How to Be a Foodie with Four Kids
It's impossible. Just kidding--it's not. But it does take some determination. Here are four strategies that can help you avoid the mac 'n cheese rut and maintain some semblance of culinary adventure at your family dinner table.
First, before I dive into the strategies, I should explain that family dinners are really important to us. Possibly to the point of driving ourselves insane. We purchased high chairs that go straight up to the table, and we eat together as a family at least six nights a week. At this stage of our lives, with a seven-year-old and three kids under three, most of our dinners end abruptly with kids walking away from the table and/or food being thrown (usually food being thrown). When this happens, Zach and I take a sip of our sparkling waters (or better, wine) and remind ourselves that we're in it for the long haul. This will pay off, right?
So, now that you know that we are committed to the family dinner, I will also explain that we are pretty committed to not cooking separate meals. We strive to feed our kids the same meal we are eating. I will admit that our level of foodie has slipped from sous-vide and soufflés to more like short-order chefs as parents, but we consider these the maintenance years while the kids are still young. Here's how we try to make it work:
1. Make a Meal Plan
This first step is absolutely essential for me. Dinnertime with kids can be tough even when we're feeding them their favorite foods. To add in the complexity of more adventurous meals, I have to have a plan in place. I am a meal planning addict, and I dedicate a portion of my weekend to seeking out recipes and building my grocery list to shop for the entire week. If I don't have this ready before the week begins, I have a much harder time creating interesting, satisfying meals that my entire family will eat. (Plus, having a history of recipes and meals is a great shortcut for planning, if I'm running low on time in a given week.)
2. Break Down the Dish
This is a strategy I have adapted from Jenny Rosenstrach's wonderful Dinner: A Love Story cookbook. She suggests that dinner is still a win if kids are eating parts of the meal, regardless of whether they are in the same form as yours.
Take niçoise salad, for example. Zach and I make the salad, and we portion out bits of it for the kids, based on their preferences. Think of it like a venn diagram. Jack likes the lettuce and eggs, the girls will eat the potatoes and egg, and we will have the salad in its entireity. This is still a win. Everyone is technically eating the same thing, it's just served up differently. You could use this same approach for spaghetti and meatballs: one kid has pasta no sauce, other has the whole shebang, one has just meatballs - still a win!
3. Don't Offer Alternative Meals
This classic recommendation is a firm rule in our house. "This is our dinner" is said just about every night. The kids choose whether to eat it. Or not. No extra meals. They can have a big breakfast in the morning if they are still hungry. They usually eat enough to tide them over.
4. Give Yourselves a Break
I will be the first to admit that we are not great about this part, but we're working on it. My goal is to carve out one night a week where we cook a really fun, interesting dinner for adults (and possibly Jack, whose palate and curiosity are expanding), and we make something simple for the kids. (Their current favorite: Trader Joe's mandarin chicken.) This takes away the pressure of eating the same meal one night a week, and hopefully gives us one adult dinner where food is not being thrown.
Let me know if you find this helpful, and if you have any dinnertime strategies that work well in your house. Coming soon, I plan to share a few dinner recipes that help us get through the week, and a couple of fun dishes for weekend cooking. Bon appétit!
P.S. Here's a great article from The Washington Post on "Taking the Stress Out of Family Dinners".