Treasure family dinners


Growing up, it was a rite of passage.  If someone could survive an “Elliott family dinner,” the person was okay in our book.

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What happened at these dinners?  We shared stories.  We made fun of each other, even berated each other, but in love: I don’t think any of us is in therapy because of them.  We all had the chance to laugh at my dad’s perfectionism and my mom’s quirks, as well as each others’.  My brothers and I played out movie scenes we memorized, all taking on different characters such as those in the “Coming to America” barber shop scenes. My older brother always had a quick-wit, and we laughed hard.  My younger brother was funny and a performer who kept us giggling.  I was simultaneously the most studious child in my family and the one with the least amount of common sense, asking stupid questions in an entirely unsafe environment where I paid dearly for it.  And the stories we share of these family dinners still get repeated over and over again when we are together.

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My own experience – along with scientific proof that family dinners are impactful – are reasons why having dinner together as a family is something I work hard to make happen.  To name a few benefits, family dinners help with health, brain growth, vocabulary and family relationships, as well as promote good behaviors and stave off bad ones.

If I haven’t lost you already, I’m hoping you’ll stick with me.  My husband travels a lot and my kids have activities some nights that make eating together impossible.  This means we currently eat together as a family about three nights a week.  On the nights we can eat together, I work to make these count.  Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. I keep our meals simple.  It’s okay if family dinner is Chipotle.
  2. It makes me SO MUCH HAPPIER when everyone enjoys their food.  That means I make a lot of the same meals for the sake of peace.
  3. I make big pots of spaghetti, chili, soups and stews so I can freeze the leftovers for a night when Greg is traveling or to give to a family in need.
  4. When I had babies and toddlers, I gave them what we were serving as early as possible.  Once a child is about 1, there is very little he cannot eat if you cut it into small enough pieces.
  5. I used the Deceptively Delicious cookbook when the kids were younger to help get more fruits and vegetables in them.  I’ll write another blog about healthy eating strategies for toddlers – someday …
  6. Now that they’re older, I often serve raw vegetables or a salad as the side dish and let the kids pick the ones they like.  They eat vegetables and there’s no arguing, gagging or nose-holding.
  7. Everyone has to at least TRY all the food.
  8. If you don’t like it, we’re not making something else for you.  I have a friend who grew up in a family with six kids, and the alternative if you didn’t like dinner was a microwaved, scrambled egg.  (That sounds more disgusting to me as an adult than an asparagus and Brussels sprouts pie would have as a child.)  Come up with something that works for you if you are concerned your child might not eat.
  9. Though we don’t always remember to do it, we have a “thankfulness journal” where we write down something each of us is thankful for at dinner.  This is a favorite for everyone, but especially our most reserved child, who gets a chance to be thoughtful and heard over the louder two.
  10. Another conversation starter is the “roses and thorns” concept.  Everyone goes around and shares his or her rose (high) of the day and thorn (low) of the day.  I actually got that one from the Obamas!

IMG_4135When I prioritize an activity in our family life, I often ask myself, “Will I regret doing this or not doing this when I look back some day?”  And then I remember my childhood family dinners – which sometimes went very wrong – and how they make me smile.  My mom’s spaghetti, roasts, chicken and dumplings … these foods take me back.  And none of my family will allow me to forget the night the Domino’s commercial came on television announcing (in my defense, with buffalo flying through the sky, flapping wings) that it was now selling buffalo wings.  And I looked at everyone, and before I could process the question that came to my mind, I blurted out, “Wait – do buffalo wings come from real buffalo?”

I want my children to have their own “Elliott family dinner” memories.  And based on our meals so far, I’m sure they’ll have plenty to talk about when they’re older.

A “get your kids to eat veggies” idea


Okay, I’ll be the first to admit from the get-go that this idea is laborious and geared toward home cooks.  But I seriously think I came up with a great idea while driving home and salivating over the August issue of Bon Appetit.  (And even those who “can’t cook” can steam, roast in an oven, and defrost a bag of frozen veggies).

