By roughest estimation, the total number of meals I’ve fed my children to date is somewhere around 8,000. It’s a ridiculous number and surely a faulty calculation, not least of all because it fails to reckon with the liquid diet of their early years (which should obviously count but where does one even begin)? Suffice to say, between me, James, and the neighborhood pizza place, we’ve fed our children many meals in the last seven or so years and we’ll feed them many more in the decade plus to come. And that’s just the thing with children and food: they never stop needing it. Ditto adults.
Last week I asked what folks wanted to see more of around here and I was surprised that one of the most common answers to the query was a peek into our weeknight dinners. I’m the mother of young children, and parents of little kids—mothers more often than not—are tasked with keeping those children alive. Toward this end, one of the things we need to do, generally multiple times daily, is to feed them.
Like it probably is for some of you, this is sometimes a joyful act of care and attention. Sometimes a sauce is spooned or a garnish of cilantro is sprinkled and the three small mouths of my children are upturned like birds awaiting the spoils of their mother’s labor and they coo and indicate their delight upon receipt. Sometimes I stretch the last bit of onion and make a potful of beans sing and there’s poetry in creating something out of nearly nothing. Other times, there’s a pout (from me, or from my kids) and a shove of a plate, and a spike in cortisol in the room so great you can practically see it. Sometimes, I just don’t wanna.
Dinner is something that happens in the whirlwind of my day’s busiest, noisiest, most intimate moments. Most nights we eat relatively simply: bowls of rice topped with pan-fried tofu and vegetables; pasta with tomato sauce; more beans than you can probably imagine. There’s also usually someone who doesn’t want to eat something—or anything. And so while I tend to be partial to so-called one-pot meals for ease of preparation and cleanup, I’ve become adept at making simple meals that, with the addition of a handful of nuts or a flurry of herbs or a sprinkling of cheese, can be customized to individual palates. I have one kid who loves salad and another who looks askance at anything that’s remotely green. (“Why is there SALAD on this pizza!?” this child demands to know upon seeing a paltry sprinkling of dried oregano on his slice.)
Sometimes our dinner ingredients are procured from the farmers’ market and the bulk section of our neighborhood grocer. Sometimes the dinner they produce is wholesome and waste-free, and we feel virtuous and breezy. Other times dinner ingredients come pre-packaged in a neat cardboard box with a foil lined bag filled with powdery cheese, which we choose not to question and to eat with gusto. For me—like for most, I’d guess—I sometimes find great pleasure and pride in making homespun, thoughtful dinners, and I sometimes find great drudgery in slapping together a grilled cheese and a handful of sliced peppers and calling it good. We don’t serve perfectly lit and plated meals to our children and ourselves every night, and neither do we abandon all effort. We get through dinner time however we can—with whatever energy and creativity and joy we can muster on any given evening. Sharing the ups and downs of our dinnertime routines in a post—and documenting them for all to see—feels like a more intimate and private project than I’d like to take on.
I think in part, this has to do with the realities of blog writing. Many of the projects that I post in this space are ones that I’ve teased out in real time and then later worked into a blog post. From thinking of the idea, to creating it, to writing about it, to photographing it, to tweaking it for public consumption, even the most straightforward posts are the result of a fairly laborious process. The work I put in on my end to make those posts ready to greet readers is work that I find personally fulfilling, thank goodness. But it can also feel paradoxical. Projects that are simple and doable and easy to execute on one’s own tend to require a whole lot of extra preparation, forethought and behind-the-scenes work when they’re going to be presented for public consumption.
I think my feelings about writing about dinner also have to do with the impact of blog writing. Offering ideas for weeknight dinners seems straightforward, but it’s also laced with complicated and fraught cultural ideas about what it means to be a good mother, or a good parent, or an ideal family. When I write about making coasters out of the bottoms of my jeans, my goal is to say: this is something nice to do if you want to do it, and are able to. It’s not life or death, coaster making. The stakes are low. It’s an opt-in experience that some proportion of folks might get satisfaction from and tra la, what fun if that’s so. Feeding my family, in whatever way works for me and James and our children on any particular day, with whatever we have on hand or have energy for at the time—documenting that feels much more personal.
Through trial and error and occasional success, we’ve found a way to feed our family a healthy, vegetarian diet on a relatively small budget. And yet, I have no doubts that what might seem like a slim grocery bill to us would feel extravagant to others. I know that the realities of our grocery routine—living as we do in a major metropolitan area with access to a limitless cornucopia of ingredients and options—is unrealistic for others. I know that what sounds wholesome and filling and nutritious to me might seem lackluster to someone else.
Lucky for all of us, there are lots of other writers out there who do not tire at the thought of opening up their cupboards and tabletops to the rest of us—and who spend their days literally cooking up ideas to thrill and inspire us. Let’s get our peeks and inspiration and hits of dopamine from consuming that information from them.
