Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Logic of Dinner

If parenting as a whole could be summed up through a single snapshot in time, that time would be dinner. It is nightly reinforcement of a central parenting principle that at no time should the amount of effort you put into anything correlate with the amount of joy, interest, education, and/or nutritional value that your children get out of the same moment. There is simply no connection between how much I try and work, and how many eat it at all, or how many spontaneously induce vomiting to evade the whole situation (in fairness, this only happened once but was nonetheless impressive in its own way).

Here’s the thing. Now that Phil and I are doing this the third time around, we are ever so slightly more comfortable in our parenting roles. That is to say we don’t overreach. We know our limits. As parents, we know what we can pull off. Low expectations don’t mean we think less of ourselves as parents. It means we are realists who understand the math. Extraordinary effort does not necessarily equal guaranteed happiness or satisfaction. If scrambled eggs are consistently better received than the beef stew that took 4 hours to make, why would we make beef stew?

Look, there are moments, both in life and in dinner, when we try. And sometimes, just sometimes, we see a tiny morsel of reward. It is the look of joy when they try or taste or do something new. It is that trip to the museum with all three during a school vacation day when there are 8,000 people there and two of us and three of them and everyone wants to go in a different direction and we pull it off somehow even securing a nap for the baby to boot. We are awesome. But we don’t slow clap for ourselves for too long. Because we know that more than not, the success of that day had to do with random chance, not effort. And that when we attempt it the next time under the exact same set of circumstances we will get an entirely different outcome. Everyone will cry the whole time. No one will nap. The baby will eat a Lego. Dinner is in many ways exactly this: a nightly ritual where more than not, the outcome will be decided by random chance more than effort.

You know, the other day it broke 30 degrees up here in New England. This was something of a milestone as it hasn’t been more than like 5 degrees for ages. So we were all outside and Dylan was digging a tunnel, and Hope was playing in the snow (fine – eating the snow) and Ruby was digging a hole with a shovel and Phil and I looked at each other and realized that parenting perfection happens in those rare moments when logic trumps your nonsensical desire to overreach. When you let them play with empty boxes and shovels and eat snow. When you let them be.

Take Hope for example. Sometimes I forget myself and I’m all “lets learn shapes and colors or play with this toy!” and she just looks at me like forget you, I’m going to eat my sock. So the other day we spent an hour dumping q-tips out of the container and putting them back in. It was AWESOME. I mean, if you were 1 year old it was awesome. So really, why should dinner be any different? Dinner is really one big exercise in dumping out the q-tips. We aim low and keep it simple. No one gets hurt.

I had my plan for dinner last night. Black bean and cheese quesadillas. Dylan and Hope fell for it. Ruby, like almost always, was on to me. In this way, by the way, dinner is also the perfect snapshot of parenting. There is always that one that will defy everything you throw at her. I mean, she doesn’t eat macaroni and cheese. What the FRESH HELL? Anyway, I digress.

So immediately she sensed that there was a non-yellow food in her midst that was slightly mushy and interfering with her ability to enjoy dinner. So she sat there systematically pulling out every single individual black bean and as she did that, I tried to stuff them back in. And for about 20 minutes we did this and I was all nonsensical parent – she must try beans! Ruby, no dinner unless you eat some beans! I will not yield my position!

And then 20 minutes later I was like oh just eat something, and she scraped out all the beans and ate the mangled tortilla left in its wake. The entire exercise was actually a useful reminder that she is resourceful and to just let her be; that regardless of how hard I try she'll get what she needs, when she needs it. This, by and large, is the prevailing wisdom that guides us through the rough waters that is dinner. 

I do think it's useful to set some reasonable goals for mealtime and remember that fundamentally, the odds are not in your favor with children either at dinner or generally speaking in life. So don’t try too hard and just enjoy it. My dinner time goals at this point are to use as few pots and pans as possible, to get some consumption of mildly nutritious food by most parties, and most people sitting for most of the time.

My dinner time goals involve lots of mosts.

So last night I got 2 of the 3 kids to eat mostly nutritious foods and the third to eat something. And they mostly sat except when the baby passed gas in the middle of the meal and everyone fell out of their chairs laughing.

And that my friends, I’ll take as a win.




(See her face here? It’s as if she’s saying is that the best you can bring? Sadly Hope, the answer is yes, that is the best I can bring.)

ps: here are some great recipes that we either regularly use ourselves and/or that folks offered up and we tried. All our kid-tested, require low parent effort, and were mostly enjoyed (except for Ruby – because, obviously).

A bunch of these recipes are from this blog which is one my new favorite places.

This is my new favorite go-to approach to fish. I sprinkle a little bit on shrimp and then usually don’t do the rest of the stuff she says but just toss with buttered noodles. There was this one time I sprinkled it on some white fish (like a cod or something of that ilk) and tried to smuggle it on as fish tacos. Like one of them fell for it but it didn’t really fly. In general, it’s a great seasoning with fish and the recipe will enable you to set some aside for next time in a jar or Tupperware or whatever so that you can just reach in to your cabinet, throw some on and voila.

This is also becoming a regular in our rotation as well. I do a version of this that uses less ingredients because I am lazy. I use 1 lb. of ground chicken, one egg, ½ cup of seasoned breadcrumbs and ¼ cup of ground parmesan or pecorino. I bet it would taste really good if you made this the real way. But it also tastes totally fine in this short cut version too. And I almost always have all of this stuff in the house. If we get fancy we serve it on grinder rolls with a little bit of canned sauce and some melted mozzarella on top like a meatball sub. But that’s only if we’re feeling fancy.

Other stuff we make fairly regularly:

One of my favorite chicken dishes: boneless skinless breasts, one bottle of Russian dressing, one mix of onion soup mix and one jar of apricot jelly. My mother called this her 1-2-3 chicken because it was just that easy to make. My friend and I call it an old lady recipe because it kind of is but also, who cares because it is tasty and 4 out of 5 will eat it.

Turkey burgers: I got lots of good recs for this and I can say that this is consistently the only thing I make that everyone eats (EVEN RUBY!!!) There are lots of ways to make this yummy but if you want to play it safe, just mix one egg and some seasoned bread crumbs with some ground turkey. Maybe some garlic salt if you are feeling really fancy and then make into patties and broil.

Have you noticed a pattern? Do all of my recipes involve one egg and breadcrumbs? I feel like this is true. Man I am bad at this.

Pizza: We buy store bought dough that we roll out and sprinkle lightly with shredded mozzarella, some oregano and parsley, maybe a pinch of garlic salt. My secret weird pizza ingredient is that I also toss on some textured vegetable protein. It is made from soy and the version of it that I buy looks like a spice and has kind of a nutty taste to it and will just bulk it up a bit so it isn’t just carbs. In our house we don’t add sauce because sauce is RED. God forbid!

Noodles: Several people recommended this one-pot recipe which I can say we tried and was delicious. 4 out of 5 of us ate it which is a good enough win for me. I also tossed some carrots into the liquid to soften them up for the baby because I fear making a second pot. This worked! We skipped the basil because that is GREEN which might have been scary, and added in a healthy dash of pecorino at the end. Yummy and easy. Win win.