How A Meal Kit is Making Me a Better Parent

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My daughter chopped the garlic and sliced the sweet peppers. I browned the beef and grated the ginger. Then we slipped the peppers into the oven for roasting and boiled two handfuls of udon noodles.

Thirty minutes later, we had a killer stir fry for dinner. More important, though, was what we didn't have: arguments over screen time and chores and whose dirty laundry was on the bathroom floor.

I knew a meal-plan subscription kit would be a real time-saver. What I didn't know was it would also save my relationship with my 11-year-old daughter.

About a month ago, I signed up for a food service mostly out of curiosity. Friends on Facebook were doing it, and I wondered what all the fuss was about. I was hesitant, though; a pre-ordered plan with recipes and ingredients delivered to our doorstep felt too lavish, too lazy. Expensive, too. Sixty dollars on top of our regular grocery bill? Maybe not.

On the other hand, it looked like a fun change of pace. Angie and I were stuck in a rut of Trader Joe's dinners, circulating the same five suppers week after week. Salads, burgers, ravioli, chicken nuggets, and that stuff with the sauce packet. Trader Joe's is awesome, but we were bored.

Besides that, I was looking for something she and I could do together. After a summer of bickering over little things and the onset of puberty hormones, our normally solid bond was on shaky ground. She'd begun questioning my life choices, too, including my divorce from her father. Some days, I could see her resentment building, like one of those cartoon characters that gets redder and redder until he blows his top. With her teen years on the horizon, I knew things were likely to get worse before they got better. Something had to change.

A friend's invitation for a free trial week cinched it.

A few days later, the mailman delivered a refrigerated box with beef, chicken, cilantro, mint, eggplant, ginger and other things, all portioned out, all ready to go. Ponzu sauce? Never heard of it. Basil seeds? Interesting. We unpacked the goodies like it was Christmas morning.

Our first meal involved summer squash and red quinoa - two things we rarely ate, nevermind cooked for ourselves. We went step by step through the recipe, blistering a poblano pepper, sautéing corn and shallots, and grilling pork chops.

By the time we were done, we had a dinner so good it startled us. We made a mess, forgot one ingredient and dirtied every dish in the house. But we got along, with so much as even a single disagreement. We worked together instead of in opposition. Finally.

"Cooking with you is really fun," she said, and then asked for a second helping - of veggies.

Now in the second month of our meal subscription, we find ourselves arguing less and listening more. We talk about some of those life choices she's been curious about. Sometimes we play video games together. These days, I see her as capable and creative, and she sees me as a real person, not just the rule-enforcer.

As it turns out, we both enjoy cooking - real cooking, not just reheating chunks of meat and opening sauce packets. One Saturday, I woke to find Angie not on her iPad but in the kitchen, already in her apron, making fruit skewers and concocting a recipe for couscous salad with plums and olives.

I'm learning a few other things too, things that apply to parenting as much as they do to cooking. Here are a few of those lessons.

1. Slow down. Things take time, often more time than you think, but eventually they get done. Farro, for example. And math homework.

2. Back off. Give a kid her own workspace and let her cut vegetables how she pleases. If she slices the cucumbers too thick, say nothing. Sometimes you have to smoosh a few cherry tomatoes before you figure out the right way to halve them.

3. Take risks. Mirin smells like beer, and furikake smells like fish, but together they make a heck of a ramen. The only way to know if you like something is to give it a try.

4. Use the words. Those brown bits left over in the sauté pan are called fond. They're delicious. Blanching is when you drop something hot into ice water to stop the cooking process. It keeps green beans crunchy. There's power and authority in the vernacular. Embrace it.

4. Make mistakes. Eggplant gets squishy if you cook it too long, and udon noodles stick to the pan no matter how often you stir them. Nothing comes out perfectly.

5. Keep going. When you find a dead fly in the baby bok choy, toss that particular leaf out and carry on. Don't let one bug ruin everything.

6. Answer questions. If your child wants to know where capers come from, tell her. If she wants to know why you're divorced, tell her that too - as much as she can handle, anyway. Confusion and resentment grow in a vacuum.

I thought these kits would be something we'd do for a week or two, then cancel. Now I think we'll hold on a while longer.

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