Help me cook for Chinese children!
November 2, 2014 8:07 AM   Subscribe

After a great deal of deliberation, a thorough reading of Fosterhood, and an inconceivable amount of bureaucratic obstacle weaving, we are currently parenting two foster children. They're Chinese. We aren't. They need to eat more soups, more vegetables. I need help figuring out how to make things they'll like.

Their parents definitely cook dinner regularly (they're often on my case about relying on cookbooks. "Our mom already knows how to make everything. She doesn't need a book." -- I don't point out that I know how to make plenty of things, too, but I'm experimenting to find things they might actually eat.)

They speak Mandarin. They have no idea where in China they are from (they don't even know they are speaking "Mandarin" -- it is just Chinese, though I think they do know that some people speak "the other Chinese") and all communication with the parents happens through a translator, so I haven't been able to get any insights from them. The mom sometimes shows me photos of Chinese food, but she's mostly showing me restaurant food (or restaurant sushi). So we are not getting a lot of help there.

We take them out periodically, but we need to up our home cooking repertoire. Things I have had success with:

+ Corn soup, which is just stock, frozen corn, some thickener (I actually use shredded root vegetables and some onion and puree it, but most recipes say corn starch) and a dash of sesame oil. Stir 1-2 beaten eggs into the soup while it simmers to get a good egg thread going. They'll eat this, but it was better in summer when we could use fresh sweet corn add the cob to the stock.

+ Bok choy, pan braised in canola with no spices

+ Finely shredded cabbage cooked with either umeboshi paste and some sugar or sambal olek and a bit of soy sauce

+ Sushi, which is not Chinese but they say it is. I make rolls, I'm not working with raw fish. I use brown rice or hiagi rice, and put some pickle, bonito flakes, cucumber in.

+ Edemame

Other things they're happy to eat include pizza, fish sticks, hot dogs, pork dumplings (but not vegetable dumplings), ham, scrambled eggs. Peanut butter toast, granola. Bananas. We've been making smoothies with them -- banana, yogurt, OJ, and some frozen berries or mango.

We tend to cook coconut curry, freestyle ratatouille, spaghetti sauce with random vegetables in it, butternut squash with lentils, mujadara, lentil soup, risotto, big salads. We're vegetarians, but I don't mind feeding them meat. I can't really cook it, though. I can steam pork dumplings, no problem, but I have no experience preparing meat from scratch and it makes me nervous. If I don't wash my cutting board after I chop carrots, no one is going to get sick.

I'm most interested in getting them to eat vegetables and soups. Right now they are both sick (we all are, actually) and I think they need more fluids. So I'd love some good soup recipes.

We live in a large city with access to diverse ingredients, so that's not an issue. I can go buy some black vinegar if you tell me I need it.

Salad dressings/rethinkings would be great, too. We eat a lot of salad and they won't eat our dressings (have tried balsamic and pomegranite; lemon cumin; buttermilk and garlic. Nothing doing.) so we wind up in this intense negotiation over bites of undressed lettuce and then they pitch a fit about salad with nothing on it when there was dressing right there, they just rejected it.

What do Chinese moms make for their kids?
posted by amandabee to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I've been trying to teach myself how to stir-fry using Grace Young's Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge. It's a really remarkably good book at giving fundamentals of the technique, and the recipes have all been turning out great. She has a whole chapter on Vegetable and Tofu recipes, if you want to keep it vegetarian. It looks like she has some recipes published on Epicurious, so that may be someplace to start, too.

And as a former vegetarian who nervously taught herself to cook meat, it might help to buy sustainably-raised (unground) beef and start there if you want to add in meat -- it's safe to eat at a wider range of temperatures and less likely to create cross-contamination issues.
posted by jaguar at 8:24 AM on November 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My mom always made me and my brother chicken broth from scratch. I'm pretty sure she'd literally just put a chicken in a stock pot and let it simmer there for a couple hours then add salt. You shouldn't accidentally give your family food poisoning from this since you can take the chicken from its packaging and put it straight in the pot. Just wash your hands afterwards. From this base, you can add Chinese cabbage, winter melon, and clear rice noodles.

Another thing was stir fried eggs and tomato.

Steamed egg with a bit of white rice was also a good one. Instead of using soy sauce and sesame oil, cook it in a bit of salted chicken broth for flavor. Feel free to add scallions.

