Thursday, October 30, 2014

Dinnertime Revolution*

* This is probably not a revolution to anyone but us because the rest of you probably don't eat like animals.

We have been having kind of a hard time with dinner lately because Harry and Jack are constantly asking for more of something, so we have to jump up and get it.  Cooper is the pickiest little eater EVER and also a loud talker, and Dorothy reaches a point each meal where she shrieks and throws her food.  Oh!  And!  There is a smelly dog under the table snorting like a piglet and taking an intermittent nip or 2 at everyone's toes.  Add in the start of hockey season with its 3 practices and a game every week, and you have a situation where Ben and I started slopping the kids straight out of the fridge-- wheels of salami, yogurt tubes, orange slices, peppers with ranch dressing, maybe a bagel if we were feeling fancy--and eating after they went to bed.

But this is not the family dinner scenario that hegemony tells us we need to be having.  And we do hegemonic things.  Happily, usually.  Wait until you see our middle class white midwestern family Christmas card that features us hunkering in the autumn brush in nicer (and coordinated, natch) clothes than we usually wear to a nature preserve.  LIKE WE EVER EVEN GO TO A NATURE PRESERVE.

So, we have redoubled (so, quadrupled??) our efforts to create harmonious family dinners, which has meant 4 things:
1.  Adjusted expectations.
2.  Recipe experimentation
3.  Redefinition of alone time.
4.  Family-style serving.

1.  Adjusted expectations

I used to think well fuck it, we have hockey 2 days this week; I have late meetings 2 days.  There goes the whole week.  We might as well feed the kids garbage and eat takeout.  And then that's what we would do.  I am trying really hard to eliminate that kind of extremist meal planning.  There is one night a week when we will just never sit down as a group.  But that night, I usually come home right before bath time, and Ben and I eat wine and cheese and fruit and have a beginning-of-the-week couch date.  Only we had to relocate to the kitchen table because the dog goes nut when we eat on the couch.  Our 2 hockey nights, though, are not really an excuse to cut out dinner.  Instead, we have meals that have been planned ahead, and Ben and I trade off taking Harry to practice.  Last year, Dorothy was still nursing all the time, so I stayed home with the little kids and cleaned up dinner every time, and I got really frustrated with that and started not making dinner so I wouldn't have to clean it up.  This year, it sucks to clean the kitchen with Dorothy and Cooper running around, but it is loads easier than it once was, and I only have to do it once a week.

Not only did we change our ideas of what was possible on busy nights, but we also have lowered the bar for the amount of time we plan to spend together eating dinner.  I felt like a failure if it didn't happen every night and threw in the towel.  Now we aim for 4 nights a week, sometimes 5.  Usually that's Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and either Friday or Saturday.  The other weekend night, Ben and I try to go out, or we do a movie night with the boys, or wee feed the kids and have a date night at home or we all go to a restaurant (HELL). One of these nights of family meals is something easy or leftovers.  So really, we are only trying to cook 3-4 night s a week.

2.  Recipe Experimentation 

I know I talked about our food rut and how we have been trying to make new dishes the past few weeks, and it has been fun!  For awhile there, we would eat grilled chicken and a vegetable every night of the week, but man did that get boring.

This week, for example, we had chicken and noodles on Sunday (an old favorite) and ate leftovers both Monday and Tuesday (I made a lot, and the kids augmented with frozen special snowflake chicken nuggets on Tuesday).  Then I made a delicious baked chicken over squash recipe from my adorable Wisconsin farm wife cookbook yesterday, and today, we are having tacos.

Last week, we experimented with a turkey, mushroom, and zucchini lasagna that turned out great and we tried chicken pot pies at home; the week before it was a new soup in addition to a couple more tried-and-true options.

Next week, I am planning to roast a chicken or 2 and make matzoh ball soup on Sunday, hoping that carries us through Monday and Tuesday as well.

Making things we don't always eat has been really fun, and we are bound to find more favorites to add to the list.

