I’ve become one of those people who posts pictures of food.
I don’t know how this happened, except maybe that food (and dinner in particular) has been such a nightmare for us for so long.
But last week, the kids liked every meal we made.
(I’m going to leave that as a stand alone line, because it’s a MIRACLE.)
This is my way of declaring victory (read: dominion) over the horror that is mandatory family dinner. (You know that it’s mandatory right? Because experts. Sigh.) I’ll post the recipes below, in case you’re fighting a similar battle.
A bit of background: Food for me is like exercise: best when it’s completed and I don’t have to think about it again for a while. I know this is strange, and it’s embarrassing to admit in our culture that venerates eating. Suffice to say I’m not someone who sources my ingredients. If you ask me if I eat local, I’ll nod yes with confidence: Market Basket is 3.7 miles from my house, and I buy pretty much everything there.
As I’ve shared before, I was just getting a handle on nightly dinners for two when the Cherubs moved in with us. They HATED our food. (They even complained to their social worker, “All they feed us is STEAK…”) This is common with kids who have spent time in foster care. Most didn’t eat particularly well (if at all) in their original homes, and not every foster home feeds kids enough food, let alone good food.
We had nights where things got so bad, I’d just leave the table after dinner and go up to my room to fume & regroup, because they were Just.So.Nasty.
Normally, I wouldn’t care all that much what they ate. I was raised in the 70s on beverages made from space age powders (Tang, Kool-Aid, instant ice tea, instant coffee, even powdered milk) and I turned out okay. But I HAD to get them on healthier food: I had one child who looked 8 when he was actually 12, and another who had “risk of diabetes from childhood obesity” written all over her medical records. So it wasn’t an option to just sort of play along, feed them Spaghetti-o’s & Hamburger Helper, and hoped things somehow worked out.
Okay, that’s the problem. Now let me tell you what we tried, and what worked.
Step 1: Keep the fridge full.
Our kids are hyper-alert to food availability. I can’t tell you how many times when I’ve had a busy week and just haven’t made it to the store yet, #2 Cherub asks, “Are we having money trouble?” This came up this weekend simply because we opened our last stick of butter. We weren’t even out…we just didn’t have extra. Almost two years in, and they’re still looking for signs that Steve & I might lose our capacity to serve as the adults.
So I do my best to keep the fridge, pantry, and fruit bowl FULL. There’s not much junk there. But there is lots of food.
Step 2: Stop the complaining.
After months of trying to figure out this dinner thing, I realized that the kids were kind of getting off on antagonizing me. It was a battle, and they were winning. Power struggles are part of parenting anyway, but they’re particularly part of adoption. On the verge of losing my sh*t about all of this, one night (after a really unpleasant fight the night before) I fixed them a special, just-for-you dinner: plain chicken, plain rice, plain green beans. I filled their milk glasses right to the top, and I told them, “From now on, this is your next dinner after you complain.”
It hasn’t been a problem since. (See pick your battles, win the ones you pick.)
Step 2: Add Glop
Our kids love condiments. BBQ sauce, ketchup, salad dressing, soy sauce, salt, pepper, hot flakes, butter… Their favorite meals are things they can make gloppy. So look for versions of these that don’t have high-fructose corn syrup, and let them have at it.
Surprisingly, this also provided the best behavior modification option in our parenting repertoire. (See pick your battles, above)
Step 3: Wait
It took time for their palates to change. At a basic level, we were dealing with addiction – sugar in various forms, chemical additives, etc. Detox takes time, and then it takes more time for new habits to form. I did my best to provide variety, try new things, and find as many gloppy meals as I could feed them.
Finally, last week, this all paid off. Here’s some of what we ate that we all liked. (And when I mention specific ingredients, I will link you right to Amazon. Because if there’s one thing I wish we’d done differently, it was to have some of our groceries delivered during our transition. If you’re in the process of adopting? Let me just set you free and say, you can worry about your carbon footprint NEXT YEAR. The rest of us will cover for you while you save a life or two. And if you have a friend who is fostering or adopting? Sign them up for a delivery service like Peapod or Amazon Fresh, and maybe crowd source a big ole’ gift card from amongst your friends or colleagues. Your friend who’s adopting won’t have the brain space to thank you for about 18 months, so I’ll just say it for them now, because I know they mean it: THANK YOU!)
Anything on the grill is better, particularly because our kids like their meat well done (read: burnt into little hunks of blackened char). We learned with the first run of this that bacon doesn’t work at all on kebabs because the fat catches the whole kebab on fire but leaves everything raw inside (sad face), but with turkey & veggies (even sausage) it’s fantastic.
