My kids are both really picky eaters, but believe it or not, my favorite part of the day is cooking dinner. Not eating dinner. Cooking it.
Now, don’t get me wrong. As much as I would love to, I don’t get to create a fancy schmancy meal every single night. We’ve got budget constraints, y’all. We eat leftovers. If I’m fancy on Monday, I’m not getting fancy again until that food is all eaten up. I have plenty of nights when I have to throw something quick together, but I’m always disappointed to miss a night of real cooking.
If you are a “dump-it-in-the-Instant Pot” kind of mom, I totally get it. If I didn’t absolutely love cooking, I would not stress myself out trying to get all creative about it. (Seriously, if you hate cooking like I hate dishes, leave the cooking to the Crockpot. You deserve it.) As long as you’re not starving your offspring, there is no judgment here.
I just really love to carefully craft elaborate meals, so I don’t wait for a special occasion. Nothing is more relaxing to me than chopping vegetables, careful to keep them evenly sized so they’ll cook at the same rate. The smell of fresh herbs, cracked black pepper, or garlic and onion sautéed in butter soothe me. It’s all so satisfying to me when the breadcrumbs on the outside of a chicken breast turn golden in a hot skillet.
Whisking, mixing, bringing to a boil, reducing to a simmer … I live for these things.
There’s nothing quite like deglazing a pan with a splash of wine and knowing I’m just minutes away from a delicious sauce.
One Thanksgiving, I forgot to take any pictures of my family, but I took a photo of some turnips I was preparing. Whoops.
Last week, I roasted a beautiful chicken. I put lemon slices and rosemary under the skin and injected the breast with marinade. I served it with glazed carrots, roasted potatoes, and gravy I made from scratch.
My picky eaters ate peanut butter sandwiches.
I knew they would.
We don’t fight about food in this house. I refuse to make dinner a battle. I would hate it if someone in a position of power forced me to eat an entire plate full of food I didn’t like. I’d rather skip the meal. I make my kids try new things, but if they don’t like the dinner I provide, they know I will offer them an alternate option. It will be simple and healthy, but they know they’ll never go hungry, and that’s exactly how I want it.
But before they get the alternate dinner, they have to follow some rules.
My oldest is six, and he’s gotten a lot more adventurous over the last year. His rule is that he only has to try a bite or two of everything, and he can’t say anything rude about the food. “I don’t really like these potatoes” is okay. “These potatoes are gross” is not. As long as he gives it a try and he’s polite, he knows I will let him eat something he likes instead.
My little guy is three. I call him a “picky eater,” but his problem is actually food aversion, a result of honest-to-goodness sensory processing issues that come with autism. He’s very hard to predict, but we keep trying.
Walker just has to say, “No, thank you,” and hand me his plate. He has worked hard to get that far. It doesn’t always happen perfectly, but he’s working on it. I live for the glorious nights when he surprises us all, and just eats whatever I give him. They’re few and far between, but they make all the rejected dinners worth it.
Why do I keep bothering to serve my kids all these elaborate meals if I know they won’t always eat them?
Well, first of all, they aren’t the only people who live here.
I love cooking, and I love eating the meals I prepare. You might think I got fat eating fast food and snack cakes, but I can resist those temptations.
I jiggle when I walk because I can’t resist crunchy crostini topped with roasted red peppers, dripping in extra virgin olive oil and spices. My thighs rub when I walk because I love to sautée colossal shrimp in lemon and butter and serve them on a bed of wilted spinach and heirloom tomatoes. This double chin is made of homemade sugar cookies and an extra spoonful of cannoli filling, right out of the bowl.
My husband is a converted picky eater. When we started dating, he would hardly look at anything that didn’t have microwave directions on the box. Through the years I’ve brought him around to coconut curry, spicy sausage soup, caramelized onion frittatas, and big summer salads dressed in fresh lemon. He looks forward to coming home to a beautifully plated dinner, and I love watching him enjoy it.
When he gets home to eat these creations, the dishes will still be in the sink. I might be in the pajamas I had on when he left. There’s a 100% chance I’ll have to clear a mountain of old mail and discarded water cups off the table before we can sit down to eat.
But dinner will be delicious, dammit.
In the last year, Henry has taken to seafood, happily eating sushi, calamari and crab cakes. Just this month, Walker has decided he likes bacon and spring rolls. Both of my kids will suddenly eat Caesar salad. If I let them say no until they’re ready to say yes, I see progress. I have yet to force feed either of them into liking even a single food.
My picky eaters might not eat what I cook every single night right now, but I am holding out hope that I can convert them like I converted their picky father. I live by the idea that we don’t know what we like; we like what we know.
I’m not surprised or annoyed that my kids would rather have peanut butter sandwiches than roasted chicken. They already know they like peanut butter. But I keep offering them everything I cook because that’s how new foods become something they know.
Once it’s something they know, it might just become something they like.