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And so it goes: another season whirring by, another set of feet having outgrown his footed pajamas. I take the kitchen scissors and snip off the toe seams so his feet can stretch through; watch two tiny strips of rockets fall to the floor.
Scout will be 2 this summer and it occurs to me we’re again reaching the small window where family rhythms are established. I’ve been working with intention on a handful – the tidying of the train set, morning prayers, hand-washing – but mostly, daily expectations have been vacuumed away with the toast crumbs and Shopkins. Routines? Rhythms? Predictables? There is little to be predicted with a toddler on the loose.
Still, there is one tradition that I miss, one tradition we’ve shelved since Scout’s arrival, one tradition that holds utmost importance in my own short list of future non-negotiables.
Last week, I dusted off an old cookbook for a commemorative rebound into the fine art of slurping together. I’d wanted it to be special, a near-perfect experience to entice us into nightly repetition. I wanted this to stick.
Instead, Scout refused dinner in lieu of a spoon drum solo and Bee slid potatoes around her plate before declaring the red ones to taste like “small and dead caterpillars.” But we did pick up some lessons along the way, small reminders that the table matters far less than the ones gathering around it.
(In other words, slapping salami on a plate and calling it dinner can be just as gladdening if we allow it.)
And so: my own simple guide to family dinners with a pint-sized crowd:
Buffer your time.
As in most good things, family dinners require a bit of prep work. Often, I’ll take advantage of Scout’s (increasingly rare) afternoon nap to clear the kitchen counters of stray papers, craft supplies and Ken’s growing collection of ear plugs. While this should take just a few minutes, it inevitably takes 10, as I’ll come across a bill in need of paying, a missing sock to find, or an art project Bee wants to show me. The lesson here is simple: when small children are underfoot, cooking takes twice as long. If I can get a head start and allow plenty of time/space for interruptions, I’m not as prone to losing my temper when Bee wants to know how clouds are formed just as the honey tempura starts to burn.
A few simple ways to prep earlier in the day: Wash and cut all produce, empty the dishwasher, thaw meat, gather spices, double-check your supply of necessary ingredients.
Consider the meal.
Dinnertime needn’t be fancy, is all. While I have visions of someday serving my family a celebratory four-course meal every now and again, we’re still a far cry from salad forks and candlelight. Think of foods your entire family will eat (aforementioned salami included). For us, it’s potatoes; we’re nuts about ’em. So rather than whipping up my usual skillet of hash browns, I dug up a recipe for bay leaf potatoes from The Forest Feast, just to dress up the everyday a bit. The flavors are the same but the presentation is different, so it feels special and unique even if it’s not.
A simple way to spruce up your everyday grub: Switch out your utensils! If you normally give your kids a fork for their potatoes, see how they fare with a soup spoon, or chopsticks. Or, offer your fanciest flatware, even if it’s just for mac-and-cheese. One friend I know declares “Giant Night,” where everyone’s forced to try their hand at eating a bowl of soup with tiny espresso spoons. Get creative and offer a playful environment – the goal is an enjoyable experience for all ages.
Bee’s just hit the age where she’s actually helpful and not pretend-helpful in the kitchen (you know what I’m saying, yes?), and I’ve found it essential to consider dinner prep as part of the entire experience so I’m not tempted to rush the process. There are plenty of ways for small hands to help, from fetching cinnamon from the pantry to handing you the spatula, a dish towel. (Of note: I’ve found that if Bee plays a role in the cooking, she’s far more likely to try even the most exotic of dishes!) To keep her hands busy, I’ll sometimes hand her leftover ingredients (scallion roots, thyme stems, avocado pits) and a pan so she can craft her own concoctions while mine are in the works. Surprisingly, her honey-cayenne carrots from last week were out of this world.
A simple way to include younger kids in meal prep: Keep everyday dishes in a low cabinet or drawer. Scout loves to “set the table” by piling plates, bowls and cups onto the dining room bench. Or, teach them to unload the dishwasher with you; utensils are a perfect starter chore.
Set the tone.
Want to make any meal feel special? Consider the environment. Opt for a soft, kid-friendly playlist in the background (jazz or classical are lovely, and while another tone entirely, I’ve never had a bad word to say about a good old Raffi serenade). Dim the lights, lower the blinds, abandon the distractions. Experiment with a new tablescape, if that’s your thing. However achieved, allow yourself and your family a soft(ish) spot to land after a crazed day in the world.
A simple, kid-friendly way to decorate your table: Ditch the so-tempting-for-little-fingers-to-pull tablecloth and opt for a bare surface with a one-row garland (I love eucalpytus or a similar understated greenery), or a simple table runner. Add a few flameless LED candles for a fire-free flicker to mesmerize your kids and warm their hearts.
I like the idea of encouraging kids to trust their instincts toward food quantities, rather than the typical “lick your plate clean” mantra of my own generation. I’ve found it helpful to present dinner family style where kids can practice serving themselves accordingly, taking only what they’ll truly eat so that little is wasted.
A simple way to feed young, picky eaters: My friend serves her kids from clean paint palettes, offering a simple food in the center (i.e. cut-up turkey or chicken, whole wheat pasta) and adding various “dips” in a few of the surrounding circles (blended avocado, ketchup, mustard, pureed carrots, etc). They love choosing their favorite colors for dipping, and they feel a sense of autonomy and independence around mealtime. I’ve seen it work dozens of times!
Dinnertime is for connection, so let the conversation roll! Whether it’s a jar of kid-friendly table topics (What superpower would you most like to have? What’s your favorite thing about the person on your right?) or a simple recap of the day’s events, allow the nourishment of food to extend far best your bellies. If your kids are still super young or aren’t particularly chatty, try DIY coloring sheets. Bring a few white card stock pages and a Sharpie to the table for a parent to draw a favorite scene from the kids’ day, whether the slide on the playground or an afternoon ice cream cone. Then, the kids get to color it in while the grown-ups finish their conversation.
A simple way to keep young ones occupied for just a bit longer: When the food has been picked over, consider offering small, individual bowls with a special “dessert”, like roasted nuts, fresh raspberries or candied pecans – something nutritious and savory that can’t be gobbled in three seconds flat. If your kids are anything like mine, they’ll sit still for snacks any day of the week.
Clean up time.
After the last bite is finished and the littles are antsy, try this simple no-fail rhythm: Kitchen vs. bathroom (cook’s choice). In other words, she who tackles the washing of the dishes does not also tackle the washing of small children. I love cleaning up in a quiet kitchen with a glass of wine, scrubbing and sudsing while witnessing squeals and squeaks from the bubble bath down the hall. And it’s always a treat to shampoo those tiny heads and wrestle quick bodies into footed pajamas knowing a clean kitchen awaits the bedtime rigmarole.
A simple way to ease the clean-up process: Opt for lightweight, melamine dishes so kids can clear the table without risking shattered china or chipped boneware when the plates (inevitably) get dropped en route to the sink.
Tell me, what are your go-to family dinner tips? Any ways you make the everyday a bit more special? I’d love to hear, and happy dining!
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