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Cooking for Four

May 30, 2013

I love my family. I love introducing my kids to new foods, especially ones they enjoy. I love spending time with my wife, lingering over dinner with a glass of wine.

Cooking for my family? That’s another matter entirely.

Sure, there are some dishes that are universally loved by everyone around the table. Cuban black beans with sweet potatoes? Big hit. Spaghetti with meatballs (imported from Providence)? Nothing but happy faces. Friday night roast chicken with challah and pan seared string beans? Well, sometimes Little Miss Fussy sniffs at the vegetables.

There are other dishes that are hit or miss. Sometimes they go over well, and other times they get a lukewarm reception. Savory bread pudding used elicit tears from one of the children, but now it seems to be on the safe list. Stirfry used to be a weekly dish until Mrs. Fussy tired of its flavor profile.

And then there are the things that one person loves and are non-starters for the rest of the family. Young Master Fussy loves fried rice, but the ladies of the house don’t go for it, so when he and I are alone together I might bang one out.

In theory we have a framework in place for dealing with this.

It’s a little complicated, but even a child of three can make sense of it. And the idea is about supporting the notion of a family dinner where everyone gathers around the table to share a meal. What’s remarkable is that more days than not we’re actually able to pull this off.

So here’s how it goes.

I’ll cook one meal for dinner. The meal will have several components. Everyone gets served each component of the meal. If you want to get seconds of any component, you have to eat as many bites of EVERY component, as equal to your age. So if a four year old wants more black beans, they would need to eat at least four bites of rice and four bites of sweet potatoes before such a request would be granted.

There is one exception. If the food is entirely unpalatable, the kids are welcome to help themselves to the unsweetened cereal flakes option, just to have something in their bellies after dinner.

But that’s not all. If you want to have a modest dessert, you need to finish your minimum number of bites for everything on the plate. However there’s a small bowl of ice cream available to anyone who finishes everything they were served.

If you take the cereal option, you are de facto declining dessert.

I think it may sound crazier than it is in practice. And if memory serves, this strategy was inspired by some parenting book. However, it was so long ago and this father was so sleep deprived at the time, I couldn’t possibly tell you where the inspiration came from.

But there are lots of things in play here.

In theory this is supposed to take the fighting out of supper time. No longer is it a battle of wills between parent and child at the table. If the kids don’t want something, they don’t eat it. But they are well aware of the consequences. If they want to try to force themselves to choke down some kale in order to get a roll of smarties, that’s their choice. And it’s so much better than getting traumatized by being forced to stay at the table and swallow something they find completely unpalatable.

One would think that this would give me the flexibility to make anything I wanted at dinner time. And it should. Perhaps I’m just too big a softy.

Really what I want is a pleasant dinner with the family. But even if the kids sit quietly and politely at the table, dealing with their disappointment in a mature and appropriate way, this family hour is really drained of its joy. So I listen to their likes and dislikes. While I don’t make changes on the fly, as long as input to future dinners is offered in a congenial and respectful way, I’ll consider those preferences moving forward.

The problem is now really multifaceted.

My darling children often have mutually exclusive preferences. Plus Mrs. Fussy would prefer food that’s relatively low in fat, which rules out cheese sauces, cream sauces, and large portions of delicious meat. Onions, cabbage and spicy foods cause problems. As does pretty much anything with flecks of green in it. The kids have historically resisted polenta, but I make it sometimes anyway.

Recent additions to the repertoire that went over well were a bland mung bean masala, and some lean lamb steaks that I cut from the leg and seared in the cast iron skillet. From the lamb steaks I learned that Little Miss Fussy prefers them with less of a crust and Young Master Fussy enjoyes them best cooked medium-well.

I recognize that these are issues of my own making. Raising your children to think about how food tastes is a double edged sword. But I’ve got to say that cooking for one is much more fun.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2013 10:43 am

    As a child my parents would engage in such intense meal-time warfare with me that I am loathe to engage in similar battles with my children. If my munchkins are half as stubborn as I was then there is really no point. Once, I was robbed of all dessert activity for several months over a snow pea battle , and given the “sit there till you eat ’em” line I would hold camp until midnight. Dessert was unimportant to me in that contest of the wills. I held my ground and nary a green bean would pass my lips.

