Beyond Casseroles: What to Cook for New Parents

slow roasted bolognese
The best slow-cooked bolognese. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

It was the most grown-up thing I'd ever done: I bought a freezer. The stand-alone kind, for a corner in our garage, and it felt monumental, never mind that I'd found myself with access to a garage, and needed the freezer because I was about to have a baby. The freezer was definitely the grown-up part.

I had grand plans to spend my last weeks of pregnancy simmering stews and stocks, storing up meals like a self-sufficient cabin-dweller living in a world where 'just order delivery again' isn't an option.

And then I got more pregnant. And more pregnant. My protruding belly positioned me further and further from the counter, until I couldn't reach the cutting board or the sink without growing go-go-Gadget! arms (or developing some serious back pain.) Cooking for the future just wasn't happening.

picture of a baby
Maggie Hoffman

Which was fine, really. My girl was born on July 8th—healthy and happy, after what wasn't the easiest forty weeks—and when we came home, it was too hot for stews and stocks anyway. But I was hungry, perhaps hungrier than I've ever been.

When friends asked what they could bring over, and family came to lend a hand, I didn't really know what would work best. Early days with a baby are trial and error, and one dinner-hour baby meltdown blurs into another endless fluster-feeding. But there are some kinds of food that really make sense (and a few things baby-visitors should keep in mind.) Here's what I wish I'd said.

Before You Start Cooking

Before you plot any food gifts for new parents, check in about dietary restrictions. Some breastfeeding moms try to stay away from caffeinated beverages and chocolate, some avoid peanuts, while others find their babies are sensitive to spicy foods or cabbage and broccoli. Some are ready for a glass of wine and others are still on pain meds and can't partake. Some crave carbs like crazy, and others would prefer to steer clear and keep temptation out of the house.

Ask about timing, too: it might be preferable for you to deliver dinner at five or six p.m., before the evening's witching hour drama begins. If your work schedule means you can't visit before 7:30, it might be better to bring something for their fridge or freezer to eat later on, rather than ask the hungry parents to wait for you to cook. They may need to crash before you've usually wrapped up happy hour.

Finally, if you think you might be coming down with something, or you've had contact with anyone who's sick, delay your visit or have an outside vendor deliver a care package. A fever in a newborn turns into a trip to the hospital for a spinal tap, and even a little cold is much more serious in an infant.

Now, what should you bring?

The Quickest Breakfasts

cheesecake muffins
Cheesecake streusel muffins.. Yvonne Ruperti

Bleary-eyed mornings with a new baby are equal parts sweet and painful. Dawn comes hours too early, but there's nothing cuter than a bright-eyed infant testing out her smile as you free her from her straightjacket swaddle. She's hungry, of course, but new parents are too, and an efficient breakfast might even let them squeeze in a shower before she's ready to feed a second time.

Stock their freezer with muffins, which are quick to thaw in the microwave and easily eaten with one hand. These moist and tender berry muffins are made with tangy yogurt and topped with a buttery crumble, while these autumn-appropriate pumpkin muffins get a sprinkle of turbinado sugar and pepitas. Dark rye flour and whole wheat make these rye raisin muffins feel a bit healthier, and these lemon muffins use a nice combo of Greek yogurt and olive oil for moisture.

Be a lifesaver: if they're not avoiding caffeine, throw in a few bottles of Stumptown cold brew or cartons of sweet Blue Bottle New Orleans Iced Coffee.

An Easy Lunch Spread

cheeseboard
Vicky Wasik

Baby's first weeks might be filled with visitors and family on-hand to help, but somebody's gotta feed all those people. Consider a gift certificate for grocery delivery, or stop by with picnic-style lunch supplies to ease the pressure. Things that can sit in the fridge (or out on the table) for grazing and don't require a certain serving time (when baby is guaranteed to be having a meltdown) work best.

Make sure the spread includes some protein: some good homemade hummus (or your favorite store-bought brand), an assortment of cheeses and perhaps some freshly-sliced cured meats. Cold fried chicken is great finger food, and the fewer dishes that need to be washed, the better. Arriving with compostable plates makes the whole thing even easier.

