Does one person take responsibility for getting dinner on the table in your house? I love to cook, so that's how it used to be around here. That changed when I started tutoring in the afternoons/evenings almost a decade ago. I never sat down to map out a new plan, but one evolved.
Monday is my busiest day: I grocery shop and write/edit in the morning, tutor at my house from 12pm to 5pm, then leave for the evening at 5:30, dropping Olivia at her three hour swim practice on my way to a writer's meeting that usually ends around 9:15.
Here is how this past Monday night's dinner found its way to our table:
On Sunday night, I marinated a flank steak and stuck in the fridge for overnight. When I finished tutoring at 5pm the next day, I chopped up some bok choy and garlic and left them in a bowl next to the stove. Then, just before leaving with Olivia at 5:30, I put millet on the stove to cook and left Gareth to watch over it. Gareth did his homework on the bar in our kitchen so he could keep an eye on the pot. When the Millet finished cooking, he took it off the heat and carried on with his homework.
Steve arrived home thirty minutes later, grilled the marinated flank steak, put it in the fridge, then left with Gareth to coach Gareth's soccer practice. When we all arrived home at 9:30pm (egad!), Olivia set the table, Gareth poured drinks, Steve cut the meat, I sauteed the bok choy and garlic, someone served the millet and voila!– dinner was served.
If you're thinking we're insane to dine so late, you're right, but we do it on some nights because it's the only time we can eat together. And if my Monday night sounds like a logistical nightmare, I should tell you I didn't plan it.
It just happened.
I do try to plan simpler dinners on crazier nights, but as to how it gets prepared? I wing it. It's just a matter of doling out responsibilities according to skills and availability. And all kids have skills. They can wash, peel and chop vegetables, cook rice or pasta, stir soups, baste meats, start the grill, and wash dishes.
You'd be surprised, even the littlest fingers can peel garlic, which happens to be the most annoying job in the kitchen! Olivia has peeled piles of it for me over the years, usually while sitting in front of her latest show. I send her off with a whole head and she comes back with this beautiful pile of shiny cloves. Just don't ask me where all those papery skins end up.
Through this process of sharing responsibility, we discovered that dinner is not one job, but many. And the cook? Not one person, but one family.
Tag-teaming dinner has more than practical benefits. Cooking teaches kids that we all need to take responsibility for the food we eat (mom is not the de facto cook in the house unless she chooses to be). It also teaches hands-on that high quality healthy food doesn't come out of a plastic bag or a box--it comes from raw materials. And of course, cooking teaches cooking! If our kids go out into the world knowing how to cook, they'll be more likely to eat healthy meals made from whole foods when they are adults.
That all sounds great, but I don't want to mislead you into thinking I have miracle children. While Steve and I almost always tag-team dinner, the kids don't help every night, and I'm sure you can imagine the freak-out that occurs on the nights when I do ask. The outrage, the indignity, the affront!
Still, of all the chores we might coerce our kids into doing, this one offers the best kid-friendly payoff. They don't care about the urine on the base of the toilet seat or the dust on the television. But they do care about food. You want cookies? Melt some butter. You want homemade ranch dressing? Get out the mayo and go cut some chives.
Of course, like anything, cooking has a learning curve. Years ago I left Gareth to cook a chicken while I went to tutor. I'd cleaned and prepped it, so "all he had to do" was put the bird in the oven at 5pm then set a timer to baste it every 20 minutes. He didn't have to worry about when it would be done because his dad would be home in time to take it out of the oven.
When Steve arrived home at 6pm and checked on the bird, he discovered an ice-cold chicken shivering in an ice-cold oven, it's little wings tucked in tight against the frigid air. Gareth had dutifully basted a raw chicken every twenty minutes for an hour without ever turning on the heat! When I asked him if he noticed the chicken hadn't cooked he said, "I thought it just took a long time."
I suppose the moral of that story is it doesn't have to be perfect (although I prefer dinner not be raw). If you're having trouble finding time to get dinner on the table, it's okay to consider the crew of worker bees that is your family. I know the kids are busy too, so if they have a freak-out, just remind them they don't have to make the whole meal (the point is that nobody does). But if they want a decent homemade dinner in these hectic times, it takes a family.