ONE WEIRD TRICK

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The Way To Solve Family Dinner Is To Embrace Kid Food

Instead of training our kids to eat more like adults, let’s train ourselves to eat more like kids.

You can picture her perfectly: The One Meal Mom. She puts a single pot on the table, tosses her hair over her shoulder, and calmly calls her family to the dinner table. They hear her and comply because the TV is not on at maximum volume and perhaps does not even exist. It’s a Monday, but you’d never know it. She made one single dinner that her entire family will eat, possibly even enjoy, and she used a stove and a recipe to do it.

You might think you could never be like her. How could you? Your kids only eat chicken nuggets, boxed macaroni, and butter noodles. They love candy, and they hate vegetables. Believe me, I’m with you. But if you’ve ever found yourself aspiring to be a One Meal Mom, I have a question for you: Why?

A few years into being the primary dinner-cooker for my family of four, I realized that the biggest challenge wasn’t my kids’ pickiness, the time crunch, or that I was cooking two meals, one for them and one for us. It’s that I was cooking at all.

Don’t get me wrong: I love food. ... Given the right environment, I don’t even hate to cook. But on a Tuesday, after a series of long meetings and a two-hour bus commute? No.

I was cooking meals for grownups, and they were taking a long time because the “20-minute weeknight meal” is, I’m sorry, a myth. What was quick, easy, and actually semi-relaxing was assembling my kids’ plates. My children are 6 and 3, and I don’t fully “cook” for them because they rarely eat anything that takes longer than seven to 10 minutes to make.

Instead, I put some rice or bread-like items on their plate (crackers, a tortilla), a ready protein like cheese or salami, and cut-up fruits and vegetables. They eat all, some, or none of it. I do not have to continually bounce between the stove and a 3-year-old, return to my phone to squint at directions, or reckon with the pile of dishes that appear before the food is even done. Compiling my kids’ meals is pleasing to me, a tiny moment of creative pleasure completely unlike the way I feel cooking for adults.

Which is how I started to wonder why so many of us claim to wish our kids were “better eaters.” Do we, really?

Proponents of the “baby-led weaning” technique say that presenting your infant with non-baby food like mashed steak increases the likelihood of that infant becoming a second-grader who eats meals that require utensils. Now that I have children old enough to talk, this idea seems a bit laughable to me. Not because I think baby-led weaning is unlikely to work, but because I have no idea how to cook a steak and little urge to learn. Yet there’s an entire body of scientific literature devoted to studying the idea that, even from very young ages, our kids should be eating more like us.

When’s the last time you had a raw cucumber slice or a Ritz cracker? How about a bowl of cereal, unadorned?

Don’t get me wrong: I love food. I love to pay others to make food that’s complicated, that takes hours of love and care. Given the right environment, I don’t even hate to cook. But on a Tuesday, after a series of long meetings and a two-hour bus commute? No.

When’s the last time you had a raw cucumber slice or a Ritz cracker? How about a bowl of cereal, unadorned? I assembled them all recently and they were all delicious, taking almost zero skill or time to prepare.

This idea isn’t at all unprecedented, or necessarily kid-centric. After all, you can go to a fancy bar and pay $22 to eat cheese, meats, and crackers, and it’s called a charcuterie plate. You may have noticed that the recent crudité trend tasted an awful lot like the raw vegetables we put on our kids’ plates, or that the humble microwave has finally received the millennial aesthetic treatment. It’s funny and a little sad to see these trends working in exact opposition to the pleas I keep seeing on social media for “recipes that kids will actually eat.”

These same contemporary parents love nothing more than to mourn all the ways that parenthood changes us — culinary and otherwise. This strikes me as a positive development, but not without loss. What I’ve always struggled with, and occasionally lost sight of, is this: I kind of sucked before I had kids.

Back then, it would never have occurred to me to make anything outside the tyranny of “a recipe for adults.” I wasn’t the type of person to notice the pleasure of eating a plain apple on a nice fall day, or to sit down at the table simply to share a sleeve of crackers with someone I love. Now that I am, I have my kids to thank for it.