For 20 weeks from spring to fall (May to October), do a Family Veggie Challenge.  The idea is to come up with rankings for 20 different vegetables as a family to see which vegetable wins out as your family’s favorite.  I think I will wait to try this next year when Zach and Eliza are both a little older.  (So if you try this, please send me your feedback!)  Here’s the gist:

1. Each week, pick a vegetable to show-case, based on what you can get freshest in the grocery store or farmer’s market.

2. For that week, include one vegetable prepared 3-4 different ways (for consumption at 3-4 of your dinners).  Obviously, this won’t be the only vegetable you eat all week, but it needs to be showcased enough for you to try it several ways without making everyone sick of it (so perhaps every other meal).  You can even eat the vegetable out at a restaurant for one of the nights.  You can try including them in your dinner menu raw, roasted, grilled, sautéed, batter-fried, or steamed.  Of course, you can be creative and search for top-ranked recipes online.  The idea is to make them taste GOOD and not to over-do it by combining the vegetable of the week with too many other ingredients (so your kids really understand the flavor of each veggie).

3. Print up rating cards for each family member for the week and create a rating system (such as “Ew, gross”, “I can swallow this without gagging”, “These actually taste good”, and “Personal favorite”).  At each meal, write down each preparation in a left-column (such as “steamed broccoli with cheese sauce,” “roasted broccoli,” “raw broccoli,” and “tempura broccoli”) and create a chart for people to mark which ratings they choose.  Discuss how everyone has rated the vegetable each night.

4. Each week, declare a winning recipe for each vegetable based on which preparation had the best ratings overall, and collect the rating cards.

5. At the end of the 20 weeks, have your kids declare a winner – the best vegetable.  And you will not only have tried 20 different vegetables, but also 60-80 different recipes for making them.  My guess is that even the pickiest eaters will enjoy tasting for the sake of being able to rate them (even if just about every rating is “Ew, gross!”).  And in the end, you will have a documented reference bible for what vegetables your kids like the most and how they like them best prepared.  You can also give your kids free passes from 3 vegetables at the end of the challenge, so they can choose to not to eat those when you serve them.  (It really is hard to force your child to eat something and watch it come back up through the gag-and-vomit process.  They’re just not going to like every vegetable.)  This would make them have to choose their very least favorites, and would probably help get them to eat the other vegetables that they can get down without gagging.

I’m so excited about trying this out!  Maybe I’ll do a five-week trial this fall.  I think we need to get Zach a little better at consuming food at dinner-time before starting.  Let me know what you think about it!

My child cured my road rage.


If one of these cut me off, I’d probably be okay with it.

At least for a day, seeing as I haven’t driven yet, Eliza has fixed my road rage.

Since having children, this is yet another thing that has changed.  When I first had Eliza, I thanked God that she couldn’t understand a word I was yelling (and sometimes cursing) at other drivers.  When she started to talk, I realized she would repeat pretty much everything I said, especially if it made me laugh.  Remember dammit?

Now, I have one repeater (Zach) and one “mommy” (Eliza).  Eliza is very maternal, likes to tell people what to do, and likes to correct them.  (I know you’re laughing right now if you know me at all.)

Last night, we were on our way to her very first dance recital, and I was concerned about not getting good seats, so of course, every other car on the rush hour road was a serious hindrance to my plans.  I’ve changed, though, in the sense that I now simply talk down to other drivers instead of yelling at them.

“Really?  That’s what you’re going to do?  Thanks – a turn signal would have been nice.”

“Oh, please, cut in front of me, because what you have to do most certainly must be more important than what I have to do.”

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?  I was in the middle of having some of these one-sided conversations with the people on the road.  And Eliza said, “Mommy what are you doing?”  And I said, “I’m just talking to the other drivers.”  Then she said, in a calm and slightly condescending manner, “They can’t hear you, Mommy.”  Of course Greg had to chime in, “I’ve been telling your mommy that for years, Eliza.”

Perhaps he has.  Maybe it’s easier to learn from your innocent children than it is to do so from your spouse.  But when she said that to me, for some reason, I didn’t want to respond with, “But it makes me feel better.”  I didn’t have anything to say for myself.  I was just quiet.  She was right.  They can’t hear me.  From now on, I’m going to try to stop talking to them.  I have no idea if it will stick, but at least for the moment, she has me contemplative and cured.

