I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been too busy cooking. I’m working my way through a stack of pumpkin recipes (inspired by the insanely good and still-on-top pumpkin bread) for a recipe collection to share, but meanwhile I’ve been making dinner for my family every night too.

Happy kids = happy dinner = happy mom.

What to make for dinner is the perennial question for any family, and most often for the mom. (Though my husband did cook for two years when he was a stay-at-home dad, and if there’s anything a working mom needs in her life, it’s a househusband. That was the bomb. But I digress.)

What to make for dinner gets a little more challenging when special diets are involved. Allergies, diabetes, epilepsy, celiac, and others become not only life-altering but dinner-conundrum-causing diseases. As if dinnertime wasn’t complicated enough.

(Digression alert: I was a working mom for 10 years, I’ve been home with my kids for one. The witching hour, roughly 4:30 and 6 p.m., is same crazy-train it always was. I really thought that would improve, but at least I no longer have guilt.)

A few weeks ago, my sister suggested I write about how I’ve incorporated my new diet into my family’s, and I’ve thought a lot about that. I’ve come up with some solutions for us, but mostly I just make what I make and expect them to at least try it — and that hasn’t changed from my pre-heart attack days. Nevertheless, here are a few of my strategies:

Make dinners that are interactive or require final assembly by the individual. Tacos are a great example. I make beef or turkey taco meat for Scott and the kids, black beans and Mexican rice on the side, and then put out the lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese, peppers, cilantro, corn, and so on. My tacos are black beans on corn tortillas; the boys have meat, cheese, and lettuce on flour, and Scott piles his so high with everything he’d need a degree from Chipotle to wrap it up. This way I’ve made one dinner that creates three happy boys, and I can control what I’m eating too. Other similar meals are kebabs on the grill or make-your-own pizzas (I like veggie-olive oil pizza better anyway).

Spicy Szechuan stir-fry.

Make recipes that have multiple ingredients prepared in stages and mixed together at the end. Think stir-fry. Kids usually like carrots, broccoli, chicken, beef, and maybe even shrimp too, but might balk if they are all mixed together with a sauce. Stir-fries often call for cooking the protein, removing it, adding new oil, cooking the vegetables, then returning protein to pan, adding the sauce, and heating through. Just set some protein and veggies aside at each stage, then proceed with the recipe for the adults or adventurous kid eaters. This works great for us: Owen will eat it as prepared, I pull out the components for Noah, and since I’ve made the stir-fry sauce, I’ve controlled the fat and sodium, and I take mostly vegetables and just a tiny bit of protein (leaving the lion’s share for Scott). Again, only one dinner made, many problems solved.

(Another digression alert: I know you are supposed to teach your kids how to eat by just putting whatever you’ve made in front of them and letting time and their hunger do the trick. All I can say is that doesn’t work for me. Noah simply will not eat anything at all, and the witching hour extends to bedtime and then he wakes up at 2 a.m. And it’s not like I’m making him mac and cheese while we eat tofu stir fry, and since this is the method I used with Owen and now he eats pretty much everything, I’m gonna go with what works.)

Swap out the protein. If it is summer and you love to grill, prep chicken or steak for your family and a portobello mushroom for you. Or, turkey burgers for them and veggie burger for you. Or shrimp or salmon for everyone. Make a salad or veggie sides, and roasted potatoes or whole-grain pilaf to go with it and everyone’s happy and healthy.

Make pasta. Always a family pleaser and easy to make heart-healthy if you just forget that cream and cheese sauces ever existed.

Make soup. I love soup and it is easy to make tasty and heart-healthy. I have a huge bowl and a gigantic salad. The boys have a smaller salad and grilled cheese or just plain cold deli sliced turkey (they like it) with their “tasting portion” of whatever vegetable-based concoction I’ve made.

Use your food processor, blender, or immersion blender and lie to your kids about what’s in the food you’re serving. I’ve done this more than once. Eggplant marinara looks just like marinara. Kale and spinach pesto looks just like the basil version. Again, I know the whole hide-veggies-vs.-teach-kids-to-love-bok-choy debate, but when this works in my favor, I use it. Also, Noah loves to help me use these kitchen tools and if he’s helped me make it, he usually will eat it. We made saag paneer yesterday and he licked his fingers and proclaimed “Mmm!” Who is that kid?

Make breakfast for dinner. Everyone loves this and pancakes or waffles are just as good when made with whole wheat flour, Egg Beaters, and margarine and they’ll never know. Make them real scrambled eggs and make yours with whites. Make Huevos Rancheros and skip the chips and cheese and have eggs on beans with warm, spicy sauce. Cut up some apples and call it good. Easy peasy dinner pleasy. 

Just make what you are making and if they’ve tried it without (too much) complaint, and really don’t like it or it is too spicy, let them eat peanut butter or cereal and enjoy your tasty meal in peace while congratulating yourself for taking care of your family and your heart. Remember, avoiding stress is heart-healthy too.

And last, make sure you have leftovers, for your lunch or for those nights when it is just too busy to cook and your family is having frozen pizza and you shouldn’t. Freeze your leftovers in single-serve portions just for you and don’t share; they will run out faster than you think. If it is stir-fry or pasta sauce, leave the rice and pasta out and make that fresh when you reheat the sauce.

If you’ve read my (unsolicited) advice this far, here’s your reward: A few good recipes to answer the question “What to Make for Dinner” Volume 1.