My friend Cheryl’s corner lot garden was the most beautiful one on the block.
We met when my husband Randy and I moved into the house next door to hers during the summer of 2006. In those first few years we’d occasionally see each other through the backyard chainlink fence. We’d give a polite wave and go about our business. She was basically a pro at gardening and as I have an irrational fear of worms that keeps me from digging my hands into dirt, it didn’t seem like we’d have much in common. A few weeks before my firstborn showed up we bumped into each other on a walk. After a long second of trying not to stare at each other’s bellies we realized that we were both in our 9th month of pregnancy.
We became fast friends. Little Sofie showed up first. Her soon to be best friend Cole came along two weeks later. Cheryl and I were able to take our maternity leaves together—and spent them pushing our strollers through the neighborhood and hanging out in either her living room or mine. Spending so much time together was like a crash course on who my neighbor was—and I admired her attention to detail and her humor.
We wanted to provide our babies the best possible foundation for health. So transitioning to solid foods was a big deal in both of our households. Instead of buying baby food that had preservatives, Cheryl decided to steam, puree and freeze organic vegetable mush in ice cube trays. At the time I viewed cooking as a mysterious skill bestowed on a chosen few. I felt intimidated but I wanted to give it a go. With my maternity over I felt disconnected with the flow of my little family. I told myself that if I made Cole’s food it would somehow make up for all the work travel I had to do. So I got very clear instructions, I tried it and it worked. Cole liked what I fed him. In turn, I felt like I had super powers—I couldn’t make anything else in the kitchen and I was often away from home on a plane, but at least I could make sure my son was eating healthy homemade organic mush.
Fast forward and our kids are now thriving 3rd graders, with 1st grade siblings in tow. Cheryl is no longer my next door neighbor. She and her family moved to a lovely 1960’s neighborhood of larger homes and larger gardens. Our friendship survived the move—we get together frequently around the dinner table, more often at her house than ours (I tell myself that it’s because they have more space, but really she’s just an excellent cook.).
So what’s our food situation now?
After the homemade organic mush Cole moved on to Mac and cheese. SAY WHAT??? Yes, I was influenced by the product marketing and swept off my feet by its convenience. It seemed totally rational to move on to “toddler” food which I found in boxes of Cheerios, huge tins of animal crackers and packaged fruit gummies.
At this time my husband Randy and I dramatically improved our diets. I could no longer use my second pregnancy as an excuse for putting off a new food plan. Will Riley had arrived, my rheumatoid arthritis was flaring daily and so Randy and I started eating a whole foods plant-heavy diet—I wanted to see if it would help with my pain and Randy wanted to improve his bicycle criterium racing by dropping a pound or two.
Was this a fad? Not for us. We were both feeling better. Our meals were simple, and surprisingly delicious. They were also easy to make since we were attracted to recipes with five ingredients or less. After a few months of food intentionality it dawned on us that Cole and Will Riley were continuing to eat processed convenience foods devoid of vitamins, minerals and nutrients. This didn’t sit right with either of us—we were living into our values, but our kids weren’t.
Was the transition to healthy food hard for the boys? As long as we didn’t have snacks in our house they didn’t whine for them. Did Cole love my homemade meals as much as his processed Mac and cheese? Nope—but Randy and I stuck it out. We knew that the extra diligence would pay off and it did. Today my kids get excited when they see a plate full of sautéed cabbage, avocado and ground bison. They cheer when it’s tuna salad night—for real. Our boys are well fueled and therefore well behaved. No meltdowns, no whining, no drama.
My neighbor-turned-dear-friend Cheryl sees what my boys are cheerfully eating and logically wants her two girls to be better eaters. Knowing that most parents are in a similar plight doesn’t make her situation any easier.
A few Wednesdays back, over the course of the evening, she texted me four times.
“I hate making dinner every night.”
“My kids don’t eat anything I make.”
“I might just boycott for awhile.”
“Wednesdays are the worst day for having to cook."
Can you feel her pain?? Dinner should be a pleasant time for everyone. A time to catch-up, connect and show gratitude—especially to the person making the meal! So I gave Cheryl the following dos + dont’s on how to take back dinner:
Don’t fly by the seat of your pants. Make sure there is always food prepped and ready in the refrigerator. Schedule two planning sessions and two batch cooking sessions a week. When we think of planning as a once a week task rarely do we get through the entire seven days, leading to feelings of failure. The planning session happens on Day 0 where you think through what you want to eat for the week. You write down the meals on a white board, make a grocery list and hit the store. That evening or on Day 1 you do a 90 minute batch cooking session where you make your bread, hard boil your eggs, prep your veggies, make your sauces and cook your protein. The second planning session happens on Day 4 (for many this falls on a Wednesday). Open the refrigerator doors and assess its current state. Take 30 minutes to do a mini batch session replenishing homemade sauces, grabbing a few items from the pantry and pulling possibilities out of the freezer for the next three days.
Don’t wait until dinner time to think about dinner. Get the crockpot going in the morning. If you’re not using the crockpot, whoever gets home first starts dinner. If you work from home, guess what? It’s your responsibility and ask your partner to do something else in return. Everything feels harder at the end of the day so don’t take on the burden of trying to figure out dinner at dinnertime.
Don’t use your kids (or grandkids or neighbor kids) as an excuse to bring quasi-healthy treats into the house. Randy and I really like dried organic mango. Now a piece or two isn’t bad, but when we find ourselves eating the whole bag in one sitting before the kids even get a chance to dig in, that’s a different story.
Do get your kids on board. Don’t force a meal, it’s not the end of the world if they go to bed hungry. Incorporate vegetables with bright colors and talk about how fun it is to eat a rainbow so that there are fewer meltdowns. And tantrums don’t get rewarded with food—least of all sweet treats an hour or two later.
Do keep things simple. Children learn by example, live into your values and they will as well.
My friend, don’t boycott dinner—instead make it meaningful.