RULE 1: Don't Wait for the Stars to Align Once you decide to sign on to the plan, I know that the first thing you're going to do is check your calendar. Because you are a parent, and parents don't make a move without first consulting the master schedule. You want to make sure there's no travel soccer tournament that month, no nail-biting audition of Finian's Rainbow to prepare your daughter for, no presentation for work that you're going to be obsessing over, no activities that are going to disrupt and distract from all the planning and cooking. I understand this impulse completely--believe me, I do--but I strongly recommend that you resist the temptation and just decide right here and now to begin on Sunday. I don't have any idea if that means tomorrow or six days from when you are reading this, but either way, if you have a few hours on a Sunday, you can get yourself in good shape to kick-start the program. Now, obviously, if Sunday is the day you are scheduled for the twins' C-section, Sunday is probably not a good idea. But if you are sitting down and looking for "a month that works," I want to save you some time and just tell you now that you are not going to find one. And besides, what are you looking for exactly? A month with no plans? A month with no school? No camp? No work? No sports? No pottery, karate, chess, play rehearsal? No tap dancing? No book report due tomorrow even though the kid, God love him, had three freaking weeks to write it? No teething? No witching hours? No train running late? No meltdown over who gets the green one and who gets the red one? No car-pool coordinating that would make an air traffic controller look lazy? No recitals, games, playdates, meetings, parent observation days at ballet that sounded so sweet and precious until the day you have to figure out how to hang up on your client in order to get there? I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but you're not going to find it. And even if you did, that's not the kind of month you want anyway. Because what exactly are you proving if you cook every night for thirty days with no pressure and no stress? What are you learning? It would be like preparing for a white-water-rafting trip by lounging on an inner tube in the town pool. The idea here is to work within the swirl of your messy, beautiful chaos. To embrace it. So no excuses. Circle this Sunday as Day 1. RULE 2: Enlist the Whole Family I can't emphasize this enough: If you've spent any time on my blog or read my first book, you know that a crucial part of what keeps the dinner engine running in our house is the fact that both my husband and I know how to cook. Because I am the one with the more flexible schedule during the week, most of the time I'm the one getting dinner together from Monday through Friday. But on nights when I'm overextended or have a late meeting or just can't bring myself to do it, I know Andy will step in and make his Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs with Potato-Carrot Hash (twenty minutes) or a quick Roasted Salmon and Asparagus with Spicy Mayo and Chives (twenty minutes). This is important not only for the short view (yum, delicious, seconds, please!) but for the long view, because psychologically, it helps to know that it's not all on me. When you share the load, dinner is a group effort, a family project. If it's all on you, it's just a burden. Now, what if it's only you? Or what if your partner or spouse doesn't know how to cook? Here is what you do: You call bullsh*t on your partner. ANYONE CAN COOK. Because here's the thing: We're not going for Michelin stars. We're talking about preparing food for your own dinner table, the one where your offspring sit down, open their mouths to both (a) talk to you and (b) eat. They are not dinner guests. They are not restaurant critics. They are children who need fuel in the tank. Dinner, more than anything, just has to be...done. That is where you win points in this contest. There are recipes (see Go-To Weeknight Meals: The Lineup) that are designed for any old beginner, but there are also several recipes in here that someone can make ahead of time and store in the freezer (look for "freeze ahead" instructions under recipes). So on nights when the noncook is in charge, he or she is not so much cooking as simply thawing and reheating. But, also, as I've mentioned on my blog more than once, there are other ways the rest of the family--not just a grown-up partner in crime--can share the dinner load. The kids can go through the recipe lineup section and pick out the recipes that appeal to them the most. (Actually, that's a nonnegotiable part of the plan.) Your kids or your noncooking partner can make a point to say, "Remember those shrimp rolls we had at the beach? Let's try that!" Your son can answer the "What do you feel like for dinner?" question with something other than pasta with butter. Anyone in the family can set the table, clear the table, unload the dishwasher, and place a bottle of ketchup on the table. I call this whole effort not "Making Dinner," but "Making Dinner Happen." Enlist the family, whoever that may be (sitter, kids, boyfriend, dogwalker), and make it happen. RULE 3: Spin It as an Adventure Whenever you decide to start your 30-Day program, make sure to carve out a moment to officially announce it to the family. Think of yourself like the late Steve Jobs launching a new Apple product. At this announcement, I suggest you not tell them the truth--that if you have to serve or eat one more soggy quesadilla dipped in ketchup, you might take the dog out for a walk one day and never come home. What you should do is, first, build the suspense a little. Before school drop-off, you'll say, just as they're about to shut the car door, "Your dad and I have some exciting news for you when you get home." Or, even better, you'll drop a few hints every day leading up to the announcement. "Oh, this is going to come in handy for that adventure we are planning ... oh, did I say adventure? You'll be hearing about that later." Smile. Wink. Wink. When it's time to make the announcement, tell them you're all going to be part of a "big exciting adventure" (use those words) and you need their help. Tell them that you want the dinner table to be the best place ever and the way you're going to do this is by experimenting with new meals. If they follow all the rules, and if bribery doesn't go against everything you stand for, then after thirty days, when the big exciting adventure is over, you can offer a big exciting reward, such as: a: A trip to the kids' favorite restaurant b: One entire day when Mom and Dad can't say no c: A Clean Plate Winner Certificate d: A coupon to order whatever you want at the local bakery/ice cream shop/hot dog stand/toy store e: Any incentive that weakens your bribees at the knees. Tell them the whole goal of this is to make everyone happy and excited about what they're eating. Assure them that there will be no [fill in the blank with something your kid detests]. But tell them also that there will be something new on the table every night and that part of the deal is that they have to try a bite of every one of those things. They don't have to love that bite, or even like it, but they must try it without fighting or whining. This is very important. Every night you debut something new at the table successfully, it's a huge boost for everyone. So you do not want to mess around with this rule. Also good to keep in mind: No one has to love anything. Hearing "I like it" or even "Not bad" is major progress. Remember: We're dealing with kids here. Success is relative! RULE 4: Shop Once a Week (and Take Your Kids with You) I know these words might strike fear into the hearts of parents with toddlers or babies, and maybe you guys can have a pass on this. Maybe. But as soon as your kids are old enough to push their own miniature shopping carts, I highly recommend taking them along. As well as your partner or spouse. This way, it sends a message that it's not on any one person's shoulders to do the shopping--and by extension the cooking--because all shoppers inevitably get tangled up in dinner planning. And beyond the more wonky benefits (your kids learn how to choose the two-ingredient pudding over the twenty-ingredient ice cream; they learn the way "junk" is insidiously positioned on the shelves right at eye level; they learn how to select the perfect limes, small and smooth-skinned; they learn marketable skills like packing grocery bags!), it cuts off so much tableside trauma at the pass. When my kids add something to the cart, they are more invested in its consumption than they would be had it just been air-dropped onto their plates. (See Step 5: Shop for more tips on the weekly shop.) Excerpted from Dinner: A 30-Day Plan for Mastering the Art of the Family Meal by Jenny Rosenstrach All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.