    This all ended when my exasperated parents consulted the pediatrician about my anti-green vegetable stance. The good Dr. told them that as I was the picture of young lad good health the fighting was really not worth it at all and I was so reprieved. I never had to eat an unwilling bite of vegetable matter again and my culinary horizons actually broadened on my own terms.

    My 4.5 year old daughter is suspicious of “meat” in general but will inexplicably eat broccoli and other green things that I would never touch at her age. My 1.5 year old, on the other hand, has such a hunger for animal protein that I get a bit worried when I see him eyeing the cat. I am very c’est la vie about the whole situation. I grew up straight and tall on whatever nonsense I insisted on eating as a child and I am (somewhat inexplicably due to fast living throughout my 20s) to all observable indicators in very good health.

    In any event, I don’t think it sets your kids up to some sort of grand failure in life to let them pick and choose what they want to eat a bit at meals. Last night darling daughter wanted noodles cooked in broth and wee man wanted nothing to do with it so he got something else. As the main culinary force in the house, I don’t mind cooking for each of them (and the picky wife) individually. This seems to appall the sensibilities of some, but I think the “you will eat what is put in front of you” attitude isn’t necessarily that constructive. Trying to find some happy medium that everyone just ends up in mediocrity most of the time… I am not really tied up in some concept of “the family meal” like many of my contemporaries seem to be. But then again, I don’t really believe in the concept of a “meal” anyhow (I maybe eat a conventional “dinner” once a month)… but that is another story.

    My kids are all piles of blond hair and ruddy cheeks anyways, I am pretty sure I could feed them a steady diet of smarties and coke and they would be fine. I will say that the only thing I outright ban in the household is sugared sodas and full strength juice. They can whine all they want about that I guess…

  2. May 30, 2013 2:17 pm

    My question is, how do you keep track of everbody’s bites? Do you have a whiteboard on the wall in the dining room? A SmartBoard®? A laptop running Excel (with a plastic cover to keep the food spills out)?

    Also, Fussy, you are not a young man. I’ll stipulate, charitably, that you are 35. That means you must eat 35 bites of black beans, 35 bites of rice and 35 bites of sweet potato to get to that scoop of ice cream which you could not possibly ingest at this point. Where do you put it all? Or do you have a double standard/sliding scale which is more forgiving for you and Mrs. Fussy?

  3. Sue permalink
    May 30, 2013 2:56 pm

    Ha ha! We have a little girl days shy of three years old. I was so worried that god had match us up with a fussy eater, that I started her on spicy (not hot) dishes very early on. But what has really sealed the deal is the trio of dipping sauces I serve in monkey bowls at dinner; ketchup, A1, and Greek yogurt. I brag about how my daughter will eat a whole grilled Portabella mushroom cap, but generally omit the fact that is was just a delivery tool for steak sauce. Oh well!

  4. christine permalink
    May 30, 2013 4:13 pm

    I got really good, sound advice from my kid’s pediatrition about 25 years ago. He said that since I was not a short order cook I shouldn’t act like one. He said to make a meal, put it on the table and if my kids ate it, fine and if they did not, fine. He said that since I’d be making another meal in a reasonable amount of time, if they didn’t eat they wouldn’t starve. He was right. I never fought with any of them over food nor did I need to dangle dessert in front of them to make them eat their vegetables. They ate or they didn’t and I never made a fuss about it. I also didn’t make them a sandwich if they didn’t like what I had made. And, dessert was not a ritual I performed then or even, now. Sometimes there was a cookie or ice cream but more often there was not. But, regardless of how many “bites” they took, if one was offered a treat, they all were offered a treat.

    So, take it from an old pro (and a wise doctor) and just ignore the whole food thing with kids.

  5. May 30, 2013 6:17 pm

    Everyone has their own challenges, I guess. Cooking for a crowd is more people to please. Even cooking for two is a task, ’cause those two people might feel like eating totally different things (this is what my husband and I run into a lot). And cooking for one, well, if you make anything that requires real cooking (as opposed to, say, grilled cheese, simple stuff), it seems like too much work for one person, and there’s nobody to eat most of it (or else you do all of that work for one meal, which also seems like a waste).

    Maybe this explains why my husband gravitates toward take-out and I tend to make myself really easy stuff instead of doing real cooking.

  6. June 1, 2013 11:33 am

    I could imagine massive bite-counting cheating going on during dinners with less popular food.

    It seems kids get more and more fussy with their food. But as long as they get healthy food and cover all the vitamins and minerals necessary.

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