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  1. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with a crazy idea? And then by morning, you think you can actually do it? Well, that's what happened to me in June 2018. At the time I had a successful cooking blog, MommaChef.com, with more than 80,000 followers. It features recipes using six ingredients or less and prepared in six minutes or less. I also was busy writing articles for dozens of magazines and working with various companies to develop recipes using their products. All of this would have been a dream come true for most food bloggers, but I didn't feel complete. Something was missing. It was that aha moment at 3 a.m. when I realized that I wanted to focus more time and energy into helping others. And what could be more perfect than opening a soup kitchen to feed the needy? [Related: Make kindness a daily act with your kids] Once the idea came to me, I was determined to make it happen. Over the next few months, I researched what was needed to help the under-resourced people in the Chicago area. I quickly found a facility that was willing to donate its space to house the Soup Kitchen. I created a business plan, held fundraisers to offset the costs, and designed menus to feed more than 100 people. Within four months, in October 2018, Momma Chef's Soup Kitchen opened its doors at Congregation KINS in West Rogers Park. Each Tuesday evening, Momma Chef’s Soup Kitchen provides a 5-course homemade hot meal to anyone who comes to our doors. We also deliver 70 meals to two local shelters. That middle-of-the-night idea has provided over 15,000 meals since opening our doors. What makes this soup kitchen unique is that I was determined to run it with no overhead other than the cost of food and security. The Soup Kitchen needs more than 600 volunteers/year to prepare and serve the meals. And every person involved, including myself and members of my family, donates their time.* During the start of COVID in April of 2020, when I passed by a neighborhood little free library box, the notion that I could help address food insecurity around the city in the same manner as the library boxes struck me. I decided that day that I wanted to start a “Momma Chef Little Free Pantry Movement” in Chicago, providing 24-hour non-perishable food to anyone in need. It took around a year to get everything in place, and in May 2021, I opened my first pantry at West Ridge Community Methodist Church. My son, who is a junior in high school, is in charge of running the pantry for me. We keep the pantry stocked daily with healthy non-perishable food such as peanut butter, cans of fruit, cans of soups and stews, cans of tuna, chicken, etc. It’s a wonderful way for people in need to take food anonymously at any time of the day. With the success of the first pantry, I am going to be installing more pantries around the city in the next couple of months: My next two will be at Beth Emet Synagogue in Evanston, and New Beginnings Church in West Woodlawn. I want to encourage everyone that if there is something you believe in — a cause that taps your shoulder or keeps you awake at night — believe in yourself! One person truly can make a difference. You can find me at www.mommachef.com. I am keeping busy with my blog, Soup Kitchen, Food Pantries, and I plan to publish a cookbook in 2022 with my delicious “6 under 6” recipes, with proceeds going to these projects. *If you're interested in volunteering at the Soup Kitchen, you are more than welcome! Kids 11 and up are welcome, too. Here's how.
  2. Not all kids like to cook at younger ages and that’s to be expected. It’s easy to get intimidated around hot pots and sharp knives. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some fun and safe ways to get your mini chefs involved in making dinner for the whole family! Meatless Monday We know it’s a cliché, but what better day to make a veggie-based pasta? Use a food processor to whip up an easy spinach “pesto” using fresh baby spinach, basil, nuts of your choice, and good parmesan or other aged cheese (optional). Have your kid(s) pour in the olive oil as the motor runs until the pesto is smooth. Cook pasta in a small pot according to package directions, drain (reserving about a tablespoon of the cooking water), and add pesto to the pot. Have your mini(s) stir to coat with a wooden spoon. They can also garnish the prepared bowls by sprinkling in some extra grated parmesan cheese and/or tear up more basil leaves to place on top. [Related: 5 tips