Meet the Uchida-Wood family! Dr. Mai Uchida is a clinician at Massachusetts General Hospital and longtime friend of The Family Dinner Project. We’re thrilled she and her family agreed to share a peek at their always interesting family dinners!
Mai Uchida and Jacques Wood of Watertown, MA. The Uchida-Woods have two — soon to be three! — children: Taka (5), Genji (3) and a nearly-due baby boy.
Currently, the family are working on two main goals for their mealtimes, which Mai sums up as “Encouraging independence” and “Real answers to real questions.” As parents, the Uchida-Woods have taken note of their kids’ emerging levels of maturity and their ability to handle new tasks and information even at young ages. So they’re working to support Taka and Genji’s growth in age-appropriate ways.
“We make an effort to trust that our children are ready to hear real answers to real questions. Naturally a dinner table is a place for our children to ask questions to us that may feel heavy (to us rather than to them), and we’re doing our best as parents to discuss them in ways that they can understand,” Mai says. Even very young children may have big questions, especially right now, during an ongoing pandemic and social unrest. Mai and Jacques have made family dinner a place where the kids can seek answers safely. Mai also wrote about some of those experiences and conversations in a post for The MGH Clay Center on talking with children about racism.
In addition to exploring topics of conversation, the Uchida-Wood kids are always building their independence skills at the table. “We are always amazed that they can do so much by themselves,” Mai says, adding that she and Jacques “do our best to allow them shine in independence during meal times.” Taka and Genji are learning to assemble and serve food to themselves and others, and to use kid-friendly kitchen tools to help with preparing meals for the family.
The main challenge for the Uchida-Woods is a familiar one to most parents of young kids: Getting Taka and Genji to eat their vegetables. Fortunately, the family focus on independence can help. “This year, we started growing our own vegetables in our backyard garden. We put the dirt in the planters and planted the seeds. Our kids have shown so much pride and joy watching the vegetables grow and finally harvesting them! They didn’t hesitate to take a bite out of our Swiss chard, peppers and tomatoes when it came from our own garden that they grew from the start! (Whether they liked them or not was a different story…but they definitely enjoyed trying them.)”
Like most parents, Mai and Jacques are building quite a toolkit of strategies they can try to help get the kids to eat a wider variety of foods. One of their tried-and-true approaches is to get creative with storytelling at dinner. “For our younger son who loves superhero stories and frequently struggles with constipation, we tell him stories about the Spinach Ranger and the Broccoli Ranger coming to fight the Poopy Monsters that are building a fort in his belly and trying to hurt his tummy!” Older brother Taka, on the other hand, enjoys hearing the advice that was passed down to his mother from her grandmother: Eat as if you’re painting a picture in your stomach. You need many beautiful colors and textures to make a full painting!
On the more practical side of things, Mai and Jacques encourage trying new foods frequently by reminding the kids that our tastes change as we grow. “Even if they don’t like something, we celebrate them trying it as an achievement,” Mai says. And it doesn’t hurt to make new foods more appealing with a favorite dipping sauce or cooking method. “Our kids will eat pretty much anything if it’s stewed in Japanese curry or in miso soup. They also love dipping their veggies in a Japanese sauce called Pon-shabu, and they’d eat most things in their noodle bowls with the Japanese noodle broth called Men-tsuyu.”
Encouraging independence and eating a wide variety of foods come into play again with the family’s favorite meals. Everyone in the Uchida-Wood family likes to build their own dinner creations, which often center around noodles and sushi. “We place all the ready-to-eat ingredients in the middle of the table and we each assemble what we want on our plate or bowl. Genji often picks soba noodles, tops it with some pan-fried or boiled veggies and egg, all dipped in some cold soup. Taka will take a piece of Nori (dried seaweed), spread some rice on it, then place a few sashimi (raw fish) that he dips in soy sauce. He’ll roll up the Nori, and he has a hand rolled sushi!”
It’s also important to Mai and Jacques that they use food “as an entryway to cultural curiosity.” Mai recalls that when she was growing up, most of her non-Japanese friends “were grossed out by the thought of eating raw fish.” Yet today, sushi is a popular food in America, which Mai finds encouraging. “How ethnic food has gone from ‘ew’ to ‘wow!’ shows the growth in our society’s acceptance and curiosity for different cultures,” she says. She adds that she hopes being exposed to the ethnic food traditions Mai and Jacques share at home, as well as going to friends’ homes and being exposed to their families’ food choices, will make the kids respectful of a wide variety of cultures.
The Best Part:
“As much as we love eating, we also love cooking together!! It could get chaotic, it will get messy, and often times the end product may not be pretty, but so many funny phrases and ideas come out of our children while we are cooking together and it’s such a special time!” Below, Mai and Jacques have shared a video of the family making a favorite food together to give us all a taste of what dinner with the Uchida-Woods is really like.
Do you have your own family dinner project to share with us, or would you like to tell us how your family is sharing meals during COVID-19? We’d love to hear from you! Contact Us.