Why You Can't Cook Your Way to a More Enjoyable Family Dinner

It's so emotionally charged, this idea of making dinner. "Good moms" cook dinner, right? But when you don't feel appreciated in your own home, by your own people, it's so discouraging.
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Sometimes people say to me, "you must be such a good mom." They think I'm rocking this parenting thing, probably running circles around them, because I make such a big deal out of cooking for our kids. Guess those people have never seen my laundry room.

Cooking dinner, like every single part of parenting, is just a choice. It takes time, money, equipment and a bit of know-how. Like working out or saving money, it's not easy and you have to make it a priority or you probably just won't do it. But there's also the diplomatic part, which can either make or break the whole thing. A recent study about the stress of family dinners conducted by sociologist Sarah Bowen, spurred a particularly vexing Slate article, titled no less than "Let's Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner". "The main reason that people see cooking mostly as a burden is because it is a burden," complains Slate's Amanda Marcotte. "It's expensive and time-consuming and often done for a bunch of ingrates who would rather just be eating fast food anyway." Sound familiar?

After Slate covered it, many others agreed, picked up where she left off or rebutted. Then The New York Times came out with their own version. But each piece danced around the same issue: "Everyone dealt with what Ms. Bowen called the "burden of pleasing others," says NY Times writer Anna North. "Middle-class mothers felt that offering new foods was crucial for developing their kids' palates -- even if the process sometimes leads to food fights. But the process was time-consuming and stressful. Ms. Bowen and her co-authors write that "we rarely observed a meal in which at least one family member didn't complain about the food they were served."" Bingo!

It's so emotionally charged, this idea of making dinner. "Good moms" cook dinner, right? But when you don't feel appreciated in your own home, by your own people, it's so discouraging. Have you ever felt so fed up with the whining that you just couldn't stand to make one more chicken dinner? I sure have. Sometimes I wonder, worry really, if using so much energy to cook takes away from other parts of our family life, like you know, making it through bath time without screaming at anyone. My husband isn't a big eater and he's not even home for weeknight dinners most of the time anyway. There have been times when it's just me and three fussy kids pushing their plates away or yelling, "BUT I DON'T LIKE PEAS!" the second I set their food in front of them. Don't forget the baby, who may or may not be crying her way through dinner prep on any given night.

When I heard myself saying things like, "Maybe I just won't cook anymore if no one is going to appreciate it!" I knew I needed to revamp the way we do dinner. I enlisted my husband's help to make these kids understand how much work this is, and why I do it for them. To the oldest three, I'll ask, "What would you say if I crinkled my face when you showed me your drawing earlier? If I said, 'Oh, gross! I hate red flowers on pictures. You KNOW I don't like that. Make me something else!'" They laugh, but the point is taken. Complaining about the food is simply not allowed at our table anymore. Consequences are going to one's room until they can come back and join us again, with a kinder attitude. It's a pain to enforce because the result usually involves a kid yelling even more but in the end no one has ever, not once, missed dinner altogether.

The new family rule is the first thing anyone says at dinner if they want to say something is, "Thank you!" We also introduced a thumbs-up, thumbs-middle, thumbs-down policy and now leave all criticisms at that. But under no circumstances is it OK for anyone to say something is bad, gross, yucky... Not from kids, not from parents. Not OK. Figure out a better way to express what you want for dinner NEXT TIME and see if that's doable.

Not cooking because of time or expense is one thing. Not cooking because everyone is rude about it is another -- and something you really can change. Even if you're totally worn out. Especially if you're totally worn out. This can be turned around.

Take heart, moms, if you are cooking dinner even a couple nights a week, you are doing the right thing. And dads, please help. Even if that means you always clear the plates, or always unload the dishwasher, just do something that moms can count on every day, especially moms who are preparing and serving dinner without you on most nights. Got a dad who cooks? Please reverse this advice.

Making dinner and eating it together is important and it does produce great results. The reasons why I make cooking real food a priority are many. From nutrition to simple Home Ec principles (how to shop, cook and budget) to something at least as important: eating this meal together gives us the chance to check in with each other, to talk, laugh, sing, and pray together. You can't do that if everyone's too busy complaining about dinner. Like biting or wetting the bed, talking smack at the table is behavior that needs attention. Teaching our kids to eat nicely (an ongoing lesson if there ever was one) has been at least as hard as doing the actual cooking, but at least as important.

Otherwise, I agree with the folks at Slate. Why do it?

Charity Curley Mathews is the founder of Foodlets.com: Mini Foodies in the Making...Maybe, where this post originally appeared.

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