One thing I did this weekend when I wasn't stress knitting, staring off into the distance replaying hideous images in my head or sticking my nose into Hugo's nape and inhaling deeply while giving thanks over and over again, was to read Jenny Rosenstrach's new book, Dinner: A Love Story. And let me tell you, on a weekend in which I despaired mightily about our society, this book steadied and soothed me. It was very good medicine.
Jenny's mission in her book (and on her wonderful blog) is to help us all put a family dinner on the table, most nights of the week. It seems simple enough, right? And yet, how many of us struggle with it? (Of course, I don't even know the half of it yet, seeing as my child still just nurses for dinner and thinks any puréed vegetable I put in his mouth at lunchtime is worthy of wonder. And how about yogurt, cold, plain yogurt! Hugo is a big fan.) Jenny puts forth the premise that family dinner is where all the magic happens, that no matter how busy and stressed a family may be, if you are gathering at the dinner table most nights of the week, you are doing something right as a parent.*
(Did you read this article, about the woman who kept a dinner diary for 14 years? That's Jenny!)
In Dinner: A Love Story, Jenny proposes not just simple meals that are easily deconstructed to suit the pickiest palates (both child and adult), but tells her own story of becoming a home cook, a commuting gourmand, an exhausted new mother and, finally, the person she is today, with two daughters and a husband, four red chairs in their kitchen and a battery of culinary treasures to keep everyone happy. These treasures include recipes for when you finally start entertaining again, recipes for commuting parents with nary a moment to spare before dinnertime and recipes to make with your children (one day!).
I earmarked things to try like Mexican Chocolate Icebox Cookies and Breaded Vinegary Pork Chops and Fish Cakes and Spicy Shrimp with Yogurt, among many, many others. Jenny also gives you tips on how to start the dinnertime conversation with reluctant talkers, how to cook on a family vacation, and how to make a few select drinks for when your children are finally, blessedly, in bed. (I've just started to realize how important these are.) It's a real all-around manual.
Besides the fact that I completely agree with Jenny, that family dinners are among the most important things a parent can do to connect with their children and keep the fabric of that relationship taut and intact, what really touched me about the book was the story of Jenny's marriage with her husband Andy (read their great Bon Appetit column here) - they seem to be true equals in the kitchen, which is something of a wonder to me (and I'm sure many of you out there, too). (For spouses who don't like to or "can't" cook, she says their task (besides washing the dishes) is simply to master one good meal - genius!) Plus, Jenny writes so endearingly and with such appetite that I found myself wishing I could beam myself straight to her dinner table more than a few times.
A few of my closest friends have children who have just graduated from being pleasantly omnivorous babies to very picky toddlers with Opinions and Dislikes and this book feels like it was almost tailor-made for them. How about you? Those of you with children, what's it like cooking for them and eating with them? What are your tricks to get them to eat, well, whatever they don't like to eat? What are your feelings on family dinners? When did your children graduate from the children's table to the adult one? Did you ever cook meals just for them or did you always make your kid eat what you did? I'd love to know.
*Just so no one gets stressed out, Jenny says not to even worry about family dinners until your child is around three years old. Attempt them before that and you're mostly looking at a recipe for frustration. Updated to say that this experience may, of course, differ depending on what kind of child you have!