I often read about how important it is not to be a short order cook at dinner time. You should teach your kids to experiment and eat the same things you do, in an effort to keep things simple, dirty fewer pots and pans, and introduce them to something other than PB&J and chicken nuggets. All of that is excellent in theory, but I think challenging in practice.
I have a 2 ½ year old who is a pretty good eater. Is he the mock love child of Rachael Ray and Bobby Flay, devouring arugula salads and roast duck? Hardly. But he likes meat, fruit, and a few stealth vegetables that I sneak in. Despite this, dinnertime gets tricky for me in a couple of ways. First, I love to cook. It is my absolute favorite thing to do (besides eating). I bury my face in cookbooks, food magazines, and recipe websites whenever I get the chance, so I’m always trying something new. Usually what I’m experimenting with are things most 2 year olds won’t touch. Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised (Junior loved Korean beef tacos — odd), but usually I have a pretty good pulse on the things he will like. So if I go the anti-short-order-cook route here are my options: put my adult-friendly concoctions in front of Junior and say “eat or starve,” settle into a life of grilled chicken, rice, and applesauce, or split the difference. I vote for the latter.
Sometimes I get a wild hair and decide to start creating something off the wall at 6:30 PM, which makes it too late for Junior to be part of the taste test panel. Yes, hold your gasps, we aren’t always able to sit down and have dinner like the Cleavers every night. I rarely get home from work and daycare before 6, and my husband is usually later. Unless something has been brewing in the crock pot, or I’m tossing together something quick or eating leftovers, we may have to divide and conquer. But on those nights at least one of us is sitting at the table with Junior, recapping the day and having quality time. Sometimes, though, the only thing in front of me is a glass of wine, and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. The life of 2 full-time working parents is challenging in a few ways, and the family dinner is one of them. But we make it work the best way we can.
I digress… Back to my conundrum of Junior starving because he doesn’t like my grown-up food, us being bored to tears with kid food, or coming to a compromise. I try to work it out so Junior’s dinner includes at least one component of what I’m fixing for us, if it’s not something he’ll enjoy all together. Example – if I’m doing something with crock pot pulled pork that I know he won’t like (i.e. making it super spicy), I will set aside a couple servings of the meat for him (plain) before I dress up the rest. That way he’s eating the main dish along with us, but his is more kid-friendly. Another example – I recently made Mediterranean-style pita sandwiches with things he doesn’t care for, like grilled shrimp, peppers, cucumbers, and white bean hummus. So instead of a pita wrap, Junior had a pita pizza using some marinara sauce I had in the fridge, and the chopped spinach and feta cheese I was using for my own meal. I really didn’t have to deviate much from what I fixed for myself, other than pulling out the marinara and some shredded mozzarella.
This tactic has made mealtime a little easier. It allows me to still cook “interesting” things, and Junior can sample what he wants, but if necessary, still have a kid-friendly dinner using some of the same ingredients. Does it work every night? Nope. But as is the case for every family, you figure out what works on that particular day. And if that occasionally involves a little short-order cooking I’m fine with it. There’s a reason fish sticks were put on this planet, and one of them is so I can enjoy sushi every once in a while…
I will say, however, that there is tremendous truth behind the “let your kids help in the kitchen” trend. Junior has experimented with so many more things since I put an apron on him, gave him a wooden spoon, and hoisted him up on his helping chair. A little food for thought. Order up!