How I used an air fryer to cook a week's worth of family dinners
Tastier and healthier kid-friendly meals are easier than ever.
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I am powerless against the next new kitchen gadget (here's proof). When I hear about the next "must have" appliance, I rarely go two weeks before I cave in during one of my insomnia-induced impulse purchases. But my bravery and sense of culinary adventure only go so far—I have a tendency to leave my new toys in the pantry for six months or more until I muster the nerve to try them.
Well, it's been exactly six months since I bought an air fryer, so I figured it was high time to break the thing in. I gave myself a challenge: Use it to cook a week's worth of family-friendly meals. Overall, I had a lot of success using my air fryer to cook dishes that everyone in the family enjoyed.
First, I had to get to know my air fryer
I'm not going to lie, I didn't put a whole lot of thought into buying my Dash compact air fryer. I looked for something compact that would look good on my counter—and boy, does it. It's really adorable. But while it's very functional, its size makes it impractical for a family. I had to cook in batches, which meant that by the time the first serving was finished, the second was cold, so no one could really eat together. If you are only planning to make snacks, or are looking for an air fryer for your niece in college or your brother who is a bachelor, this one is a good choice. Otherwise, spring for our favorite air fryer, the Philips Air Fryer XXL.
What I cooked for the week
My child is a vegetarian (we are not), so most of the recipes featured here are kid-friendly and vegetarian.
Vegetable air fryer recipes that crisped up nicely
- Broccoli tots: This isn't a recipe specifically made for an air fryer, but as self-proclaimed broccoli tot connoisseurs, my family can attest that this is the best recipe out there. We baked ours at 375°F for 15 minutes, pausing mid-way to shake them to get a more even brown.
- Brussels sprouts: Honestly, I liked these better in the air fryer than any other method because they are so much easier to toss around in a pan than making them shift around with a spoon on a cookie sheet. They turned out wonderfully crispy and evenly cooked.
- Zucchini fritters: Veggie fritters are always a challenge for me. They are either too soft in the middle or too burnt on the sides or—often—a little bit of both. These are a little bit crispy on the outside with just the right amount of tenderness in the middle. My kid is Goldilocks-level picky, but even he thought these were "just right."
A great chicken recipe for the air fryer
- Chicken: I was told that I must make chicken in our air fryer, and I'm so glad I did because this recipe turned out great. I was completely surprised that I even got a little bit of satisfying crispiness to my boneless and skinless wings. A great thing about using the air fryer is that the crispiness is uniform. When you pan fry, the crispiness is subject to how expertly it's been turned and how well you've paid attention. When you deep fry, you're subject to grease burns and indigestion. In an air fryer, you get a perfectly browned piece of meat without all that extra grease—and I didn't miss the grease a bit.
Kid-friendly air fryer recipes
- Pizza: There are a lot of individual pizza recipes for air fryers, but—just like in a regular oven—heat is key. This one had the best time-to-temperature setting. My son had a great time building his own pizza and it was really fun to be able to easily customize and experiment.
- Eggplant parmesan: This was so speedy and so delicious, and without the added grease the eggplant stayed firm for longer under the tomato sauce.
- Mozzarella sticks: I wondered if my child would take after me and love fried cheese with seasoned breading. I'm thrilled to report he did, and these are every bit as satisfying to me today as they were at the corner diner after a middle school dance.
- Bean and cheese burrito: Oddly enough, weren't able to find a recipe for something so basic, but it's one of my child's favorite foods, so I knew we had to figure something out. We simply seasoned a can of black beans, and filled a burrito with the beans, corn, mild salsa, and rice. Then we wrapped it up and cooked it on 350°F for 5 minutes. Then I topped it with cheese and put it back in for another 5 minutes. It was insanely easy and he loved it.
- Loaded baked potato: I tweaked the recipe a bit for my air fryer. After a little experimenting, I decided that I preferred to put a little oil and salt on the skin of our baked potatoes and I baked mine at 400°F for 40 minutes. After that was when the fun started: My son liked being able to build his own potato in the pan. Another customizable dinner that works great for varying palates.
