Sunday, August 11, 2013

Family dinner and other conundrums.

One thing is for sure: No one will ever accuse me of writing one of those blogs that portrays a perfect life and makes other people feel bad. When you get sick of those blogs, I invite you to come visit mine! I live in a three bedroom house with four adults, two dogs, and two small children, located in a crummy part of town. It's very convenient ... if you're a user of heavy drugs. The inside of the house generally looks like a cross between a college crash-pad and a large family daycare. The mortgage has been underwater since we bought the place.

Feeling better yet? I thought so!

Life is good. We eat well, we pay our bills, we have happy kids. But it's definitely a bit messy.

So here is what my sewing area looks like right now. If you're thinking, "Wow, there is no space to actually do anything," well, you'd be right about that!  Actually, these heaps represent a bunch of fun projects I'm excited about right now. But I do need to clear a little space on the ironing board if I'm going to actually make anything ...


Did you know that disorderly environments have been found to stimulate creativity? If that's the case, I think you could say we have creativity in spades. But I will be honest with you, sometimes I think I need a little less "creativity" in my life, and a little more "ability to find things."

Here is our "computer desk" area. Can you see my well-loved copy of Getting Things Done buried in a pile? A little ironic, right? (I actually love that book and use a dumbed-down version of his methods at work. I should unbury it and start applying it to the rest of my life.) That pile contains an assortment of scratch paper taken from the recycle bin at work (why buy paper when your work printer prints out "banner" sheets on every single print job?), bills to pay, PDF pattern pieces, and who-knows-what. A yogurt lid, apparently? No one would ever accuse me of being a neat-freak. Sigh.


So it's with that background that I thought I would share something that is actually working for us.

One of our areas of struggle has been "family dinner." I love the idea of family dinner, but the reality is another matter. I don't think I am alone on this one. Especially because I work full time, and generally don't get home until after six. By that time, everyone is starving and we need to get something on the table immediately. I'm tired from working and commuting. Steve is exhausted after a day of taking care of the kids. The kids are hungry and near-meltdown. As you can imagine, this is super fun.

See, here's the thing: Steve and I love to cook. Actually, we pride ourselves on our cooking skills. We love to make big, ambitious feasts from scratch. Using garden produce and fresh ingredients where possible. I wouldn't say we are hard core "foodies" or anything, but yeah, okay, maybe a little bit. We love slow food. We love America's Test Kitchen. Given the choice between making something quickly that will be passable and making something that requires standing over a hot stove stirring for hours but promises to be amazing, we usually pick the latter. I think both of us have this idea that the longer something takes and the more difficult it is, the better it will be in the end.

In case you were wondering, this full-time lawyering, hipster-gardening, scratch-cooking, sewing-everything, involved-parenting lifestyle is awesome, but it is freaking exhausting! People often ask me how I manage it all. Well, it would be fair to say there is a good deal of hanging on for dear life involved. And a lot of sewing-as-escape-from-total-chaos. It bears mentioning that one advantage to having a stay-at-home parent is that we don't have to deal with the additional craziness of day-care drop off, pick-up, and other issues that dual-working parents have. Having two adult housemates means that Steve can often run brief errands during the day without kids in tow. Those two things allow me to do a lot more hobby-cooking/gardening/sewing than likely would be possible otherwise.

Right, where was I? Preparing amazing feasts is great and all, but it's seriously not compatible with weeknight family dinners. Ambitious dinner plans requiring additional ingredients we have to run out and buy result in an 8:30 p.m. dinner, which is not compatible with a 8 p.m. bedtime for babies. So Steve and I spend a lot of time racking our brains trying to think of something we can make right now, and quickly so that we can feed our hungry kids and relax. Under pressure to come up with something immediately, we suffer from decision paralysis. Like a kid being tested, our minds go blank. So we end up ordering out or making packaged food more than our tastes or budget like.

Two things that haven't worked for us: (1) Weekly meal planning.  It seems like the solution, but we always fall off the wagon after a week or two and end up right back where we started. (2) Crock pot cooking. A great idea in theory, but we are clearly terrible at planning ahead, so by the time we're thinking of dinner, it's generally too late to start something in the crock pot. Prepping meals after dinner is a good idea, but the kids' bedtime tends to be exhausting and that never seems to happen either.

So okay, we do not have our acts together for short or long range meal planning. What has worked? Two things.

