Deconstructing dinner with Jenny Rosenstrach of "Dinner: A Love Story"

Oct 11, 2012

Jenny Rosenstrach, author of "Dinner: A Love Story" took questions about everything related to family dinners, from planning to picky eaters to mealtime conversation.

Hi, everyone, and thanks for joining us today. I'm thrilled that Jenny Rosenstrach is joining us to talk about how to make family dinners a little bit less stressful. Her book, "Dinner: A Love Story" was very helpful to me in researching and writing today's Local Living cover story on Deconstructing Dinner. Let's get started.

I just finished reading your book a couple of weeks ago. I was not familiar with your blog, so it was all new and fresh to me. I loved it. Thank you for addressing the issues of working parents and feeding children honestly. I find many books and blogs gloss over the internal angst that both issues bring, offering trite solutions to complicated problems. I have made two of the recipes in the book, and 3 of the 4 members of our family loved them both (the 4 year old is still a work in progress :).

So glad you've found success -- and yes, as you know from reading the book, success is not something that happens over night. Three out of four with one "work in progress" is something you can build on. She'll get there -- like Mari-Jane Williams' story said this morning, this stuff takes time. Like riding a bike.

Her's a link to today's Local Living story on deconstructing dinner:

Before I had kids, I really liked to cook and find new recipes, watch Martha, read Real Simple, etc. But life with a 4.5yo and a 2yo is much different: hot dogs, pre-cooked roasted chicken strips, mac and cheese, chicken fingers/fries, spaghetti, deli ham, canned fruit - the usual kid fare. So this means either we parents eat their junky food or I cook two dinners after working all day, ugh. My daughter, who is older, shows few signs of budging on trying new things, though recently declared she loves chili and homemade chicken soup. My son seems to have decided he's done trying anything new. Is this something I have to just ride out until they get older or is there anything I can do now? I should also say that this is a battle I have chosen not to fight in order to have some calm, happy time at dinner and to establish that dinnertime is when we all sit down together - setting a pattern now, hoping to fill the plates with something healthier over time...Thanks! -- Amy in Baltimore

OK, did you just cut and paste this out of my book? This is literally where I was at your stage and, yes, while it is something you have to ride out, I think one thing I did that helped get the momentum going was my "30 Day" adventure. I was SO tired of the same three things over and over again so declared to the family that we were trying something new every night for a month. When we phrased it like that it sounded like we were all in it together and were all headed for some big adventure. Of the 30 meals on the line-up (which was really fun for all of us to come up with) only about a half dozen are in the rotation today, but what ended up happening was that it got them to start building what we call "adventure muscles." I still ask them to flex those muscles five years later.

If one adult family member is routinely late for family dinner, should the eating begin on time, especially so because there are small children involved?

I think it should start on time and the routinely-late family member should, if at all possible, try to give the routinely-punctual member some sort of rough idea for when he/she will be late in the beginning of the week. Listen, I don't know many people who have family dinner seven nights a week at the exact same time. Schedules are crazy and if you can do an all-parties present meal only a few times a week, that's great. See also: My "two out of three" rule for measuring what a successful family dinner is, page 295  of my book.

I was introduced to you through a link to your list of basic tenets of dinner time. If I remember correctly, one item on this list advised to not even try for regular family dinner when your kids are under three. Solid advice that got us through some rough years, and now that the kids are older, dinnertime is as wonderful as you promised. Can you post a link to this list?

I can't find the link to that post (but it's definitely in the book). I've gottens some resistance to the "not-before-3" rule, which makes sense. Some people are a lot smarter than me and figured out how to feed their toddlers the same thing as everyone else without disrupting the dynamic of a calm table. For me it's all about the calm table. It can be very demoralizing to cook for an unappreciative diner (no matter what the age) and it made me never want to cook again. That didn't feel right to me, so I just said "Let's put the fairy tale image of Family Dinner on the back burner while we let them grow up a bit." Again, that's what worked for us. Others have different opinions on this.

FYI, here's another link that's sort of related: help

What is your approach towards picky eaters? Do you designate meals towards their tastes and how, if ever, would you attempt to introduce dishes that are not on their picky menu?