Delicious air fryer desserts
- S'mores: Finally, my 5-year-old doesn't need to risk going up in flames to enjoy his favorite dessert. The beauty of air-fryer s'mores is they are flame-free and you can really customize desert. This recipe doesn't recommend you air fry the chocolate, but we liked ours a bit more melted, so we popped on a square and put it back in the air fryer for 2 minutes. Since I don't like things too sweet, I swapped out my chocolate for strawberry slices. My son thought that adding banana or even a smear of Nutella would be delicious too. Just like making s'mores by a campfire, this is an addicting and fun family dessert that everyone can make exactly to their liking.
- Doughnuts: My kid loved the doughnuts' air-fried texture. He's a doughnut freak, but homemade doughnuts turn out a bit greasy for his taste and—I'd assume—the taste of most kids. The lack of actual grease gave these such a great texture. There are far more in-depth recipes out there, but I loved that this could be a quick treat after a hard day of kindergarten with just a quick run through the refrigerator section of the grocery store.
Air frying tips I learned along the way
Don't over crowd
If you want your fried foods to turn out crispy, you’ll want to make sure you don’t overcrowd the basket. I was a little overzealous in the beginning but learned quickly that too much food in the basket is a recipe for a sog-fest. This is challenging if you have too small of a basket and are trying to cook for more than one person.
Shake, shake, shake
While this really is a no-fuss way of cooking, you still need to give your food a little bit of attention. Most recipes call for a shake or a flip midway through cooking to ensure even cooking on all sides. For larger items like chicken thighs, silicone tongs do the trick. For smaller dishes like french fries, tater tots, and chickpeas, a few shakes either half way or a quarter of the way through will do the trick. Once you open the basket to shake or flip, the air fryer will pause but it will resume cooking your food at the same temperature once you return the basket.
Get a bigger air fryer
Mine looks amazing on my counter, and it's great for side dishes and adorable for mini-pizzas, but if I want to take this relationship to the next level, I need an air fryer that can fit a family's worth of chicken thighs in one go. As it was, I had to cook just about everything in double batches.
There are a number of reasons I'd consider this experiment a success.
Cooking can be quick
Cooking took way less time than expected. I love my Instant Pot, but the warm up time and steam release time added extra time to my meals, so things never cooked quite as quickly as I thought. With the air fryer, all things were cooked in 30 minutes or less.
It's not quite as "fix it and forget it" as I thought it would be
Most recipes require a mid-cook flip or hearty shake, but it's hardly the level of work I have to do with an oven or a frying pan.
It helps with more uniform cooking
I loved making mini pizzas in my air fryer because I finally was able to have a uniformly baked pie. With only a flip, chicken was cooked on all sides perfectly. I still had to pay attention to my cooking, but I loved that I could really engage with and chat with my kid while cooking and never had to push him aside.
No burned fingers
If you're like me and burn yourself almost every time you need pull out a baking pan to toss your food for even cooking, an air fryer is the friend you need to make.
It's reinventing reheating
Reheated pizza is better, french fries brought home from a restaurant are no longer pitiful, and things like baked squash gets a nice crispy edge when reheated in an air fryer. A toaster oven might do the trick in some homes, but—again—the ease with having a uniform reheat is what sold me.
Cleanup is a breeze
The non-stick frying pan and basket only required a quick wipe and rinse after every dish—nothing got to the level of needing a scrub—not even baked on marshmallow.
Kids dig it
Yes, this is a family-friendly way to cook. My 5-year-old is a picky eater and we are always looking for ways to get him involved and in the kitchen to help get his buy-in with family meals. Air frying was a definite win. My particular air fryer is cute and, quite frankly, is reminiscent of the E-Z Bake oven I had as a kid. It has a huge handle that makes it easy for a kid to use and because it has a bowl-shaped non-stick pan that is small and non-intimidating for a child, he loved assembling his pizzas, broccoli, and—of course—desserts.
In short, if you have the counter space and you have kids that want to get more involved in cooking—but aren't yet ready to use a full oven—an air fryer is an excellent appliance to make meal prep more fun with your little chef. I say go for it—there is nothing about it worth six months of anxiety and fear. If you have an air fryer hiding in your pantry, pull it out, call over your kid, and get cooking.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
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