I have also been making new desserts, and I am trying to have a specific dessert for each meal, so the kids don't just eat a bunch of store-bought cookies after dinner.  Paradoxically, I think planning dessert is making them eat FEWER sweets.  I have stopped always putting a few M&Ms in their bentos because I know something sweet is on the menu, and they have cut down on their Oreo consumption.

3.  Redefinition of Alone Time

Usually the only way I can cook a dinner for Wednesday is to make it on Tuesday night after the kids go to bed.  I work from home with both babies on Wednesday, and adding dinner prep to an already packed day is just about impossible.  So Ben watches TV and does his normal online class work, and instead of joining him and Beatrix on the couch, I prep the following night's meal and clean it up.  I have been making casseroles or other things that can be totally prepped and then popped in the oven the next day.  This morning, I got ready for work 20 minutes early and then spent a little bit of time cutting veggies and cooking taco meat.

I will do just about anything to avoid actually having to MAKE dinner during the insane pre-dinner meltdown hour, and doing all the prep work beforehand and without the help of children makes cleaning the kitchen much easier.  So most of my alone time these days is spent cooking, baking, or tidying the kitchen, and I am starting to really enjoy it.  And I have gained 2 pounds.  Coincidence, I am sure.

4.  Family-style serving

The previous 3 steps GET us to the table, but we also needed to try to make our time there more enjoyable.  We ask the big kids more focused questions and leave plenty of time for Cooper to talk.  We give Cooper the damn peanut butter bagel he is going to ask for in 2 seconds anyway and find that he is more likely to try stuff if he has his blankie of a bagel beside him.  But the biggest change we have made is the way we serve the food.  We used to pull it out of the oven and slap it on the stove top and fill plates from right there.  The island would be a cluttered mess while we ate-- wrappers, milk gallons, cooking detritus, etc strewn about-- and if anyone needed seconds, Ben or I would have to jump up and get it.  We also never set the table and just grabbed what we needed throughout the meal.

No more!

I bought a few trivets and cleaned out my cabinet of serving dishes.  I started setting the table with all of the cutlery options, even if I know we will just need forks.  Napkins are not something I hand out only once you spill. I stash any pre-dinner mess in the sink before we sit down so the room is relatively uncluttered. We use our prettiest oven-to-table dishes and the serving utensils that used to just see the light of day at parties.  We use glass glasses for the kids, too.  Ben and I have wine.  There are candles.  The kids can help themselves.  We pass baskets of rolls and the butter dish.  I am sure this is all stuff you do, too, but we used to eat like animals.

Harry and Jack love the vibe, and Cooper really, really likes serving himself.  Dorothy is still screamy and throwy, but the wine helps.

The other night, I even precut the pumpkin bars and laid them out on the counter on pretty plates with small forks so the kids could help themselves when they finished the main course.

Elevating the presentation has made us all take the meal more seriously-- it really feels like the family bonding event it is fabled to be.  I cannot believe we were eating so poorly for so long!  Up next:  dinner music.

What do you do to make dinner with small kids fun?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


My school read I Am Malala for our common reading program, and Shiza Shahid, the founder of The Malala Fund, was the campus keynote speaker.  After her excellent speech on Monday night (she is the most accomplished 25-year-old I have ever met), she spoke to about 50 public speaking students and my criticism students Tuesday morning, and I moderated that event, which was awesome.  Then I made her take a picture with me because I am a dork.

Speaking of awkward pictures, Jack, first grade:
I looked up from washing the dishes the other night to see this guy pressed up against the glass.  I HAVE NO IDEA HOW LONG HE WAS STANDING THERE.

We finally bought the kids a computer because Harry's constant need to check his email was driving us batshit.  I love how perfectly proportionate it is for Jack.
Did you know Darth Vader can look like a teddy bear?  Well, he can, obvi.
While Dorothy took a nap (oh god you guys, Cooper is slowly but surely dropping his nap), I sat on the driveway and cleaned out seven (7) pumpkins-- the kids insisted we get one for Beatrix-- so we could carve them after school.  Cooper helped.  And by helped, I mean did not help at all and hindered, actually.

