6 Things I Wish I Knew About Family Dinners Before I Had Kids
One mom speaks the truth.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a mom. And for as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve been trying to teach myself to cook. Mostly by watching Ina Garten laugh with her friends in the most-glamorous kitchen I’ve ever seen, while never settling for less than good vanilla. Her effortless style made creating gorgeous meals seem not only doable but, like, obvious. Why wouldn’t you want to make your own chicken stock? Combine this religious TV viewing schedule with a lifetime subscription to Martha Stewart Living and eventually, slowly, by bumbling my way through many meals in a series of tiny New York apartments, I finally found my footing in the kitchen. Which was good because by the time I got around to marrying at 35, I fast-tracked it straight into parenthood, hilariously thinking that nothing could’ve made me more prepared.
Well guess what? Plenty of things could’ve made me more prepared.
Because four kids and one zillion family dinners later I know this for sure: When it comes to family dinners, cooking is only one small part of the equation.
Here’s what else I wish I’d known.
Not to take everything so personally. As the family cook I used to serve my heart on a plate. Just a big ol’ slice of feelings with a side of vulnerability. After all, every dish was my idea and I’m the one who spent time and effort on it. So, when my husband shrugged about a Lemon Roasted Chicken that I was really proud of, I’d want to go on strike. With a picket sign. Now I take it in stride. Usually. But at the same time, all five people in my family know how nice it is to compliment the cook, even when dinner’s only okay. Actually, especially then.
Feeding toddlers is very hard. Full stop. Because doing everything with toddlers is hard. There’s no magic technique for getting toddlers to cooperate at the table (or anywhere else) because their brains are literally wired to explore the world on their own terms. So they can learn. What I finally figured out is if they eat only one bite of Beef and Bean Taco Casserole, they eat only one bite. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad mom. It means my toddler isn’t hungry tonight.
Strategies for feeding kids will always be evolving. I fed my first baby and put her to sleep before my husband and I even ate dinner. Once I had a pair of toddlers, we all ate together but I planned meticulously to make sure everyone ate the same food. I served things like Salad with Grilled Chicken and a deconstructed version for the littles. And if dinner was a complete fail? For a while I offered toddlers a banana or yogurt. Then I made a whole list of rules for everyone and taped it to the wall. Number one: Be grateful. (Okay, so I still feel a little tender about being appreciated in the kitchen but you see where I’m going.) Our parenting strategy is always evolving based on our kids’ stages and what works now won’t necessarily be something we want or need to stick with forever.
Meal planning is not for me. Bless all those people who have weeks (or months!) of meals planned at a time. I’m more of a cluster planner. I’ll have a couple of meals in mind for the week, plus enough supplies in my pantry to make a few more. None of this means I’m disorganized and doomed. It means that’s what works for me.
It’s not going to ruin everyone to serve a frozen lasagna once in a while. Feeding a family is a relentless task. There’s just no end so it’s best to pace yourself. Think fresh and hearty marathon, not kale juice sprint. I put so much pressure on making everything from scratch – Pumpkin Muffins! Homemade Chicken Nuggets! Whole-Wheat Peach Pancakes! -- for so long that it’s no wonder I was exhausted with the kids were really little. I was SO worried about so many things. I wish I’d taken it down a couple of notches and just felt good about the effort I was making.
How to Transform Leftovers. Because I hate wasting food and it’s so much work to make dinner from scratch every night, finding ways to repurpose meals into new dishes has been my biggest breakthrough. Slow Cooker Shredded Chicken Tex-Mex can be transformed into Instant Tortilla Soup with only one extra ingredient. Cooking hamburger once can make two dinners during the week: Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Shepard’s Pie one night and Cheeseburger Hand Pies with Puff Pastry on another.
That it’s only my job to make the food. I learned this from Ellyn Satter, who famously wrote about the division of responsibilities at the table. As parents, all we really need to do is cook. I can try to choose things my kids will love – Easy Homemade Pizza, 4-Thumbs Up Baked Potatoes, Spaghetti Marinara or 20-Minute Sweet & Sour Chicken and so on – but in the end, it’s up to the kids to eat it.
If I had a show, that’s what I’d talk about with my fabulous mom friends. That and never skimping on the vanilla. Some things are just universal.