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Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:
It’s 4:00 p.m. and you find yourself in the kitchen. You’ve checked the meal plan, and today’s the day you’re going to try something new. Now, it’s nothing crazy, like mussels in wine sauce or osso busco. You have kids, after all, and it’s Tuesday. Still, it’s a bit of a stretch. Maybe it’s a new marinade for the chicken. Maybe you’re finally going to try that kale salad that all the food bloggers swear their kids devour like vegetable candy. Maybe you’re going to take that convenience meal everybody in your family loves, like Hamburger Helper, and make a homemade version of it. Whatever the scenario, you’re feeling good, on top of things. You even break out a glass of wine while you cook, and put on a cute apron. The dirty bowls, pans and cutting boards pile up, but you don’t care. You’re making dinner for your family! You present this lovely meal to your family and wait for the compliments to pour in. Instead you hear:
“I like the Target meatballs better.”
“I don’t like chicken anymore.”
“I tried it. I don’t like it.” (After the new thing touches approximately one tastebud.)
Perhaps it’s 5:30 p.m. and it’s been a crazy day. Everyone is just rolling in and there’s still another shift of stuff to do: homework, walk the dog, a load of laundry, baths and books. You’ve got this, though. A few weeks ago, you were feeling good, on top of things. You made an extra batch of pasta sauce/homemade chicken fingers/pulled pork and stashed it in the freezer. You even remembered to set it out to thaw this morning. It’s rushed, and there’s box mac-and-cheese and a few sad baby carrots as a side, but you made dinner for your family! You present this perfectly adequate meal to your family and wait for the satisfaction to commence. Instead you hear:
“There’s too much sauce on my pasta. It tastes like tomatoes.”
“I don’t like chicken anymore.”
“I liked barbecue sauce last month. Now it’s too spicy.”
Or maybe it’s 6:30 p.m. and you just got home from basketball. Everyone clamored for fast food, but you held tight. The eating out budget is getting slim, and you know you can do better at home, even if it’s convenience food you heat up yourself. You’ve got a decent frozen pizza/all-beef organic hot dogs/chicken nuggets ready to go. It’s not ideal, it’s not super healthy, it’s chips and apple slices as a side, but it’s fast and cheap. You present this loose definition of dinner to your family and wait for the cheers from the kids for the kind of meal they dream of eating every day. Instead you hear:
“Oh, this is all we’re having? Are we missing another side or something” (This would be The Husband.)
“I don’t like hot dogs anymore”
“I like you’re homemade pizza, not this one.”
If the rumblings I hear at the bus stop, book club, and on Facebook are true, then you’ve been there, too. You’ve felt my dinnertime pain as well. I don’t care what your work/life balance is, how old your kids are, how much or how little they’re willing to eat, feeding a family day in and day out is hard. We all seem to struggle with one or many aspects of it any given late afternoon. Until I had kids, I never realized the fear and dread the simple phrase, “What’s for dinner?” could strike in a parent’s soul.
If you’ve ever been to my house, you’ve probably seen the dry erase meal planning board on my fridge. For years now, I’ve dutifully set aside an hour or so every week to plan the meals for the week and make a grocery list. It’s part of my weekly routine. Through ages and stages, busy seasons, summers and winters, I’ve kept at it. But why? Why do I continue to make such an effort for a meal that’s often over in a fraction of the time it took to plan and execute, and that’s often received with grumbles instead of glory?
Because dinner matters. It matters in all the ways you think it does, and in a hundred tiny ways you could never anticipate.
It matters because you need to eat. Plain and simple, you need to eat every day. By taking the time to sit down with your family, no matter what’s on the table, you demonstrate that food is important and that it’s meant to be consumed (mostly) slowly and sitting down (or at least with some part of your body touching a chair).
It matters because it might be the only time of the day you and your family gather in one place and have a few minutes to look each other in the eye. For us and our schedule, this meal is dinner. Maybe in your family it’s breakfast or lunch or a late evening snack. Whenever it is, having everyone sit down together a few times a week is a powerful little thing.
