Finally we have re-established our practice of planning weekly meals, making a grocery list and stocking up in advance. Such structure became imperative during our kids’ active elementary school years, when we were driving them to dance and swim most nights of the week and the availability of someone home to even cook had to be factored into the menu plan. Regular routine has always gone the way of school books for us in the summer, especially once the kids started having jobs, but this fall the weekly dinner planning habit has been hard to resume, even though I know our life runs more smoothly when it’s in place.
Motivational help came from a wonderful new book I happened upon at the library called Dinner: A Love Story. A combination memoir, cookbook and parenting guide, it’s an inspiring read apart from the recipes and tips for managing dinner with a hectic family life. Author Jenny Rosenstrach began composing weekly dinner menus in 1998 shortly after her marriage, using a journal notebook that was a gift from her husband. She not only continued this practice faithfully but kept all her notebooks. With jottings about how dishes were received, how to tweak recipes as needed and other notes, the notebooks comprise a primary source document of their family history. The arrival of their two daughters in quick succession presented challenges to the family dinner, but they persevered and adapted until, as the title of the book’s third section says, “the angels began to sing.” In 2009, after being laid off from her job as a magazine editor, Rosenstrach combined her passions for writing and family meals by launching dinneralovestory.com, to which the book is a companion.
Her narrative surfaces fond memories of our own dinner story, in which my husband plays a starring role from the very beginning. We were married in the afternoon and that evening began our domestic life together by dining on a favorite pasta dish he had prepped beforehand. Our dinner idyll lasted only a few months until I became pregnant with our first child and culinary adventures no longer appealed; then it was plain food like baked chicken and potatoes, no curry.
I remember early dinners with our older two where no sooner would Joe and I begin eating than one or both would be sliding out of their seat, leading to chaos for the rest of our meal. One day I had a horrible thought, “What if they do this at someone else’s house?” and shuddered at the mental image. Soon after, we began requiring that they ask to be excused before leaving the dinner table. If the request to “ be ‘scused” came before everyone was finished eating (or at least both children), the reply was “Not yet. Stay at the table a few more minutes.” Gradually, they learned not to ask until the answer would be “Yes, you may be excused.”
Like Rosenstrach, we also struggled over how, when one or more children have picky palates, to get everyone eating at least a facsimile of the same meal without reducing the menu to an endless rotation of chicken nuggets and hamburgers. We also were reluctant to codify a “two-meal” structure where the kids always ate something different from the adults. I love her suggestion to consider the dinner plates as Venn diagrams. As long as they all overlap at least a little, it’s a family meal. In our case, this meant putting cut-up melon or strawberries on the menu or including a side of mac and cheese along with the marinated chicken or heating up two different kinds of spaghetti sauce (one completely smooth, with no tomato chunks or green herb specks) to create the communal sense. Once the kids were old enough, we also permitted the alternative of making your own peanut butter and jelly sandwich if you really didn’t want what was served. I became less opposed to an alternative menu when I didn’t prepare it! Over the course of a week, I tried to make sure everybody’s preferences were reflected, more or less.
Our life now is the not yet written (hasn’t yet happened) “fourth section” of Rosenstrach’s book. Her final paragraphs recount being at a friend’s where the kids are all in high school and beyond, coming and going, seldom home for dinner, causing her to keep a level perspective about food and about life. “I call up this scene all the time. . . . I call it up and then force myself to think: Lucky. Feel lucky. They are sitting at the table. They are seven and nine years old. . . . If my daughter doesn’t eat those beautiful, just-caught sweet scallops that I cooked to absolute perfection, I need to just take a few deep breaths . . . and let it go. It’s just a scallop.”
I’m approaching this stage with more optimism than she anticipates, because already I notice that the family table is an important touchstone in our transitioning relationships. The table is where we connect with our young adult children, times that are all the more meaningful for being less frequent. What startles us at times is the spaciousness of our evenings, especially on weekends. We had become so used to squeezing our own pursuits into the parameters of the kids’ schedules that we are unused to having abundant time to ourselves. Should we go out to eat? Where? Cook something here? What? The canvas seems so vast, at once empty and rich with possibility. Although targeted to young parents, Dinner: A Love Story reminds me of the sacramental nature of all meals, with or without children and renews culinary inspiration at mid-life.