I don’t remember dinnertime being difficult when I was a kid. It was fun. Maybe the best part of the day.
Over the past year I have wondered why my memories of family dinner are so warm and low-key when our own family dinners aren’t always the same way. I should give myself a break – our oldest isn’t even five yet, for goodness sake.
I think the biggest difference between my memories of those days and our own reality is my folks were really relaxed when it came to meal time. Meaning, they kept calm if we refused to touch the food on our plate–as far as I remember, at least. If we didn’t like it, there was always a peanut butter sandwich.
In dealing with our own kids, I try to do my best to follow my parents’ lead; keep calm and let them be in charge of what they eat from their plate. As long as they have healthy choices, why should I insist they eat just one more bite before they are allowed to be excused? But the reality is that we have been super tense about eating and frustrated when our kids misbehave at the table (shocking!) or refuse to eat what they are given.
The girls come by it honestly, I guess. My mom tells the story of how she had to finish her peas before she was excused from the dinner table as a kid. She hated peas. I mean hated. But she finally figured out if she swallowed them like little green pills, washing them down with a big gulp of milk, she wouldn’t taste them and she would be allowed to leave table. And let’s not forget your brother’s legendary attempts and “cleaning his plate” – your parents found food hidden in house plants, radiators, you name it: anywhere your brother could surreptitiously stash it without getting caught (until months later, at least).
As much as we laugh about these anecdotes now, I don’t really want history to repeat itself. I’d rather we make the dinner table a fun place to be and help our kids enjoy their food, as much as we can at least.
So far, it’s sort of in-between. We have a long way to go, but we are making progress. I’m pretty sure our two hard-and-fast mealtime rules help:
1. Try at least one bite of everything on your plate. If you do not like it, you do not have to eat it.
2. There is nothing else to eat other than what is served. If you do not want to eat it, that’s ok. But you will not eat again until the next snack or mealtime.
For the most part, these rules work for us. Everyone knows them, and since we are consistent with them there isn’t room for negotiation.
It wasn’t always that way. At first, the girls protested. They whined and complained and feigned disgust and spit food out and begged for macaroni and cheese, or yogurt, or crackers — just like most toddlers are prone to do. But slowly, they came to realize that the food they’re given is all they get, and when they see us eating it, they figure it can’t be all that bad (I suppose).
Here’s the thing that helps me stick to the rules myself: I make sure to offer something I know they will actually eat (like rice and broccoli). Then, I challenge them with something fairly familiar they will probably like if they just try it (like salmon). And third, I add something I am fully prepared for them to hate (like artichokes) just to see if they might have a taste for it.
Apparently, this is working because in just the past few weeks, things have changed. Whereas it used to be that everything except the vegetables disappeared at dinnertime, now the veggies are being eaten up, too.
First, Addie starting eating coleslaw. Coleslaw! Then she declared her undying love for bell peppers. Not long after that, she braved a bite of a single green bean, a pesky dinnertime menace that has taunted her since infancy. When she announced she liked it, I almost fainted. Mia looked on with a face that seemed to say “Big deal. I have been telling you they are good for ages.” It was not a fluke: Addie ate an entire helping of them that night, and another helping of them a few nights later, and on it continues to go, assuring me that she does, in fact, like them.
Next, just this past weekend (at a pizza parlor!), Addie ordered a green salad and a meatball for dinner. A salad?! Like, a real one. With romaine and tomatoes and peppers and stuff. When I picked off a tomato for myself (thinking she would not notice), she protested, insisting, “But I wanted to eat that tomato!” (I am sure she must have thought I was nuts for the befuddled look I gave her.)
To top it all off, just this past Monday night, when presented with cucumbers, Addie sighed and said, “Oh, yes! I love these!” And both girls began to eat those cucumbers (and broccoli, I might add) with gusto, before they even touched their quinoa and chicken. And they both asked for seconds and fought over who got to polish off the broccoli. Holy moly.
Before I sound all braggy about these successes (too late?), I must admit that they also prefer to eat their fair share of not-so-healthy foods too (like the goldfish crackers they are eating for snack this afternoon), and this morning at breakfast they turned their noses up to my first attempt at waffles made with almond flour. I guess they are not perfect eaters, are they?
But I give them a lot of credit because they really are quite good at trying new things now, and perhaps it is because they know from experience they might find another yummy food to enjoy, and if they don’t, well, they know we will not force them to eat it.
To me? That is a victory.
Spicy Herbed Chicken and Quinoa Salad with Cucumber Ribbons
This is one of Joey’s current dinner favorites, and I love it because it makes everyone at our table happy. Based on the recipe for Quinoa Salad with Vinaigrette in Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking, my version uses yellow bell peppers and adds spicy, herb-laden grilled chicken and quick pickled cucumber, spiralized so they look like ribbons. The chicken is pounded thin, but feel free to skip that step, but do not let the other steps fool you into thinking this dinner is difficult to pull together. It’s quite easy, and you can do many of the steps ahead of time.
Spicy Herbed Chicken
5 boneless chicken breasts, pounded flat to about 1/4″
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 tsp olive oil
1 1/2 tsp dried basil
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp (or more) red pepper flakes (optional)
course salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed
1 yellow bell pepper, diced small (or any color you prefer)
3 scallions, chopped
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 tsp olive oil (or up to 1/4 cup, but we keep the oil content low to make this a super light meal)
salt and pepper to taste
Quick Pickled Cucumber Ribbons
1 English cucumber
about 2 T white vinegar
sweetener of choice, to taste (equivalent to about 2 teaspoons cane sugar)
For the chicken
Place pounded chicken breasts into a zip top bag, along with all the marinade ingredients (except the red pepper flakes if your kids are like mine and do not like spicy food. You can always sprinkle the flakes on the adults’ chicken right before grilling it.) You may add an additional 1 1/2 T of olive oil if you like, but we keep it minimal for this recipe. Massage the marinade into the chicken and let rest for a couple hours, or overnight. Then grill the chicken, about 3-4 minutes per side if it’s pounded thin. When done, remove from heat and let rest, then slice before plating the salad.
For the quinoa
Bring 1 cup quinoa to a boil in 2 cups water. Once boiling, reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes, then fluff with a fork. Refrigerate until ready to make the salad. Meanwhile, dice 1 yellow bell pepper and slice three scallions. (I cut mine on the bias because I think it feels fancy, but do it however you prefer.) Toss the veggies with the cooked and cooled quinoa. Add the red wine vinegar and olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Start with about 1/4 tsp course salt to begin with, and add more to your liking.
For the cucumbers
Using a Spiralizer, slice the cucumbers into ribbons. (If you don’t have a Spiralizer, use a mandolin to cut the cucumber into thin slices in the meantime. If you don’t have a mandolin, slice the cucumbers as thin as you can. And if you have trouble doing that, just chop some up. The texture will be different than ribbons, but the flavor will still be great.) After the cucumbers are cut, toss them with a couple tablespoons of white vinegar along with a dash of salt and the sweetener of your choice, about the equivalent of 2 teaspoons of regular cane sugar. Let them sit for a few minutes and toss again before serving.
Scoop about a cup of the quinoa salad into a shallow bowl, followed by a sliced up chicken breast, and finally topped with cucumber ribbons. Top with freshly ground black pepper, if desired.