What my mom taught me about getting dinner on the table

My mom, Marie, in the 60s

When I was a little girl, I had dinner with my family – my mom and whichever older siblings were still at home – every night. I don’t remember my mom ever making a big deal about it, and as a divorced, working mother running a daycare out of our home, she certainly didn’t spend a ton of time in the kitchen. But it was an accepted fact: at 6:00 PM, dinner would be on the table, and we’d all be sitting around it. In the midst of my fairly unpredictable and disjointed childhood, family dinners came to be something I could rely on, a ritual that shapes my memories of growing up.

But even with the best of intentions, for years I had serious trouble re-creating that experience with my own family. I’d spend hours in the kitchen trying to create a gourmet meal, only to watch every nose wrinkle as the kids caught a whiff. I’d spend the first ten minutes of the meal running around, refilling cups and negotiating over peas, only to face a chorus of “Can I be excused?” the moment I sat down. By the time kids left the table, I’d feel used, abused, unappreciated…and hungry.

At some point I looked back to those dinners I had growing up and realized that my mom had stayed cool and collected through most of the meals. Why? She didn’t hold herself to impossible nutritional standards. She didn’t entertain any vegetable-related drama. And she didn’t knock herself out trying to become the Next Food Network Star. What she did was simple: cooked a basic, wholesome meal, as much for herself as for us, put it on the table, and ate. End of story.

By embracing my mom’s approach, I’ve been able to make our family mealtime – and the work I put into making those meals – a lot more enjoyable and relaxed. Here are some ways I’ve done it:

  1. Keep it simple. Let’s face it – for busy moms, cooking shows are about 90% entertainment. Sure, that Alton Brown recipe looks amazing, but what the heck are Grains of Paradise and do they even carry them at my local supermarket? While I’m all about introducing my kids to new flavors, I’m also a realist: they like familiar foods best. My mom served some variation of pot roast, baked chicken, and spaghetti weekly for years, and we all ate without complaint (even if I did occasionally hide lima beans in my napkin). Following her example, I save more experimental dishes for weekends, holidays, and days that I happen to be feeling adventurous and un-frazzled, and the rest of the time we rotate the same 8-10 basic meals. I’ve got those meals committed to memory, I know they’re wholesome, and the kids will eat them: win, win, win.

    my sister Kathreen and I at the dinner table. That's me in the bib. I wore it until I was 5.

  2. Embrace the process. You know what makes me grumpy? When I spend an hour or more in the kitchen making a meal, put it on the table with a flourish…and within five minutes everybody is begging to leave the table. All that work for five minutes? What’s the point? At least, it used to make me grumpy, until I decided to make a “kitchen hour” a regular, enjoyable part of my nightly routine. When I make a point to listen to good music or an interesting podcast, chat with the kids, and maybe enjoy a nice glass of Malbec while I cook, it starts to feel like a pleasant nightly routine instead of drudgery. My mom was too busy to spend a lot of time puttering in the kitchen, but you could tell she cooked just as much for herself as for us.
  3. Learn a few techniques. If you didn’t grow up in the kitchen, you may find yourself avoiding intimidating – but ultimately, super easy – cooking methods like poaching a chicken breast or roasting veggies. But having a small arsenal of cooking techniques at your disposal will make planning and cooking your meals so much easier. Just pick one or two each month to focus on, and keep working on them until they start to feel like second nature (you’ll know when they’re committed to memory, because you won’t feel like obsessively checking the cookbook every thirty seconds to make sure you’re doing it right.) After all, as my mom showed me, if you know how to roast a chicken or make a basic sauce, you’ll always be able to pull off a meal.
  4. Forget about 100% healthy and homemade. Yes, we all love fresh, organic, locally-sourced produce, but store-brand frozen green beans are way better than no green beans at all.  It’s too easy to burn out (not to mention run out of money!) when I try to make every meal a culinary masterpiece created with only the healthiest ingredients. I’ve noticed that when I allow a few shortcuts and less-than-optimal treats, it makes getting a meal on the table so much easier that I’m more likely to stick to it, night after night. I remember that my mom always made mashed potatoes from a box because with her busy life, she just didn’t have time for peeling and mashing. I prefer real potatoes and am willing to put in the time to mash (though I just buy the thin-skinned ones and don’t bother to peel!) but I can get on board with the overall philosophy: maybe it won’t win me any gourmet cooking awards, but serving up some refrigerated crescent rolls with an otherwise wholesome, homemade meal beats a last-minute “I just can’t DO THIS ANYMORE!” run to the drive-thru any day.
  5. Serve bread and focus on your own plate. Nothing wrecks mealtime like obsessing over how much your kids are or aren’t eating. Of course you want them to eat the veggies you’ve lovingly prepared, but is it worth a fight? Come up with some laid-back table rules – say, they have to try a bite of each food – but if they aren’t having it, don’t let it ruin your meal. I give my mom major props for never giving into dinnertime drama or trying to control our eating habits, and I think it’s a big part of the reason I don’t have major food hangups today, even though I went through a very picky phase as a child. Make sure there’s something at each meal that they will eat (bread, rice, fruit, cheese, etc) and focus on enjoying your own meal rather than trying to control theirs – or worse, offering to jump up and make an alternative. Most kids will eventually outgrow pickiness…especially if they see other people enjoying the Brussels Sprouts while they’re eating yet another plate of brown rice.
Did your mom teach you any important lessons about getting dinner on the table with a minimum of stress and fuss?

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