I have a bunch of strategies, but I would say my most successful one has been this concept "Deconstructing Dinner," which my blog readers are very familiar with (maybe even sick of!). The idea is that you break down your favorite dinners -- Cobb Salad, Rigatoni with Bolognese -- into individual components and serve separated on a big platter so that any potentially offensive ingredients can just be skipped over. For instance: My salmon salad. For a while there it was a platter filled with one row roasted salmon, one row potatoes, one row cukes, corn, tomatoes, etc. And dressing on the side. Kids took what they wanted (like a salad bar) and when they were done, I mixed it all together for the grown-ups. It's not rocket science but once we approached our old favorite meals this way, it changed dinner hour for the better. (PS: Also works with soup: 

We are in the habit of watching TV at dinner with our elementary school age kids. It typically is something like Wheel of Fortune or America's Funniest Home Videos that the whole family can watch. Sometimes I feel like we should shut the TV off, but it is an enjoyable way to spend dinner. What are we missing out on by having the TV on?

I am totally 100% in favor of TV -- good, bad, reality, everything in between. Kids watch many many shows and I find myself constantly thinking "I really need to watch more of it." But we don't do it at the dinner table. For us (and I think for most people) the end goal of dinner is not just the food, it's the conversation and the decompression and the idea that you are creating a safe haven where all is shared, no one will be judged. That is some dutiful stuff which in no way can compete with a TV for my kids' attention. Having said this, when we DO decide to eat in front of the TV for, say the World Cup finals or the American Idol Finale -- it's a huge treat...for me, too.

Your 'Make Dinner, Not War" bumper sticker is hilarious. Have you unexpectedly seen it on a car when you are out driving?

Thank you! Yes, I did once and I was so excited. Of course, it was only a few miles away from my house. But it WAS on an interstate highway, so it counts! I like picturing those bumper stickers all over the country spreading the word. 

Appreciate your husband's involvement in dinner (and drinks). Some really funny exchanges between the two of you on the blog -- I recall reading a "dinner time contract" between the two of you that was hilarious. What's cooking with him these days?

Love this shout-out. Yes, very true that it helps to have a good attitude about dinner when it's not all on one person's shoulders. And that contract remains our most popular post to date -- but it was about school lunches, which we both dread as much as a daily root canal. We've always had a very strict policy to combat this: Alternating Packing Days. So he'll pack Monday, I pack Tuesday, etc etc. I don't think we have gone off schedule more than two or three times in five years. That's why I thought it would be fun to draw up a legal agreement, outlining our exact responsibilities regarding lunch-packing. It's here for anyone who missed it:

I absolutely loved your book, and discovering your blog. After I read it, we immediately started having a great summer. Thanks for taking the pressure off and making it fun. What are your favorite make ahead meals? I like to cook big batches on the weekends and serve throughout the week. Also, any tips you can provide for those "in the trenches" with little kids.

I love the way you said that -- that you immediately started having a great summer because of dinner. I really believe it's true: if you're eating well, it affects the rest of your life. It's called my Trickle Down Theory of Family Dinner. I think I will go copyright that right now.


Andy's chili of course

Pulled BBQ Chicken Sandwiches, which we are having tonight. It is thawing as we speak. All I have to do is toast a few buns and mix up a slaw.

Hi Jenny--I've been a blog reader for a while now, and have added so many of your recipes to our kitchen repertoire. (Also, the Dark & Stormy. I cannot thank you both enough for sharing that.) My question: do you have any rules for dinner time that help keep order at the table? Perhaps your girls are past the squirrely stage, but maybe you've heard of some good ones. And how do you encourage mealtime conversation? My kids are 9, 7 and 4, and though we've almost achieved Universal Napkin in Your Lap, we're still working on Not Interrupting the Conversation!

I am impressed that you've achieved Universal Napkin in Your Lap. Would you mind telling me HOW that was accomplished?

As for rules, yes, my kids are past the squirrelly stage, but about a year ago, Brooke Reynolds (who has her own blog, inchmark) wrote a post about the Rules for Family Dinner in her house. She's also a designer so she created this beautiful list of rules that I've been meaning to turn into a poster in my  house. It's worth a look. My favorite rule: The Table is a Safe Place.

I just wanted to say I agree with you completely on trying to get the kids (or even picky adults) to be adventurous. I got my very picky 7 year old nephew to eat all kinds of Spanish tapas, hummus, seafood (calamari and crab cakes), and Chinese food because we had a little conversation about the countries/culture/state they came from, what the people were like, etc. No, he did not like everything he tried, but he did try it and was praised for being adventurous and open minded.

That's key -- the open mind part. It's a vicious cycle because if I cooked the same things over and over again because that's the only thing my kids will eat, then those will be the only things they ever eat. Key is to take baby steps -- I call this the 2.0 strategy in my book: maybe instead of a hamburger, do a lamb burger. Maybe one night, just try something absolutely crazy and see what happens. I remember topping half of a pizza with ham and pineapple once and my daughters (who had never heard of a hawaiian pizza) thought it was so SILLY that they went ahead and tried it. And now they beg for it. 

