Let's talk about dinner, shall we? That daily meal that can be – at least to me – both a satisfying comfort and a source of unresolved stress. Of all my routines in life, dinner seems to be the one I cannot figure out how to optimize. And for someone who loves to optimize and to cook that can leave me feeling quite frustrated. Not to mention that dinner comes around every. single. day.
Last year I wrote about our current dinner situation, its challenges, and some ideas for simplifying. More recently I've been revisiting our dinner routines again, possibly after one or more small meltdowns from yours truly over the state of dinner affairs.
The basic gist of my dinner stress is this: Chris and I want to eat very different things than our kids at dinner. We like lentil and bean soups, they do not. They happily eat toasted bagels for dinner, we prefer more veggies and protein. We like to try new recipes, they are very generally averse to if not outright hostile to trying new things. I think I find this situation particularly frustrating because we have done all the "right" things recommended by all the influencers and experts: we put a variety of foods on the kids' plates, we serve them what we're eating, we try serving foods like vegetables in various ways, we don't force our kids to eat things or clean their plates, we try to involve them in meal planning and cooking, etc. Chris is a nutrition professor, for goodness' sakes! And yet our kids remain very particular about food.
I think part of the issue, perhaps the biggest part, is how we view our kids' eating habits. I think that actually our kids are average if not great eaters if we could compare them to all their peers. But when we sit down to dinner I have a sample size of just my three. So we tend to focus on what our kids aren't eating instead of all that they do. For example, some things my kids (at least one of them) will eat that I've heard friends say their kids won't eat include: bean and cheese burritos, eggs, oatmeal, chips and salsa, smoothies made with frozen spinach, bananas, peanut butter, and blueberries, mushroom pizza, pickles, black olives, kefir, and occasionally a few leaves of salad. Additionally, one kid will eat all the corn you give him, another will happily munch carrot sticks dipped in ranch dressing. Reminding myself of these things really helps!
For all the great recipe ideas and validation that the "feeding kids influencers" offer I think what I've internalized from them is that "if you do this, your kids will be pretty good eaters." Instead what I've found is that "if I put in all this effort and try kid-friendly recipes...my kids will eat the same plus I'll have a whole pan of pasta with cheesy broccoli sauce that no one ate." What I'm working on reframing in my mind is to eliminate the idea of picky eaters. I think what we call a picky eater is just a normal kid. Kids that eat all the vegetables, spicy dishes, and sushi should get an adventurous eater designation because that is truly awesome. But my children's unwillingness to eat that way isn't a reflection of their being picky eaters and my not doing a good job as a parent.
So! I'm working on feeling great about how my kids eat, focusing on fostering their good relationship with food, and remembering that it'll definitely get easier. (We have a toddler who can barely sit through a 10 minute meal so it can only get easier! And I can definitely see a difference in the boys willingness to try new foods over the past few years as they've gotten older). In the meantime I've also been working on simplifying our dinner routine. Previously, when I would make the dinner menu, I would start with thinking about what I wanted to eat that week. A very reasonable consideration seeing as I make the menu and grocery list and often am the one cooking as well. If I planned a meal I knew the kids wouldn't eat, I would plan a hearty side I knew they would like such as bagels or pasta.
Some days this worked great but more often than not I felt like I was cooking two meals, which I do not enjoy. Or if I ran out of time and didn't make the meal I was planning for Chris and myself then I would feel disappointed with dinner. We were also starting to encounter increasing obstinance when we served things that one or more of the kids didn't love, and sometimes that thing was the simple side that was supposed to be the home run alternative! And by obstinance I mean a full-on meltdown and not always from our toddler. Over plain pasta! On those nights I was ready to throw in the towel and declare that dinner henceforth would be cereal every night.
However, cereal for dinner is not my new simplified dinner plan. (Although honestly I'm keeping that idea in my back pocket.) Chris and I talked through our dinner challenges and came up with a modified version of what we were already doing. Here's what we're trying out:
+ Instead of starting the weekly menu with what I want to eat I'm starting with what I know the kids will eat. To make this more efficient I created three week-long dinner menus consisting entirely of dinners that I know the kids won't reject. To make a weekly menu and grocery list I pull up the Google spreadsheet with the dinner queues and choose one of the three. To each of the main dinner dishes we always add a fruit and/or a vegetable. Smoothies are a hit with all three so that will often be the side dish. Here are my current dinner queues:
+ On top of what we're already planning as the kids' dinners, I layer in one or two simple recipes during the week for Chris and myself. For example, during the fall and winter I love to make a bean or lentil soup on Sundays that we then eat as leftovers for dinner and lunches. We also love a vegetarian version of KSB (kale-sausage-beans) using Field Roast.
+ Additionally, Chris and I are trying to keep more meal-prepped ingredients and ready-to-eat foods on hand so that we can quickly throw together simple dinners for ourselves without feeling like we cooked an entire second meal. Prepped ingredients we love include roasted sweet potato halves or cubes, cooked quinoa, canned beans, sauteed tofu, frozen brown rice, bag salad kits, black bean veggie burgers, and Field Roast sausages.
So that's the state of dinner affairs over here currently. It's part working on parenting confidence and acceptance, and part implementing a system that works for our season of life right now. I'd love to know how dinner is going at your house if you care to share!