Couple cooking

Photo: Shimon & Tammar

The Couple That Cooks Together:
Alison Kalis & Amani Willett
The Challenge: Alison and Amani like to eat dinner together and look forward to entertaining friends. But as novice cooks, they are only starting to build up a repertoire of dishes and cooking techniques that can accommodate both their tastes: "He wants meat and I want seafood, so we usually end up alternating, but not in very imaginative ways," says Alison, whose work schedule limits them to a big supermarket expedition every two weeks, supplemented by an occasional dash to the corner store. Even with such spontaneously planned meals, she says, "we both think about healthy food." The couple has taken cooking classes, and Amani occasionally gets coaching from his father, Walter Willett, MD, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Because Amani was born in Tanzania and traveled around the world with his family, and Alison's mother is Thai, they're open to a variety of flavors and cooking styles.

The Strategy: If Amani helped with the shopping in between the big trips, they could both benefit from meals made with more fresh fruits and vegetables. Because the two are beginner cooks, they should think about dishes that incorporate basic techniques—like grilling, which is quick, simple, and works for meat or seafood, and high-heat roasting, which they can do in bulk on the weekend with any in-season vegetable. A recipe like grilled shrimp with mango salsa is a good starting point: It can be served hot or cold and is good for company, yet it's simple enough to make on nights when they're alone. A side dish of a roasted vegetable salad or basmati rice needs little attention in the kitchen. Amani and Alison can use the leftovers to doctor up a pot of store-bought squash soup later in the week. "The recipes were easy to follow," says Amani after making the shrimp at home. "I can't wait to impress our guests."

Mango shrimp and vegetablesThe Recipes

Grilled Shrimp with Mango Salsa
Warm Roasted Winter Vegetable Salad
Basmati Rice with Toasted Pine Nuts
Adrienne Lopez

Photo: Shimon & Tammar

Dinner for One: Adrienne Lopez
The Challenge: "It's difficult to prepare food for yourself when you've been cooking for three," says Adrienne, whose twin sons are away at college. "I'm tired of eating leftovers." That's when she manages to make it into the kitchen at all: Too often Adrienne's hectic schedule—she's an independent film and TV producer and the coauthor of To Love, Honor, and Betray: The Secret Life of Suburban Wives—reduces her to eating a bowl of Cheerios, scrambled egg whites, or a few Girl Scout cookies for dinner. "I want to be able to cook smaller portions of food," Adrienne says. "And I'd like the dishes to be creative, healthy, and easy." She wouldn't mind losing a few pounds, either.

The Strategy: Cooking a generous portion of meat, seafood, or chicken at the beginning of the week will give Adrienne a base on which to build meals for several days. A simple recipe like pan-roasted salmon with snap peas yields enough fish for a salad the following day and a sandwich the next. (If Adrienne doubled the recipe and substituted chicken—which keeps longer than fish—she'd have a tasty protein to add to dishes for most of the working week.) Because Adrienne loves spicy foods and strong seasonings, she can easily vary the dish's flavors: Fresh basil or oregano can be used instead of cumin. She can also replace the salmon with scallops; shrimp; firm-fleshed, meaty fish, such as halibut; pork; or beef fillet. Frozen edamame (soy beans) or any stir-fried leafy vegetables can stand in for the snap peas. A side dish of a healthy starch like quinoa (a grain high in protein and iron) rounds out the meal, making it more filling. Adrienne was inspired: "I've been trying to include more fish in my diet; now I have an adaptable way to cook it."

Salmon and snap peasThe Recipes

Pan-Roasted Salmon with Fresh Mint Sugar Snap Peas
Fluffy Lemon Quinoa
Flash-Cooked Greens with Garlic
The Powell family

Photo: Shimon & Tammar

Pleasing a Crowd: The Powell Family
The Challenge: "Cooking for my boys is a real test," says Marie Powell, who is expecting her fourth child in February. "My 4-year-old, Travis, doesn't eat vegetables or certain fruits. He often takes one look at the dinner I'm cooking and says, 'Pee-yew!' My husband, Craig, isn't much better. He can have pizza every day and doesn't do fruits or vegetables, either." Fortunately, Zachary, her 2-year-old, "will eat anything that isn't moving." Marie also has an adventurous palate: "I am originally from Haiti and came to the States when I was 5. I grew up eating all types of rice and bean dishes and meat that was marinated to perfection," she says. But her family's demands have taken their toll. Marie often finds herself making multiple dishes to please everyone. Worse still, she says, "I used to love to cook, but now, with such picky eaters, my interest in food and the desire to cook have disappeared."

The Strategy: As tough as it sounds, Marie needs to stop cooking separate meals and gently coax her husband and kids to expand their range. Incorporating some of their favorite things—like noodles—is a start. A nice presentation also helps: "My children love food that is colorful and attractively arranged. I think it actually entices them to eat more," Marie says. A one-dish supper like sautéed chicken with cherry tomatoes over spinach angel hair pasta is extremely bright, incorporates vegetables, and involves only a short amount of cooking time, much of it unattended. Barbecued chicken breasts and chopped leeks over noodles made crispy in the broiler is an alternative. And by experimenting with different types of noodles—tomato linguine, soba (Japanese buckwheat), rice sticks—Marie can expose the kids to new tastes. Pizza can stay on the menu as long as it's homemade; using time-saving premade dough from the supermarket, the kids can help assemble pies with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and toppings like grilled peppers, mushrooms, asparagus, and shredded carrots. "My husband eats too much red meat," says Marie, calling the chicken in the dishes below a "healthier choice." "And the children love pasta—the noodle dishes are the icing on the cake."

Spinach Pasta, chicken and cherry tomatoesThe Recipes

Sautéed Chicken with Cherry Tomatoes over Spinach Pasta
Crispy Noodle Cake with Barbecued Chicken
Pantry items

Photo: Shimon & Tammar

Shortcuts to Healthy Meals
  • At the beginning of each week, plan a substantial meal or prepare ample quantities of vegetables and cooked meats. For example, make stir-fried or steamed spinach, broccoli, or leafy greens; roast assorted vegetables; and grill or stew meat, chicken, or tofu. All will keep in the refrigerator and can be used throughout the week in stir-fries, composed salads, or soups and on top of noodles or healthy grains.

  • Stock the fridge with chopped garlic, onions, and ginger, as well as pesto (homemade or store-bought) to season marinades, vegetable side dishes, and cooked meats.

  • Don't be a food snob. You can combine takeout with canned, frozen, and fresh ingredients to make fast and tasty dishes. A decent canned or prepared minestrone soup enriched with leftovers from the fridge—stir-fried or roasted vegetables, cooked meats, a little tomato sauce, a hint of oregano, and a topping of grated Parmesan—makes a satisfying meal. Leftover roasted chicken from the supermarket can be dressed up with a sprinkling of oregano and soy sauce or a spice rub of coriander and cumin and warmed in the microwave.

  • Food should always look luscious. Sprinkle grated carrots on salads, noodle dishes and store-bought dumplings (to make them look homemade). Use sweet potatoes or red onions instead of the usual white varieties. Incorporate colorful and unusual varieties of vegetables and fruits, like multicolored baby tomatoes. Serve meals on interesting platters.

  • If your children won't eat all their vegetables, serve cut-up fruit instead.

  • Take your children to the store and get them involved in shopping and cooking if they are resistant to the food you prepare. Show older kids how to read labels so they're aware of what's in the food they are eating.