for cooking with little kids] Taco Tuesday OK, OK, it’s another cliché, but do tacos on Tuesday ever fail? Switch things up a notch by making crispy taco bowls or cups with toppings of your choice. While you cook some ground beef (or chicken or turkey) seasoned with salt, cumin and chili powder, have your mini(s) push small flour or corn tortillas into the cups of a muffin tin lightly sprayed with olive or avocado oil. You can spoon in the cooked meat, and they can top with shredded Chihuahua, Mexican blend, or other cheese of your choice. Bake off the taco shells in a 350-degree oven for about 10 minutes or until crisp. Once cooled, serve the muffin cups with a variety of toppings: chopped tomatoes or mild salsa, diced avocado, shredded lettuce, chopped fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime — if they’re up for it. Meatball Wednesday Time to maka da meatballs! Add ground beef/pork or chicken/turkey in a large bowl. Have your kid(s) sprinkle in some seasoning (onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, oregano), and then have them squeeze in some ketchup for sweetness. Either you or they can crack an egg and add some panko, or have them tear up day-old bread for fresh breadcrumbs to add to the mix. Using clean hands, mix up the batch and everyone can take turns rolling the meat into golf ball-size balls. Pour a jar of marinara in a large, deep skillet and heat until a slow simmer forms. Gently place the mini meatballs in the mix, cover and cook until cooked through but still tender. Serve with pasta, in hoagie rolls, or by themselves with a veggie of choice. [Related: Ways to make learning playful and fun for kids] Stir-Fry Thursday Remember Mongolian BBQ? Bring back the '90s fave with make-your-own stir-fry bowls. Set up a station with bowls of raw, pre-chopped veggies (broccoli, mushrooms, diced red and yellow peppers, matchstick carrots, peas or edamame, etc.). Have them hand you their bowl while you add the protein (diced chicken or turkey breast or shrimp) and some pre-made stir-fry sauce (store-bought or a combo of soy sauce, hoisin or honey, and grated garlic and ginger). Heat up a little neutral or avocado oil in a wok or large skillet and cook until meat is cooked through and veggies are tender. They can finish off their bowls with any garnish of their choice (sliced scallions, toasted sesame seeds, chopped peanuts or almonds), or skip this part. You can even have then pick out the veggies you’ll be using at the grocery store to help them get more excited about the meal. Pizza Friday Make an easy Detroit-style pizza using a pan! This one’s easier to handle than stretching out and dealing with fresh dough. Line a buttered, 9"’ x 11" pan with prepared pizza dough and lightly brush it with olive oil. Have your kid(s) place alternating pepperoni slices and diced cheese across the dough (Detroit-style uses buttery brick cheese, or go for combination of brick and mozzarella), making sure to place enough cheese in the corners to create those signature, caramelized edges. Bake in a 500-degree oven on the lowest rack until bubbly, and edges are dark brown, almost black — about 30-40 minutes. Be sure to let the pizza rest 10 minutes before cutting into squares and serving. Photo: Annie Spratt on Unsplash
  3. When our oldest son was just three years old, we found ourselves at the University of Chicago – our son groggy from anesthesia due to a necessary endoscopy and the doctor telling us, “The pathology and blood tests all confirm celiac disease.” I was relieved because we now had an answer as to why he wasn’t growing or developing. Once we removed the gluten from his diet, that all improved, but my head was also spinning because I had no idea how to deal with this diagnosis. No more birthday cakes, pizza, donut runs on Sunday mornings. Fast forward 10 years, and that all seems like a very distant memory. [Related: Help kids with food allergies enjoy the holidays] Celiac in the city with a teen Now that our oldest is 13, I no longer know where he is every moment and I’m not dictating his every meal. Luckily, we live in a city with a lot of gluten-free options. With celiac disease, one has to be very careful regarding cross-contamination. At home for example, I keep separate peanut butters, butters, and cream cheeses because we don’t all eat gluten free, and if you dip the knife in one of those and then gluten crumbs get into the product, he could get very ill. About 10 milligrams of gluten is what it takes to get sick, and that is