It matters because the ritual of the meal allows guards to be let down. It’s what you do, it’s where you belong. Some of the funniest parts of our day happen at dinner, because we know it’s a time and a place where we can just relax. I’d venture to guess 90% of Eli’s outtakes happen at the dinner table. Of course, it’s also where 90% of the farting and belching happen as well.
It matters because the laughter we share over a meal, whether it took hours or minutes to prepare, makes us feel safe and comfortable. And when kids feel settled in that way, they’re able and willing to talk about all kinds of tough stuff. We’ve tackled porn, cutting, drugs, drinking and sex at the dinner table. Let me just say, you can chase around an errant pea for a loooong time as a way to avoid eye contact and figure out what to say next when your kid brings up marijuana at the dinner table. Also, those nights call for dessert.
It matters because if you serve it, eventually they will come around to liking it. Or at least tolerating it without hysterics. Just a warning, though … eventually can be a very long time. I’ve been making some version of barbecued chicken for the entire 13 years of motherhood and then some. For 11 years Elena either refused to eat it or went through a pile of napkins painstakingly wiping every molecule of barbecue sauce off the chicken. And lo, in her twelfth year she decided she liked barbecue sauce. And then there’s Eli, dipping Goldfish into a thimble-sized bowl of tomato soup. “I wouldn’t say it’s, like, good? But I can eat it! I think you’re right, my food buds are changing.”
I’ve never been a fan of the clean plate club, and I never force the kids to eat all of something. But I do believe that you have to taste it every time … you know, in case your “food buds” decided this was the day to change. I like to make new things and I still cook things I know the kids don’t like. (The list is long: pasta, sloppy joes, grilled cheese, practically any casserole where things mingle.) But at the same time I always serve at least two things on the side that I know they like. I won’t play short-order cook and make more than one meal, but I’m happy to deconstruct a meal so that everyone is relatively happy.
I’m happy to report that, like most things involving small children, it gets better. It just gets better at a ridiculously snail-like pace. If they say it takes 21 days to make a habit, then it takes approximately 4021 days to see the results of your hard dinner table work form into decent eating habits. So I completely understand if you’re ready to throw in the kitchen towel after 21, 221, or 2021 days. But don’t, because dinner – however it appears on your table – matters.
If you’re interested, here are a few things that have made meal planning and eating of said meals with little people slightly easier over the years.
Blogs: I adore food blogs, but many of them are better suited for dreamy photos and “someday” meals. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but dinner time with littles calls for desperate measures! These are the food blogs that, over the years, have been my trusted sources for recipes that work, taste great, and don’t require a stint in cooking school to execute.
Cookbooks: I still love a good old-fashioned cookbook. These are the ones that are food-stained and falling apart in my kitchen:
- Dinner: A Love Story and Dinner: The Playbook by Jenny Rosenstrach
- Pretty much anything from Cook’s Illustrated, but especially The New Best Recipe, America’s Test Kitchen The New Family Cookbook, and the Meat Cookbook.
- How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Pinterest: There’s no doubt that Pinterest can be both a fantastic resource for recipes and meal planning as well as an enormous time suck for recipes with disastrous results. In an effort to save you some time, here are my favorite Pinterest boards and Pinners for meal planning and recipes:
- My Meal Plan All-Stars Board: The recipes I’ve pinned here are tried-and-true meals that show up on our dinner table again and again.
- My Delicious Dinners Board: In case you’re curious, this is what I’m pinning that I think could work for family dinners. If I make it and it’s a keeper I move it to Meal Plan All-Stars. If it’s a dud I delete the pin.
- Serious Eats
- Brown Eyed Baker
- Good Cheap Eats
Meal Planning Resources:
Now it’s your turn! What’s your best advice for making dinner work? Have an infuriating food-related comment or a funny food story? Favorite resources, blogs or Pinterest boards? Please share!