Congee also seems to be a Chinese favorite though I never had much taste for it. You top it with shredded pork (pork floss/肉松 )for if you have to go to a Chinese supermarket and pick out characters), some Chinese pickled cucumbers, and pickled radish (Zha cai/ 榨菜)

Sigua/丝瓜(yes this is what louffas come from) takes pretty well in above mentioned chicken soup (I'm pretty sure my mom just threw in whatever). You can also add some eggs. Or just stir fry it all together. The linked site has some other ideas.
posted by astapasta24 at 8:27 AM on November 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

The foods that you list making (which they're not eating, I presume) sound fairly rich. Maybe conceiving of foods that taste "light" might help you with recipe-planning, too.
posted by jaguar at 8:32 AM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Serious Eats did a series on Chinese greens. Haven't tried any of the recipes myself, since I grew up knowing how to cook this way, but it looks pretty authentic.
posted by acidic at 8:40 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Came here to suggest Congee/Jook but got beaten to it. You can make it a heap of different ways & with lots of different ingredients. Google will find you more recipes than you'll know what to do with. If you are nervous of meat you can buy premade chicken broth/stock, though making your own with pre cut up pieces is pretty easy and you won't need raw chicken near your cutting board. There are vegetarian versions out there but most of the versions I've had used chicken stock. Make sure to stir it a lot while it is cooking to get texture as creamy as possible.
posted by wwax at 8:57 AM on November 2, 2014

Best answer: Forgot to add a few other Chinese dishes! I'm not sure if you can find some of these vegetables easily outside a Chinese supermarket:

空心菜or Tong Choi (Cantonese) or Kong Xin Cai is easily stir fried with a bit of garlic. I'm not sure if you can find these now though since they tend to come in season in summer.

Stir fried pea shoots in garlic is very simple too. This too is a bit of a spring/summer veggie so may be hard to find.

Chinese stir fried eggplant is another vegetarian option. Chinese eggplant is different from European eggplant so watch out there.

Bean sprouts also stir fry easily. You can add tofu puffs (they look like this) to the dish, though if you add tofu puffs, let everything steam in some broth so that the puffs can soak up more flavors.

You can also stir fry edemame, tofu, and wood ear fungus (that's a literal translation). Here's a similar recipe but with chicken.

Also, drink wise, consider getting soy milk. Not the stuff you can get in your local supermarket. That stuff tastes like crap. If you can find Vitasoy soy milk, it may be closer to what the kids (I have no idea how old they are) may have had back in China. Though your best bet here is to ask a Chinese friend to help you find something more authentic tasting that doesn't require you to make it out home (though you could invest in a soy bean milk maker.)
posted by astapasta24 at 8:57 AM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fishball soup is a personal favorite in my Chinese family. It's super easy and you can buy fully prepared fishballs so you wont have to worry about cooking meat. For vegetables, you might also want to try tomato eggs, fish sauce eggplant or stir fried snow peas.

Depending on their ages, you might try taking them around an asian grocery store and asking if they want anything specific. When I was a kid, I didn't always know English names for the foods I liked at home, but I could definitely point out the raw form.
posted by tinymegalo at 8:59 AM on November 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

My supermarket has Chinese soup flavor packets (they look like Ortega taco seasoning packets in size) and it tells you on the packet what to add and how to prepare it. The egg-drop-soup one I just add an egg while stirring in one direction. It has further options for adding tofu, green onions, and mushrooms to make it heartier.

Maybe hit up your local library and look through the Chinese cookbooks? Mark Bittman's "best recipes in the world" is pretty accessible for westerners, but obviously isn't just focused on Chinese cooking. Ones with pictures, the kids could look at and point out things that seem familiar or tasty.

Your local supermarket deli (or costco!) probably has prepared chicken of some kind -- cooked whole rotisserie chickens, cooked chicken breasts, shredded chicken, etc. Mine makes prepared "wings" and with the leftover breast meat, puts the cooked, cut-up breast meat into containers so you can buy fully-cooked, already cut-up chicken breast meat, which is perfect for adding to soups or salads, and requires zero cooking. (You can make a broth from cooked chicken rather than raw, if you like, but I really mostly can't be bothered and just buy the broth already made.) Anyway, you can get a rotisserie chicken and let the kids eat the parts they like (drumsticks!) and slowly cut up the rest to add to soups and salads and stir frys, no worry about poisoning anybody since it's already cooked.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:03 AM on November 2, 2014

Best answer: Two links:
Lily Ng's blog of recipes - I've tried her recipes and they're pretty authentic and easy to follow. She's a Chinese grandma who migrated to the US and cooks for her grandkids. In the recipe index, scroll down and look under "Soups" and also "Veg".

