* This is probably not a revolution to anyone but us because the rest of you probably don't eat like animals.
We have been having kind of a hard time with dinner lately because Harry and Jack are constantly asking for more of something, so we have to jump up and get it. Cooper is the pickiest little eater EVER and also a loud talker, and Dorothy reaches a point each meal where she shrieks and throws her food. Oh! And! There is a smelly dog under the table snorting like a piglet and taking an intermittent nip or 2 at everyone's toes. Add in the start of hockey season with its 3 practices and a game every week, and you have a situation where Ben and I started slopping the kids straight out of the fridge-- wheels of salami, yogurt tubes, orange slices, peppers with ranch dressing, maybe a bagel if we were feeling fancy--and eating after they went to bed.
But this is not the family dinner scenario that hegemony tells us we need to be having. And we do hegemonic things. Happily, usually. Wait until you see our middle class white midwestern family Christmas card that features us hunkering in the autumn brush in nicer (and coordinated, natch) clothes than we usually wear to a nature preserve. LIKE WE EVER EVEN GO TO A NATURE PRESERVE.
So, we have redoubled (so, quadrupled??) our efforts to create harmonious family dinners, which has meant 4 things:
1. Adjusted expectations.
2. Recipe experimentation
3. Redefinition of alone time.
4. Family-style serving.
1. Adjusted expectations
I used to think well fuck it, we have hockey 2 days this week; I have late meetings 2 days. There goes the whole week. We might as well feed the kids garbage and eat takeout. And then that's what we would do. I am trying really hard to eliminate that kind of extremist meal planning. There is one night a week when we will just never sit down as a group. But that night, I usually come home right before bath time, and Ben and I eat wine and cheese and fruit and have a beginning-of-the-week couch date. Only we had to relocate to the kitchen table because the dog goes nut when we eat on the couch. Our 2 hockey nights, though, are not really an excuse to cut out dinner. Instead, we have meals that have been planned ahead, and Ben and I trade off taking Harry to practice. Last year, Dorothy was still nursing all the time, so I stayed home with the little kids and cleaned up dinner every time, and I got really frustrated with that and started not making dinner so I wouldn't have to clean it up. This year, it sucks to clean the kitchen with Dorothy and Cooper running around, but it is loads easier than it once was, and I only have to do it once a week.
Not only did we change our ideas of what was possible on busy nights, but we also have lowered the bar for the amount of time we plan to spend together eating dinner. I felt like a failure if it didn't happen every night and threw in the towel. Now we aim for 4 nights a week, sometimes 5. Usually that's Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and either Friday or Saturday. The other weekend night, Ben and I try to go out, or we do a movie night with the boys, or wee feed the kids and have a date night at home or we all go to a restaurant (HELL). One of these nights of family meals is something easy or leftovers. So really, we are only trying to cook 3-4 night s a week.
2. Recipe Experimentation
I know I talked about our food rut and how we have been trying to make new dishes the past few weeks, and it has been fun! For awhile there, we would eat grilled chicken and a vegetable every night of the week, but man did that get boring.
This week, for example, we had chicken and noodles on Sunday (an old favorite) and ate leftovers both Monday and Tuesday (I made a lot, and the kids augmented with frozen special snowflake chicken nuggets on Tuesday). Then I made a delicious baked chicken over squash recipe from my adorable Wisconsin farm wife cookbook yesterday, and today, we are having tacos.
Last week, we experimented with a turkey, mushroom, and zucchini lasagna that turned out great and we tried chicken pot pies at home; the week before it was a new soup in addition to a couple more tried-and-true options.
Next week, I am planning to roast a chicken or 2 and make matzoh ball soup on Sunday, hoping that carries us through Monday and Tuesday as well.
Making things we don't always eat has been really fun, and we are bound to find more favorites to add to the list.
I have also been making new desserts, and I am trying to have a specific dessert for each meal, so the kids don't just eat a bunch of store-bought cookies after dinner. Paradoxically, I think planning dessert is making them eat FEWER sweets. I have stopped always putting a few M&Ms in their bentos because I know something sweet is on the menu, and they have cut down on their Oreo consumption.
3. Redefinition of Alone Time
Usually the only way I can cook a dinner for Wednesday is to make it on Tuesday night after the kids go to bed. I work from home with both babies on Wednesday, and adding dinner prep to an already packed day is just about impossible. So Ben watches TV and does his normal online class work, and instead of joining him and Beatrix on the couch, I prep the following night's meal and clean it up. I have been making casseroles or other things that can be totally prepped and then popped in the oven the next day. This morning, I got ready for work 20 minutes early and then spent a little bit of time cutting veggies and cooking taco meat.
I will do just about anything to avoid actually having to MAKE dinner during the insane pre-dinner meltdown hour, and doing all the prep work beforehand and without the help of children makes cleaning the kitchen much easier. So most of my alone time these days is spent cooking, baking, or tidying the kitchen, and I am starting to really enjoy it. And I have gained 2 pounds. Coincidence, I am sure.
4. Family-style serving
The previous 3 steps GET us to the table, but we also needed to try to make our time there more enjoyable. We ask the big kids more focused questions and leave plenty of time for Cooper to talk. We give Cooper the damn peanut butter bagel he is going to ask for in 2 seconds anyway and find that he is more likely to try stuff if he has his blankie of a bagel beside him. But the biggest change we have made is the way we serve the food. We used to pull it out of the oven and slap it on the stove top and fill plates from right there. The island would be a cluttered mess while we ate-- wrappers, milk gallons, cooking detritus, etc strewn about-- and if anyone needed seconds, Ben or I would have to jump up and get it. We also never set the table and just grabbed what we needed throughout the meal.
I bought a few trivets and cleaned out my cabinet of serving dishes. I started setting the table with all of the cutlery options, even if I know we will just need forks. Napkins are not something I hand out only once you spill. I stash any pre-dinner mess in the sink before we sit down so the room is relatively uncluttered. We use our prettiest oven-to-table dishes and the serving utensils that used to just see the light of day at parties. We use glass glasses for the kids, too. Ben and I have wine. There are candles. The kids can help themselves. We pass baskets of rolls and the butter dish. I am sure this is all stuff you do, too, but we used to eat like animals.
Harry and Jack love the vibe, and Cooper really, really likes serving himself. Dorothy is still screamy and throwy, but the wine helps.
The other night, I even precut the pumpkin bars and laid them out on the counter on pretty plates with small forks so the kids could help themselves when they finished the main course.
Elevating the presentation has made us all take the meal more seriously-- it really feels like the family bonding event it is fabled to be. I cannot believe we were eating so poorly for so long! Up next: dinner music.
What do you do to make dinner with small kids fun?