First off, this book. Kitchen Express by Mark Bittman. This book is full of recipes that can actually be made in 20 minutes, and usually involve at least one fresh ingredient and pantry basics like beans, rice, pasta, and canned tomatoes. These are not gourmet meals, but they are a lot better than something out of a box, and it's a lot cheaper than take out. And most of the recipes are kid-friendly - not too many ingredients, not too spicy. This book is helping Steve and I to relax our high standards without feeling like we've gone totally "semi-homemade," shudder. This is our new go-to book for quick dinner ideas.


I've been joking that I finally broke up with Chris Kimball, my brilliant but somewhat nit-picky, critical ex, and I have a new boyfriend now, Mark Bittman. He thinks my cooking is awesome! Hehehe.

But when you're stressed and under pressure, even this book may seem like too much: too many ideas to consider, too many recipes, too much to choose from. That's when the second item comes in: I made a list of our favorite fast family meals, which I put on the fridge. At 5 p.m., when we're stressing, we can scan this list and determine, based on what we have in the house and our energy levels, how to feed the kids.


The list is organized into broad categories, with a list of "easiest" options at the top left for nights when we are really rushed or don't have much energy. Options like, "grilled cheese sandwiches" and "rotisserie chicken" and "quesadillas." We are learning that there is no shame in making a quick and simple meal that the kids love. Having a limited list of options that are tried and true helps with the decision paralysis that strikes when blood sugars are low and kid-squawking prevents us from thinking straight. (Seriously, can anyone think straight when kids are screaming? I feel like I go into lizard-brain mode when my kids cry.)

This is just a simple word document, so we can add to it or switch it up easily. Maybe at some point I will create additional lists and organize by season. But right now I'm trying not to be an overachiever. I'm trying to relax my standards and get food on the table.

I do think, when you are looking at better ways to organize information or possessions, it's important to look at what is working for you. Most of the time, all I see is the chaos, but we actually do have many systems that work well for us. Meal-time is a still a work in progress, but our new program of relaxing our standards and "getting things done" does seem to be helping us get through one of the more stressful parts of our day.

Now I'm going to go clear off my ironing board ...


  1. Hey Inder, thank you for being a NORMAL PERSON! It's refreshing to read your blog. I can relate to the chaos..our apartment still looks like a student flat.
    My husband and I both work at a hospital and when we get home we want to spend quality time with our child and not stress out about cooking or cleaning. Often we eat "cold food" with lots of antipasti, pesto and fresh bread and vegetables. All of which can be bought beforehand and apart from the bread can be refrigerated. We then get to sit at the table together and enjoy each others company instead of one of being stuck in the kitchen.
    One of the first things I learned after becoming a parent is to stop comparing myself to others or to what I though a perfect parent should be. Also that every second I spend with my baby is ten times more important than having a sparkling clean and tidy house. I'm pretty sure no child has ever thanked their parents for all the years of having a speckless kitchen tidy or the gourmet three course meals. You can tell by your writing that you are an involved and loving parent and that counts so much more. xx Laney

    1. Ha! I'm so happy to oblige! Because I am, despite what you may hear from my more enamored fans (haha), quite normal! And also, not the neatest person in the world!

      I love the cold dinner concept! That is a great idea! I should incorporate something along those lines into our options ...

      It's funny, everytime I hear someone say that it's more important to spend time with your kids than clean the house, I always think, "Lord, you haven't seen MY house. No, honestly, I think a lot of people would think we need to clean first!" HA. So it's sweet of you to say this after seeing the photos above!

  2. Poor Bittman you are so not totally over your ex and he is just transition guy :p

    So glad the list is working though. If I didn't have a pathological hatred if lists I would do it myself.

    1. Ah, it's so true. Did you catch me drooling over the latest Cooks' Illustrated? I was even about to make that amazing looking Thai curry until I got to the part where I had to GRIND MY OWN CURRY PASTE using dried New Mexican peppers that could only be sourced at a specialty market. Damn you, Chris Kimball.

  3. I have to say - I feel so at home looking at your pictures :) My house is a constant disaster and we've yet to come up with some system to keep it from not being a disaster. I'm going to have to check out some of these book recommendations though. I'm always game for simple, quick meals.
    We're all about meal planning over here though. We usually cook three or four meals during the weekend and then we just eat those all week. Obviously we don't mind eating the same thing over and over again - I know that drives some people nuts but I'm all about simplicity!

