San Francisco Food Writer Tara Duggan has authored a cookbook about how to make fresh, healthy meals even when you are busy. But with two young daughters, she faces the same problem as any of us — the fight over the magical box.
Dahlia, 6, and Elsie, 3, love boxed macaroni and cheese, she said, which she buys only occasionally when her husband is feeding them or a babysitter is coming over. “They almost die with excitement,” Tara said. “When I make fancy homemade mac ‘n cheese, my older daughter says, “This isn‘t mac ‘n cheese mom!”
To juggle the demands of a full-time job and a family, the award-winning writer tries out recipes at home once in a while, making them for dinner to test them on her family. Many of the recipes from her San Francisco Chronicle column, “The Working Cook” ended up in her book, “The Working Cook, Fast and Fresh Meals for Busy People.”
Read on for the interview and to find out how you can win a copy of her book.
Name: Tara Duggan
Job: food writer and editor, The San Francisco Chronicle
Number of kids, names and ages: two girls, Dahlia 6, and Elsie, 3
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How did you get into your job?
I was a travel writer and dot-com travel editor and decided to go to the California Culinary Academy to satisfy creative urges. As a culinary student, I interned in The Chronicle’s Food department, and then was hired as a copy editor in the Home & Garden section, and as a columnist in the Food section. A year later I transferred to my current job. I’ve been here 10 years.
How did you come up with the idea for your book?
I already had a column called The Working Cook, for which I had created probably hundreds of recipes for quick and easy dinners with a California approach — fresh ingredients, lots of fresh produce, international inspirations. So the book was just an offshoot of the column. I selected about 100 recipes from the column, retested them and sometimes changed them a bit. Readers are always looking for lighter recipes, so in some cases I reduced the amount of fat and calories in the recipes. I always try to make them as easy and streamlined as possible.
I finished it weeks before my younger daughter was born (I hid my huge belly in the author photo). It came out when she was six months old and I had to do some publicity for it, which was kind of ridiculous. One time there was a mix up and I didn't realize I had a radio interview. The radio station called me while I was alone with the kids. I had to hustle them into the living room to watch TV while the host started asking questions live.
Do you work in an office or at home? How do you deal with childcare?
My employer recently required that all part-time employees switch to full-time or lose their jobs, so several weeks ago I shifted from 30 hours a week to 40. I work at the office for all but a few hours a week.
We know how challenging it can be to balance family and career. Can you tell us how you create a balance?
One time I read an interview with actress Annette Bening, a mother of four, who said that balance is overrated, and I tend to agree. Like so many mothers, I struggle with this constantly. But I try to look on the bright side. Right now, I know I'm lucky to have a job with benefits, especially one that I enjoy so much. I'm also lucky that some of what I do at work can involve feeding my family, because I can sometimes test recipes at home and make dinner at the same time.
In order to go on field trips once in a while or see a school performance or volunteer at my daughter's elementary school, I work a few extra hours at night, in the early morning or on weekends. When I'm with my kids, I try really hard to focus on them and be in the moment with them, because it's easy to be distracted when you're stressed from work. I'm not always very successful at this but I keep trying.
Do you ever give your kids prepackaged or frozen meals, like chicken nuggets or macaroni and cheese?
Oh my God, NEVER. Ha, well, OK to be honest, not really. They don't even like nuggets, though they looooooove mac and cheese, especially the non-homemade kind. I probably would buy the frozen mac 'n cheese, but it seems expensive for what it is. Once in a while, I buy the boxed kind for when my husband is feeding them (though he's a good cook) or a babysitter comes, and they almost die with excitement. When I make fancy, homemade mac 'n cheese, my older daughter says, 'This isn't mac 'n cheese, mom.'" We do buy frozen Trader Joe's pizza sometimes, does that count?
I struggle to find healthy foods to put into my picky eater's lunch every day for school. What do you pack for your daughers?
Actually, for lunch we usually make a batch of pasta with butter and cheese and pack that in a thermos or the preschool reheats it. We alternate with a bagel and cream cheese, then lots of fruit, snacks, etc. Not too balanced. They're not into P&B or turkey sandwiches right now.
What tips can you give to moms who want to cook the family a healthy meal but are pressed for time?
Try to focus on simple cooking methods like grilling, broiling or pan-searing a quality piece of meat or fish, then add a simple starch and a simple vegetable. We usually have at least two vegetables, one that both my kids and the adults like and one that only the adults like. We kind of fill up on vegetables and then have smaller portions of protein and starch.
For example, we might have a big salad, then we have smaller portions of chicken and maybe rice or potatoes and then steamed broccoli or green beans. You can add simple pan sauces to make it more exciting. After searing chicken in a pan until it gets browned (with a little oil or butter in the pan on medium high heat, about five minutes per side), stick the chicken in the oven for 10 minutes at 400 degrees. While it cooks, add some minced onion and garlic to the pan, then add a little wine and simmer it until thickened. Then pour this over the chicken when you serve it.
What is the most satisfying part of your job?
My job is extremely satisfying. I love getting to both write and cook and I also enjoy interacting with local readers even though they often send crazy letters. I also love getting to go out into the field and talk to interesting people in the food world.
What do you like to do to relax?
As a family, we love going to the beach or to the pool or to the farmers market, and we cook together a lot. I stay sane by swimming two or three times a week, which I usually do in the morning before work, after the kids go to bed or on the weekend. My husband and I have dates (sort of) regularly and I often go out to eat or get together to cook with my friends.
Tara has offered our readers a chance to win a copy of her book. To enter, comment below.
She will be signing books at Omnivore Books, 3885a Cesar Chavez St. from 3-4 p.m. Aug. 1. She promises free food!