It all started about 6 weeks ago, after 3 days of hearing my son complain about “what’s for dinner?” Enough!
My first reaction? Anger. I’m the primary cook in our household. Occasionally, my husband grills. We eat out a couple times a month. Most days, however, it’s just me. I rarely have any help from shopping, prep work, cooking and clean up. We have a small family (3 to feed, sometimes 4), a large kitchen, and the financial means to eat well. Plus, I like to cook and have a good track record for making food that tastes good, as opposed to meals that ‘don’t suck.’
So yes, I was angry. I was even a little resentful. Heck, I was very resentful. Doesn’t my son know that I shop for and cook meals we will like? Most meals are even, egads! pretty healthy, too!
The answer to my unsaid question is, No, he doesn’t actually know. I mean, he knows that I do the grocery shopping, sure. He’s with me enough times to know how that goes and what we buy (and don’t buy). And yes, he sees me cooking and baking most days.
But he doesn’t truly know what “cooking” means. We’ve done the fun stuff together – cookies & cupcakes. But a full blown meal? No, he hasn’t done that.
Add to that lack of hands-on experience his preference for microwavable mac & cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches (made by his big sister, who is the pro at that particular dish), and chicken nuggets. Normal favorite food stuffs for a kid his age. After all, he’s 9, he’s a boy and he’s never shown much interest beyond playing with flour and decorating gingerbread cookies.
The boy thing… Mike has consistently joked around the kids that cooking is “woman’s work.” And there’s not much going on in our kitchen to prove him wrong. He can make himself toast, heat up soup in the microwave, and even zap himself an omelette. His preference for cooking can be summed up in 3 words: Cooking With Danger. That is, the microwave or grill. For roasts, homemade soups, casseroles, sautes, pies, cookies, and any chocolate dessert that didn’t come in a plastic wrapper, I’m the go-to person in our house.
Yet somewhere along the way, our son has decided that the jokes were fact. Just because that’s all he’s seen doesn’t mean that’s all he SHOULD see, especially now that he’s getting older and more aware of the world beyond our house, street and town. And it is among my jobs as his mother to tweak his understanding of the world when I think he’s humming along the wrong, or slightly skewed, path.
Back to where I began… after 3 days of his complaining about what I was making for dinner, he was on the receiving end of my anger and resentment. He sulked, I seethed, and dinner – I can’t even remember what it was – was not a happy time for any of us.
The next day, an idea popped into my head with the ease of a yawn. So simple! How could I not have figured this out sooner?
I primed Mike first; he seemed to think it worth trying. His support was all that was required of him at this point. He’s a willing guinea pig for most things I cook, too. So far, this was off to a good start.
I talked with my son that evening, explaining to him that I had An Idea that involved him. I also explained WHY – and that the goal was to help him learn what was involved with cooking a meal. Therefore, he was going to be my assistant for every dinner that upcoming week.
Naturally, he groaned. He complained. He muttered. Mike backed me up immediately and put the kabosh on the moaning and groaning. I continued to explain The Idea. Not only was he going to be my assistant (with the fancy French name of “sous chef”), he would help me plan the meals.
And, finally, the biggest gem of The Idea: we would pick a meal that would go with a movie we’d watch as a family. Ta Da!
His initial reaction was… willingness! Enthusiasm even! There was almost singing going on in my head!
I was not unprepared, then, for his first question: what movie? I’d done research on this before the pitch, so I told him that we’d watch “Ratatouille” while making Ratatouille. He was still enthused, even though he frowned a tad because of the movie choice. It turns out that he couldn’t remember seeing the movie before. No problem, I assured him. He had liked it before, and I felt confident this would be a good meal and movie combination.
I had made traditional ratatouille a few weeks before, and everyone had liked it. That was another part of introducing The Idea – making sure the meal would be one he’d like enough to try/eat since he had liked it recently.
We figured out the meals for the week, including something simple like pigs and blankets. We also planned his favorite non-mac&cheese-chicken-nugget-grilled-cheese meal: pierogies and kielbasa. With 3 meals out of 6 planned, we were starting on a positive note.
I did the shopping for our meals by myself that week, while he was in school. I thought I would be pushing it if I had him come with me for that part. I also figured out out which parts of each meal he’d be able to help me with and which parts he could wander off to play or do homework. When I explained that he would have ‘breaks,’ he was relieved and much more willing to help with each meal.
The Ratatouille recipe we used was one I’d found online at a great food blog, http://smittenkitchen.com/2007/07/rat-a-too-ee-for-you-ee/ We got all of the ingredients onto the counter then followed that by getting out the necessary equipment.
And this became our “Wow!” moment – his introduction to a mandolin! Safety was a priority, of course, and his Star Wars apron was also a key element to his positive experience. We cleaned the veggies, sliced them carefully, and layered them to our hearts’ content. The result matched the photo on the blog, then we topped it with a piece of cut out parchment paper. And we were both excited to taste it when it was done, because it looked good and smelled great already.
Meanwhile, the movie was playing in the den while we were cooking in the kitchen. He got to bounce from counter to beanbag chair often enough to not notice that he was actually helping make a meal.
Clean up was easy, he didn’t complain once. When the movie was over (thank goodness Disney movies are pretty short), it was time for everyone to sit down and eat. His curiosity nearly beat out his pride as we pulled the parchment paper top off and oooooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh it smelled and looked more awesome than we’d expected!
Mike was effusive in his praise to the chefs, which went a long way in helping our son adjust to a tweaked path. But the kicker was when we all went for second helpings, with nary a chicken nugget or cheesy noodle in sight! The rest of the week went smoothly but, admittedly, with much less fanfare and ‘oooooooohs’ and ‘aaaaaaaaaaaaahs.’ My one regret in introducing this new tradition was that we started with the big Aha! meal first.
If the tradition hadn’t taken hold, I’d be worried. However, we are now 6 weeks and 4 “Dinner & a Movie” nights into our new and popular tradition. Best yet, my son has been slightly transformed into a less picky eater and a more helpful set of hands in the house.
It was highly gratifying to call upon our new tradition this week, when Halloween Trick or Treating was postponed because of the freak winter storm. Disappointment turned to WooHoo! when we decided to watch our just-delivered copy of “Captain America” while feasting on meatloaf, mashed potatoes and apple pie. All homemade with some help from my sous chef.
Our Dinner & A Movie pairings to date:
Ratatouille’s Ratatouille with “Ratatouille”
Spaghetti & Meatballs with “Tangled”
Swedish Meatballs & egg noodles with “Thor”
Mini Meatloaves, Mashed Potatoes and apple pie with “Captain America”
I don’t expect the complaining to complete disappear, of course. He’s a normal kid, after all. It’s with tentative hope that I think we’ve got something good to build on here, even if we end up eating it all up until the next meal.