Friday, August 19, 2011

Dinner paradigm shift

To say my relationship with food is complicated is an understatement, and of all the things that perplex me, cooking dinner tops the list. I love to eat, to cook for the holidays, and to cook for company or take dinner to friends when they're sick or have had a baby. When I know the people I'm cooking for will enjoy what I'm preparing, I find myself taking creative pleasure in trying new dishes and experimenting to improve old favorites. Making everyday dinners, though, is at best a perfunctory task, and most nights frustrating and exhausting.

I can't pinpoint the precise time I started to dread dinner, but I can trace it back to puberty, when my mom went back to college and work. I had to take on dinner duty several nights a week and like a typical teen, I chafed at the unwanted responsibility. That early resentment has informed my attitude about cooking dinner ever since.

When I first got married, it was challenging to cook for a husband who had strong prejudices against certain foods (many of them my favorites) but was reluctant to tell me for fear of offending his new bride. During the early years of our marriage, I struggled to find things we both liked while still injecting some variety into our menu; I could only eat spaghetti so many nights a week. I found a solution that seemed to work for a while: I created a monthly meal calendar of recipes we both could live with, so we only ate the same dish once a month.

When we had children, though, the monthly meal calendar no longer seemed to work. Not only were we on a tighter budget, but even more challenging, I had three disparate palates besides my own to satisfy. Some nights, out of desperation, I became a short order cook, making one meal for me and Jim and two additional, separate meals for Jimmy and Audrey. Even then, no one seemed pleased--especially not me.

Jim and I have come up with a few strategies to cope, but none of them is a complete fix. Each week I sit down with him, the kids and the ads from the local grocer, and ask for their input in deciding on what dinners we'll eat for the week. That way I can try to cater to their requests while taking advantage of what's on sale.

Each child also has one night a week that is "their" night: they get to choose what's for dinner--and originally the idea was for them to help cook dinner, too, though I've been less successful at implementing that part of the plan. Often, however, I still wind up preparing a separate meal for at least one person because Audrey will request chicken nuggets every time it's her night, and no one else likes them--or she refuses to eat what Jimmy has chosen for his night. Even with one night where they do get to choose, there are still six nights of "But Mo-om, I don't like this," and it wears me down. I look at blogs, food shows, and my go-to website,, and try to introduce new dishes, but it's a challenge to find ones that make everyone happy.

So, we buy a lot of Dino-nuggets at Costco for Audrey--and make a lot of peanut-butter-Nutella sandwiches for Jimmy.

Meanwhile, my resentment about cooking dinner has continued to grow. My blood pressure rises automatically at 5 p.m. As a matter of course, I tend to banish everyone from the kitchen while I prepare dinner just to have some peace and quiet so I can tend to a task I don't enjoy as quickly as possible. I am usually short with everyone while I cook and during the entire meal. If we're in a hurry to get somewhere after dinner (cub scouts, soccer practice, piano lessons), I get even more stressed out.

Add pregnancy to the mix... and yeah, the last several months have been rough. Jim has taken pity on me and we usually eat out about once a week, or he gives me a break by doing the cooking.

The upshot of all this is I'm suddenly finding myself in a place where I feel ready to change things up. Our dinner problem has been going on for years now, and I have had no idea how to fix it, but I want to--and I want a permanent fix.

If it's me that has to change for it to get fixed, so be it. While the timing isn't ideal because I'm pregnant and don't have a lot of energy, somehow being in a place in my life that is intrinsically creative (i.e., nurturing a new life) is helping me to think creatively in terms of solving this problem. I've been brainstorming, reading, bouncing ideas off Jim, and tweaking the things that are already working to see if I can take them further.

I just started reading a wonderful cookbook, Mad Hungry: Feeding Men and Boys, by Lucinda Scala Quinn. Most of the recipes are for delicious but uncomplicated meals with basic ingredients--but even if none of them appeal to our family, what I'm really going to take away from the book is the author's philosophy that well-made meals can be an extension of our love for our families only when they are prepared joyfully and used as a teaching and bonding time between parents and children. Tonight we're test-driving, at Jimmy's request, a recipe from the book for short ribs, and I'm going to do my best to budget my time and have him in the kitchen with me.

I want dinner to be fun again. For all of us.

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