Predictably, pumpkin carving was a mess of screaming and knives, and all the boys carved their own.  Dorothy didn't really know what the hell was happening, and Ben and I decided to wait until everyone was in bed and we were having wine to carve ours.

I pretty much love them (those are both mine--Ben's are way better)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Hanging around, a party, and a pumpkin patch

On Wednesday, Dorothy FINALLY wanted to play with her American Girl dolls. She mainly tried to rob them of their footwear.
Jack lost his second tooth, and Harry told him not to expect $20 from the Tooth Fairy because she might only bring second kids $10 for their second tooth.  She brought a twenty.  Jack is saving up for a TV which Santa might bring them to hang on the wall of their room to play XBox and Wii U.  I KNOW.  Super trashy. 
Too cool for school.  But they were on their way to school.  Erm.
This is all Cooper was wearing.  Doesn't that make you want to sit on our couch?
He looks really old.  Except for the missing little teethies.
She found out Frozen is on TV, not just on the iPod in the car.
Not one child ate one monster finger.
Keeping it classy and making punch, which I called Hallowtinis, despite the lack of vodka.
Paying Bingo together.  THEY WERE SO CUTE.
Sending emails.  EMAILS.  A girl in his class just emailed tonight to ask him if he had any plans for recess on Monday and to ask him not to be annoying.  Then she emailed back a few minutes later to say she wasn't being mean, but he's really annoying.  Erm.
More emails.
After I volunteer in his class, the kids have choice time until the end of the day, and I like to stay and play with them.  This week, I suggested that a fun choice activity would be to clean out Harry's desk.  He was not convinced it would be fun.
But seriously.
SERIOUSLY.  (Once in second grade, I got in trouble because there were a couple of rotten bananas in my desk, and they made everything smell and ruined my spelling book, so I know he gets it naturally).
He had a ton of crayons and markers at the beginning of the year.  Now he has like 5.  WHERE DID THEY GO?
This was the funniest and randomest thing in his desk:
Ben stopped by school on his way home from work (the babies have a sitter so I can volunteer) to set up a PTO event, and he came for choice time, too.  We both played Chinese checkers with Harry and a friend.  That's a long game.  We kept suggesting hopefully that it was time to clean up, and a group of girls playing Pictionary Jr. next to us got all pissy and told us there would be a bell.  There was a bell.

Then we ran home to put the finishing touches on our pre-PTO-event Halloween party.  These drinks were STRONG.  If you make them, I recommend filling the pitcher with frozen gummy worms.
Part of his costume:
Lord of the Flies in the basement-- our house is good for upstairs/downstairs parties
Moms (and a monkey baby who got really hot at school and took off all her clothes except her dress and diaper and we lost her cute little bloomers)

She canNOT color on the paper.
During the PTO costume parade at school, Cooper started screaming that he wanted to go to the park. I told hm we could go when the sun was up.  He remembered that promise.

You can't tell, but damn this is fast.

Cooper's first board game: super hero Shoots and Ladders.  He LOVED it, even though a certain baby kept knocking over the board.

Mandatory fall fun!

This orchard has a cute little Harry Potter gently haunted exhibit that we have been doing since Jack was Cooper's age.  It starts with a blow up train kids can crawl through to get to Hogwarts.
I don;t know how we have failed to notice the super unfortunate opening all these years.
But wow.
Cooper and Dorothy didn't want to pose with this guy.
I LOVE LOVE LOVE when he crosses her little arms like that.
She was really excited to do the "weee"
She tried to leap from the fence

The boys LOVED the tiny corn maze

And everyone was a fan of hot cider and caramel apple sundaes.


Yup  Dorothy is about troll-size.  And she sure did lose her "bowbowbow."