I’m becoming…a kitchen mentor?

Recently, some of my friends on Facebook were joking that I should start a consulting business to help people with mealtime dilemmas.  In the midst of the ribbing, an old friend chimed in and said that she’d actually appreciate some help, quite in earnest; she was frustrated with trying to satisfy everybody in her family at dinnertime, serving the same old tired things, not serving the healthiest choices.  In short, she was struggling with what we all struggle with from time to time: Just getting everyone fed.

I was intrigued by her request.  This is somebody who I know can cook at least reasonably well; like I said, she’s an old friend, and we go back pretty far — far enough for me to remember us cooking up chicken fajitas in my parents’ kitchen after high school football games.  She knows a colander from a whisk.  She also grew up as part of a farming family, so recognizing and understanding fruits and vegetables is not a challenge either.  Now she’s a stay at home mother to two girls, who are just a bit older than my boys, and she’s…well….

I’ll spare you the gory details, but she signed her email to me “Totally Exasperated.”

I asked this totally exasperated friend (who I promised could have a silly alias here on the blog, so henceforth I’ll call her “Babs”) a few — okay, several — probing questions about her family’s eating habits.  I promised her that I’d do what I could to offer advice and support and help her figure out the dinnertime dilemma at her house, and while I’m not sure, really, how things will go, we’ve started working together to solve some of her most pressing issues.  She’s referring to the process as a “Culinary Goddess Tutorial.”  I’m just hoping that I can help.

Over the coming weeks, I hope, I’ll be sharing bits and pieces of how things are going for me and Babs and her adorable family.  Here’s where we started:

The Major Concerns: 1) It’s hard for Babs to please everyone in the family, because there are a few distinct eating styles and preferences (and a toddler in the mix, which can be a challenge anyway).  Even when she makes things that her girls say they like, they won’t eat it. 
2) The planning.  Babs wrote: “I’m terrible at planning, because I want to do all new stuff, but I don’t know where to start. I went through my cookbooks (I have at least a dozen) and picked out recipes. I loved them all, but they weren’t such a big hit with the rest of the family. I’d also like to try a meatless day, but in my head it would end up being spaghetti every week. I guess there isn’t too much wrong with that, it just doesn’t sound appetizing to me. “
The Eating Habits: Babs has a pretty solid foundation, I think, in terms of serving up mainly homemade items and trying to limit the junk food.  Her girls’ lists of preferred foods are relatively small, but not shockingly so for young kids; and they both include some fruits and vegetables, which is a huge help.  Her husband, after being a more selective eater for much of his life, is now trying to improve his habits as well and has started eating salads for the first time — again, a huge help, I think.  As for Babs, she will eat anything.  And I mean ANYTHING.  As she puts it, “Burnt, bad-tasting, whatever.  If I made it, I’m going to eat it.”
However, nobody in the household, except for Babs, will eat leftovers, which obviously makes for a whole secondary challenge.  I never have to worry about making too much of something, because I know we’ll eat it; but if she’s got more food than her family will eat at dinner, she’s got to figure out what to do with all of it.
The Experiment: After asking about a million questions, trying to learn about everything from what her family eats to what their daily schedules and household rules are, I finally sent Babs an expanded meal plan.  I drafted a month’s worth of dinners for her family and provided her with approximate amounts to cook, based on her estimates of her family’s portion sizes; I also detailed for her how to work within the meal plan to use up leftovers in another night’s dinner, what could be frozen for future use, and how to save some time each night by having herself organized in advance.

Most importantly, though — at least from my point of view — I’ve been trying to help her shed some of her guilt over not having a spectacular, successful dinner experience in her home each night.  Laying the foundation for lifelong good habits is HARD.  Even harder is keeping your cool as a parent who’s just spent lots of time and energy cooking a nice meal, only to watch your kids reject it outright.  But dinnertime learning is just as important as other forms of learning, in a child’s life, and having appropriate and comfortable rules to govern the food and behavioral expectations is just another one of the necessary touchpoints we, as parents, should provide.  As hard as it is, and as easy as it is to judge ourselves in contrast to what we see others doing, no parent who’s trying his or her best and is really committed to instilling healthy habits in the home should ever feel guilty or upset about perceived shortcomings.  We do what we can, and that’s all we can do.

Babs has started using the menu I sent with her family, and as I continue to get feedback from her, I’ll update you all on how this RRG tutorial is going.  If having this blog can change things even a little bit for a few families and encourage the survival of the family dinner table, I’ll consider it time well spent.  In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed for Babs!