Monday, April 4, 2011

Family Dinners

If your household runs anything like mine, meal times are not typically a family affair.  At 5:30 I am desperately attempting to combine a nutritionally balanced meal that my toddler and preschooler will both eat. Erma Bombeck said, “In general my children refuse to eat anything that hasn't danced in television .”  This isn’t too far from reality in my household!
At 6:00, I am tossing the acrylic plates and cups in the dishwasher and wrestling the children into the tub.  By 8:00, the kids are in bed and I am too exhausted to even consider creating an adult meal.  I pour cereal into a large bowl, add milk, grab a piece of fruit and a glass of wine, and hibernate in the family room with my husband and the latest episode of Mad Men.
I know this is not ideal.  In fact it is completely against the advice of nearly all parenting experts.  Numerous studies show that frequent family mealtimes correlate with healthier eating habits, as well as better weight control and less substance abuse (not only for the parents, but also for the children as they enter their teenage years).  Children who eat with their parents consume more of the important daily vitamins, a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables, less sodium and fat, and fewer snacks than their peers who eat separately.  What’s more, according to a 1994 Lou Harris-Reader’s Digest Poll, children who regularly eat with their parents do better in school and have greater ambitions about their future.
My God, I didn’t realize that sitting my children at the kiddy table was not only destroying their health, but their academic future as well!  It was time for this family to attempt the 6:00 family dinner, and the kids were going to help. 
A few years ago, as the Bernal Heights Library was in the process of being remodeled, two local mothers gathered family friendly recipes from friends and neighbors and created Bernal Eats: A Busy Family’s Survival Guide.  To commence my new family dinner, I unearthed my copy of the cookbook (buried beneath the 40 other cookbooks I never consult) and browsed the recipes, searching for an easy meal that would satisfy my need and my husband’s need for food to actually taste good, and my children’s need for food to be beige.  I decided to attempt three recipes for this monumental meal: Sesame Noodles with Shredded Chicken, Microwave Bok Choy and Ice Cream Pie—to bribe the children to taste the first two dishes.
Since my youngest daughter is too young to be of any help in the kitchen, unless you consider dumping a package of Cheerios onto the counter to be useful, I invited a friend’s 4-year old over to help me and my own 4-year old prepare dinner.  The experiment started off well as we began by making the ice cream pie.  Elana and Poppy eagerly smashed graham crackers in a plastic zip-lock bag until they were crumbs.  We then mixed those crumbs with butter and smushed them onto the bottom of a pie pan.  As I spooned chocolate ice cream on top of the crust, the girls tossed in handfuls of chocolate chips and mini-marshmallows, then topped the pie with a huge swirl of gooey chocolate sauce.  They never knew cooking could be this awesome!
After placing the pie in the freezer to harden, we began the main course.  Needless to say, the girls were not nearly as enthusiastic, but still offered their “help.”  This “help” consisted of emptying premeasured spoonfuls of ingredients into a bowl, stirring the wet ingredients so vigorously they splattered the cabinets and fighting over who got to stand on the red chair.  By the time the dinner was ready to eat, the suggested preparation time had been doubled, the smoke alarm had been activated, and the kitchen was a wreck. 
At 6:00 we finally sat down to dinner—two 4-year olds, one toddler, two moms and one dad—it was like Big Love in my own dining room.  We started by passing around the bok choy, which neither 4-year old (nor husband) wanted on their plate.  The sesame noodles offered only slightly better results.  The children dug through the dish looking for pieces of chicken.  Once they ate all the chicken, they decided to try the noodles, if only in order to get to the dessert.  Lo and behold, they actually liked the noodles and the toddler even asked for a second helping, which she preceded to fling on the floor strand by strand.  When the dessert arrived, all mouths grew quiet and eyes widened with great anticipation.  As expected, the whole table agreed the pie was delicious.
At the end of the meal, I had six mostly satisfied humans, three pairs of sticky hands and one disaster of a kitchen.  However, we also had a lovely, relaxed meal together as a family.  The kids sat politely throughout dinner and participated in a real conversation.  Each child tried new foods, even if they did eventually declare “No like it.”  However, next time, I think I’ll do all the cooking for our family meal.

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