Chinese Soup Pot. The Cantonese in particular tend to be big on soups, so I searched to see if there were any Cantonese soup websites out there. The Chinese Soup Pot website seems legit and the "Recipes" section looks good.

If they're sick, the earlier recommendation to make congee is also a good suggestion. It's a comfort food that's easy to swallow and digest when sick.

Good luck!
posted by aielen at 9:20 AM on November 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you're doing a really great job! Wow. I'm seriously impressed. My one small thought is that kids are pretty much all sort of oddly picky. There's a lot of stuff out there about how parents can make their kids like food X or Y, and to some extent that's true, but they frequently have limited tastes no matter what--especially when they're upset or in a difficult situation. I don't want to sound discouraging, I think it's amazing that you're looking for foods they'll be familiar with and like! I just want to gently suggest that you might already be doing pretty much everything right, and kids are gonna kid. Good luck!
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:40 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is what Taiwanese/Chinese parents fed their kids in the Taiwanese/Chinese-American community I grew up in:

Congee topped with with pork shreds, pickled cucumber, braised peanuts and tofu skins (you can get all these canned)
Congee with with boiled sweet potato
Instant ramen with an egg boiled alongside the ramen and topped with blanched baby spinach
Wheat noodles in broth (usually chicken) topped with an egg and/or fried ground pork, and chopped celery / napa cabbage
Eggs and tomato stir fried; eat over steamed rice
Stir fries with carrots, sliced water chestnuts, snow peas and baby corn; eat over steamed rice
Stir fried vegetables: lotus root / soy bean sprouts / watercress / kong xing cai / Chinese broccoli / "American" broccoli / cabbage / napa cabbage. Usually two or three of these would be served at a time and each would get their own serving dish on the dinner table .
Ground pork and glass noodles seasoned with soy sauce and five spice (search for "Ants Climbing a tree" recipes)
Edamame stir fried with ground pork and cubes of pressed five spice tofu (tofu gan)
Wintermelon soup (broth, pieces of wintermelon, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms)
Wintermelon soup with chicken added
Beef noodle soup (Braised beef in soy sauce and five spice, broad wheat noodles, boy choy, cilantro)
Dumplings / buns (the stuffings are very regional)
Steamed sticky rice in banana leaves (zong zi; You can buy these at Chinese grocery stores. Restaurants sometimes sell them frozen. I've also seen them sold on the street in NYC's Chinatown but haven't had the guts to actually buy them...)
posted by rhythm and booze at 9:44 AM on November 2, 2014

Yi Reservation is an excellent blog that has authentic recipes for Chinese food. You didn't mention where in China are the parents from. I'm asking this because there are a lot of regional variations in Chinese cooking and some Chinese people only like food from their home region and don't like food from other Chinese regions. So I would take their regional preferences into account when you are cooking.

I think the key is to shop at a Chinese market. There're many Chinese leafy greens that are easy to cook with the Chinese cooking method that are not available in a Western supermarket. But my recommendations for basic and easy Chinese cooking are as follows:
1. Stir fry, stir fry, stir fry! Basically wash and chop up the veggies, put some oil in the wok, wait for the oil to sizzle a little, put the chopped up roots part in the wok first, when that has been mostly cooked, put the leafy part in, when almost part, put some salt in or hoisin sauce. That's it! You can add a little water to the wok during the cooking process if it gets smokey. You can use this basic stir fry method for pretty much any leafy green in a Chinese market. That's the way my mother and all my Chinese relatives cook veggies 70-80% of the time.

2. Blanche/steam veggies and make a Chinese cold dish. You can do this with any leafy greens or veggies like eggplants, celery, etc. No need to blanche/steam cucumbers. The basic sauce for the cold dish consists of minced garlic, soy sauce, Chinkiang vinegar sesame oil. You can add crushed Chili peppers, either dry or fresh if you like some spiciness and minced ginger (optional). Again, my mom and all my Chinese relatives use this basic sauce for pretty much any Chinese cold dish. The ratio of soy sauce to vinegar varies depending on personal taste.

