Thursday, April 26, 2012

What we did: We ate dinner

Almost every night, we ate dinner.  It was a real home-cooked meal, meaning it was made with real food, mostly from scratch, cooked that afternoon, and served to a hungry family around the table.  Sometimes, there were candles.

I mentioned in one of the previous food posts the connection between sauteeing onions and the theme song from All Things Considered.  One of my children told me a few years ago, that every time onions are being sauteed, they think of that song.  I'm quite sure it is because a great many of the meals I cook begin with the sauteeing of onions.  ATC came on at 5 when I would have been cooking, so naturally those two things would go together in that child's mind.

I've been thinking about how we just didn't eat fast food.  We ate slow food, real food, often local food - before that kind of eating had the cachet it does now.

But how did it all get planned?  That's really the hardest part, after all, isn't it?  I always hated those days when I got to 5:00 and wondered what we were going to eat for dinner and had no plan, no creativity, no energy, no inspiration.  How 'bout pancakes, everybody?  That choice was usually cheered, and the occasional dinner of pancakes isn't bad.  But as anyone with a big family knows, you can't carry on very long without a plan.

I tried lots of planning strategies.  I had notebooks, calendar pages, lists.  Sometimes I got out my ruler and paper and drew lovely charts (this was pre-excel spreadsheet, at least in my computer arsenal at the time and pre-downloadable meal planning pdf's).  I made elaborate and detailed monthly meal plans along with weekly shopping lists.  The were wonderful - but too complicated and too much work to plan.

The thing that eventually seemed to work the best for me arose from a serendipitous moment in the Stop 'n Shop parking lot. I was probably holding someone's hand, carrying someone, and telling the others not to run in front of the cars.  A little sentence floated over to me from the conversation of another mother and her (one) child.  She said simply, "It's Friday.  It's pizza night."

It was an epiphany.  Friday. Pizza night.  Why, every Friday could be pizza night!  What a concept!  Monday could be soup day, Tuesday pasta day, Wednesday curry day,  and so on.  I know, I know.  I'm slow.  But this idea just hadn't occurred to me.  I was trying to be creative in my meal planning.  But with six children, 12 and under, I was overdoing it.  I needed a meal strategy that gave me scope for creativity, but didn't require all that elaborate planning.

So, we moved to a simpler meal plan with good bones (i.e. structure), an ever increasing array of options, and plenty of scope for culinary creativity.  Over the years, I adopted a variety of favorites - curries, rice and bean dishes, soups, stews, pasta dishes - adding to the repertoire from time to time with additions out of cookbooks from the library and an occasional cookbook purchase.

I think it's so easy now, because you can browse so many recipe sources online and compile your own list of favorites without ever cracking open a cookbook.  You can also pin your recipes and meal plan via pinterest, like my friend, Kathie.  Easy, peasy.   I still love my cookbooks, though.

With this simple meal planning strategy, shopping got easier.  Keeping a well-stocked pantry, buying some items in bulk, working around the fresh produce that came from our CSA, and going to the grocery store once a week for the remaining produce we didn't get from the farm worked well for me.  Though I don't have a designated meal for each day any more, this kind of planning and cooking still suits me.

What about six little ones at the table?  How did that work?  Well, we had a few rules.  Don't eat before everyone is sitting down and we've prayed together.   Don't put too much on your plate and eat all you take.  Try everything.  No special orders - what I cook for the meal is what we eat.  If you don't want to eat it, see you at the next meal when you will likely be hungry enough to eat whatever is put in front of you.

My, does that sound harsh?  I don't think it was as harsh as that in practice.  It was just practical.  When you have a big family, you just can't satisfy everyone's whims when it comes to food.   Everyone learned to eat what was put in front of them with thanksgiving (mostly) and a minimum of fuss.  Besides, if the food is home-cooked from fresh ingredients, it is likely to taste good, unless, of course, you do what I did more than I care to admit, and burn the beans.  Oh, just add a bit more salsa and you'll never taste that charred flavor.  It also helps to be married to a man who always, graciously insists he likes the burned parts.

