I think she was 5 or 6 when she asked me what a chicken nugget was. It must have been 5 because by age 6 she would have seen kids eating them in the school lunch room.
I’m still pretty sure my kids don’t know you can get anything but hot chocolate or coffee from a drive-thru window. But before you hate me for making cooking a priority, let me tell you that there is a bag of Tyson chicken nuggets residing in my freezer. It is a weapon I might need to wield in the coming weeks. Hold on, I’m getting to that.
Let me go back to those glorious days when my kids would quietly eat anything we put in front of them. When our firstborn was a little tot we gleefully bought a food mill from Amazon so that no matter what what the Hubs or I had made for dinner she could have it too. This was a trick I learned from my own parents who did this with their seven children not only because it was a quick and easy way to feed the littlest family member but also because it was way more economical than jarred baby food (these are the secrets of big families that Target and Babies R Us don’t want you to know). I’ll never forget how pleased we were with ourselves as parents when our first daughter ate gazpacho that the Hubs had made from our homegrown cucumbers and tomatoes. It’s so satisfying to see your children eat food you’ve grown. It still warms my heart–jalapeño style–to think of the sweetness of that time. The food mill’s success at our table grew into what I see as our family philosophy of eating. We eat dinner together (all at the table at one time) that one of us has prepared for us all to eat. This worked so well for us for eight years that I took it for granted.
Now, we are so far away from our kids eating gazpacho. How did their little protégé palates wander so far off the well-eaten path? How do they now want only chicken nuggets or sloppy joe or shrimp (strangely) or everything as plain and unherbed, unspiced as possible? How is it that I used to put olives and sautéed spinach and bell pepper and sausage and fresh basil and rosemary on pizza and now they just want cheese (“…and pizza is the only thing I like with melty cheese. I don’t like creamy things…”)?
We have not just an eating style wrapped up in home cooked meals, but I’d venture to say that our whole way of parenting and strategic family life is centered around the idea that I will make a meal from scratch every evening and we will sit together and eat it. This is a major reason why I don’t work full-time in a corporate office until 5 every day and instead spend my part-time work hours sweeping salon floors and booking appointments. In this house we believe in cooking and eating real food. Real food takes time. It takes time to plan menus and shop for produce. It takes time to plant and pick and weed and preserve.
Somehow we’ve gotten to the point where every dinner’s main feature is complaining and crying. Yes, these days real tears fall during the whole meal because little people don’t want to eat it and don’t think they should be forced to eat it. Every dinner is a battle of wills. I can see this happening when they were maybe 3 and 5. But now? When they’re 7 and 9? I thought we’d be way over this by now.
Full disclosure: the exception, the time when I take every short cut and barely cook is when the Hubs is out of town for work. That’s when we get fast food or we have chicken nuggets or grilled cheese. These are the promises I make on ordinary nights when their dad is in town and they don’t like what’s for dinner. Until recently the chicken nuggets I bought were actually “chick’n” nuggets because I felt less guilty than buying the big red bag.
But this cook has had just about enough. Last night at dinner I told the littles that they have this week to stop complaining about dinner and just eat it. If that doesn’t happen I’m done cooking for the foreseeable future. They can microwave their beloved nuggets for themselves every night of the week.
It is amazing how quickly the food standards you work so hard to maintain go the way of the EPA in the Trump Administration if you aren’t patrolling the kitchen at all times. On Monday morning the nine year-old plopped a box of Happy 150th Birthday, Canada! birthday-cake-flavored Fruit Loops on the counter. “What are you doing? You can’t have Fruit Loops for breakfast,” I said*. “Dad let me have it for breakfast yesterday!” and so began a week of her starting the day with birthday cake Fruit Loops. I think I would have preferred her actually eating a slice of birthday cake. At least there would have been some egg protein. Now see what I mean? How did we get here? And I’m not even going to get into the younger daughter’s habit of asking for 2 or 3 slices of cheddar or salami just as I’m saying goodnight and leaving the room when I put her to bed. She gorges on deli drawer selections and then immediately conks out for the night. And no, she doesn’t brush again after. The hygienist says it’s not so bad because its not sugary, but still…say it with me this time…..how did we get here?
So in about an hour I’m going to be making a new recipe: Pappardelle with Chicken Ragù, Fennel, and Peas from the April issue of Bon Appétit. I will enjoy every minute of preparing it. It’s exactly how I want to spend late afternoon on a cold wet late April Sunday. Dinnertime will roll around, and just as I’m setting the table, excited to pair the meal with Verdun, a Bière de Garde from Brewery Vivant with “a light anise aroma,” the kids will burst into the house, out of breath and flush with cold, hungry and disappointed about what we’re having. But the Hubs will love it and tell me sincerely multiple times throughout the meal just how much. And that will keep me cooking at least for this week.
*I’ve always tried to maintain that sugar cereals are dessert and no one would ever eat it as a meal anymore than a person would have ice cream for breakfast. This is very hard to maintain when your husband works for the food company that makes the stuff. In their eyes I’m basically married to Willy Wonka. He is literally their Sugar Daddy and this stuff ends up here without my consent. This time I rolled my eyes and let it in the house because a Canadian cereal box covered in Quebecois French text is well, adorable. Saveur Gâteau D’Anniversaire— who can say no to that?