No one’s born knowing how to roast a chicken or build a grain bowl. Luckily, these mom influencers with serious cooking cred have smart tips and meal ideas to help anyone find their culinary groove—even when there’s a toddler underfoot.

By Amy Palanjian
December 06, 2019
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Love, Leon Photography

Sonja Overhiser

@acouplecooks

The blog A Couple Cooks started as a way for Overhiser and her husband, Alex, to learn their way around the kitchen. Nine years later and now with a toddler, Larson, in tow, they reach fans through their website, social channels, and book, Pretty Simple Cooking. Says Overhiser, “We learned to cook because we wanted to have friends over for dinner, so people have always been at the center of home cooking for us.”

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Batch-prep dinner staples.

“We always make extra grains and beans. So if a recipe calls for only one cup, cook two! Then cool the extras and put them into airtight containers and freeze. We also love to prepare a huge batch of steel-cut oats at the beginning of the week—8 to 10 servings’ worth. We store them in the fridge and warm them up for breakfast for days.”

Get a better cutting board.

“Along with a great knife, a big cutting board with nonslip grips is the key to efficiency in meal prep.”

Know your own limits.

“It’s taken us years to understand what we can truly pull off on a weeknight. A lot of recipes say they take 30 minutes, but it might take you an hour if you’re still learning to chop vegetables. Look at the clock as you prep a recipe to get to know how long things actually take you—and remember that the more you cook, the more your skills will develop, and the faster you’ll get dinner on the table.”

Courtesy of Sonja & Alex Overhiser, A Couple Cooks

Master grain bowls.

“Vegetarian grain bowls are so simple. All you need is rice, quinoa, or couscous with a protein like beans or nuts, a bunch of veggies, and a great dressing. You can make the components ahead of time, and everyone in the family can build their own bowl.”

Courtesy of Delallo

Sauce it up.

“We love DeLallo brand pesto and stir it into pasta, spread it on sandwiches, and add a spoonful to grains.”

Don’t forget seasoning.

“We always try to taste Larson’s food before serving it to him to check the seasoning—it’s surprising that something very bland can taste better with just the right amount of kosher salt.”

Have a go-to easy dinner.

“We make pita pizzas a lot when we don’t know what to cook! Just top a pita with pizza sauce and shredded mozzarella cheese and bake at 350°F for 5 minutes.”

Love, Leon Photography

Turn cooking into playtime.

“Larson is still little, but we try to involve him by letting him mirror what we do. He thinks it’s so fun to whisk in an empty bowl while we’re cooking!”

Courtesy of Melissa Griffiths

Melissa Griffiths

@blessthismessblog

With the practical wisdom that comes from raising five kids between the ages of 4 and 12 on a hobby farm—complete with chickens, an orchard, and a giant garden—Griffiths has simple family meals down to a science. She shares them (and more!) on her blog, Bless This Mess Please. “I don’t buy into the idea that foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and we don’t mandate a veggie be eaten in order to get dessert. We eat the rainbow—sprinkles and veggies alike.”

Courtesy of Melissa Griffiths

Prep veggies ASAP.

“When I bring food home from the store, I clean and chop the produce right away. Then I assemble one container of assorted veggies for snacks and lunch boxes, and the rest goes into large reusable glass containers for our dinners. Most firm veggies are good for 7 to 10 days, though I try to use cucumbers and bell peppers first. If anything is left over at the end of a week or so, I roast it.”

Dine alfresco.

“We eat outside a lot, which makes cleanup easier since I don’t need to sweep the grass under the picnic table!”

Buy durable dinnerware.

“I got fun plates that look like lunch trays to keep in a drawer near the dishwasher, where the kids can easily access them. It helps set them up for success when it comes to unloading the dishwasher because nothing is breakable and they can reach the drawer where the trays belong.”

Courtesy of Microplane, Kolesnikovserg/Getty

Get a Microplane.