Add a big container of a hearty make-ahead salad like this chickpea and carrot number or this version with chickpeas, celery, and cumin. Grain salads, like a bowl of nutty spelt with mushrooms and leeks, work wonderfully, too. If lunch gets delayed or everyone needs to eat in shifts, these dishes won't be worse for the wear.

Dinner, Fresh and Fast

carrot salad
Chilled carrots with tahini-ginger dressing.. Vicky Wasik

You never know when a baby's going to fall asleep, and you never know how long it's going to last. The best meals for new parents offer real nourishment almost instantly.

A hardy salad can be prepped (but not dressed) in advance. This one with roasted pears, endive, blue cheese, and frisée offers a nice balance of sweet and savory flavors. Our Niçoise offers a little more protein—just check before adding tuna, which some nursing mothers avoid. The one exception to the don't-dress-the-salad-until-the-last-minute rule: panzanella, which absorbs the dressing as it sits. Note: don't make it unless you have access to good in-season tomatoes, though.

Of course, there are lots of good room-temperature dishes beyond green salads. A chilled carrot number with tahini and ginger is bright and fresh, and this quinoa dish gets a little richness from crumbled feta.

One of the best gifts we received in the early weeks after our daughter's birth was a massive batch of fresh pasta along with a jar of homemade pesto. Unlike a box of the dried stuff, fresh pasta is ready in about one lullaby. Add some fresh eggs, Pecorino, and a little pancetta (or guanciale if you can get it), and they're all set for a Carbonara feast.

Want to make it really easy, and make sure the new parents aren't left with pots and pans to wash? Make up a set of these DIY Instant Noodle Jars, and a flavorful meal is just a little boiling water away.

Freezables

bolognese
The best slow-cooked bolognese.. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

If the new parents have freezer space, offer to stock it for meals down the road. The first few weeks of parenting go by in a blur, but new parents will also want easy dinners for when they go back to work down the line.

Buy a crate of tomatoes (ideally a mix of Romas, Amish Pastes, and San Marzanos) and cook up Daniel's rich-yet-fresh tomato sauce. Fill gallon freezer bags with it (don't forget to label 'em!) and freeze flat for easy storage. If you can't get a deal on good fresh tomatoes, you can still make great tomato sauce using Kenji's oven-cooked recipe or this quick and easy method. For meat eaters, it's hard to do better than a rich ragù Bolognese, but our vegan mushroom ragù, made with a mix of fresh and dried mushrooms, is every bit as much a crowd-pleaser.

Football season wouldn't feel right without a stash of chili, whether it's served by the bowl, on top of hot dogs, nachos, or as a Frito pie. Kenji has perfected the classic Texan bowl of red, as well as a speedy pressure-cooker version. But you're not limited to beef (and new parents may already have some around). Try tender chicken chile verde, flavored with tomatillos and poblano peppers, or slow-cooked New Mexican carne adovada, which is also excellent as a taco or burrito filling.

While we're talking taco night, there are a number of fillings that you can freeze: the ultimate gift would be a double batch, one container with good tortillas for eating same-day, and another for a dinner down the road. Moist and juicy carnitas are rich enough to hold up well, even if you don't make them with a bucket of lard. Just follow Kenji's recipe through step three and freeze the meat and tomatillo salsa separately. Homemade beef barbacoa and saucy chicken tinga also freeze and reheat nicely.

If the season's right for soup, simmer up something comforting: creamy spiced parsnip soup or this chanterelle concoction, flavor-packed lentil soup, or just some good homemade chicken stock.

Midnight Snacks

chocolate chip cookies
Chocolate chip cookies, perfected. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

New parents might be facing a couple weeks of feeding a baby at ten and midnight, and two a.m., and four, and six, and they're gonna need snacks to fuel those efforts. Something as simple as a giant bag of trail mix can do the trick—be sure to check if they're avoiding peanuts or chocolate and adjust the blend accordingly. If you want to complete the care package, a big unbreakable cup with a bendy straw is perfect for mid-feeding thirst.

Freshly baked oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies are always welcome, as are granola bars (or these no-bake oatmeal-raisin bars.) And after days of mediocre hospital food (and sometimes months of restricted eating), fresh fruit from the farmers market tastes juicier and sweeter and more perfect than anything in the world—except, perhaps, a nibble of that miraculous chubby baby.

picture of a baby
Maggie Hoffman