Feeding Hungry Kids on Demand
Bounding up the steps after school, my daughter Iris and I could almost smell it. Hot, earthy chili laced with cinnamon and endowed with heat from poblano and serrano peppers from our favorite Hispanic grocery.
Backpack still on her shoulder, keys still in my hand, we ladled steaming chili into bowls and dug in. The slow cooker, or Crock-Pot by trade name, regularly saves my middle-schooler from afternoon starvation. Iris eats lunch at 10:30 a.m. because of our school district’s staggered bus schedule. Come final bell at 2:20 p.m., she’s ready to devour the upholstery in my car when I pick her up from school.
As a single dad and a freelancer, I’m always rushing back and forth between a work gig and a kid thing. Each day is unique. We don’t always know when we’re going to burst through the door. The slow cooker evens time out, though, simmering away on the kitchen counter all day. It’s like a stovetop with a pause button. And it makes it easy to speed past the drive-through knowing we can chow down the minute we get home.
Easy morning prep
Before I run out the door in the morning, I’ll chop an onion, three or four carrots and stalks of celery, and a couple potatoes. Or better yet, I’ll get Iris to do it. She likes to play chef with the sharp knives.
Into the pot go the veggies and some dried lentils or split peas (one dad handful or two kid handfuls), and a cut-up chicken is plunked on top. Then my preschool daughter Sadie or I will fill the pot with water until the chicken is covered, sprinkle in some dill and thyme for good measure, set the cooker on low, and go.
When we barge in the door after a full day, I shred the chicken from the bone and ladle fresh soup into our bowls. Yum.
I’m not really the perpetual-preparedness type, but I regularly pull off batches of meals with a slow cooker. Plastic boxes of individual portions of chili, pumpkin soup, and macaroni and cheese are stacked neatly in my freezer.
I’m even a little competitive with other friends. We do our version of gear-head talk: Yeah, while I was doing a phone interview with a guitarist, chucked some raisins and almonds in the Crock-Pot on high, a couple of chicken breasts, a little stock, a little white wine. Three hours later, it’s drunken chicken.
Slow cooker recipes are loose and forgiving like that. And they lend themselves to improvisation. Toss in the last half of that eggplant or the dregs in the jar of green curry paste that’s migrated to the back of the fridge.
My pal Brent does all the cooking in his household, but he’s often the last one home. His slow cooker maintains family sanity.
“Frequently even the 15 minutes I need to throw together a dinner was too much for Mina, who either had been melting down out of hunger for those 15 minutes or more likely had been allowed to fill up on snacks and had ruined her appetite,” he says about his 4-year-old daughter’s evening meal.
A few guidelines for counter cooking
Meals can be left on the low setting for the duration of a workday and on high for half that time. If you’re around, resist the urge to lift the lid while cooking, which breaks the heat seal, unless a recipe requires periodic stirring.
The larger, oval-shaped slow cookers are best for pot roasts, whole chickens and other family-sized meals. Just be sure that the ceramic pot is removable. Otherwise you can’t put leftovers in the fridge and cleanup is a bear.
There’s something magical to a kid’s mind about the slow cooker. Since stovetop elements are not in play, kids can safely help with chopping, measuring and seasoning almost regardless of age. My little picky eater Sadie has her own stepladder and purple stirring spoon. If she helps cook something, she’s a lot more likely to eat it.
Chris Vitiello is a Durham-based freelance writer and poet who enjoys cooking, watching hockey, reading with his daughters, and going to museums and performances.
Macaroni and Cheese
1/2 pound small pasta (macaroni, fusilli, orecchiette, etc.)
3-4 tablespoons pesto
1 tablespoon melted butter
3 cups shredded cheese (mix jack, cheddar, parmesan)
2 cups milk
2 large eggs
salt, pepper, spices to taste
Coat the pot with cooking spray or butter. Beat the eggs with the milk, melted butter and pesto. Mix the pasta with 2 cups of the cheese and the spices. Transfer everything to the cooker. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top. Cook on low for 5 to 6 hours. Do not stir or remove lid while cooking.
Sprinkle with fresh herbs if you like. For a crunchy topping, toss breadcrumbs in some melted butter and sprinkle on top before serving.
Click on this link to check out Chris’s Oh Yeah Chili recipe.