3. For soup, the basic Chinese soup are pork bone based. But this method also works with beef bones. Get some pork/beef bones (this can be cheap neck bones or chopped ribs, just bones with meat on them). Again, go to a Chinese supermarket will help because Chinese people don't use the meat the same way as Westerners, so a Chinese market will have meat chopped up differently. Boil the bones in water, when water boils, remove the water and scum. Put bones in fresh pot with fresh water with sliced garlic, sliced ginger, one star anise and turn on high. Once water start boiling, turn to medium. You can put any root vegetables in the soup at this time, potatoes, carrots, daikon radishes, winter melons, etc. You can also add things like kelp, shitake mushrooms, just don't add anything that will cook too fast compared to the root veggies. Wait for water to boil again, get rid of any scum that forms on top throughout the cooking process. When the root vegetables are almost done, you can put chopped up leafy greens in the soup or just wait until the root vegetables are done. Season with salt and pepper. Voila, you have soup! This is the basic soup method my mom uses 90% of the time when making soup. You can add 1 or 2 dried chili peppers for a kick, but that's optional.

4. Hot pot/Shabu Shabu. Super easy meal. You can get hot pot base sauce packets in Chinese supermarkets. Throw the base sauce packets in with water, wait for it to start boiling and start cooking/eating. You don't need to cook anything ahead of time. If you have not had hot pot/shabu shabu before, go to a hot pot/shabu shabu restaurant or check out Youtube videos to see how it works.

5. Dumplings. You can include a variety of meat/veggies in a dumpling and it's fun to include the kids in the process by having them making the dumplings. You can buy dumpling wrappers in Asian supermarkets. Same principal works with steamed buns. Anything goes in the filling. You can search on Yi Reservation for recipes on how to make dumplings and stuffed steamed buns. Youtube is very helpful for making items like this. BONUS: You can make extras and freeze them for next time. If both of those are too intimidating to try make them yourself, you can get frozen steamed buns and dumplings easily at any Asian supermarket. Both Korea and Japan have their versions of these two foods, so you can get them at Korean/Japanese supermarkets too.
posted by wcmf at 9:58 AM on November 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

One thing that could work since you don't know what region they're from is to let the kids have a more active role--have them visit the Chinese market with you, perhaps they'll recognize a veggie or a frozen food item photo that they'll want to eat; read through cookbooks or blogs to pick a recipe. (When you're all better!)

Cantonese cooking incorporates a lot of soups. They can be done easily in a crockpot. When I started making soups, this was my to-go cookbook because they have photos and descriptions of all the significant herbs and vegetables that go into traditional soups. Hope it helps!

Cookbook link!
posted by inevitability at 10:12 AM on November 2, 2014

Easy tofu ramen soup: basically, add tofu and vegetables to packaged ramen.

Kids like noodles, right?

Here's more detail:

- packaged ramen, either miso, "Oriental flavor" or something else neutral-sounding (mushroom flavor is kind of risky here). One or two packages per batch, your choice.

- one 8-oz box silken tofu, in cubes (I do this quickly by putting the block on a small rimmed plate, slicing the bottom slice using the plate rim as a guide, making one more big lateral slice above that, then doing cross-hatch slices across the top)

- friendly vegetables: snow peas, carrots (thinly sliced), fresh spinach, shiitake mushrooms (again, thinly sliced). All of these require minimal cooking - no root vegetables.

- soy sauce

- optional flavorings/enrichers - parsley, fresh or dried; dried onion powder; nutritional yeast flakes; bouillion cubes

- miso (comes in a tub in the refrigerated section; I use red miso, but you could also use white)

Put water in pot, add cubed tofu and a little soy sauce, bring to boil. If using frozen peas or mushrooms, add them (not too many - maybe 1/8 - 1/4 cup). Put ~1 Tbsp miso in a small cup or bowl and use some of the hot broth to start dissolving it.

Boil soup a few minutes, then add ramen and next group of vegetables (snow peas?) and cook as directed (usually boil 4 minutes). Remove from heat, then add spinach and miso. Serve!

The salty broth and the noodles should be appealing to kids. Plus, they can help add the vegetables (or choose vegetables) if they want.

[I know this is more Japanese than Chinese, and probably not that Japanese, but maybe they might like it anyway.]
posted by amtho at 10:13 AM on November 2, 2014

Assuming these are Chinese-American kids I don't think you necessarily have to cook Chinese food for them. You mentioned they like pizza, fish sticks, hot dogs, etc. so I imagine they would like other American "kid food" as well. As other commenters have mentioned, kids can have picky taste, and growing up as a Chinese-American kid myself, I know I'd have been pretty fussy about eating vegetarian and not getting any meat. As a kid, I loved pizza, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, mac and cheese, and all the other type of stuff you'd find on kid's menus. I wasn't much of a snob about only eating Chinese food. And I didn't really come to like veggies until I grew up.