“You’ll feel so legit when you’re zesting citrus. We love adding lime zest and juice plus cilantro to rice to use in tacos and as a base for bowls. The Microplane is also great for hard cheeses like parmesan to top pasta. Freshly grated parm is so good!”

Courtesy of Melissa Griffiths

Try bagged coleslaw.

“I use Dole Classic Cole Slaw Mix in place of shredded lettuce in burritos. Or if we’re having fish tacos, it’s really easy to toss it with a little oil and vinegar for a quick slaw. It’s also great to add right at the end of cooking a stir-fry so it softens a little but still has some crunch. The coleslaw mix lasts a long time in the fridge since it doesn’t wilt as fast as other greens.”

Courtesy of Melissa Griffiths

Make a master recipe list.

“I keep a physical recipe list taped inside one of my kitchen cabinets and another one in my planner—which lives in the kitchen—so I don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel. And having category nights, like Italian Night, helps, too, since then you just need to find something from your recipe list that fits.”

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Serve meals in muffin tins.

“I put all the toppings for a chef’s salad in a muffin tin—beans, peppers, ham, croutons, and more—and then the kids can serve themselves and make it how they want.”

Share cleanup.

“Each kid is assigned a day to be in charge of the whole cleanup—but they get to delegate individual jobs. It’s more fun and empowering for them to be in charge of who does what. And they know that someone else will be in charge tomorrow!”

Courtesy of Melissa Griffiths

Start a garden.

“I let the kids look at the seed catalogs and pick out crazy colors of produce. My dream is to have an edible yard with something in season at all times. The kids try more things when they’re from our garden.”

Judge not.

“I have one kid who likes ketchup on his tacos and another who likes hummus with eggs. My philosophy? If it sounds good to them, why not? Just because I think something is an odd combo doesn’t mean it’s wrong for the kids to pair foods that way.”

Ditch paper towels.

“Buy a package of microfiber rags for kitchen cleanup. I have a whole drawerful and wash them regularly."

Henry Fong

Michelle Tam

@nomnompaleo

Whether she’s sharing her foolproof method for Instant Pot Korean short ribs or revealing the secret to flavorful cauliflower rice to her 475K Instagram followers, the best-selling cookbook author behind Nom Nom Paleo is endlessly helpful but also funny and relatable. This mom of two strives to keep her meals simple and flavor packed; that way she knows that cooking every night will be sustainable, not a drag.

Courtesy of Michelle Tam

Enlist the kids before and after you cook.

“My sons have to empty the dishwasher in the morning and make sure the sink is clear before I start dinner prep. There’s nothing worse than a full load of clean dishes to put away when you have a pile of dirty ones from cooking the meal. The boys also set the table and clean up, which I hate doing. I’ve gotten over worrying that they’ll break things because I want their help!”

Give kids a heads-up about dinner.

“My younger son used to be super-picky, and I would cook separate food for him. Then one day I thought, ‘I don’t have time for this!’ So now I make one family meal, but we talk about what I’m going to make beforehand. As long as I can get a little buy-in from both kids, they’ll be on board.”

Courtesy of Oxo

Make better chicken.

“For crispy chicken, skin-on thighs are a must. Remove the bones and smash the thighs with a meat pounder to an even thickness; pat both sides dry with a paper towel. Season the skin with salt and the meat side with poultry seasoning. Cook skin side down in a hot cast-iron skillet—covered with a splatter guard—until the skin is crispy. Then flip and fry until it’s cooked through.”

Courtesy of Michelle Tam
Urfinguss/Getty

Lean on prechopped veggies.

“I buy frozen riced cauliflower from the grocery store all the time since the fresh kind goes bad so fast. Sauté it in olive oil with onion, then cover and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with kosher salt. You can even make the dish Mexican-ish by adding cumin and tomato paste. I’m also a big fan of prechopped butternut squash.”

Courtesy of Rao's

Stock jarred marinara.

