Before my three girls were in school, my life was like perpetual college finals – each day, I just did what I had to do to make it through. My husband and I are both working parents. He works long hours at the office, and I’m fortunate that my job allows me to work flexible hours from home, so I also take the lead on caring for our girls. They are now 12, 9 and 5, and having them in school has helped us be more deliberate about the time we spend around the table.
My own mother was also a working mom, only she had five kids to care for. In her house, we ate what was served – if we didn’t like it, we had cereal. In fact, I remember we usually ate breakfast foods at dinner because my mom was too busy to cook. The financial and time constraints made dinners tedious for my mom, and I knew I didn’t want that for our kids. My husband and I want them to have the sort of family dinners that we would have chosen for ourselves growing up.
Even though dinner’s important, it’s not easy putting a nutritious meal on the table that pleases everyone. My oldest daughter will eat anything, but my middle child has been a vegetarian since she was 2. She doesn’t eat meat, and she also doesn’t like cooked vegetables other than corn on the cob and baked potatoes, which presents an additional challenge. More often than not, I end up making one meal for my husband, myself and my oldest daughter and another for my two younger girls.
For me, it’s important not to superimpose choices on my daughters, so I have always accommodated my daughters’ vegetarian diet. It’s an ethical choice for my middle daughter as well as an issue with the taste and texture of meat, and my youngest daughter has been influenced by her sister’s choices. It’s actually quite easy to feed them both – I just put out raw vegetables, fruit, yogurt and pasta to give them a well-balanced meal. One exception is taco night, when everyone can put whatever they want in their tacos. I haven’t found many more solutions where I don’t have to make a second meal, though some new recipes like that would be most welcome.
It’s also really fun to show the kids that dinner is a whole process. Getting them involved with dinner starts at the grocery store, where I give them an opportunity to choose some of the produce for our meal. There are also many ways that the girls can be a real help in the kitchen. When one of my daughters was just 2, I sat her on a stool next to me at the counter and let her peel off parsley leaves and put them in the pan as I made parsley pesto. She was actually helping— which is all they really want to do – and it gave her a feeling of accomplishment.
These days, my oldest daughter could probably manage the household cooking by herself. She has been unbelievable taking the ingredients we have on hand and creating full dinners. She is not afraid to experiment in the kitchen either, substituting different ingredients to bring about a different result.
My two youngest daughters love to bake, and they recently made vanilla brownies. This started as a lesson on cooking hygiene (hair back, hands washed, etc.) then moved to a lesson in measurements – they couldn’t fit the 1/2c in the flour so they used the 1/4c twice. They finished not realizing they had learned two valuable lessons but with an enormous amount of pride in having made their own brownies. The recipe was my mother’s and now I have happily handed over the recipe card.
Equally as important as the food is having a chance to talk as a family over dinner. We want our kids to have that outlet at the end of the day to talk about anything with us and their sisters, too – we want them to have that connection. Sometimes we go around the table and everyone shares something that made them smile that day. It’s a joy for us to hear their perceptions of things and see their different personalities come out. There’s something about this time at the dinner table that allows my daughters to explore who they are in the safe comfort of their family, which makes all the effort more than worth it.