about the size of a bread crumb. You’re probably wondering how we ever trust a restaurant or go out to eat. With age and experience has also come his level of risk tolerance for his body. For example, many restaurants don’t have a dedicated fryer for french fries, but he’s realized that this doesn’t seem to impact him, so he is OK to eat the fries, usually. This likely isn’t best practice per his doctors, but he also has to have some “food freedom” in life. Our favorite gluten-free friendly restaurants in Chicago As a family, we love to go out to eat. Below are some restaurants that my son loves – and that I trust: D’Agostino’s — He loves the pizza and the restaurant even went through a celiac certification process Jersey Mike’s – The company uses Udi’s sub rolls and will even clean off the deli slicers before making his sandwich Lettuce Entertain You – Takes celiac disease very seriously and have separate menus in most of their restaurants Wheat’s End – A dedicated gluten-free restaurant with amazing pancakes Zia’s Lakeview – Dedicated gluten-free menu and he loves their octopus appetizer Corridor on Southport – Amazing burgers that he orders without a bun and fantastic fries As my son gets older, it will be up to him to keep his body healthy. He fully understands how awful he feels if he ingests gluten, but I also know he will make mistakes either intentionally or not. Thankfully, there are many great options in Chicago, and he has a great group of friends and parents that all support him. To learn more about gluten threshold levels for teens and others, check out the National Celiac Association's helpful graphic here. Photo: gluten-free doughnut at Wheat's End Cafe
  4. Photo by Flora Westbrook Winter ain’t over just yet! With possible snow still on the horizon, we’ve got you covered with these warm and comforting, kid-friendly meals you can easily make in the slow cooker. Dressing them up with some fresh herbs, bright citrus and other toppers, though, will help keep your sight on Spring (and please the adults in the room). [Related: Make this easy London broil recipe for your family] Chicken Enchiladas Place 1 pound (or more) boneless chicken thighs in the slow cooker with a generous sprinkling of cumin, chili powder, garlic powder and onion powder, plus a pinch of salt and a 14.5-ounce can of fire-roasted, diced tomatoes (drained). Cook for 8 hours on low. Shred using two forks, stuff into tortillas, and bake them off with a bunch of cheese on top. Dress it up: Chopped fresh cilantro, lime wedges, a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt, and pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds) for crunch. Cheeseburger Soup Place 1 pound ground beef (brown first, if possible), celery-carrots-onion mirepoix mix, garlic powder, 3 cups chicken broth or stock, 1/4 cup sour cream, 1 1/2 cups milk, 4 cups cubed potatoes, and 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 8 hours. Dress it up: Halved cherry tomatoes, baby spinach leaves, cooked chopped bacon or bacon bits for smokiness, and homemade croutons (toss day-old bread pieces with olive oil and dried herbs and bake in a 350ºF toaster oven for 15 minutes or so) for crunch. Mac n’ Cheese Place 1 pound uncooked, rinsed elbow pasta, 2 1/2 cups whole milk, 3 cups shredded cheddar or extra cheddar cheese, 4 ounces American (or other melty cheese) cheese, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dry mustard powder in the slow cooker. Top with 1/2 a stick of cubed, unsalted butter and cook on low for 8 hours. Dress it up: Steamed broccoli, grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese, torn basil leaves, balsamic glaze (made by microwaving balsamic vinegar on 30% power in the microwave for 2 minutes), and a touch of panko breadcrumbs for crunch. Build-Your-Own Ramen Place 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, diced yellow onion, a few garlic cloves, 4 cups chicken broth, 1/4 cup soy sauce, a touch of rice vinegar, a package of sliced mushrooms, and some minced ginger (or ground ginger) in a slow cooker. Cook on low for 3 hours. Remove chicken and add ramen noodles (from a few packages, discarding the chemical-laden seasoning) or Udon noodles. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes while you shred the chicken. Dress it up: Soft- or hard-boiled egg, baby spinach leaves, toasted sesame oil and sesame seeds, thinly sliced scallions, chopped fresh cilantro, Sriracha sauce or sliced jalapenos, peanuts (or almonds or cashews) for crunch.
