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.
2 of 7Anna Williams
Week 1: Roast Chicken and Vegetables
Dear Lori, Greetings! Are you ready to exorcise a few demons? First, take a deep Lamaze breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth… Next, follow two crucial dinner-making rules: First, give yourself about 20 percent more time on any recipe that you are making for the first time. Second, try to pick up your ingredients for a recipe the day before you cook it. There’s nothing worse than spending all afternoon shopping for and preparing what could very well be a five-minute event. By spreading out your expenditure of psychic energy, you’ll be less emotionally invested in the meal, thereby minimizing your chances of spiraling into untold depths of maternal darkness should the kids not eat it.
xx, Dinner Doula
P.S.: Why the mac and cheese on the ingredients list? So Carlos can latch onto something familiar—and you don’t have to worry about his going hungry if he rejects the chicken.
Menu: Roast Chicken and Vegetables Carlos and Clara’s favorite boxed mac and cheese, plus whatever additional ingredients are called for in the directions
While the chicken is roasting, begin preparing the mac and cheese; set the table, including the kids’ drinking glasses (always something you forget about until you’ve sat down); and pour yourself a glass of wine. If there is any discussion from Carlos about “What’s for dinner?” avoid spin. Just say, “Mac and cheese and chicken.” If he says, “I don’t like chicken,” just say, “That’s fine. You don’t have to have any. It’s for me and Dad.” No pressure. No big deal.
When the chicken is ready, eat! Don’t be disappointed if the kids don’t try any. Just be proud of yourself for putting a delicious meal on the table and for getting your family to sit down together at the same time.
Dear Dinner Doula, So, on Sunday afternoon, there I stood, face-to-face with a pale, bumpy, limp hunk of poultry, and for the first time ever I thought, Maybe I can do this. Maybe all I really needed was a little confidence—and some-one I could blame if I fail.
Until: Clara, exhausted from an afternoon birthday party, didn’t even make it to the table.
Until: Carlos took one look at the plate of meat and passed it right back to me.
Until: The bowl of carrots (slightly blackened, I’ll admit) was deemed “disgusting.” So much for a cozy Sunday dinner for four.
But then I thought about what you had told me: that I should not measure success by the number of bites consumed. I should focus on my own progress as a mother cooking for her family. So when my husband declared the chicken “perfectly roasted,” I couldn’t help but consider the evening a triumph.
3 of 7Anna Williams
Week 2: Spaghetti and (Mostly) Homemade Turkey Meatballs
Dear Lori, Since turkey meatballs from your local supermarket are one of the few things Carlos will eat without a fight, I thought a homemade version would be a logical Week 2 goal. Your strategy will be to mix in a few store-bought meatballs with the homemade ones. (It’s the same psychological “latch onto the familiar” idea we used with the mac and cheese in Week 1.) This dish is a cinch: While some recipes call for constantly turning the meatballs to make sure they brown on all sides, this one lets you just throw them into the oven. Then you should feel free to sit down and read Maureen Dowd while they cook.
Dear Doula, My Week 1 swagger was short-lived. This assignment required three pots (what happened to those “baby steps” you kept telling me about?) and a lot of chopping. I tried to tamp down my growing irritation with wine, but imbibing made the process go even more slowly. The last 20 minutes of preparation found me wild-eyed and flushed as I tried to set the table and fend off whiny, starving kids with snacks.
The scramble felt worth it for the few moments when Carlos put some spaghetti strands on his plate (he wanted to use the “cool” tongs that I had set out with the pasta) and then grabbed a meatball, too. I tried to look nonchalant as he took a bite. “I love this!” he declared. Then, just as quickly, he pushed his chair away and said, “Actually, I don’t. Can I have dessert?” My husband handed me the newspaper I had been wanting to read all day and got to work cleaning up.
4 of 7Anna Williams
Week 3: Dinner Pancakes
Dear Lori, Oh, sweetie! I’m so sorry about the Meatball Massacre. But don’t be discouraged. It is awesome that you are sticking with this. You are simply amazing! Now, I remember your telling me that pancakes were on your kids’ greenlight list, so I thought it might be fun to capitalize on them for dinner. The beauty of this recipe is that it works well with an end-of-the-week refrigerator and is incredibly easy. In fact, I’m wondering if we are even allowed to call it “from scratch,” since we do use store-bought pancake batter. You will be doctoring the mix; and doctoring, in my book, is also known as improvising, which just so happens to result in the best kind of cooking. The only technical thing you need to know is that chopping the vegetables into teeny pieces is crucial.
Dear Doula, I’m amazing? I think you mean I am amazingly naive. Carlos passed on the pancakes. OK, let’s be honest here: He gagged when he took a tiny bite of one. But—are you ready for this?—Clara loved them. So what if I had to smother her stack in maple syrup, right?
5 of 7Anna Williams
Week 4: Stripy Salmon Salad
Dear Lori, I’m delighted by the Pancake Success Story. Now, forget about Clara. You said it was important to cook something that made you happy, too. I wouldn’t be a doula if I didn’t think that keeping your own satisfaction in mind was the best idea I’ve heard all week. There is a way to make an appealing meal for the family without sinking to the lowest common denominator (otherwise known as pasta), and it’s called “deconstructing.” Instead of tossing together all the fresh, healthy ingredients in this salmon salad before you serve it, present them on a platter separated into rows, or “stripes.” Let the kids select whatever they feel like eating—power shift! Once they serve themselves, you should mix everything up with your favorite vinaigrette.
Dear Doula, I had more fun making this dish than any other I’ve tried so far. I enlisted Carlos’s help with shucking the corn, and he seemed to have a great time. (Yet another reason I’m a bad mom. Not cooking for my kids means they never get to have fun in the kitchen.) So what happens after this potentially memory-making moment? Carlos puts a scoop of corn on his plate and says, “Mom, I’m putting this here to remind myself that I don’t like it.” Yet he managed to eat a few cucumbers and a tomato (but not the fish), and my husband and I devoured everything. It was delicious.
6 of 7Anna Williams
Week 5: Sausage and Apple Kebabs with Smashed Potatoes and Peas
Dear Lori, Have I mentioned how proud I am of you? Even after the corn episode (I’m sorry, but that was really funny), I can tell from your voice that the fear is melting away. You’re doing the most important thing a mother-on-the-verge can do: You aren’t giving up. Dinner for this week is baked sausage and apples. You and Larry will love it. If the food doesn’t generate the same excitement for the kids, the idea that it’s served on sticks surely will.
Dear Doula, If we are measuring the success of this experiment by the improvement of my skills, then I can retire and your services are no longer of use to me. This recipe was so easy! If we are measuring success by kids’ consumption, I have a long, treacherous road ahead of me. Total bites eaten: two. Both of those bites were apples.
7 of 7David Prince
Six Weeks Later…
It turns out you were right. It’s six weeks after my culinary-confidence boot camp, and I feel that something has definitely changed. When we first came up with the idea of your helping me conquer my dinner angst, you told me that repetition was the key to success. Not only do kids need to try a food multiple times before deciding they like it but a cook needs to get to know a recipe, too. “You’ll feel more comfortable, you’ll start to make it yours, and that confidence will be addictive,” you said. Well, last weekend I decided to tackle the Roast Chicken and Vegetables again. And for a fleeting moment, while I was stuffing herbs into the chicken’s cavity and then rubbing the outside with butter, I truly felt…competent. And while the kids didn’t wolf down the finished product, they each put a small piece on their plate. And guess what? No one gagged.
Ready to Get Cooking?
Before you head to the store, download the Family Shopping List for a printable list of ingredients found in these recipes and others from the Real Simple Family 2010 issue.