Cook of the Week: Planning key to healthy family dinners

By Abby Scalf
Daily Herald Correspondent
Posted6/3/2014 5:30 AM
  • Cook of the Week Kate Kent says weekly menu planning for her family of six keeps her from losing control.

      Cook of the Week Kate Kent says weekly menu planning for her family of six keeps her from losing control. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Kate Kent first fell in love with cooking as a child surrounded by her family.

"All of my grandparents came over from Europe and each cuisine is distinctly different," she said.

Her mom's paternal grandparents who came from Italy introduced her to homemade sauces, meatballs and lasagna. Her mother's mom came from Ireland. On her father's side, her grandfather's sister taught her to make potato pancakes.

While Kate recalls fondly these dishes, she said she takes a different approach to cooking in her Arlington Heights kitchen. Dishes are kept simple and made with natural ingredients for her husband, John, and their daughters, Jayna, 7, Grace, 9, Kayla, 12, and Ciara, 13.

"I like knowing what's in my food," she said. "I like knowing what's going on the table and where the food came from. I've prepared it and it's all natural and I know everything that is in it."

Kate said planning meals for her large family requires a weekly menu; she notes what to buy at the beginning of the week and when to defrost meats. One of her go-to quick and healthy dishes is Hummus Chicken. Chicken breasts get smothered with chickpea dip then layered with sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary and pine nuts.

"I find that without it (a plan) it is so scattered and hectic with going to dance classes and guitar lessons and so much going on," she said. "It gives me peace of mind knowing what I'm putting on the table each night. I have everything in the house that I need."

Kate said the older girls already have shown a desire to cook. Skills learned in classes at school have transferred to home helping mom in the kitchen.

"I let them be my sous chefs for a week and help mom out," she said. "They like it."

Kate also loves to bake, receiving hands-on instruction in crepe-making, pies and the like from her grandmothers.

"I don't think you really understand it until you are working with whatever they were making," she said.

The family recently encountered a new challenge for planning meals and baking when one of the girls was diagnosed with a sensitivity to gluten.

"We've had to take everything we know about cooking and totally turn it upside down and change it around," she said. "Whenever we go to the library, I am heading to the cookbooks to study how to make baked goods gluten free."

For some ingredients, the family doesn't need to rely on the store. In the 15 years that John and Kate have been married, they have always kept a garden. The girls each have a hand in planning what goes in the ground and maintaining the garden. Crops usually include kale, Swiss chard, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, beets, tomatoes, peppers, spinach and a variety of herbs.

"When you're cooking a meal and you want to spice up the dish and I need a handful of oregano or a handful of thyme, there is nothing better than going into the backyard and grabbing what I need. It's like your own produce aisle in the backyard," she said. "It's also great for the kids to see it growing and for them to be involved too."

Kate and John also share their love of gardening with the youth group chapter they formed two years ago. Yung Peacemaker's Club, open to children in kindergarten through eighth grade, meets September through May. The nondenominational, multicultural group gets kids together to find peace and self-esteem.

While the kids learn to work in the garden at Elgin Community of Christ Church, where the group meets. Kate said they also bring some of the bounty to the Elgin Soup Kitchen.

"We get to give some away, and the kids get to see it being used to positively to help others to eat."

Yes, life is busy, but Kate takes it in stride.

"I don't know what I would do without it," she said. "It keeps me busy. It keeps me active. I enjoy it."

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