for adding a punch of flavor to almost anything, I always have reduced-sodium soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and chipotles in adobo; one of those three is bound to improve whatever I'm cooking.

Parents: How do you balance feelings of mom-guilt? Do you feel obligated to put something homemade on the table every night?

DK: We eat homemade food at least five nights a week. But that doesn't mean I cook every day—my freezer is usually pretty well stocked with packets of pasta sauce, stews, cooked brown rice, and other "big batch" leftovers. Heck, I devote a chapter of the book to recipes that make enough for several meals! I'm also pretty good at pulling together a meal in under half an hour [that would be the "Quick Suppers" chapter]. And I'm even better at conceding to takeout without guilt. We all do our best, and some days picking up the phone to order in is my best.

Parents: It's great that you emphasize that not all processed foods are bad—some nights, you just need to get something on the table quickly! Any suggestions for making healthy choices when it comes to rices, pasta, and sauces?

DK: Lord, yes—the word "processed" doesn't have to mean "evil." Think about it: Baby carrots are processed. Sliced bread is processed. Are they automatically bad? In the book I've got a list of my top choices for processed foods, and it includes things like prepared polenta rolls, boil-in-bag brown rice, and salsa.

The key is to buy things that are as minimally processed as possible, and hopefully without preservatives and chemicals. Read labels, starting with the nutrition facts. If the sodium is more than 300 mg to 500 mg per serving, stop reading and put it back. If it's reasonable, move to the ingredients list. Are the first few items actual foods, things you'd use if you were making it yourself? You're doing fine. Once the list gets longer than about 10 items, with more and more words you can't even pronounce, it's time to walk away.

Copyright © 2012 Meredith Corporation.