Honey Mustard Pork Chops
The kids like pork, but the highlight of this meal is that I slice a head of cauliflower into “steaks,” spray them with olive oil, add Jane’s salt, and broil them on a cookie sheet. Microwave frozen peas or green beans and call it a night. I make the honey mustard glaze with hot mustard that is scrumptious. (see Add Glop, above)
My Mom’s Meatloaf (aka the meal of many life lessons)
Really, is there any food concept grosser than a “loaf” of meat? But I loved this as a kid and my kids do, too. I learned the hard way that I need to use 85% lean ground beef or I end up with a giant meatball swimming in grease. I add Italian bread crumbs, chopped onion, egg, and ketchup. I also learned to take my rings off before mixing. (AGGGH) My mom’s secret was to cut a slice into the center of the loaf and hide cheese in there. That’s some good melty wonderfulness. Finally, I learned that baked potatoes take approximately nine hours and need to be started before you do anything else.
Chili (aka giant vat of glop)
I first made this on one of those awesome nights where we were all happy and having fun together, when it felt like our family life was a miracle and I just wanted to make the kids something they would truly love. So I made chili, even though it sort of grosses me out. It turned out to be a good choice, because this is chili even I can eat.
It’s nothing fancy: browned ground beef or turkey, smushed tomatoes (I can never remember if they should be crushed or diced, so that’s always a wild card depending one which can I grabbed at the store). Red beans & black beans (I get the low sodium ones in the can. Don’t even talk to me about soaking the dried ones. I’m not there yet.) I toss in a jar of salsa (because I’ll mooch Paul Newman’s efforts to advance my cause), frozen corn, and approximately 4x the amount of hot chili powder as I think is way too much. We serve this with that fake shredded cheese no cow would recognize, and the tortilla chips they sell near the counter at the beer & wine store. Just keeping it real, folks.
Chicken & Chick Peas
My friend Laura gave me this recipe a few years ago when I was doing a Lenten fast that only allowed certain grains. I always use meat that’s already cooked (either from a rotisserie I grab at the store or leftover chicken breasts) so I don’t have to worry about food poisoning. Cook up about a cup of couscous. Take a moment to love that it only takes 5 minutes. Vow to eat less rice because it’s just too demanding. Sauté a chopped onion, along with some orange & yellow diced peppers. Add cooked couscous, a can of drained chick peas, some frozen peas & a bit of chicken broth. Mix together with cumin & that other yellow spice that also starts with C (Curry! that’s it!). Add corn if one of your Cherubs says, “I haven’t gone to the bathroom in awhile…. Spinach if someone is being punished. Let it heat through. Serve in bowls and marvel that they’re eating it. Go upstairs and write in your journal, Have found proof that God is real…
I have no idea how #2 Cherub came to claim this as our unique concoction, as it actually came from one of those index card recipes that show up in the mail sometimes. But apparently, it’s our very own now, and when they ask for “Family Chicken,” this is what they mean. It might be the only thing I make with no ingredients from a can, so it’s FANCY.
You dip chicken breasts in egg while you struggle not to think too much about what’s happening. Coat in a mixture of bread crumbs, grated romano cheese, and Montreal Chicken Seasoning (MCS has solved more “I won’t eat that!” food fights in our family than I can possible describe. It’s cousin, Montreal Steak? Single handedly ended the, “They feed us nothing but steak!” war.) Broil until the edges of the chicken catch fire, because you got a bit distracted and the Cherubs like their meat killed twice. Serve with whatever vegetable you have and whichever starch you have time to boil.
Life Group Food
I add this last item because if you’re in the thick of food issues with new kids, I want to reassure you: it won’t always be this hard, you won’t always have to do dinner like a military drill, and at some point, you’ll see breakthroughs in your kids’ tastes and places you can give a little without having all your hard work collapse.
At least once a week, we’re back out the door at night so fast that there’s no time to cook. So I’ve caved to boxed food, and let me tell you, it makes our kids MUCH more amenable to whatever the night’s obligations entail.
They love chicken pot pie (because glop), and Newman’s Frozen Pizzas. Mac & cheese with hot dogs. Pasta with pesto and a pile of grated cheese (after which I chase them around with a spoonful of peanut butter, giving my 500th lecture on PROTEIN).
Here’s the cool thing:
#1 Cherub has grown about 8 inches and lost a bunch of those baby teeth. #2 Cherub is healthy, fit, happy with her body, and energetic. Both of them now monitor their own eating in a way that supports their personal needs. And while dinner time still isn’t anyone’s favorite part of the day, we get through those ten minutes together. I’m not sure it bonds us the way the experts promise. But it’s a hill we’ve conquered as a family, and shared victories count for more than you’d guess in this process.
Here’s the best book I found to help me think through this challenging season.
To those of you who are longtime readers: THANK YOU for your laughter, support & prayers as I’ve wrestled with this part of our lives. It’s nice to report some victory. And for those of you who are new? And maybe considering adopting from foster care? Forget you ever read this! But maybe bookmark it (I have a whole folder of “adoption blogs that save my sanity”) for the days you need to know that things will get better.