Last Friday night, as we were eating shepherd’s pie for dinner, Cash came up with an idea. “I want to make dinner for the next few nights,” he said. “Sounds great!” I replied. I’ve been making a weekly meal plan for years now, and sometimes the kids will sketch their own versions of my schedule. But this time he was very serious. “I want to decide what we’ll have. And then YOU have to set the table!” he finished gleefully.
He wrote his own menu (see above). Five dinners! He takes spelling into his own hands.
1. Macaroni (and cheese)
2. Carrot-Apple (Salad) and Polenta
4. Burgers, (on) Toast with Butter
5. Spaghetti (with bacon and onions), Ice cream, Apple Crisp
We planned his dinners for 5 nights in a row (Saturday-Wednesday), at his request. With assistance from me (and Polly, 4.5), he made them all. He did not waver from his plan. I was so impressed.
He took great care to slice a lemon wedge for everyone to use on their salad, then placed them on each person’s bowl (above). The kids have had the task of table setting for about a year now, a beautiful ritual I wrote about in this post. Of course, because he made dinner, it was my job to set the table this week.
The menus were fairly meat-heavy, and when we looked carefully, virtually all Italian food! They were all dishes the whole family loves, so I was excited about the week. We visited Vessel Meats at the Halifax Brewery Market on Saturday morning and bought sausage for the lasagna, ground beef for the burgers, and bacon for the spaghetti. Cash also chose a bag of multi-coloured carrots for his Carrot-Apple salad. We already had tons of apples at home, enough for his Apple Crisp on the final night, too. Other than that, the grocery list for his menu consisted mostly of a number of pastas and various kinds of cheeses.
I had not introduced working with raw meat to Cash before, but he’s old enough now to not lick his fingers. (Besides, it wasn’t raw pork or chicken.) The burgers were super simple: the ground meat actually came mixed with bacon (!), so all we added was a little salt. Polly helped by washing the lettuce for the toppings.
For Spaghetti with Bacon and Onions, he diced thick-cut bacon, which we fried in a pan. We took the bacon out and fried diced onions in the same pan. Cash decided to add a splash of cream to bring the sauce together.
Above, Cash sliced all the apples for the crisp, using his “big boy knife”. Polly diced the butter for the topping. This we improvised but it’s based loosely on this recipe. We did what I always do when making dessert: made it first, then baked it while we worked on the main course. Polly did all the dishes from the crisp-making!
As I do in my cooking lessons, we used our hands and all of our senses and didn’t follow too many recipes to the letter. We did use two I rely on regularly though: macaroni and cheese from the River Cottage Family Cookbook, and this stovetop lasagna from the great website Food 52. It’s more straightforward than baked lasagna and is so, so good. It’s also very large, so makes two dinners (or one dinner and lots of lunches!) for our family. (P.S. I’ve made a vegetarian version, with mushrooms instead of sausage, too.)
As you can tell from this post, our kids use real tools when cooking, and have sturdy stools to reach the counters. If kids are encouraged to get their hands dirty and there’s a watchful adult eye nearby, kids can achieve so much in the kitchen. May this helpful behaviour continue; our third baby is due next month!
Cash’s Family Dinner Macaroni and Cheese
2 cups macaroni noodles (if using a larger shape, use more like 3 cups)
salt for pasta water
3 cups whole milk
6 oz grated cheddar cheese (about 2.5-3 cups after grating)
3 Tb butter
3 Tb white flour
salt to taste
1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cook pasta in plenty of boiling, well-salted water until al dente. Keep tasting until you think it’s the right texture; it’ll take between 5 and 9 minutes. Drain and toss with a little olive oil to keep it moist.
Gently warm the milk in a small pot over low heat. In a separate pot, melt the butter. Stir the flour into the butter and mix together until a paste forms. Cook this paste (a ‘roux’) over medium heat until it smells toasty, 3-4 minutes. Whisk in the milk little by little, whisking well after each addition. When you have added all the milk, cook the sauce for a few minutes at a low bubble, until thickened slightly. It will still be fairly soupy. Do not let it come to a boil. Add the grated cheese little by little, in small handfuls, letting each melt before adding more. Taste the sauce; does it need more salt?
Combine the sauce with the cooked noodles. It will seem like a lot of sauce but it really will bake beautifully. Put it all into a deep baking dish and sprinkle grated parmesan over the top. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, until the top has browned.