11 simple family-friendly ideas to cure mealtime monotony

Megan Johnston
Adam Liaw's chicken noodle salad is delicious at any age.
Adam Liaw's chicken noodle salad is delicious at any age. Photo: William Meppem

How are we doing, mums and dads – is everything OK? Thought so. After months of eating mostly at home, I'm starting to get the impression some of my fellow parents are a bit over this home-cooking business.

The messy breakfasts, morning tea between meetings, toddler lunch at 11, after-school snacks and endless lunchboxes (miss you canteens – bring on tuckshop drone delivery ASAP). It goes on and on.

If your child's favourite dish is fried rice, don't fight it.
If your child's favourite dish is fried rice, don't fight it.  Photo: William Meppem

Who knew the apocalypse involved So. Much. Cooking. Especially for hangry small people hopped up on hours of toy unboxing videos.

This short-order cooking has me in a spin: tackling piles of washing-up after bedtime and scrounging online for dinner ideas at 2am.

Lasagne has been done to death, same with spag bol. What else can we add to our repertoire that keeps small mouths fed, with minimal preparation and stress – and, you know, thinking?

Takeaway is a welcome treat every now and then but doesn't fit a JobKeeper budget, nor help shift those iso kilos. Some of us are able to eat out – strictly social distancing, of course – but it's not the fun family outing it used to be when the pub's play area is off limits and you practically have to keep your children on a leash. 

It's better than the alternative, I know – home cooking beats hotel quarantine or hospital food any day.

But we need a few ideas to break up the meal-time monotony and keep us on track til that vaccine arrives. 

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So, short of manifesting a way for dinner to cook itself, here are a few ideas to keep your family trucking through the next few months and beyond.

Kitchen cheats

Ready-made ravioli, dumplings and gozleme are every parent's friend. They're usually a complete meal (veg, protein, carb – done) and you can dress them up – or not, there's no shame here. A charcoal chook is a dinner standard in most family homes for a reason – it's cheap, delicious and quick, can be paired with countless healthy sides, or used as a base for virtually any recipe. Leftovers can be amazing too cooked into an omelette, frittata muffins or savoury pikelet (corn or roast beef are an old family favourite in our house).

Box it up

Kids struggling with vegetables? Try a dinner tray. Homewares company Fred makes a great version with a "surprise" box at the end for treats. It's kind of like a bento box crossed with a board game, and in seven years it's rarely failed me. Fill each square with anything you'd like – ham, cheese cubes or shredded chicken alongside berries, avocado, apple slices, baby cucumbers, beans, fresh peas or capsicum strips. If the kids don't eat their veg, it's game over. 

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Adam Liaw recipe : Mince with oyster sauce
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions) 

Keep dinner super simple with Adam Liaw's mince with oyster sauce. Photo: William Meppem

Back to basics

Sometimes we like to keep things simple in our household – real simple. I'm talking a cup of rice, crumbed chicken tenders and a bowl of vegetables simple. No, it's not inspired. But if we're short on time, a super simple dinner means less stress and more snuggles before bed. Skewers, sausages, mince and meatballs are all on heavy rotation at my house. For snacks, strawberries are practically their own food group, or edamame are fun to pop. Children generally thrive on repetition and routine, so if their favourite dinner is dad's fried rice, don't fight it. Put it on weekly repeat instead – for example, "fried rice Friday". 

Bread-based dinners

Totally acceptable. Sandwiches. Things on toast. Soldiers and soup. Egg-in-a-hole. Crusts smeared with peanut butter and a side of cucumbers. They're all OK. It's a pandemic, remember – carbs are cool again, especially when they're wholegrain. Also see: rice, noodles and pasta.

Crazy sandwiches

While we're on the bread-based theme, log on to Storyline Online with your children and watch US actress Allison Janney read the children's book Carla's Sandwich. It's about a girl who loves outlandish sandwiches made from unusual ingredients such as bananas and cottage cheese, or olives, pickles and green beans. Your kids will want to try every crazy combo going afterwards, guaranteed.

Jill Dupleix's baked potato with peas and rough pesto recipe.

Make your own dinner with Jill Dupleix's baked potato recipe. Photo: William Meppem

DIY assembly

Burgers, tacos, jacket potatoes, rice paper rolls – if you can turn dinner into an assembly line, that means less work for you. Everyone can pick and mix their favourite ingredients, so there's no complaining, and less prep and cleaning up. If making sushi rolls is too tricky for small fingers, try Mike McEnearney's lazy sushi, or make a "sushi slice" instead by layering sushi rice, cooked tuna and mayo, thinly sliced cucumber and yaki nori in a baking tray, then slicing it into snack-sized squares. 

Vegetable gems

Whoever invented these is a genius. Mix a cup or two of grated zucchini or broccoli with an egg, a handful of shredded cheese, and some breadcrumbs, then shape into snack-sized ovals and bake in the oven for 15 minutes or so at 180C fan-forced (200C conventional). It's less smuggled veg, and more crunchy, golden, delicious veg. Tomato sauce for dipping not optional.

Hit the books

If inspiration is lacking, find a family-friendly cookbook with simple recipes and big photos even small bellies can appreciate. The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook is a classic, and Donna Hay and Jamie Oliver have both published family-friendly cookbooks kids will love, some with photos of ingredients for preschoolers who can't yet read. 

Close the kitchen

Small children at home while you're trying to work? Set up a lunchbox and healthy snacks on the kitchen bench in the morning, then close the kitchen for the rest of the day. It means kids can eat to appetite throughout the day without pestering their parents every five minutes. At least, that's the theory. I haven't tried it yet. Let me know how it goes.

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Adam Liaw recipe : Black Basil Chicken
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions)

Dust off the cobwebs and try dinner outside with Adam Liaw's black basil chicken (chilli optional). Photo: William Meppem

Change of scenery

Children's appetites change the moment they leave the house, amirite parents? Take one step outside, and they'll happily eat that carrot stick or yoghurt they'd sworn was toxic a moment before. So, try serving a new ingredient with dinner, but this time, have the family eat on the back steps, on the balcony or in the backyard. On weekends, a picnic lunch gets the kids away from their screens and helps dust off the cobwebs. If that fails, try a fancy family dinner at home, with tablecloth, proper cutlery and candles.

Super-spaced restaurants

With a couple of family members in the high-risk health category, our family isn't ready to eat out yet, at least in enclosed spaces. Happily, I've discovered a few local eateries with super-spaced outdoor tables or ready access to a nearby park. Fish 'n' chips on the water or banh mi in the sun also does a world of good for a family that's spent too many months cooped up together (restrictions permitting, of course).