I haven’t had a working oven for nearly a month now. (Mice chewed through some of the wires, which is a different story and not one I want you to think about right now.) This would be a problem for me even if I lived alone.
But I cook nightly dinners for another adult and the four teenage girls in my so-called blended family, a modern moniker that seems to vaguely reference cake mix but in fact denotes a group of children of various ages and temperaments who have been brought together by outside forces to dine together with regularity.
Cooking for the many is the overlooked flip side of cooking for the few and dispersed, the other modern obstacle to an easy, sit-down family dinner.
Some people, like Floratina Coles, who grew up cooking for her parents, grandparents and siblings in North Carolina, turn their skills into a job, cooking in a restaurant or, as Ms. Coles does, as a chef for Martha’s Table, a food program and service organization for the poor in Washington.
There are others who take their big meals for granted, like Cheryl Flake, who is married to Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona. She cooked for years for her five children and still hosts giant Sunday dinners, which are very big in Mormon families like hers, she told me, and usually involve scores of relatives, and grilled meats.
Many more men and women are just like me. On a given night, we face middle schoolers arriving home dragging dead cicada wings stuck on their shoes, announcing starvation; high schoolers, who may or may not have a boyfriend with celiac disease in tow; and a bevy of tutors, employed to prevent these modern children from failing subjects for which they have no particular aptitude, and who also seem to arrive with appetites.
Summer can offer a brief break — let the kids’ camp manage 400 slices of bacon each morning — or it can add to the chaos, as friends visit with their families and children come home from college and turn your kitchen into a 24-hour diner, including the part where someone else does the dishes.
Recipes are often not kind to cooks for the many, with their civilized notations (“serves four”) and their refusal to rescale easily for six, or eight (at least not without copious chopping). We need help.
To begin with, we need large pots. We need recipes that can be doubled perfectly, with little extra fuss, or that stretch the protein beyond the usual dice-size bite of meat. We need good speakers, to play loud music over our internal screams when someone comes into the kitchen and starts eating peanut butter crackers just as we put the last dash of salt on dinner. We need creative strategies that may or may not involve many, many eggs. Wine is optional, but advised.
Here are some essential tips, gleaned from the experiences of other cooks, and from my own kitchen.
Form a battle plan, early. My Sunday ritual involves pulling out cookbooks, opening recipe websites and grabbing for the scrap paper on which I always have three lists: meals I will make Monday through Thursday (Hungry on Friday? Hit the leftovers!), a shopping list for the farmers’ market and one for the regular grocery store.
Mrs. Flake takes this a step further, by planning her meals for the entire month and making her children help pick what she will make. “You have to have some skin in the game, realizing that every meal won’t be your favorite,” she said. Everyone gets to veto two items, based on their own scarring childhood experiences with liver and stuffed bell peppers. “I swore to myself I would never fix something that someone would rather go hungry than eat,” Mrs. Flake added.
Still, she has to think big. “I didn’t have the luxury that some of my friends did with small eaters,” she recalled of her children. “I couldn’t just fix a salad and say, ‘Here you go everybody!’ They’d start making toast or pulling out cereal 20 minutes later.”
The Flakes have compiled a family cookbook that they all turn to for well-scaled recipes, including Cafe Rio Pork, a marinated dish with lime cilantro dressing. Sunday nights are for grilled rib-eye (bought on sale at Costco), with a million relatives, and homemade chocolate chip cookies shared with neighbors.
Fall in love with a specific dish that scales well. Then tell your entire family that, as they did with the stepdog, they will now start to love it, too. In heavy weekly rotation at my house is shakshuka, a dish I learned to cook in Morocco that can be made in many different ways. It takes mere moments to prepare, packs a flavor punch and gives everyone their own little bit of protein. Dishes that can be prepared assembly-line style also work well as regular guest stars. Try chicken Milanese: One kid can be in charge of the flour, another the egg, and you can manage the drop into the oil.
Stock the tools of the many-mouths-to-feed trade. Sheet pans are a must; they hold multiple pieces of chicken and potatoes, savory slab pies and layers of simply salted zucchini. A rice cooker will conceal your lack of inspiration with carbs. I’m sorry, but I must insist that you buy a simple slow cooker, which can be used for oatmeal in the morning, pork butt at night and Indian food whenever, all year round. It’s unfortunate that they take up so much space; I store mine in the garden shed next to the lawn mower, where it keeps company with some holiday-theme Bundt pans I needlessly bought when depressed. (Apartment dwellers should consider using the cooker to store smaller ridiculous purchases, such as chia seeds.)
Rely on ingredients you always have in the pantry. In mine, that would be cans of spicy diced tomatoes, which can jazz up chickpeas, diced chicken, deep bowls of pasta and something resembling tacos. One of my indispensable ingredients, believe it or not, is ketchup, the base of this weirdly delicious stir-fry made special with smoked paprika.
Be like NATO: Depend on other nations. My go-to weeknight recipes tend to be those gleaned and, if necessary, scaled up, from India, Mexico and the Middle East. Many of these dishes are stewlike in their proportions but flavored in a far more compelling way than mainstream American versions of the same, and can be made in — yes, I’m talking about this again — a slow cooker. That’s how I do butter chicken. I also can’t live without the chef and television host Pati Jinich’s cookbook, “Pati’s Mexican Table: The Secrets of Real Mexican Home Cooking,” especially the recipe for sticky chicken with apricots, tamarind and chipotle, which is already halfway prepared simply by shopping, and serves six generously. I make it on the stove top, or in the slow cooker.
Look at your plate and lose one item. Many Americans are rethinking the traditional three-item dinner plate. For large tables, it’s simply easier to make lots more of two items than smaller amounts of three.
Erin Axson, who lives with her husband, three children, mother-in-law and brother-in-law in Salt Lake City, said she often jettisoned grains. She marinates chicken in oranges and rosemary and lemon zest overnight, and tosses it on the grill for dinner. She sticks to modest protein servings and many pounds of vegetables, delivered weekly, and largely forgoes any starches.
“My produce costs me $260 a week, which makes my neighbors die because that is so expensive,” Ms. Axson said. “But I don’t waste anything.” Kale and spinach, for instance, go into a blender when wilting. “I make a lot smoothies,” she said. “My kids call them sludges.”
Give your protein some supporting players. Ms. Coles, who feeds about 350 people from a mobile van delivery service for Martha’s Table in Washington, and who makes staff lunches for 60 to 80 people, said her techniques could be scaled down for large families. “You learn to flavor things up with butter and half-and-half to get a richness that you need,” she said.
Also, protein can simply be one ingredient, not the central one; think potpie. Growing up, “we only killed one chicken at a time,” Ms. Coles said, “but we didn’t make the meat your main item on the plate. You do a chicken salad, or chicken potpie,” with lots of cream and butter and vegetables.
Deal with diets, allergies and phobias creatively. There is no need to make four different dinners. Kristina Peterson, who covers Capitol Hill for The Wall Street Journal who hails from a blended family, said her stepmother once dealt with a holiday meal by making crepes ahead of time, and serving up a variety of fillings. There was chicken, spinach and whole-grain mustard; creamy chicken and shrimp with dill; and for the vegetarians, a spinach-artichoke mixture with sliced Brie. Vegans could partake of sautéed mushrooms.
“There were nine people there,” Ms. Peterson said, including her stepmother’s three children, her father, her own boyfriend, her brother and his wife. “Everyone was extremely happy at the end of the meal.”
When in doubt, make pancakes.
Recipe: Slow-Cooker Butter Chicken