Is the problem specifically that they only want Chinese food, or are they just not eating what you've cooked so far?
posted by pravit at 10:22 AM on November 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh and re: soup for sick people: nothing like plain old chicken noodle soup. From a can or homemade. That transcends cultures.

But if you want a specifically Chinese version, here's a really easy Thai-Chinese dish I loved eating as a kid and now: Heat some chicken broth (you can use the kind from the can, or bouillon cubes), then boil some chicken pieces in it. Meanwhile, make some white rice. Chop some garlic up into very tiny pieces, then fry them in oil until golden brown. Slice some ginger into thin slivers. Put the rice in a big soup bowl. Pour the broth and chicken pieces on top. Top with cilantro and fried garlic and ginger slices and a dash of white pepper. Add a touch of vinegar and fish sauce, if you have it. (Here's a more formal recipe)
posted by pravit at 10:31 AM on November 2, 2014

Lettuce, depending on how it's cut, can be floppy and unwieldy, weird of texture and basically really unpleasant to eat when you're not used to it. I'd try either getting their vegetables in in non-salad ways or making non-lettuce-based salad (with dressing already included), or at the very least shredding the lettuce into thin strips or something along those lines. If you want them to eat lettuce specifically, maybe see if they like making (and eating) vietnamese-style lettuce wraps (the kind with pickled vegetables inside and some sweet dipping sauce).

What do they like to eat when they eat out?
posted by egg drop at 11:21 AM on November 2, 2014

My wife is Chinese; she likes to have a bowl of mi tang (millet soup) before bed. It's just boiled millet (not the sweet kind), so not exactly a meal, but the kids might like it. Also, Chinese kids are probably used to drinking hot water with meals instead of cold. That might help to get them drinking more fluids.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:22 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

* Greens, stir fried like this.
* Stir fried napa
* Lightly steamed broccoli with oyster sauce on the side
* Gai lan with mushrooms
* Mapo Tofu
* Pickled cucumbers
* Daikon and Carrot soup (pork broth)
* Stir-fried Green beans with meat
* Stir Fried Iceberg Lettuce
* Cantonese Minced Beef with Egg Over Rice
* Stir Fried Chayote

This is from my Cantonese upbringing, but almost all of my home-cooked dinners consisted of starting with a clear soup (usually a chicken or pork broth), then rice, meat and veggies. Primary methods of cooking the meat and veggies were either stir-fry, steamed or braised. Ginger, garlic, soy sauce, oyster sauce and black bean sauce were pantry staples. This is probably different for other regions, though.

If you go to a Chinese supermarket, look for a bag of dried stuff for soup. There's some with a bean mix, which might help with a more filling protein/fiber content. When I was sick, I'd either get congee or soupy rice.

If you're hesitant to cook meat, go to to Chinese butcher and pick up a to-go box of already cooked chicken or cha siu pork.

I really can't think of any Chinese raw food salad, except for a scallion, carrot or celery garnishes. Asking them to eat salad sounds pretty tough.
posted by hooray at 12:45 PM on November 2, 2014

I had to cook vietnamese and Cambodian style for my kids, and now they eat a range, but browsing through a cookbook with them helped us figure out what they wanted to eat, but the biggest thing was condiments. Fish sauce on everything. Prahok when we could get it, tiny fish and chili paste and basically the flavored not so much the specific meals. Go to an Asian supermarket with the kids or browse one online and ask them which brands they recognize. They'll be happier with vegetable and tofu stir fry with the right soy sauce/fish sauce or whatever than an elaborate authentic meal. Chinese food varies hugely depending on what region the parents are from so it's the condiments - hot and dry, sour and sweet, that they're craving.

And get them into the kitchen if they are used to helping cooking, it's a great way to connect with them and have them share stories if they are ready to.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:08 PM on November 2, 2014

Response by poster: A couple of answers and half answers ...

+ They've been complaining about missing Chinese food. And when I do nail something (corn soup, bok choy) they are really happy. Hence the search for Chinese home cooking. I'm not trying to feed them only Chinese food, just to expand my options a bit.

+ Salads, got it. Thankfully, our CSA is over for the season so we won't have so much lettuce coming at us.

+ I don't know where in China the family is from, but the kids only came to the US a few years ago. The kids get indignant when I ask ("Just China!!") and the parents are hard to communicate with for a variety of reasons (mostly, they're angry about the whole situation and some of that gets directed my way). I know region makes a difference. China is big. Regional cuisine varies, etc. But I've gotten a lot of suggestions here (I marked some) that sound promising.
posted by amandabee at 4:46 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I appreciate your effort here. Thank you for trying to learn about this.