A few food folks I enjoy reading:
Virginia Sole-Smith writes the newsletter Burnt Toast on fatphobia, diet culture, parenting, and health. Her writing is smart and challenging and I highly recommend a follow.
Alicia Kennedy‘s newsletter is another one worthy of your subscription. She’s snappy and smart and has lots of good things to say about veganism and food politics and other topics you might not find on your average cooking blog.
This piece from Deb Perelman on meal planning and cooking for kids is an old favorite of mine and I still lean heavily on Smitten Kitchen when I need inspiration.
I haven’t scooped a copy yet myself, but for anyone looking for an entry point to vegetarian dinners, Dinner, A Love Story’s new book Weekday Vegetarians looks terrific.
For the curious:
Our dining table was a gift from Kalon.
Our Everyday Bowls are from East Fork Pottery in Eggshell and we do indeed use them every day.
Our Cast Iron Casserole is by Crane by way of East Fork.
Our Cast Iron Skillet is by Field Company.
Our block print napkins are from local shop, 21 Tara.
“Offering ideas for weeknight dinners seems straightforward, but it’s also laced with complicated and fraught cultural ideas about what it means to be a good mother, or a good parent, or an ideal family.”
I find this really interesting in the larger context of blogging and understanding your boundaries.
From one reader’s perspective, I think watching your stories and reading your posts does a lot to invoke *feelings* about my ability to create a nice space for my home, be a good environmental steward, etc. Put plainly, watching you spend hours on a window covering makes me question my role as a homemaker and my cultural ideas around that. I find myself thinking, why am I satisfied with cellulose blinds but RMTL is not? What does this say about her taste versus mine? What does this say about my willingness to participate in disposability and big box stores? Etc.
I would never think twice about reading a meal roundup of what you feed your family, but I see how that could come across to other readers. I am just fascinated where people draw their boundaries. Thank you, as always, for being willing to share and for making me think.
Same! I’m intimidated (inspired but intimidated) by a lot of the RMTL ideals that come through other posts but would still be interested in the food content (maybe especially with the hope that it could be more doable?)
Ah, the conundrum isn’t it? Tonight we are garbanzo bean soup, which is really just beans in their broth, heavily salted and cooked with a Parmesan rind. It was easy for me because the pot of beans burbled away on the stove while I worked at home and we served it with slices of bread and butter and nary a vegetable in sight! Turn that into a blog post tho, and there’s a whole other level of scrutiny and discourse that’s more than I’m personally up for.
I hear defense. How can I judge you with two working parents and 3 young children and and and. I am 62 and struggle to keep up my own feeding habits and general self care. I understand some others will judge. Maybe tighter boundaries? And then less need to defend? Going to simmer some canned beans in a chicken broth! Can’t manage more and I’m going to forgive myself.
I don’t feel defensive about the food I feed my family, but I think the overall feeling I’m trying to tease out in this piece and generally, is that there are some subjects that I’d love to free myself from covering on this site. There are lots of reasons for this, but some of them related to food in particular have to do with how deeply personal it feels, how much it changes from day to day, how family dinner is sometimes a tranquil daydream where everyone eats with gusto and shares snippets of their day and is sometimes a shitshow and oh well! In the world of blogs and social media it’s easy for folks to get sucked into a kind of arithmetic that says if this plus this then this and I’ve found family dinner with three little kids there’s almost never a simple equation. I can no more anticipate what kind of meal will please someone else’s kids than I can my own and that’s okay!
I think it makes a lot of sense that you want to find aspects of privacy. It’s funny because I have pondered this question about you specifically. Creepy I know, but we live in the same neighborhood and while I came to this website through a news article, I now see and recognize you and your family in the neighborhood. I have a 2 year old and worlds with kids just overlap. I totally respect that you want to set boundaries because while I’m not dangerous… Maybe you dont want your neighbor to know it all 🙂
During the height of the pandemic, Louisa Weiss (aka the Wednesday chef) posted daily stories about what she was feeding her children. I found them really authentic and inspirational in a way. She repurposed leftovers, turned humble vegetables into delicious looking pasta sauce, sometimes got frustrated and made food from a box. I kind of loved that there was always a jar of fermented cabbage on the table.
It reminded me of a point from Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (which I also recommend). Paraphrasing… you don’t have to be a professional to make meals you like. Dinner doesn’t have to be a performance. Sometimes it’s just food, but nourishing nonetheless.
And FYI, Louisa saved the stories in her Instagram profile.
