Anyone who thinks that January marks the beginning of the new year doesn't have school-age children. Parents understand that September is the month of fresh starts, clean slates and ambitious resolutions. The perfect time, I say, for tackling family dinner.
My kids are the worst eaters. Really. Some people say this, and mean that their kids don't eat raw sushi, or whole wheat pasta, or offal. That's not what I mean. I mean that in my house, bacon is a food group. I mean that my kids don't eat pasta, period. I mean that they only accept pepperoni pizza from one delivery joint. It's serious.
These days, it's pretty shameful to have kids who are lousy eaters. Everywhere you turn writers, chefs, politicians and even actors (who really shouldn't be telling anyone else how to raise their children) are extolling the virtues of family dinner. Unfortunate parents who mention their plight in public are inundated with tales of wildly successful people whose families ate dinner together every night, recipes for lentil cupcakes and chocolate-sweet potato brownies, and pity. One acquaintance informed me that family dinner was responsible for her daughter's admission to Harvard. Harvard!
I feel this shame keenly because I'm an avowed foodie and reasonably serious home cook. (You see how I dropped that in there? I don't want you to think my kids don't eat because I don't know my kohlrabi from my kale.) Also, I grew up eating family dinner. It was one of the foundational rituals of my childhood. But my mom was home and my dad had a job where he could leave at 5:30 every night. In my adult household, both parents work at demanding jobs, and one of us often has a business-related commitment in the evening. It's a rare night when all of us are home by 6:30, which is the latest time our two boys can eat without careening off the bad-behaviour cliff.
I'm trying. A friend sent me Laurie David's excellent cookbook, The Family Dinner, and I set it in front of my boys. "I'll cook anything in here," I said. We agreed on chicken schnitzel, because it looked in the photo like a giant chicken finger.
Last night, I rushed home and pulled out the ingredients. My younger son, realizing that the recipe called for four eggs, insisted on cracking them by himself. I was happy to agree, since every proponent of family dinner agrees that getting children involved in dinner preparation is critical to the overall success of the program.
The doorbell rang. It was the piano teacher, arriving for the lesson I'd forgotten. I asked my son if I could crack the eggs without him. Tears ensued, followed by promises to delay the dinner preparation. The doorbell rang again. This time it was the furnace repairman, coming to check on an alarming oily discharge from the venting stack. He disappeared down to the basement, re-emerging a few minutes later to shut down the hot water tank due to leaking carbon monoxide.
Still, I persisted. The piano teacher departed, and my younger son got involved cracking eggs, picking out the shells, breading chicken breasts and cutting the ends off beans. My husband came home and went down to the basement to check on the repairs. I started frying and boiling things. My husband returned upstairs to report that we had a raccoon nest in our chimney and the heating system was being deactivated for the night.
At 7:30, we sat down to eat. My younger son declared that the chicken "smelled funny" and refused to allow any of it past his lips. My older son declared the meal "so-so" and ate approximately five bites. My husband quietly observed that 7:30 was too late for the children to eat. I did not lead the family in a stimulating conversation about current events (although if you want to do that, The Huffington Post provides inspirational topics that may be of use to you; the most recent suggestion is 'Solar Panels at the White House').
Tonight I called home from the office. My older son answered. "When are you coming home?" he asked.
"Soon," I said. "Why?"
"I think you should go out for dinner," he said.