We had another rule - no singing at the table (unless the blessing was a sung blessing).  There is a famous story about this rule, well remembered by all in our family because it was once used as a sermon illustration.   One of the children, whose name was changed to George for sermon purposes to protect his or her innocence (or guilt, as it were) was asked to stop singing at the table.  "George" stopped singing and began to hum.  "Hmm, hm, hm, hm, hmmmmm. (Imagine here a young child's high pitched humming).  The father in the family said, "George, I asked you to stop singing."  Cherubic "George" replied sweetly, "I'm not singing, I'm humming."  I no longer remember what happened next.  "George" was probably told no humming either, at least until you finish your peas, and being the obedient, rule-conscious child that he/she was, that was that.  Or not.

I do remember that when the story was told in church, after the sermon was over, quite a few adults came up to George Erin and asked her which one of her brothers was George.  Not to worry, sweetie, that secret is safe ; )

A couple of other little rules we had:
: : If you don't like the food, eat it anyway and then tell the cook later that it's not one of your favorites. She, (meaning me) tried to honor genuine dislikes.  Some people just don't enjoy mushrooms.  That just means more for the ones who do.  It's no big deal if you really don't like it, but you never say anything rude at the table like "Yuck" or "What is THIS?"  Not acceptable.

: : When you're done, ask to be excused and thank the cook for the meal.  Our dear friends, the Duncans, taught their children to say, "I've had a gracious plenty.  May I please be excused?"  And they weren't even Southern.  Imagine!

: : Clear your place when you're done.  Put your dishes on the counter.

: : And then, of course, the normal table manners - elbows off the table, don't talk with food in your mouth, etc. etc.

Lit candles on the table help.  They add ambiance to a weeknight dinner and make everyone feel just a bit special.  Maybe, just maybe, they even help little children to mind their P's and Q's.  The only problem with candles, though, is that as soon as they are extinguished and your back is turned, six pairs of eager fingers are plunged into the hot wax and those lovely beeswax candles - well, they just don't look quite so lovely anymore.  I think hot wax is a universal, irresistible attraction for all small children.  At least it was for mine.  Somehow, I could get them to eat *tofu, bean burgers, and green vegetables of every sort, but I never could break them of the habit of playing in the hot wax.  Sometimes they didn't even wait til my back was turned.  You can't win 'em all.

That's about it, folks.  I probably haven't given you any real tips for meal time success with little people, but I suppose that's not really my aim here anyway.  I'm just remembering - and probably not doing that terribly well.  I know there were a few food battles, tears at the table, plenty of spills, and times when the noise was just below deafening.  But that's not what I remember.  When I think about dinner at our house, I remember the smell of fresh bread, the steam rising from a pot of soup in the cast iron Dutch oven (that I still use almost every day), holding hands to pray, and being thankful for a table full of little people, plenty of good, healthy food to feed them, and the incredible gift of eating together.

*not meaning to malign tofu or bean burgers here.  It's just that a lot of people we knew thought those meal choices were a little, shall we say, unusual.  My kids loved them.

 As I mentioned in an earlier post, Leila has a series of posts on eating together.  She is so common sense and makes me laugh.

And finally, hope you enjoyed the flowers.  The garden's been awfully pretty this year.  


kkp said...

this- all of it, even the threat of tofu burgers- makes me want to come have dinner at your table right this second. :)

kkp said...

also, in my research for an affordable denver CSA, i happened upon this website:

and i think of you as i read it. please can denver and NC be closer?

Beth said...

Well, there IS a Denver, NC, kandyce ... and it's only 45 minutes away. But, it doesn't have mountains.

I wish you were sitting at my table right now, too!

tonia said...

*laughing* My BIGGEST pet peeve of the moment is the one child who WILL stick his finger in the candle wax. Pick, pick, pick, wax everywhere. Drives. me. crazy. :)

Love this though. Linking.

Beth said...

What IS it about candle wax, t? They just couldn't keep their fingers out of it!

And thanks for linking, dearheart. I feel honored - and in good company with Leila and the others!