The Joy of…Cooking?

First published in January 2012. Still true today, except that the list of foods my girls will eat has NARROWED since then: now I have one girl who will only eat PB&J, one who will only eat bagels with cream cheese, and one who wants a little bit of whatever her sisters are eating. Somewhere along the line, they started boycotting mac & cheese. I even have one who won’t eat bacon. Sheesh!

When we moved to Vermont, it wasn’t just a change in location, weather, lifestyle…it was also a change in our cooking arrangements.

Let me ‘splain: When Erick and I met, my cooking repertoire involved either a) walking down the block to Burritoville, or b) opening a carton of yogurt and stirring in some granola. (In my defense, I was  living in a New York City studio apartment smaller than most walk-in closets). Once we got married and acquired all kinds of nifty kitchen tools, I entertained brief visions of the delicious meals I’d cook for my husband. I even recall making gazpacho, once.

Can you spot the cook in this picture?

Now, for virtually our entire marriage, Erick has been a graduate student. While he was a hardworking graduate student and disciplined about going into his office daily (in Berkeley I suspect this was mostly to get away from the house filled with babies), he did have a great degree of flexibility. If he left the house at 10 and returned at 4:30, it was no big deal. So, a brief time after our wedding, Erick announced, “You know, I actually enjoy cooking. All day I’m working with ideas and I feel like I have nothing to show for it at the end of the day. It’s nice to come home and create something useful. I’d like to take over most of the cooking.” I can’t remember if this was before or after I gave us both food poisoning from undercooking pork dumplings, but either way I was happy to turn over the cooking to Erick.

And that was our arrangement…until this year. Now that he has a real job — not only a real job, but a job in which he will be judged closely for 7 years to determine whether he’ll make tenure — Erick is no longer flexible. His hours now are more like 8:30-6; reasonable enough, but bedtime for our girls is at 7 (as it will be until they turn 18), which means that we need to eat right when Erick walks in the door. This conundrum became clear to me shortly after we moved here. I looked around for other willing cooks, but as I’m the only other member of the family who can currently reach the kitchen counters, the cooking duties fell to me.

But guess what? We’re doing okay. For those of you who’ve been worried about the health and well-being of our family, I will refer you to the photos in this blog. Don’t we all appear healthy? Well fed?

See? Happy eater!

So, how did I do it? Here are 5 Tips For How I Found (Some) Joy in Cooking and Kept My Kids on the Growth Curve:

1. Make friends with people who can cook. Back in Berkeley, I knew a lot of REALLY GOOD cooks. Perhaps the best was my friend Celeste, who somehow managed to be an outstanding cook while working as a nurse practitioner at a Spanish-speaking health clinic and being a great mother to two beautiful girls. (Miss you & love you, Celeste!).

The amazing Celeste, with her girls.

Because Celeste is an amazing friend, when I was pregnant with Georgia she asked me about throwing a baby shower. Now, I happen to think that by the time you’re having your third child, you’re done with baby showers. I didn’t need one more baby thing (although if Georgia had been a boy, he’d have been wearing lots of pink), but what I DID want were: 1) a girls’ night out with friends, and 2) recipes. Because Celeste is an amazing friend, she made both things happen. Here is the recipe book she put together, with recipes from my Berkeley friends:

This was one of the best gifts ever. I’ve made almost everything in it, and it’s all family-friendly and delicious. Better yet, I get to think about my friends while I’m cooking. (I especially appreciate the little personal touches they added to their recipes; for instance, my friend Laura confessed that she sometimes feeds her kids her peanut butter oatmeal chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, which is something I will definitely try someday!).

By the way, if you’re a friend who cooks, and you have a delicious, simple (preferably involving a crock pot) recipe up your sleeve that I do not yet have, I’m still accepting submissions. 🙂

2. Make friends with your crock pot. This is our crock pot:

We’ve had it for a while, but this year I’ve come to appreciate it on a new level. It is, hands down, my favorite kitchen tool. Why, you ask? Here’s what it’s like when I try to make dinner WITHOUT a crock pot:

It’s 5 PM. We’ve recently gotten home from picking Fiona up from preschool. Because she’s been on her best behavior all day, she’s exhausted and ready to cut loose. She incites Campbell to join her in a game that takes on different names, but basically involves putting on dress-up clothes and running in circles around the house while taking out all the toys within reach and dumping them on the floor. Oh, and screaming at the top of their lungs. They’re happy enough, so I prop Georgia up in the kitchen with some toys and try to prep dinner. Interruptions every 5 minutes or so because: Fiona has to use the bathroom, Fiona/Campbell wants a drink, Campbell hit Fiona, Fiona/Campbell injured herself, someone needs a costume change, etc. By 5:30, I give up and put them in front of a video. At that very moment, Georgia decides she’s DONE being good & quiet, and she wants her dinner RIGHT NOW! I put Georgia in her high chair, fix her a bottle, throw some Cheerios at her, and attempt to fix dinner with one hand. Shortly thereafter Erick walks in the door, dinner’s not yet done, the other two girls are getting hungry so all three girls are screaming, and I’m a wreck.

Now, here’s what it’s like when I make dinner WITH a crock pot:

It’s 9 AM. We’ve just returned from dropping off Fiona at preschool. I put Georgia down for her morning nap. Campbell plays or looks at books or eats a snack while I toss some ingredients into the crock pot and turn it to “Low.” By 5:30, dinner is ready.

Which scenario would you rather live out?

My best crock pot resource, to date, is this blog (suggested, I believe, by the amazing Celeste). Usually what I do is to search it (most often the night before) for whatever ingredients I have in the fridge.

Another satisfied customer.