I'm guessing these kids are not from Shanghai, so they'll disagree with me on some of this, but:

Raw salads are not a part of the cuisine. The closest things we have are pickled vegetables served cold as condiments and appetizers, and some Thai stuff that is usually served hot with cooked meat. Which is not to say that they can't be taught to eat it (I eat salads regularly) but only that you will have to approach it as a matter of habituating them to a foreign food. There is no salad-like thing that would feel familiar to them.

Soups are a great way to go. In many places, it's traditional to start every meal with a soup course. Here are three classic Chinese soups:
- wintermelon soup: minimally, cubes of wintermelon boiled in pork broth.
- radish soup: minimally, cubes of radish and rib tips boiled in pork broth.
- cabbage soup: minimally, Napa cabbage chopped or shredded into chicken broth

It sounds like you basically don't do stir-fry, which would unlock a host of new recipes. Almost any leafy green can be stir-fried with a bit of garlic and then dressed with a bought sauce, like soy sauce, oyster sauce, or black bean sauce. The technique is easy, and the equipment (a wok) should cost less than $20. Just note that stir-fry involves high heat for a few minutes, so mise en place is crucial.

Also, if it makes you feel better, when they say that their mother never uses a cookbook, that's not a sign of their mother's superiority. Chinese cooking goes a lot more by feel and experience. It's very common for Chinese kitchens to have no measuring equipment.
posted by d. z. wang at 4:56 PM on November 2, 2014

About cooking meat: China has a strong subculture of Buddhist vegetarians and therefore a lot of non-meat protein sources like tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Maybe take them on a trip to Buddha Bodhai in Chinatown and Google some of the recipes later.

But if you insist on cooking meat and don't feel comfortable handling it, there are also a bunch of boiled-meat recipes where you unwrap a big hunk of meat, slip it directly into the pot, and simmer it until it's thoroughly cooked. E.g., hong shao rou, beef with five spices (do not cut or brown the meat as directed, just braise it and reduce the leftover liquid to a thick glaze), and bai xie rou.
posted by d. z. wang at 5:28 PM on November 2, 2014

I was also going to suggest purchasing pre-cooked meat from a Chinese BBQ source. I think the suggestion of a cooked chicken is good and commonly available and will work with your hesitation to handle raw meat, but finding a source of Chinese-style cooked meats like chashu / BBQ pork, BBQ duck, would really be ideal. BBQ pork on white rice is a basic but great meal in itself, add some stir fried greens or other veg on the side and you're good. Chinese supermarkets will have this and you can likely also locate stand-alone Chinese meat shops that will specialize in this and have a good variety and better prices. Having their protein covered will free you to explore in the preparation of veggie sides.
posted by kaspen at 5:36 PM on November 2, 2014

Do you live near a Chinese supermarket? You could take the kids there and have them pick out stuff. They will usually have frozen dumplings which are pretty good. Maybe you could also frequent a local Chinese restaurant and chat with the owner, getting some ideas.

There are some salad-like dishes in China, such as sliced cucumber in vinegar. But raw lettuce is not eaten. Getting a rice cooker is probably a good idea, and stir-frying some veggies to go with it. Scrambled eggs and good tomatoes with chives is a common Chinese dish.

Are there any Chinese college students in your area? Hiring one as a babysitter might be a great way to break the cultural/linguistic gap, and most college age Chinese kids know how to cook some basic dishes.
posted by bearette at 5:41 PM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I get inspired by looking at what other people have cooked. For fancier food, I can suggest this thread of Chinese dishes.

For more bog-standard quicker lunch and dinner options, take a look at what huiray cooks on a regular basis. (I have no idea if that link will work - searches are sometimes restricted to members. It seems to work in an incognito window for me.)
posted by WasabiFlux at 12:48 PM on November 3, 2014

I am not Chinese, so I won't meddle concerning the substance. But I came in to say that while I was a graduate student, I learnt from my Chinese friends how a rice-cooker and a wok can improve your quality of life vastly. It's so easy to cook in a wok, and if you have the rice sorted, you are ready to go in very few minutes. When my not at all Chinese kids were small, we had rice and stir-fry 3 times a week, because it was such an easy way of cooking healthy food from scratch.
Back then, I used my wok for western food as well, it worked perfectly for that as well.
Rice cookers can often be used as steamers, so you can steam those frozen dumplings someone above mentioned - they are delicious! Remember the condiments.
posted by mumimor at 4:35 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

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