“I always have a jar of Rao’s in my pantry—there’s nothing weird in it, and it tastes good—so I can throw together healthy meals in a flash. I love to use it to poach cod: Dry the fish with a paper towel, and add it to simmering marinara sauce in a large skillet. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes. Top with freshly cracked black pepper and a shower of fresh herbs.”

Tara Donne

Cook extra protein.

“If I’m making chicken, I’ll prep 4 pounds even though there are only four of us. We repurpose the leftovers throughout the week in soups, tacos, and lettuce wraps. One of my favorites is curried chicken salad—just mix the leftover cubed chicken with mayonnaise, curry powder, and lemon juice. You can add in diced apples, nuts, and minced scallions before serving it on a bed of greens.”

Keep practicing.

“Cooking is a skill that you’ll get better at when you practice. And if today’s meal isn’t perfect, there’s always tomorrow.”

Courtesy of Lola Wiarco Dweck

Lola Wiarco Dweck

@lolascocina

This Mexican-American mom of two turned her graduate thesis on the emerging culinary tourism of Oaxaca into a career; she now shares her passion for Mexican food through in-person cooking classes and her blog, Lola’s Cocina. Bonus: Her simple recipes burst with refreshing, bright, and kid-friendly flavors.

Stock teriyaki sauce.

“I like to brush Soy Vay Veri Veri Teriyaki Marinade & Sauce onto salmon or chicken breasts before panfrying and onto veggies before roasting. The kids love it!”

Master fried rice.

“I always have brown rice, eggs, and either fresh veggies or leftover cooked ones on hand. I throw them all together for a quick meal of arroz frito that I learned from my father. To make it, heat oil in a large skillet or wok and sauté chopped veggies. Move them to one side of the pan and add a few eggs. Cook thoroughly, then break up with a spatula. Stir in cold leftover rice. Season with soy sauce until the rice is light brown.”

Courtesy of Lola Wiarco Dweck

Encourage exploration.

“I let my son pick out two or three different foods that he wants to try when we go on field trips to the Asian and Mexican grocery stores. He gets so excited to taste them, and I’m supportive even if he doesn’t wind up liking them.”

Use divided plates for picky kids.

“I use two sections for foods I know my son likes and the other for something new or less of a favorite, like avocado, zucchini, or hard-boiled eggs.”

Fill your pantry.

“I stock my pantry with staples like steel-cut oats, almond and peanut butter, and brown and white rice, and I always keep meat and fish in the freezer. Then when I go to the store each week, I’m just getting the fresh ingredients and can plan simple meals around them.”

Courtesy of Colony Co.

Use cloth produce bags.

“Until recently we were still using a lot of plastic for produce and bulk items. I bought a set of cotton bags and love them.”

Peter Ardito

Prep smoothies ahead.

“My son helps me fill my blender with smoothie ingredients the night before and we stash it in the fridge so it’s ready to go come morning. Our go-to chocolate smoothie includes whatever milk I have on hand, at least two bananas, rolled oats, pitted dates, and almonds. And then we spice it up with cinnamon or turmeric and cocoa powder.”

Juan Monino/Getty

Buy better tortillas.

“I always have good quality flour tortillas—like Tortilla Fresca Uncooked Flour Tortillas, which are as close to homemade as it gets—on hand because they’re great for burritos. We like to fill them with eggs and black beans, or chorizo and potato or egg.”

Courtesy of Lola Wiarco Dweck

Tidy up together.

“My son brings the place mats to the sink and wipes the table. My husband is involved, too, so my son doesn’t think it’s just a woman’s job to clean up.”

Green your cleaner.

“I use Method Mint Glass and Surface Cleaner on all the surfaces in my kitchen. It’s nontoxic, and I love the scent.”

Courtesy of Kuhn Rikon

Bring tools down to size.

“My son has been using a kids’ knife since he was 2. It’s sharp enough to chop cucumbers and strawberries but not to cut him. He recently upgraded to this cute serrated version!”

A version of this article appeared in Parents magazine's January 2020 issue as “Boost Your Kitchen Confidence.”

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