We Don't Have A 'Take It Or Leave It' Approach To Dinners

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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I think my favorite part of motherhood is all the rules—don’t you agree? Like, if you’re tired of fighting your kid and let them go without a coat, did you know they’re going to die of pneumonia by 9 a.m.? But also, you need to not fight it and “let them learn” because “they’ll wear a coat if they’re cold!” And how about tantrums? If your toddler is a melting down hot mess at Target, you had best carry that kid outside and do some disciplining STAT. But also, you should not acknowledge the behavior at all so you don’t give them any attention for negative behavior.

And you know what’s one of my all-time faves? The family dinner. You know the one—”Cook one family meal only! Or else your kids are spoiled entitled brats!” Well, guess what? I cook my kids separate meals. A LOT. More often than not, in fact.

I don’t do the whole “one meal and you’re just going to deal” thing. If you do, cool. It doesn’t work for us. And that’s okay.

So not that I owe anyone an explanation for doing what works for my family (and neither do you), but to answer all the “You should just cook one meal! Kids will eat if they’re hungry! You’re not a short-order cook! They need to try new things!” comments, here’s why I do it.

1. I’m not a short-order cook—you are right. But mostly because I’m barely a cook at all.

Quite often, the best this fam gets is sandwiches and scrambled eggs for dinner. But, my husband and I do like flavor. We like jalapeños. And sriracha. And we don’t eat dairy or bread or pasta on the reg. So yes, although I’m no Rachel Ray, I might pull up a curry recipe on Pinterest and try it out. I will offer it to the kids, and truthfully, a couple of mine are adventurous with foods and will likely take a bite. They may even like it. But sometimes they don’t. And on those nights, mac and cheese it is.

2. The dinner window is short.

Of course, kids will eat if they’re hungry. That’s common sense. But here’s the deal with having three busy kids in extracurricular activities and a husband who works long hours. Sometimes the “dinner window” is from 4:45-5:15. And if I plop down a bowl of beef stew in front of my three offspring and say, “Well, that’s all there is so eat up,” guess who then has to deal with hungry, cranky kids the rest of the night while she’s running around town to and from practices and games? This gal. No thanks on that.

I need to get something in their bellies because we may not get home until 8 p.m. And because I need their cooperation at those practices and games. And because inevitably some other sweet parent/coach/concession stand employee will offer them a piece of chocolate or a bag of chips or a popsicle. Sure, I could say, “No, three-year old. You didn’t eat your beef stew. You have to sit here nicely and not make a scene while all the other kids get AirHeads and Kit-Kats so I can be a good mom and watch your brother play basketball.” I could try that, you’re right. Hey, how about you give that one a go and let me know how it turns out, mkay? You can even borrow my kid for your test-run.

3. Each of my kids has a reason or issue that has led to me making separate meals.

My first was the traditional “picky” eater as a young child. Trying new foods terrified him for a long time. On the days we didn’t have a million activities going on or his younger siblings weren’t shitting themselves during the dinnertime hour or I had slept more than three hours that week, I had the time and patience to watch him cry over the food in front of him, talk to him calmly about why it wasn’t scary, and mother him through it. But on many nights, due to the aforementioned list, that time and energy simply was not there. So yeah, sometimes he got a plain ham sandwich and I called it a day.

Also, I have another kid with a dairy sensitivity and yet another with a long list of food allergies. So, again, sometimes it doesn’t work for us to cook one meal and say, “Here’s dinner! Eat if you’re hungry! Or don’t! Mom doesn’t care!” Because Mom does care that all of our bellies are full, that no one is crying with belly aches, and that we don’t need to whip out the Epi-Pen.

4. Cooking is a lot of work and costs a lot of money, so I hate to see it wasted.

Listen, I’ve tried the family meal thing. I’ve made the big pot of chicken noodle soup full of healthy goodness. And I sat and watched my kids take tiny sips, make gagging noises, and eventually leave the table hungry. And because I made enough for five people, but only two ate it, much of it went bad. That’s way too many minutes chopping carrots and celery and parsley to just throw in the trash. Over the years, I’ve learned to make smaller amounts and let my kids try it if they want. If they say no thanks, my husband and I will eat the delicious soup or chili or stir-fry or whatever it is, and the kids will likely eat something else. And with this method, we don’t throw a shit-ton of food down the drain.

5. We try new foods when we can.

I agree that kids need to try new things. For example, my son and husband went fishing a few months ago and brought home several bags of fish. I saw this as a great opportunity to get them to try perch and walleye, but I knew the chances were better that they’d eat it if I breaded and fried it up. I was right! My 5-year-old ate two full plates of fish that night. However, hubs and I don’t have the metabolism that our kids do, so we try to avoid fried foods. I made separate meals for us that week, but I call it a win because my kids tried something they hadn’t had before, and it was food my son had caught himself.

So yeah, I’ll take my victories where I can, thanks, even if it means I don’t follow the “one family meal” rule.

In the end, we all do what works best for our families. For ours, letting my kids chow down a grilled cheese at 4:50 on a Wednesday works. Other nights, they might get meatballs with spinach cooked in and steamed carrots on the side. I’m not going to throw shade at you if your kids eat McDonalds or organic kale burgers. Or if you make six separate meals or one. You do you, Mama, and I’ll do the same. And all of our kids will turn out just fine.

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