I say technically, because dinner? Holy cow is it relentless. It feels like it happens practically every day! And it’s all very Twilight Zone-y, me just standing in front of the fridge, standing in front of the cupboard, scratching my head while the hands on the clock spin around and around and everyone comes in and out of the kitchen, stomachs rumbling, to cast furtive glances at the empty table.
“What’s for dinner?” one or another of my children will ask pleasantly, and I’ll say, with aggressive absurdity, “You tell me.”
They pat me consolingly, ask if I need help, and either help or sneak out again while I pop open another beer to stimulate thought. More often than not, I am nightly studying the same set of pantry ingredients—onions, grains, canned beans and the shelf of a thousand condiments—and trying to wizard them into some alchemy of an actual meal.
But sometimes, I don’t. I just don’t. But let me back up for a second to the thing my son’s fourth-grade teacher once said to me, when I was fretting about how there were unfilled slots on the sign-up sheet for their end-of-unit Chinese Feast.
“I could do the tofu with black-bean sauce,” I said, worriedly, even though I’d already signed up for noodles. “And maybe dumplings, since nobody’s doing those.” There were so many unclaimed dishes! In my defense, the Jews are an “Eat up, you never know when you’ll suddenly find yourself fleeing across the desert for a thousand years” kind of people, and we don’t like to see empty slots on a food-related sign-up sheet. But this teacher shook her head and smiled calmly at me. “I’m not worried about it,” she said, calmly smiling. “We are well-fed people.”
And that, friends, has been my mantra ever since. We are well-fed people. It is a great privilege, and we might as well own it. Nutrition-wise, every single meal is not a make-or-break situation, and there is lots of room for total lapses or for good, healthy food that does not configure itself into the traditional arrangement of dinner. You can still sit down together, but you can, if you like, sit down at the coffee table in your living room.
Trust me, your kids will be thrilled to chat and nibble sociably, like you’re all at a party, rather than confronting a large steaming plate of something they only kind of half-like. Here’s what you can eat instead of dinner. (Please note that these are largely finger-intensive interactive meals. If your children are worried about germs, reassure them that they’re already infected with every single thing everyone in the house has.)
Smoothies and popcorn. A variation on this is walking to the good fro-yo place for dinner.
Dips and things to dip into them. In our house, this is the coffee-table dinner classic, and it usually involves raw veggies and whole-grain bread, crackers or pita chips. Try a zippy green dip; a lovely pink beet-and-walnut dip; a smoky version of baba ghanoush; tangy hummus; or an adaptable any-bean dip you can make from whatever you’ve got.
Cheese fondue. This is another coffee-table special. If you can grate cheese—or buy grated cheese—you are more than halfway there. I usually serve this with cubed whole-wheat bread and call a bowl of nearby clementines “the vegetable.”
A large and perfect salad. Bring the platter to the coffee table with a handful of forks, and eat it just like that. Add chickpea croutons if you simply can’t deal with the absence of protein.
Deviled eggs. Serve picnic food and call it a picnic.
Cheese and crackers. We call this the “bread board” dinner, and we actually have the bread boards now to make it official.
Try it, not making dinner. It might turn out to be everyone’s favorite dinner of all. And if folks are hungry again later? That’s why God invented cereal.
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