There are few things more grueling than the day-in-day-out demands of feeding kids. Actually picking up the phone instead of emailing someone? Merely annoying. Laundry? Never-ending, but at least it stays in polite piles until I can get to it. This rigorous routine of three meals a day plus snacks has nearly pushed me over the edge more than once and I LOVE cooking. I even do it for a living, and even I still get tired out. But cooking, poor cooking, it gets such a bad rap.
This weekend, I met a woman at our preschool's spring fundraiser. She has four kids and when I asked her about minivans (the kind we'll ultimately have to get when our fourth baby is born in a few weeks), she didn't miss a beat. "My next car is actually going to be a food truck," she said. "All I do is drive these kids around and they're always starving."
I think she was kidding. But I can't be sure. And either way, she might be on to something.
It's a big job, all this cooking and let's not forget the cleaning that comes with it. I have swept the floor under the booster seats twice today, and may burst into tears -- or skip it -- after today's snack. But here's the thing: It's worth it. All the mess, all the cleanup, all the lingering smells in the house (some better than others), it's all worth it.
There are three things I'll fall on my sword for in this life: faith, family and food. And they're all sort of wrapped up together. There's a connection between serving nourishing food and thriving little bodies, but there's also the community that comes with eating together, even cooking for each other if actually dining at the same time isn't an option. There's gratitude. Our kids thank me for each meal, and we also say grace as a group. And there's more. "Research shows that children who eat with their families regularly are more motivated, receive better grades in school, and get along better with others," writes Hannah Werthan for Parents.com. "Family dinner is also a way to strengthen communication and bond with your kids. Kids who eat with family members are more likely to eat healthy foods and less likely to become overweight."
To be clear, it's not all Martha Stewart moments at our table. Our kids are 4, 3 and 1, so you can count on someone's water being spilled, another person frowning at an offending ingredient lying on the plate in front of them and someone else pleading for ketchup (repeatedly). Even if there isn't any "ketchup food" involved. But we do it.
We're busy people, and I know you are too. So how do you get it done? One meal at a time.
There is NO SHAME in turning on a video to occupy your preschooler while you cook some pasta. There is NOTHING WRONG with declaring Friday nights Pizza Night. And there is everything awesome about turning Sundays into Big Dinner Night. Or taking your time for Pancake Saturday Mornings.
It doesn't have to be a from-scratch dinner every night. In fact, CNN reports that you only need to eat together for 10 minutes to reap the benefits.
Cooking is a serious priority at our house because we're all in big trouble around here. In the U.S. today, one in three kids is either overweight or diabetic, according to the new book The Family Cooks. And one in two adults is overweight. This leads to health problems big and small. Ultimately we'll be paying the price for each other in terms of medical costs, loss of productivity at work and more.
Outsourcing the cooking is something marketers invented ages ago, and we all bought it. We started agreeing with them. Yeah, it IS tiring to make all these meals. Why bother when the kids don't like half of what we make anyway? But even the best boxed mixes in the world won't make themselves. When you buy packaged meals, you're still cooking -- you're just not cooking anything good.
That sounds harsh, I know.
The fact is, cooking is a beautiful part of life. And it's a necessary one. That's because relying on processed foods isn't working. When a serving of store-bought pasta sauce has more sugar than two Oreos, it isn't working. Consider this sobering thought from Prevent Disease.com: "Today, by the time the average child in a developed country turns 8 years old, they've had more sugar in their lives than the average person did in their entire lifetime just one century ago."
The only way around this is to cook. Cook for our kids and teach them how to do it too.
It's not always easy, especially with little kids underfoot. Honest Toddler knows this better than anyone. But it's necessary.
What about those busy schedules? I see a few choices:
- Become less busy. Prioritize and limit your family's activities.
- Cook a big special meal 1-2 times per week, instead of every night.
- Go half and half: use a boxed rice mix, but add fresh ingredients too.
- Make it a habit to double up meals you do make, freezing one portion to use later.
- Become less busy. Let your kids quit anything that's zapping your time yet not even enjoyable for them.
And what about those picky kids? Teach 'em how to appreciate real food. You'd never just allow them to hit kids on the playground, so why let this lesson slide too? Their own health and happiness (or at least one extremely enjoyable aspect of life) may depend on it. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Every meal starts with "thank you", not, "I don't like that!"
- Everyone tries one bite of everything.
- Everyone eats the same meal.
- Make an effort to add favorite ingredients, or create spin-offs of dishes that got good reviews in the past.
- Start early. Even babies can simply eat what you're eating -- either pureed or cooked enough so each bite is soft enough to gum. Like everything else about parenting, it only gets harder the longer you wait.
And if you try it once, even a couple of times, and see no progress, don't quit. Remember potty training? Just keep cooking.
When your toddler keeps asking for snacks as you sauté that stubborn chicken, keep cooking.
When you're halfway through making dinner and suddenly realize you're missing a key ingredient, keep cooking.
When the kids yell "yuck" the moment you set a plate in front of them, keep cooking.
When the milk is spilled 10 seconds into your meal, keep cooking.
When your husband/wife/superhero isn't home yet and you're left to face dinner with the rascals alone, keep cooking.