Cooking for a family has always been a balancing act. If you have younger kids, you try to prepare meals that don’t turn them off without dumbing down the flavors so much that adults can’t enjoy dinner, too. And as those kids get older, you’re often faced with sports practices, dance schedules, music lessons, and other extracurriculars that constantly run into dinner time — or spread it out over a multiple-hour period.
Before COVID, my husband and I, along with our 14- and 12-year-old boys, were settled into a very comfortable groove. Soccer schedules synched to a 7:30 dinner bell. Breakfast had morphed into fruit, cereal, and maybe a toasted bagel, and lunch would often be a slice of pizza or chicken over rice that they grabbed from a food truck close to their school. But when lockdown started, I suddenly had to deal with four hungry mouths for three meals a day — plus snacks. And as any chef de maison can now tell you, even when you could find recipes that would be agreeable to all involved, sometimes you couldn’t find the ingredients (flour! rice! canned tomatoes!) needed to make them.
It was a challenge, but one I wasn’t really able to back down from. (You can order pizza only so many times, after all.) For help, I turned to a bunch of simple-to-use small appliances and kitchen gadgets that I’ve come across in my years as a tech writer and mom. These are the tools that have helped me find new ways to feed my family — and to regain a modicum of joy in the kitchen. Hopefully, they can help you, too.
The DeLonghi Dinamica is not cheap, but if you’re a coffee lover, the joy it brings to your life is worth the price. This fully automated, barista-level machine allows you to press a button for gorgeously made espressos, lattes, flat whites, cappuccinos, and Americanos. It gives my husband and me the caffeine boost we need for long days, and the automatic iced-coffee feature is beloved by my older son, who is no longer blowing his chore money in $6 chunks at Starbucks. Even my younger son enjoys it, by practicing his latte art with the automatic milk frother.
I found this countertop oven when looking to replace my four-slot toaster, which took up way too much counter space for something that just makes toast. It has quickly become the workhorse of our kitchen, with its 13 different functions that include toasting, baking, and broiling. It also serves as a high-heat convection oven. Best of all, it’s very easy to use. The kids set their own preferences, and the markers on the glass door show them which of the three racks to use for each setting. My older son quickly commandeered the oven for broiling a few strips of bacon and toasting a bialy for his morning bacon, egg, and cheese, while the younger one got busy making evenly cooked chocolate-chip cookies. I use it for everything from roasting Brussels sprouts to crisping chicken strips and fries to baking a pizza on the included pizza tray.
You can lay this griddle out flat for a larger cooking surface or press it together, panini style. We’ve thrown burgers, steaks, chicken, hot dogs, sausages, and pork loin on it and gotten the same crusty sear (and beautiful grill marks) you’d expect from an outdoor grill. There are also different types of griddle plates you can swap in for different types of cooking. The smooth plates are perfect for pancakes, and I went a little overboard with the waffle plates (sold separately), cooking banana-bread waffles, zucchini waffles, and even falafel waffles.
I have been an Instant Pot groupie from the moment I first tried one. The original let me make fall-off-the-bone ribs in less than an hour, and the Bolognese I used to simmer for seven hours now takes 20 minutes. The Duo Crisp is even better: It doubles as an air fryer, with one lid for pressure cooking and another for frying. Now I can pressure-cook a whole chicken for 25 minutes, then swap out the lids and create shatteringly crispy skin in another quarter of an hour. Mac and cheese gets even tastier too. Once it’s cooked, just throw on some panko and brown the top in the fryer. At eight quarts, it’s bigger than my original six-quart Instant Pot, but considering that I’m cooking for two growing boys, I’ve ended up appreciating that extra capacity.
I am married to a Brit, which means tea and lots of it. In the past, we always kept an electric kettle on hand for his cuppa, but we recently replaced that with the EKG Kettle. Its sleek design is a whole lot prettier than our old bulky silver kettle. Even when it’s full, it still brings water to 100 degrees Fahrenheit in under a minute — and can hold it there for up to an hour. Although we don’t use it for pour-over coffee (thanks to the DeLonghi), the variable temperature control would be perfect for it. As it is, the kids ramp it up to 212 degrees to cook their ramen, a common snack during remote learning.
With space at a premium in our NYC home, any time I can find one product that handles the features of many, I’m interested. This Braun uses an assortment of attachments — a blender wand, a whisk, an ice crusher, a masher, a smaller 1.5-cup chopper, and a food processor with five inserts. We use the wand most often. It’s outrageously powerful and, in our house, pretty much dedicated to smoothie-making. I also use it for blending sauces and soups right on the stove and did some serious tomato crushing at the end of the summer. Oh, and guacamole. Lots of guacamole. The new MQ735 hand blender was announced in May, which includes a trigger that makes adjusting the blending speed easier, but it lacks the breadth of attachments, so I decided not to upgrade.
Last year, we moved from a brownstone apartment with private outdoor space to a full-service building. And though I love the package room, white-glove service, and pristine roof deck, I really miss gardening. We are on a higher floor, so I have lots of light for plants and herbs, but it’s still not enough for the greens, flowers, and tomatoes I used to love growing so much. That’s why I set up this compact hydroponic system that fits up to six plants and has a 20-watt light hood (it comes with the bulbs necessary to provide a spectrum of electric sunlight that works all year round). Once the kids help me pop in the pods for salad greens (there’s no soil to make a mess), the control panel reminds us when to add the included plant food and when the plants need water. Although the new garden still hasn’t convinced them to eat salads, the boys do like checking in on the plants’ progress every day. Next up is heirloom cherry tomatoes in time for the holidays. I’m saving petunias for the spring.
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