Let that number sink in a little. And I bet, if you sat down with a calculator, your number wouldn’t be far behind and maybe way ahead. (My oldest is 11).
Have you heard the theory you need at least 10,000 hours of practice to become really good at something? Well, surely this can apply to these 10,000 meals. And although I’m no cooking expert, I have learned a thing or two. Well, 20 things, actually. Here they are–in random order.
- Hunger is the best condiment. In my parents’ home, my dad posted this plaque in a prominent place in the kitchen. Fames est optimus condimentum. It’s Latin for “hunger is the best condiment.” I’ve learned that kids who are hungry, like ravenously hungry, will try nearly anything. After school snacks are the enemy of the family dinner. If you can fend off the “hangry” kids who come into the kitchen 30 minutes before dinner, it is worth it.
- Two things to not do hungry: grocery shop and decide what to eat for dinner. Plan a handful of dinners for the week and shop for that menu. When you don’t have to decide what to cook and hunt for ingredients at 5:30pm when everyone is hungry, cranky and tired, you’ll be glad you did.
- Menu planning should be like going to see your favorite band. Sure–you like to hear some new jams, but what you really want to hear are those danceable hits. In our house, grilled cheese and creamy, roasted tomato soup always make everyone want to get up and dance. (See #7. Homemade, creamy tomato soup has four ingredients and, if you roast the tomatoes before hand, comes together in 10 minutes)
- Going vegetarian (for a meal, for a few nights a week, for a lifetime) is not as scary as you think. Just restructure your meal-time question from “What meat are we eating tonight?” to “What veggie will be the star of the show tonight?” And learn from the places in the world where people don’t eat as much meat but still get full–think beans and legumes. Beans and greens with cornbread; beans and rice with a side of chili, sweet potato; soybeans in a stir fry. And please, for the love of Pete, buy good quality vegetables. Limp iceberg lettuce is not a meal to anyone.
- You don’t have to be afraid of food. Many people say their family won’t eat anything if it has onions, garlic, cilantro, peppers, coconut milk, prunes, curry powder etc…These are often the very things that make something tasty. So be fearless! Keep trying! Also, if you chop things very, very small, like this small (picture me with my finger and thumb very close together) only the Sherlock Holmes of children will be able to detect them. And, yes, I have the Sherlock Holmes of children, and no, I haven’t been able to sneak red peppers past her, and yes, I keep trying.
- Everything is better wrapped in a tortilla. Trust me.
- Sometimes a little more effort makes a big difference. Real oatmeal is not that much harder than instant oatmeal but is world’s better. Same goes for instant pudding, frozen cookie dough, and canned soup. But this does not count for jarred spaghetti sauce.
- Sometimes more sugar = less flavor. You can usually cut the sugar in a recipe down by at least 1/3 and sometimes in half without really telling the difference. Things just taste more like what they are–more like brownies, more like banana bread, more like oatmeal cookies–and less just “sweet.”
- Warm cookies are the glue that holds a family together. See #7. Find that fabulous homemade recipe that you love and don’t lose it! Bonus points if it comes from your grandma. But don’t treat it as holy scripture. Experiment (see #12) and make it your own.
- Serve everything with a straight face. Kids are like dogs and horses. They sense fear. They can tell when you don’t know what you’re doing. No apologizing for dinner.
- Enjoy your own food. If you are making something you don’t really want to eat, really, what’s the point?
- Experimentation rarely disappoints. Being a cook is not hard. If you can read, you can follow a recipe. But to be a chef–ah, for that you will need a little fearlessness and imagination. Don’t worry, you have plenty of both. Just use them as you tweak the recipe here. Add a little bit there. Make your food your own.
Jenny Rosenstratch and Andy Ward, in their delightful list of things they’ve learned about cooking for children published in Bon Appetit, say it this way: “Something to always think about: ‘What food am I making that will transport my children back into their childhood?’” That is a central question, I think. And really gets to the heart of why we even go to the effort of cooking in the first place. To make a meal memorable, you have to personalize the recipes a little. Even if you fall flat on your face. Believe me, that will be memorable, too.
- Be careful of recipes that say, “Throw it in the crock pot and you’re done!” If you are always quickly checking “cook dinner” off your to-do list, you may forget that cooking is different than cleaning toilets and laundry. You are bringing your little tribe of people around the table for love and comfort and delight and nourishment. It is a chore, sure, but on the good days, it is also a calling.
- Re-purposing leftovers is the best way to stay sane. Beans and rice bowls one day, chili the next, bean burgers on day 3.
- This a good rule that will encourage everyone in the house to try cooking: Whoever doesn’t cook, does the dishes. But, clean as you cook, so you don’t have mutiny on your hands.
- A frozen bag of spinach in your freezer will save your life. You can add nutrition to just about any meal by tossing in some chopped spinach.
- Never eat dessert alone and always serve it in a fancy dish. Make dessert feel like what it is–a special occasion.
- If you are eating with the one other person in your family who isn’t playing a basketball game or running to dance classes or staying at a friend’s house to finish homework, you are having a family meal. Sit down and enjoy each other’s company.
- These things do not belong at a dinner table: phones, tablets, TV’s, homework, old fights, the ways in which your children are disappointing you, silence, haste.
- These things do belong at a dinner table: figuring out what the heck is happening tomorrow; old pictures; funny, maybe slightly humiliating family stories; comfortable chairs; an explanation of what you worked on today; questions you don’t know the answer to; amazing things you saw that day; lengthy discussion on the way the human body works, especially digestion; your family’s take on world, national, local events; food made with plenty of love.
QUESTION: What have you learned about feeding your kids? Post in the comments below.
CHALLENGE: Have a family meal this week.
Image from Pixabay, graphics by Anna Jenkins.