Parenting lesson #4: Your to-do list will never be the same again


If you’re a mom, it’s more like 10 or 10,000 things

There is nothing that will re-prioritize your life like having children.

Your to-do list expands overnight when you’re pregnant and you feel the pressure to read the countless books there are on hosting your little human parasite, birthing it and taking care of it.  Once you have the baby, your to-do list is almost entirely decided for you.  You never know how much time you’ll have before the baby needs you, so you have to decide whether to take a nap (as everyone advises), do laundry, eat something, do the dishes, write thank-you notes, or somehow try to feel like a normal person by talking on the phone to someone or e-mailing.

When I went back to work, the weekends became a juggling act of errands, going through mail, and trying to have “family time.”  Personal, pre-children projects like scrapbooking (laughable!) weren’t even in my “top 200 things I want to do list.”  When I quit my job five months later, my priority became figuring out what to do with an 8 1/2-month-old who couldn’t have a conversation.  Then I found out I was pregnant.  Of course, our biggest to-do list item became getting our personal wills done, as the thought of the government deciding what to do with our parent-less child would have been an overwhelming one without pregnancy hormones in play.

When Zach came along, my priority was surviving.  My to-do list was to -NOT-die, and not accidentally kill or maim either of my children from lack of sleep.  Honestly, the first few months of Zach’s life are a complete blur.  I wish I had started blogging then, but even the idea is ridiculous because, well, when could I have done it?

And here we are, with a 3 1/2-year-old and a two-year-old, and things seem a bit more manageable, but now my to-do list has more weighty items on it, like teach the kids to swim, figure out how to build Zach’s character, and research where we should send Eliza to kindergarten (because that decision is, scarily, a year away).  And of course, the scrapbooking from pre-baby days has fallen off the list, because it’s never going to get done.  I’ve come to terms with that.

The thing is, having kids pushes a lot of things you thought were important in life out of the picture.  And kissing them goodbye in return for newborn cuddles was a really tough pill for me to swallow.  I like control and I like thinking about myself.  But what I’m coming to realize is that I’m just beginning to understand what’s really important, and our kids are showing me that.  I am sitting here trying to think of what my normal, after work to-do list was like before we had kids, and I can’t even remember (maybe planning home improvement projects?).  I think that is more evidence that a lot of it didn’t matter; it isn’t lasting.  What’s lasting is leaving a legacy of children who will love others like we love them, and care about others like we care about them.

So if your to-do list is currently diaper-changing, spit-up cleaning, and round-the-clock feeding, hang in there; it will change again pretty soon.  Perhaps not to something easier, but at least, in my opinion, to something more rewarding.

I’m forever changed, and I wouldn’t ever want me – or my to-do list – to be the same again.

Parenting lesson # 23: Your kids learn to talk by repeating what you say.


Teaching your kids to talk is a double-edged sword.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve already been embarrassed by what Eliza has said, mostly because it’s so obvious she’s repeating something she learned from me.  Something bad.  And it only seems to be getting worse.

Luckily for me, there haven’t been any recent instances of her saying “dammit!” like she learned about a year ago.  I taught myself not to say that word.  No, now she is much more into poop.

We’re trying to train her that “poop” talk is not funny, but somehow, especially with her friends, it is the funniest word she knows.  They will sit and giggle and just say it over and over and over.  It doesn’t help that yesterday, she was playing and just kept saying, “Crap, crap, crap, crap, crap” when she couldn’t get things to go her way.  I instantly knew she must have heard me say that (apparently it is my replacement for “dammit”).  It was such an ironic moment because I keep trying to tell her not to use potty talk, but I do it obviously often enough for her to pick up the word and its proper usage (though I don’t think she knows that crap is a worse form of the word poop.  Yet.)

It’s the classic lesson of “do as I say, not as I do.”  It’s often funny to hear your kids repeat the not-so-great things you say, but it’s also scary.  It’s like every sentence you speak goes on the record and could be repeated at any moment (most likely when it would be the most mortifying).  So, now I can add “crap” to my list of no-no words.  I’m quickly running out of options.  Maybe I’ll start saying “drat” or make up a word, like, “snaggle!”  I need to come up with something before I fall on my proverbial “double-edged” sword.