3. Do not expect your kids to eat what you cook. All kids are different, but with very rare exceptions, here is what our girls will reliably eat: mac & cheese, peanut butter & jelly, grilled cheese, pizza, crackers, and potato chips. This is not for lack of trying; our girls were born in Berkeley, for crying out loud. They have all been offered spinach, broccoli, carrots, and all other manner of healthy and wholesome options. They just won’t eat them.

So for lunch, they pretty much get a rotating selection of things that they will reliably eat; they’re happy, and it’s easy for me. But when dinner rolls around, there’s someone else to consider: Erick. He’s a good guy, and he spends all day teaching undergraduates the principles of economics, and when he’s not teaching, he’s conducting research that deals with how to stamp out HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. It just doesn’t seem right to welcome him home with: “Hi, honey, how’s the AIDS stuff going? Here’s a PB & J!”

It took a couple of months of having my heart broken when my girls would not eat my dinners, but then I realized that I could make the most delicious meal on earth, and if it didn’t fall into one of the six food groups listed above, they’d have none of it. So I just stopped sweating it. I make grown-up dinners that Erick and I will enjoy, and this is what I serve. And I don’t cook a separate dinner for the girls, because that’s just craziness.* But I don’t fight with them either, partly because they’re girls and I have firsthand experience with eating disorders, and partly because this is just not one of the battles I choose to spend my energy on. If they don’t eat dinner, we have more leftovers for later. If they’re hungry, they should have eaten dinner. And I have confidence that they’ll make up the calories later. Possibly through consuming massive quantities of crackers, but isn’t that what multivitamins are for?

Love me, love my cooking?

*I do break this rule when I’m preparing something fancy and expensive for dinner, like rib eye steak. Rib eye steak before my girls = pearls before swine. They get mac & cheese on those nights.

4. Practice the art of one-stop shopping. Especially if you have young kids, the worst part of cooking is having to SHOP for the cooking. I have partially solved this problem by doing my shopping in one place (Hannaford’s) at one set time (Friday morning) each week. If we run out of food before the next Friday rolls around, it’s just too bad.

One-stop shopping is much easier to do here in Vermont than it was in Berkeley. Berkeley, the beating heart of the locally-grown, organic, free range food goodness movement, had an overabundance of fresh and wholesome EVERYTHING, but it wasn’t all located in one place. By the end of our time in Berkeley, “we” (by which I really mean Erick — in our house, the cook does the shopping) sometimes had to visit no fewer than FOUR food stores per week in order to gather all of the produce, meat, and grains that “we” needed.

There’s something to be said for simplicity. In our small town, there are basically two chain supermarkets (one on our side of town, one on the other side), a local food co-op. The Middlebury Food Co-op could have been uprooted from Berkeley by a tornado and deposited down here in Middlebury (and somewhere along the way, you’d look out the window and there would be Michael Pollan riding a bicycle outside. Taking the Wizard of Oz reference too far? Okay, that’s all).

Michael Pollan, not on his bicycle.

It is filled with locally-grown, organic, free range goodness. And — I am about to utter blasphemy here — I do not shop there. I hope to, someday, like when all three girls are in school, but right now I can’t convince myself of the logic — or the economics — of shopping at the Co-op. Expressed in an equation, it would look like this:

Less consumer guilt < Cost of my time + cost of my sanity + more expensive food

I haven’t run that by Erick yet, but it seems sound to me. So I shop at Hannaford’s, and I do so for one reason, and one reason only: the car carts.

Everybody’s happy with a car cart.

The car carts can keep our girls entertained for almost an entire shopping trip.

I shop on Friday mornings because Fiona is in preschool so I only have to wrangle 2/3 of our girls, and because for some reason I am always able to get a car cart on Friday mornings. (If you are from Middlebury and you are reading this, DO NOT take my car cart! I will sic Campbell on you. Also, if you have a car cart and only one child in it, I fully expect you to remove your groceries and hand over the cart immediately, because I WIN! Okay, that’s all).

Here is my shopping routine:

-Grab a car cart, stuff Campbell and Georgia into it and hand them snacks

-Using my very organized shopping list that is divided according to the various zones of the store (guess which Gong grown-up created the shopping list?) to guide my shopping, throw groceries into the cart as fast as I can (I’m always AMAZED at how many groceries a family of 5 needs each week — by the end of the trip, the front of our cart is actually dragging on the ground)

-Choose the check-out line that’s as close as possible to the lottery ticket dispenser (which has enough blinking lights to hypnotize the girls during the worst part — checking out a cart filled to dragging with groceries).

Done! As one of the girls’ friends is prone to say: “Easy peasy, mac & cheesy.”

5. Accept who you are, but don’t rule out miracles. I am more of a baker than a cook. I appreciate precise directions and sweet results (as opposed to Erick, who hates having to follow a recipe). So when I have dinner going in the crock pot, it enables me to use the girls’ naptime to bake. This way, even if my dinner wasn’t so hot, I can redeem myself with a yummy dessert that EVERYBODY in our family will eat. Play up your strengths, I always say.

Another tip: when baking, it’s a good idea to get your kids to do the tasks you hate, like sifting flour.

But sometimes miracles happen. Like this Fall, when I actually invented a pretty good pot roast recipe. I will share it with you below as a reward for making it through a long post that included very few pictures of cute children. I promise more pictures of cute children very soon.

Faith’s Pot Roast (That the Gong Girls won’t touch)

3 lb beef roast

1/2 c. water

1 c. beef broth

1 package onion soup mix

1 bay leaf, crumbled in 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. pepper

handful of rosemary

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 onion, chopped

Throw it all into a crock pot and cook on low for 6-8 hours. Voila!

Final cute kid photo. Aren’t you glad you read to the end?

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