For most teenagers, the weeks-long liberation from school has begun. They now have something many adults can only dream of: time on their hands. • Between part-time jobs and hanging with friends, there still should be a few hours left over to help around the house, in the kitchen specifically. Even the most cooking-challenged teen can pop meatloaf in the oven so it's near ready when the adults get home from work. (You can reveal those super-secret family favorite recipes the night before.) Their break from school could translate into a break from meal preparation for you. Plus, every nutrition expert will tell you that people who cook and prepare food at home eat a more nutritionally sound diet than those who rely on takeout. • Need another reason to get them cooking? They'll be leaving home someday and will have to fend for themselves. Really. Any college student or new apartment-dweller will tell you that frozen entrees get old after a few weeks. • These days, many teens know a lot about food, thanks to the multitude of shows on TV that focus on cooking, competition and extreme eating. Okay, maybe you don't want to come home to a kitchen that's been ground zero of an Iron Chef match and truly hope you won't be entertaining an all-bug menu inspired by Bizarre Food With Andrew Zimmern. Still, it's likely your teen knows some of the language of cooking, if not the techniques.
For a serious novice, start small. Set her loose with a couple of cookbooks and enlist her help in planning. That could at least lift the family out of the dinnertime rut. Have her make shopping lists and then leave money (and the car keys) for her to do the shopping. That's a BIG help. A more experienced cook can take on bigger challenges.
As the troop leader, you need to know what your teen knows. Is the oven a mystery to him? Does she know how to handle knives? Is nuking a Hot Pocket the extent of his ability? If there are some skills that need teaching, do it. If you don't know yourself, consider a cooking class aimed at young people.
Don't expect your teen to make dinner every night. Ask him to be responsible for dinner twice a week. If he can, have him take the meal from planning to execution. Enlist someone else to clean up or do that together. It's nice for the cook to kick back while someone else loads the dishwasher and scrubs the pots. As they say, do unto others . . .
Speaking of cleanup, think about one-pot meals. It's easier to focus on one hearty dish than to figure out the timing for three or four separate items. That's one of the big challenges for cooks, new or experienced. Also, consider vegetarian dishes. No-meat diets are popular among teenagers, and showing them how to get protein into their diet is important.
Making meals completely from scratch is nice, but a homemade red sauce or chicken stock is asking a lot of a beginner. Rely on convenience products for building blocks. The goal is not to intimidate and overwhelm.
Be open about dinner ideas, and really listen to what your teen suggests. Maybe you wouldn't have a baked potato bar for dinner, but is there really anything wrong with it? It's fun and simple, plus provides a way to get creative. Your goal is to hone skills — and get dinner made. If you make the rules too rigid, no one will play. Do not turn your nose up at anything. At least not until she's left the room.
Here are some ideas to get you and your teen started.
The Potato Bar. Potatoes are better baked in the oven than the microwave, so start there. For vegetarians, a stuffed potato is a good option as long as there is some protein in the toppings. Consider a variety of toppings beyond the butter-sour cream-chives trinity: steamed broccoli and cheese (try goat or feta instead of cheddar), chili (meat or just beans) and cheddar, crumbled bacon and pepper Jack, black beans and salsa, shredded rotisserie chicken and Alfredo sauce. Pile on according to dietary desires.
Salad Days. Nearly any kind of protein can top a Caesar salad, including chicken, fish, shrimp, crab cakes or steak. Make a Slider Caesar by topping the greens with mini-burgers. Other suitable offerings include taco salads, chef salads and seafood salads.
Mexican Night. Tacos, burritos, nachos and quesadillas fit skill levels from novice to expert. Burritos can be as simple as heating refried beans then adding toppings such as cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, guacamole, salsa. A package of preseasoned rice is as easy to make as boiling water. Use leftover chicken or roasted vegetables for quesadillas. Make tacos from scratch or use a kit that comes with the seasonings. Nachos can be hearty or spare, meaty or vegetarian.
Soup's On. Store-bought chicken broth is the foundation for quick soups, including a simple one of canned northern beans, sliced kielbasa and handfuls of baby spinach. Look through cookbooks and online (allrecipes.com or about.com to start) for recipes that have the right amount of chopping and prep work for your teen's skill level. Corn bread is a good accompaniment. Most new cooks can handle making a box of Jiffy corn bread. If not, keep the freezer stocked with corn muffins.
Food Prep. CrockPot entrees and marinades need some love during the day. Leave a recipe for a slow cooker dish and ask your teen to load it up midday. There's not much worse than slow cooker fare that has been cooking hours longer than needed. A few hours in a marinade is as much as most meat and poultry needs. Also, threading skewers with meat and veggies is an easy task. (This is a good opportunity to give the talk about washing hands, counter surfaces and cutting boards after handling raw meat and poultry.) A big green salad can be prepared hours before dinner. (Wet a paper towel and lay it across the veggies to keep them crisp.)
Breakfast for Dinner. Not cereal. Think bacon and eggs, omelets especially. Biscuits and gravy. Waffles (or pancakes) with fruit toppings. Sausage biscuits with a big side of fresh fruit. The freezer and refrigerated cases at the grocery store will inspire you. Summer brings a lot of luscious fruit to the produce section. Enjoy it at its peak.
That's Italian. Keep frozen ravioli or tortellini on hand for a quick meal. Frozen meatballs are handy, too. An assortment of prepared sauces is available, including red sauces, pesto and Alfredo. Get some vegetable in the dish by adding frozen peas, small broccoli florets and fresh, sliced mushrooms into the pasta water in the last few minutes of cooking. A green salad always goes well with Italian food. Bread, too. Don't forget pizza, frozen or made with refrigerated pizza dough or Boboli shells and whatever toppings they like.
Sub Sandwiches. Your local sub shop isn't the only place that knows how to load a hoagie roll with meat, cheese and veggies. Make a list of your favorites and then make them fresh at home. Don't skimp on veggies, and use whole-wheat rolls.
Stirring and frying. Stir-fries are easy but do require some knife skills and patient prep work. Don't worry if you don't have a wok; a large skillet will do in most cases. There are lots of recipes on the Internet and in cookbooks for homemade stir-fries, but maybe this is a job you tackle together. It's worth the effort, and it's likely you'll both learn something new.
Burger Extravaganza. Who doesn't love burgers? There are so many ways to make them and that includes the actual burger. Beef, turkey, chicken and veggie patties can be piled high with whatever fixings you'd like. Let your teen's imagination run wild, but remind her that there is cheese beyond American slices, including feta, blue and Swiss. Consider toppings of guacamole, sauteed onions and mushrooms, and even grilled pineapple on a turkey burger. Look in the freezer case for interesting frozen potatoes, including Alexia brand's sweet potato fries with no trans fats.
Imagine what the school year might look like if this goes well. A night off from dinner once a week. Or a teen who becomes a gourmet cook.
We can dream, can't we?
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.