Oooh, thank you for this recommendation. I have to say I’m one of the people who requested meal info, mostly because I get sooooo bored with making food for other people (which, sadly, given my partner’s current work schedule falls almost entirely to me) and like to see what an average anyone is making for dinner on any given day. I want the nitty gritty and the bad plating and the “omg everyone actually ate this” and the the “hi we just had cereal tonight” because it makes me feel more comfy in the often chaotic way I feed my kids. We are all doing it and we are all feeling stressed about it so why not show it more! There is NOT enough of that kind of content out there! Professional chefs and recipe bloggers are lovely and make delicious things but always have it looking so nice, because that’s their job! Not sure what to expect from Wednesday Chef but am for sure going to check out those highlights and I’m crossing my fingers for messy.
If you are on Instagram, I recommend checking out Feeding Littles. They share a grocery haul/meal plan every week and that could give some good ideas!
Luisa is such a tonic, I absolutely love her writing about the joys and frustrations of daily cooking. She also has some exceptionally easy and delicious recipes on her site.
Feeding kids (and adults too) is complex and an ever moving target. Love your thoughts on meal times, and I’m happy to know I’m not alone in the joy or in the struggle that dinner can bring. I don’t think the specifics of what to make or buy or eat matter. Also, I love the blog and Instagram account Kids Eat In Color, it’s focus is on feeding kids with nuance and think it’s a really fantastic resource. Thank you for this post, I really appreciate being able to read it.
joy and struggle, both at the same time!
+1 to Kids Eat in Color! Jennifer Anderson is a wonderful resource for feeding families and has made her tools accessible to families of all income levels. She advocates open-mindedness and kindness in food. I adore her, the resources she (and her team) has created, and the nuanced conversations on racism/ classism/ ableism in food!
The ‘Real Easy Weekdays’ program has been a huge help for me to get through the mental slog of feeding my family upwards of 28 times each week 🙂 The other program, ‘Affordable Flavors’ also looks delightful and will be next for us.
Ah, totally. It’s all tied up in all of it! I think more even than boundaries though, it’s interest! I’m personally much less interested in wading into the muck of weekday dinners on RMTL in addition to IRL 😉
Hi Erin! This post resonated with me – as many of your thoughts do. Naked truth here: I hate making dinner, breakfast and lunch. I feel an abundance of gratitude for our ability to feed our family with ease – though both access to fresh food and finances. But I don’t want to wax poetic about my ability or inability to do it in the way anyone thinks I should. A few of the bean based recipes you’ve shared have a regular rotation as we attempt to eat less meat; love the idea of you sharing things you’ve loved but only if and when the mood strikes.
You offer a lot of yourself and your life in this space and I’ve been grateful for the authenticity. Onwards – fresh and boxed dinner alike.
Yes exactly Sonja! Feeding my family is honestly a drag, and has made a hobby I used to enjoy into a daily chore. I can’t think of a topic less inspiring than talking about feeding my kids, unless it’s over a meal made by someone other than me and we are commiserating. (And I read cookbooks for fun! I love food! My kids love…plain pasta..hot dogs…tortillas.) The trend of IG “feeding specialists,” well, I’m glad they help some people. Def not me. My kids are so privileged not to go hungry and I just wanna leave it there and meditate as I wait for them to be able to cook for themselves.
That simple box and bag of powdered cheese is a life saver. Also easy to add whatever might be lurking in your fridge or freezer. Thanks for sharing Erin!
While I might have been hoping for some exciting new recipes to add to my meal planning rotation, I certainly appreciate the issues around food that you’ve highlighted and the fact that you’re openly discussing your boundaries.
I will say for people looking for ideas/tips, your description of “simple meals… customized to individual palates” is exactly the approach that I’ve found works best for feeding everyone and keeping stress/complaints/waste/costs down. The majority of our meals theses days follow a: starch + protein + veggie(s) formula. Add to that large bowls which function to hold a variety of meals from soups to solids and I’ve found feeding people has gotten a lot easier for me personally.
all hail big bowls!
I’m still making a white bean/kale/tomato soup I found on your blog on the reg years after seeing it. It was here that I discovered the magic that is parmesan rind and how it can transform a humble broth. Thank you!!!
mmm! I love that soup!
Oh that soup is one of our favourites too and you have just reminded me that I need to start making it again now that it’s soup weather here in Ontario. So easy and tasty, a good reminder that food does not have to be fancy or require a huge amount of work to be satisfying.
I am not a parent but when I worked in Child Protection years ago I would marvel at my colleagues with children who would come off a sometimes 12 hour or more day and still make sure their children were fed, washed, homework done, snuggles, etc., etc. when I would eat cheese and crackers or throw in a frozen pizza because I was so fried. I am in awe!
I love this. Thanks for modeling boundaries and for de-glamorizing the dinner routine. I’m sure I’ll find joy in it again at some point when my kid is older and my nerves aren’t so frayed with the pandemic, but for now dinners are something we get through without many beautifully-plated meals. Simple, boring, enough.