I am concerned that in the U.S. we teach kids only to like certain foods. That we designate 'kids foods' and don't expect kids to like others. Growing up with European parents and going to Europe a lot still I don't see this so much over there. You're given a variety - not expected to like it all - but not given the same chicken tenders/pizza/mac and cheese meals every day while the adults have something different. I made a broccoli quiche for lunch with my SIL and her two boys 3 and 5. They were not served the quiche, or even offered it. They were given mac and cheese. I also wonder why we don't ever consider giving our children 'spicy' food. In other parts of the world, like India, children routinely have spicy food. I'm not saying kids will like spicy food but why not expose them too it. The Brit kids I know love Indian! It just seems to me we're teaching kids to be picky eaters. Of course, there are picky eaters, but do we have assume they'll be picky?

I agree with this, but I also feel like there are circumstances in parents' lives that drive us to take the path of least resistance. (Why make family dinner more difficult than it already is?) My little one was a crazy picky eater with weight-gain issues when she was a toddler and we gave her "kid foods" all the time (chicken fingers, pizza, buttered pasta) because we were beside ourselves with fear that she wasn't eating enough. At that point, we didn't have the luxury to say "Maybe we should expand her repertoire to include kale tonight?" That was like problem 200 on our list of problems. I will say that we were helping her without even realizing it by eating "grown-up" food next to her at the same table every night. I have to believe that watching her sister and her parents eating salads and salmon and spicy curries helped cure her. This is all chronicled in my book btw. (Including the Kale which she now eats enthusiasticallly!) Glossing over many more strategies here.

I have a just-turned-three year old who is crazy picky. He seems to gravitate toward beige foods: bread, peanut butter, noodles, yogurt... We have offered him a wide variety of healthy food since he started on solids, but little of it has "stuck." The other piece of the equation is that he seems to naturally consume most of his calories during the day: breakfast at home and again at daycare, lunch, a big snack... and then virtually no dinner. I am embarrassed to admit that this is affecting my morale as a mom/cook. Night after night I give him a plate with a healthy entree (and I am not cooking weird, kid-unfriendly things!), a fruit, a veggie, etc. Night after night it goes untouched. Should I just let it go? And if so, how do I keep him engaged at the table and an active part of our family dinner?

OK first: Do not let it affect your morale. Are you looking at the questions on this chat? Everyone has issues!!!! I don't think you should stop what you are doing -- if night after night it goes untouched, maybe add one or two things to the plate to make him excited about it? When I'm serving something new I always make sure there's one thing on the plate that is exciting. I call it the "psychological latch." So when my potentially skeptical daughter asks "what's for dinner?" I can say "TATER TOTS!!....with pork and beans..." Email me directly (jenny AT dinneralovestory DOT com) -- this could be a good post for my blog and I'd like to know what you're already giving him.

Not a question- but a comment rather. I am a man fast approaching middle age with four wonderful children and people often ask my wife and i what the secret to our "success" is. We both say it' s having dinner together ever night. Not soccer, not gymnastics, not football, not school, not friends, not church, not anything more complicated than...dinner. I have come to know my family in a way I never thought possible by just listening to what they say.

Hi Jenny, I bought your book right when it came out, and as someone who has just started a life with my significant other, I love seeing the progression of your relationship with Andy through food - it's really inspiring! The only difference is that my boyfriend is a lot less adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. Which of your recipes would you recommend to try to keep the picky eaters happy (besides Great Grandma Turano's meatballs, which I make twice a month because they're so delicious)? Thank you!

I can only give you answers based on conversations I've had with my readers -- because if I've learned one thing from this whole enterprise, no two kids are alike! But these are the dishes that come up fairly regularly:

Yogurt-marinated Chicken

Tony's Steak (flank steak that basically marinates all day in soy, lime, scallions, sugar, sesame oil, and lotsa other stuff. I'm really hungry right  now...)

Andy's Pork Ragu!

Salmon Salad I mentioned above gets lots of love, too.

I would say that's the DALS VIP List right there.

Thanks, everyone, for joining us today with so many great questions for Jenny. Sorry we didn't have time to get to all of them!

In This Chat
Jenny Rosenstrach
Jenny Rosenstrach, the author of "Dinner: A Love Story" joins us to answer questions about everything related to family dinner, from the planning to picky eaters to getting conversation going at the table.
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