My Dinner Doula
If I didn’t love my sister-in-law Meri so much, I would hate her. No matter what manner of chaos is erupting at her house, she manages to wrestle a delicious home-cooked meal—complete with a protein, starch, and vegetable—onto the table every night for her three girls. All while helping one daughter with a Google search, another clean up Candy Land, and the third on the potty. Did I mention that this scenario doesn’t stress her out in the least…and that she also has a full-time job as a family physician? Sure enough, her domestic jujitsu has paid off. Not only do her children enjoy helping her cook but they also linger at the table, often asking for seconds and thirds of things like Swiss chard.
Then there’s me. For five years, I have done little more than stick turkey hot dogs and chicken nuggets into the microwave and call it dinner. Not once have I cracked a cookbook. Not once have I toiled over a pot. I just can’t muster the energy for chopping and peeling—or even boiling water—after a long workday. The only real home cooking my children experience is when my husband, a whiz in the kitchen, makes family dinner, but he’s rarely home early enough during the week to pull that off. Go ahead, call me lazy. I do it all the time, usually while I’m sitting at the kitchen table nursing a glass of Sancerre and watching my kids wolf down white foods as they hang off their chairs like chimps.
My guilt about our depressing drive-by dinners is particularly vicious because I am reminded of my shortcoming three times a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I am also reminded every time I pick up my son, Carlos, who is six, from a playdate and the other mom apologizes for not feeding him but says there wasn’t anything in her kitchen that he would eat. Naturally, I place the blame for all his picky eating (and that of his three-year-old sister, Clara) squarely on myself. He won’t even touch a peanut butter–and-jelly sandwich, for goodness’ sake!
This was all on my mind a few months ago, when I had lunch with my friend Jenny, who, like Meri, manages to get a dinner on the table nightly—plus has time to blog about it for her family-dinner website, DinnerALoveStory.com. I could see her wheels turning after I confessed my problem. “First of all, it’s not like you’re feeding them antifreeze,” she said. (She was right—at least those hot dogs and pizzas were organic.) “Second, kids will always be picky,” she added, mentioning her neighbor’s daughter, who eats everything, and son, who subsists on olives. Only olives. “The bigger issue is that feeding your kids can be about so much more than food,” she said. “It’s not just a bowl of buttered pasta and peas—it’s your maternal self-worth.” (Yes!) She said what I needed was someone to hold my hand and give me a jump start at the stove. “You know how a doula is there for a new mom so the mom can concentrate on the baby?” she asked. “You need the same thing as a cook.” And that’s how Jenny became my dinner doula.
The plan was that every Friday, Jenny would e-mail a recipe and a cooking schedule to my in-box. Like a good doula, she promised never to judge—only to support—and encouraged me to write her a postmortem review of every dinner so we could deconstruct what went wrong and what (if anything) went right.
Jenny gave me three modest goals.
- Goal 1: We would have family dinner once a week (most likely on Sunday) for six weeks, during which we would all eat the same thing.
- Goal 2: I would wean my kids off at least one store-bought meal by replicating it from scratch in my kitchen.
- Goal 3: I would master a roast chicken. I believe all worthy and competent mothers should be able to perform this efficiently. I also believe that if I could do this one recipe—this one simple recipe—I might just feel a little better about everything else.
Here’s how it went.