  5. As parents, we hope to instill in our children the importance of traditions. Many of our family traditions revolve around food. For example, our Sunday evening tradition has become a London broil dinner. All my kids love this meal—which is quite a miracle—and I hope it might become a tradition in your home, too. London broil 1 ½-2 lb. London broil ¾ cup Italian dressing ¼ cup soy sauce ¼ cup honey Mix Italian dressing, honey and soy sauce in a large Ziploc bag. Add London broil to bag and, if possible, let it marinate for several hours in the refrigerator. Grill on low heat 12 minutes each side (4 minutes longer per side if you like it well done, but who likes it well done?!). Can you believe that’s all it takes? Enjoy! Tips: This is a great recipe to quickly throw together in the morning and let marinate in the refrigerator during the day. Just put the meat in the oven or grill it when you get home. If you are living a cold climate and aren’t brave enough to grill in the winter (we Chicagoans grill in the snow), then preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bake the London broil on the lowest rack uncovered in a disposable pan for 1 hour. As always with red meat, let it sit after cooking for 5-10 minutes before cutting to seal in the juice. This London broil is great served with grilled asparagus and brown rice (my favorite is Trader Joe’s frozen brown rice) Related articles: Bring these easy-pack snacks and gear on your next family picnic 5 simple ways to help your picky eater Your kid will hate some foods, and that's ok
  6. As parents, we are sometimes just as excited as our kids when school is out for summer. For us, that means no helping with homework, no rushing around in the morning, and no packing of lunches. But as the summer nears the end, we realize the tasks ahead of us as the school year begins. Packing lunches does not need to be one of those dreaded tasks. Here are some helpful tips for putting together a delicious lunch in advance: No “surprise” lunches Try out new recipes on your kids at home first, rather than surprising them with a new lunch. As a food blogger, I do this all the time. Use Sunday to prep When I find something they like, I’ll make that dish on a Sunday night. I make enough so I can pack individual lunches for a few days during the week. My kids’ lunch favorites are Banana Muffins, Hidden Zucchini Muffins, Bourbon Chicken and Crispy Corn Flake Chicken (see below for recipe). Also on Sundays, my boys and I will bake S’mores Brownies. Then we’ll wrap them individually so they’re ready for the lunch box for dessert throughout the week. Eat in season My go-to fruit is the small individual bag of organic apple slices from Costco or Trader Joe’s. Of course, a fabulous autumn activity is apple picking. If you have picked them fresh, make sure to cut them up in the morning so they don’t turn brown before lunch. If stored properly, freshly picked apples will last up to two months in the refrigerator. Keep it cold Freeze a box of yogurt squeezers (my favorite is Stoneyfield Organic Strawberry), and include one in the lunch box. By the time lunch rolls around, the yogurt will be defrosted but still cold. And it will keep the other lunch items cold, too. You can find dozens of quick and easy kid-friendly recipes on my blog at www.mommachef.com. All use no more than six ingredients and are under six minutes of prep time. Momma Chef’s Cornflake Coated Chicken (makes 6 servings) 6 boneless chicken breasts 4 cups cornflakes 2 large eggs 2 tbsp. water 1 tbsp. salt 1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 2. In a large bowl, mix together eggs and water. Set aside. 3. In a large Ziploc bag, add the cornflakes and salt. Then crush the cornflakes. 4. Dip each chicken breast in the egg/water mixture and put them in the Ziploc bag. Shake to coat all sides of the chicken. 5. Arrange the chicken in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes.
  7. I don't cook, and I am totally envious when I see mom friends post incredible dishes they make for their kids on social media. As a result, I make impulsive purchases to acquire cooking tools that gather dust in my cabinets. Like some mamas, I am just not interested in cooking. I enjoy it when it is an activity, an experiment, but not a task. Most of the people in my generation growing up in Asia have a live-in nanny or take-out is merely a block away. Also eating out is a social thing with friends and families. And traditionally, Asian parents didn't encourage their children to learn how to cook, because in their mind it is "wasting time,"—kids should focus on studying and school. Especially for boys, messing around in the kitchen was definitely a no when I was growing up. (Clearly that's an old notion—nowadays, cooking is the enhanced value proposition for men because sexier men cook.) Now I am a mother of a picky toddler and an infant migrating to solid food. Even though I don't cook, my kids still need to eat! This is how I do it: Watch and collect ideas from cooking YouTube channel Tasty: I enjoy watching and collecting these nicely done cooking videos for future