  4. wow, inder, as always i love your blog and can relate to so much here.

    i used to be soo disorgainized. and if you look at my blog archives there are many, many pictures to prove that. but my husband likes things neat. i wouldn't call him a neat freak, but he doesn't like clutter and i am a magnet for it. something has changed in me and in the last year or so, i have started becoming more organized. i think this is because, with four kids, if i'm not i will lose my mind with frustration, tripping over things and trying to find things. i am a chill person, but if there's one thing that makes me un-chill, it's not being able to find something. being jude and indi are now 8 and 6, they are actually very helpful. every day we do the "15 minute clean up" before dan gets home where all of the kids help. even iris "helps". but mostly having the three older kids work with me for 15 minutes makes a huge difference in the state of our house. we put on fun music. dance. sing. we try to make it fun.

    we have the same dinner conundrum. except dan doesn't get home until 7-730, sometimes 8. the kids have to snack late, and then we always eat late. like you, we cook a lot from scratch. but now that i am homeschooling, (me) making dinner has just not been happening. dan is an amazing cook and being i have to prepare breakfast and lunch for the 5 of us who are here, lately he's been doing dinner. he created a binder with meals listed. we also do a weekly meal plan/shopping list. interestingly, because my husband's company has their employees work so many hours, they offer a service where someone can run errands for you for $5/hour. so we use that service for grocery shopping. she grocery shops for us every monday, and every sunday night we are up until midnight working on the list. then we say next week we will be far more organized... but we never are. if we didn't have to submit the list, we would probably never do the list, either (and yes, i realize this service is totally amazing. that fact is not lost on me.)

    my mother in law, who is an amazing cook, bought me mark bittman's book 'how to cook everything', and i don't know what's wrong with my taste, but i just don't love it. it gets great reviews, so i'm assuming the problem must be on my end. living in texas, we've grown accustomed to food that is very spicy, so maybe my taste buds now need so much flavor to be pleased. i wanted to like his book more. i wonder if his book that you own is better than the one i own?

  5. Since my family has a few food restrictions, meals are even harder. Simple stuff is often not an option for us - gluten free bread just isn't that great. In desperation, I joined to help organize the recipes that I have found on line and in recipe sites... often my brain freezes and I just can't remember anything that I can eat. This helps. I am also printing the recipes out and putting them into a binder, organized like a cookbook, so that I can flip through a real book as needed.

    I stay at home and it is my husband (a university over worked research scientist and professor) who comes home and often ends up making quinoa and beans. It is our go to meal - that and GF mac and cheese. Really sad and I feel lousy as a stay at home mom that I can't even do that... but right now, with the baby asleep on my lap (why is it that she'll only go to sleep when I'm at the computer?) and dinner isn't even a vague thought yet. Oh well. Hopefully there are leftovers.

    The rest of the house... the one thing I have learned in the past couple of years post disaster- it is better for someone else to be able to use it than for it to sit in my house and not be used at all. I take a lot of stuff to the thrift store. Now, my bedroom is a bit of a mess, but I'll get to it soon... I just still need to work on my organizing systems and getting rid of stuff I don't actually need. Even after starting over from scratch - it is still a process.

    1. I totally hear you about dinner! As the afternoon drags on, the kids tend to get grumpy and Steve finds his energy waning and it's hard to whip up a giant meal under those circumstances! It's easier once I get home and can at least help with the kids, or with dinner, or something.

      Our problem isn't so much that we have a lot of clutter that we never use (except possibly my fabric stash, hush you!) but that with two housemates, my immediate family occupies essentially the space of a (large-ish) one bedroom apartment. With no closets. Now, I know that many New Yorkers manage this and manage it with style, but I can't for the life of me figure out how! We suffer not so much from useless clutter as from ugly clutter with no home ... I should start reading more Apartment Therapy ....

  6. I love this post too! Our house is a total pigsty most of the time. If I look up right now I can see birthday cards that are almost a year old on display. Life's too busy for small details like that and we're mostly very happy, clean and fed :) That's a great idea about the meals list. We make a lot of things we think 'oh we should have that once a week' but then forget about it. Fried eggs on rice with a bit of light soy sauce (& sriracha for the big people) is a good standby here. Fish fingers (store-bought) make a weekly appearance for the boys. Yes to 'relaxing standards and getting things done'!

    1. YES. That is exactly why we needed this list, and why it's helpful. We make a meal, it's easy and hugely popular, we tell ourselves we will add it to our regular rotation, and then we proceed to totally forget about it. Ideally, with this list, I can scribble those good ideas on it, and add them later. Last night we made breakfast burritos with eggs, sausage, beans, and pico de gallo, and it was amazing - all I heard was kid munching sounds for a good 10 minutes! No whining or complaining! I added that idea to the list immediately!


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