“simple, boring, enough” might need to be my new tagline!
You and Deb/Smitten Kitchen are my favorite bloggers! Joy, authenticity, honesty, thoughtful humanity …
Pelase if nothing else keep sharing IG stories of yours families meals! Love to see them
I just loved this this, Erin! I read it aloud to my husband and we chuckled and nodded and mmhmmed throughout. You have a wonderful way with words and it is a pleasure to read – aloud or otherwise.
Great post as usual Erin. Reminded me of the first book from Dinner a Love Story, which I loved. Even though she’s a big foodie she talked a lot about just kind of getting though those early years hoping your kids eat like, anything at all. Then when her kids were older and dinner time wasn’t so effing fraught she was able to find joy in cooking again. I have two tiny kids and on a bad day cooking and eating dinner can feel wasteful, contentious, and messy, and the whole family drained. Of course it’s not always like that but I look forward to reclaiming some of the satisfaction in feeding my family as the years go on.
I loved this piece! Thank you for the honesty.
Not sure if this recommendation would be of interest to anyone reading this or not but I recommend Spilled Milk podcast for doses of food inspiration, but also just two funny people talking about food (and also ending up talking a lot about non-food too including dumb sex jokes, movies and music and memories and other life stuff). Both are parents. One host, the writer Molly Wizenberg, used to write a food blog I loved (Orangette)–not anymore, but the podcast is a lot of fun and even though I don’t have kids, I enjoy hearing both hosts talk sometimes about the different ways they manage cooking for their families.
Here are my thoughts: In Germany, luckily, there is the tradition of “Abendbrot” so when my children have a warm meal at school at lunch no one expects you to cook in the evening, just bread, butter with cheese, ham, vegetable spreads, that all wait in the fridge plus some slices of raw veggies like cucumbers, bell peppers or tomatoes for the vitamins.
Today I am planning to make a figs and goat cheese tarte and I already know that no one wil eatl it it but it’s so delicious.
Integrated Erin’s roasted veggies (my kids call them veggie fries and eat them with loads of ketchup), tomato galette and a salad with green beans, fresh corn, chick peas, tomatoes in my recipe routine.
The comments in this blog post are quite interesting and it makes me wonder whether the ability for families to cook full and/or made from scratch meals are rooted in culture. What I’ve experienced and witness is that more often than not American families will put together easy-made meals and or processed foods because it’s what society has available and probably conditioned us to do, yet for myself and many asian friends that I grew up with, our families all cooked things from scratch every single day even after long, full-time jobs. Some even cook between FT jobs and late night classes! Our parents came from countries that didn’t have easy-made dinners or processed foods available so going to the market every morning and cooking 2-3 meals a day was the norm. If anything, growing up I at times would WANT a pizza night or easy made mac ‘n cheese, but my mother always cooked something out of the fresh ingredients in the fridge, so I definitely feel that there’s a cultural impact there.
It feels that social media has skewed what is the norm for average American dinners vs what we curate and share on our feeds. It’s easy to scrutinize, or judge ourselves for not making things that the people we admire or follow on blogs and social media do.
Overall, I think it’s great that you choose to keep this aspect of your life more personal and off the web. I feel even the most “authentic” or “in the moment” food bloggers or those who share family meals come at the expense of some kind of prep. I can understand your desire to want to keep meal time a sacred part of your family’s routine and not have to tie it into a blog post or anything like that. Your blog is your work, but not everything about your life has to fall under that category.
Yes, so interesting and so deeply tied into culture! I think for me that last sentence definitely rings very true.
This was such a refreshing and relatable read. Kudos! It did make me think that something that might be a good addition to the Babyproof series would be info about the dishes and ephemera you’ve used to feed your kids. I personally have a lot of contempt for all the plastic cups and utensils and so forth…that fill my cupboards. I’d love your take on that and how it’s evolved over the learning-to-eat process for your kiddos. (Also I’m trying to convince my wife we can replace our dishes with East Fork before our children turn 10, sigh)
Ah, I hear you! I wrote about this years ago and in my book, but we more or less skipped this stuff altogether. Have used small sized glass duralex cups for learning to drink and small wooden bowls and little utensils but otherwise really haven’t had anything in the way of typical kid dishes. (Plus one for the East Fork being truly very sturdy against kiddos, tho one lost a bowl last week when someone attempted to slam one to the table in a huff and it landed on the floor instead!)
Erin, are you planning to write about the decision to get a car? I’ve heard it’s high maintenance to keep a car on the street in NY. I also wonder what main uses you had in mind when deciding to get one.
oh, i don’t know if i’ll write a full post about it! we park it on the street which isn’t so terrible to manage in our neighborhood but does require some planning around street sweeping and we use it pretty much exclusively for weekend trips outside of the city.
Comments are moderated.