inspiration. The video editing technique they use makes everything looks so easy! I have a "cooking idea folder" where I collect video clips from Tasty Japan and Emmy Made in Japan. What makes them different is that besides being exotic and yummy, it's all about presentation—they make food too adorable to eat. And I can't resist buying all those cooking gears and molds—once a while, my kids get to eat one, or two, or three Panda rice balls. Order mobile food: I order from a wide array of restaurants with a single tap on my phone. I actually prefer "new delivery" (e.g., Foodora) vs. the traditional "aggregators" (e.g., GrubHub) just because the delivery service and timing is much more predictable when you have hungry kids at home. The essential difference is "new delivery" has its own logistics for delivery from gourmet restaurants and "aggregators" pass the order to the restaurant to fulfill. Make sushi: We are not talking about rainbow rolls or caterpillar rolls here. Avocado and salmon rolls are easy, healthy and achievable at home. Simply buy a sushi making kit, get some fresh avocado and sushi-grade salmon and follow a YouTube video. Buy great kids' party food: Call me bold, but even thought I don't cook, I am brave enough to throw in a kids' birthday party with 60+ guests. I've tried out a variety of things from different places, and the winners are the ones that are easy to bake, steam, heat up or put together. Just to name a few from my shopping list that are super popular among little kiddos: H Mart: Crab or shrimp shumai, chicken teriyaki bao, mini seafood dumplings, Ramule (kids soft drink with a crystal ball inside of the funky bottle). And it looks like H Mart is going to add a West Loop location this summer, making my party-shopping route more streamlined. Costco: Beef bibimbap (Korean beef rice), party-size quinoa, crispy vegetable spring rolls Trader Joe's: Corn dog, veggie pizza bites, shrimp toast, macaroons (in the box)
  8. It never ceases to amaze me how my two kids—born from the same womb—can be so different. I don't know why it still surprises me so much, but it always does. In areas where one excels, the other struggles. At times when one is calm, the other is fired up. The differences in their personalities show up everywhere, including at the dinner table. One loves chocolate, the other loves vanilla. One is adventurous and willing to try new foods, the other is ... not. Over the holiday break, we visited my mom and dad in Florida. One night, we went to a local restaurant called Deep Lagoon Seafood. Jack, my adventurous one, saw a poster on the wall promoting a local "delicacy" on the menu. The poster said: "Gator Bites. Bite them before they bite you." Um, ick. But, right away, Jack was practically bursting with excitement. (Kinda weird, right?) I mean, the kid was ALL IN. Meanwhile, Caitlin (my not-so-adventurous one) broke out in a cold sweat. She was ready to do a mad dash from the restaurant. Can't say I blame her. My stomach did a few somersaults, too. For me, it was a great reminder of the fear kids can feel when faced with an unfamiliar food. I'm a full-grown, 40-something adult and I was feeling the fear loud and clear. If someone tried to force me to eat 'gator, I would not be happy. Not one little bit. As parents, it's human nature to want to encourage our kids to try new foods. After all, we know that foods like peas and broccoli are harmless and (sorta) tasty. But from a 2-year-old's perspective, those green veggies can set off the panic button, much like the 'gator bites did to me. So, as a parent, how can we respect our kid's food preferences and aversions, while still encouraging them to eat healthy, new foods? First, we can try to be good role models and eat the foods we want our kids to eat. In the 'gator example, I maybe wasn't the best at modeling adventurous food choices, but I also can't exactly say that 'gator is a food I want my kids to like. On the other hand, give me a fresh, simple salad and I'll role model my way to Timbuktu. Second, as the wise Ellyn Satter recommends in her "division of responsibility" approach, it's the parent's job to offer kids healthy options; it's the kid’s job to choose whether or not to eat them. In other words, we should routinely prepare healthy foods for our kids, then leave it at that. Our work is done. Amen and hallelujah. As I often tell my kids when they get all hot and bothered about the choices I've given them, "Food is food. You can eat it or not. It's your choice. But food isn't something to get worked up about." Then we move on. Sounds like a ridiculously simple way to deal with a tantrum at the table, doesn't it? But once you get the hang of it—and your kid realizes that you aren't going to force a food—so many stresses at the dinner table melt away. So what was Jack's verdict about the 'gator? "Tastes like chicken, but chewier." P.S. I don’t know if eating ‘gator is humane, sustainable or acceptable. I should probably look into that. Keep in mind this was a one-time experience, not an overall lifestyle choice, so please be kind.

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