Thursday, May 14, 2009

Home Cookin' For Little Tummies

The kids made Mother's Day cards at school for me, and the teachers glued on typed slips of things the kids said about me. One of the things my daughter mentioned was, "We go to fun restaurants. Thank you for us going to a restaurant." I felt a little guilty when I read this, because the kids do get out to a restaurant about once a week during the school week, and at least twice on the weekend. One of their at-home meals tends to involve frozen pizzas, boxed mac n' cheese, or chicken nuggets, albeit the sans-trans-fats, "healthier" varieties. These make-do meals happen because I can't manage a home-cooked meal every weeknight due to work demands, and on the weekends, when we're out and about, it's often easier to grab lunch out than to pack a lunch in advance. But I felt a lot better when I read something on the card my son made: "Mommy cooks good food for me."

Last night I served turkey meatballs which I took a lot of care to make yummy: I sauteed onion and garlic, added chopped fresh parsley, egg, tomato paste, salt, pepper, and -- in a nod to the Sneaky Chef -- wheat germ instead of bread crumbs. I baked rather than browned them. They were light and fluffy, and Thing 1 (my son) inhaled so many I lost count. Thing 2 isn't as much of a fan, but did manage to eat four doused in ketchup. I also made fresh guacamole because it's one of the few ways to get something green into Thing 1. He plowed into that too. Thing 2 abstained from the green stuff, continuing her vegetable aversion, but ate the corn chips (the no preservative, all-natural kind, though still fried I'm afraid). I served them Barilla Plus spaghetti, which is a compromise between regular pasta and whole wheat, containing protein and Omega-3 fatty acids, topped with Paul Newman's Sockarooni sauce. And as a special treat, I gave them each one home-made chocolate chip cookie for dessert, instead of their usual choice of fruit. Thing 1 initially rejected his cookie because one side of it looked "broken," but Daddy, performing the Jedi mind trick, promised he'd get Thing 1 a different cookie, then returned with the very same cookie presented at a different angle.

Thing 2 was effusive about it all: At the start of the meal, he declared, "Thank you for making me yummy dinner, mommy!" And later, still munching, he said, "That was a good dinner, mommy!" Thing 2 was too absorbed in the consumption of her cookie to comment. But that was a good review too.

I felt the old fashioned, underrated pleasure of watching my kids enjoy what I cooked for them. It's a primal thing, I think, for moms to want to nourish their offspring, something we see in the animal world as well as in the human world. I recognize the feeling watching TV shows in which animal moms feed their pups, chicks, what have you, and even when I enjoy one of my favorite cooking shows, Lidia's Italy, in which matriach/grandma Lidia Bastianich often features her children or grandchildren cooking -- and eating -- with her. She ends every show with an Italian phrase ("Tutti a tavola a mangiare!") which, roughly translated, means "Everybody to the table to eat!"

For my mom, cooking was an occasional pleasure but also a chore. She sometimes resented the responsibility of having to come up with the menu every night, and having to deal with the incessant question, "What's for dinner?" as well as any complaints that followed her answer. At times it seemed the meal planning, grocery shopping, washing, chopping and cooking was a relentless treadmill, and she wanted off. I think she considered it one upside of seeing her kids go off to college that she was finally free to just worry about feeding herself and my dad.

On special occasions, like Thanksgiving or Passover, she enjoyed cooking, but never as much as she enjoyed eating the end results of her efforts: home-made chopped liver, chicken soup, roast turkey with stuffing, or in the summer, oven-finished fried chicken. I remember one of our last New Year's Eve's together, when I was in visiting from California, we made crab cakes together. The whole house smelled of frying oil, but those onion-y, spiced bread crumb-crabmeat patties sure tasted delicious.

I can relate to the frustration mom felt at having to plan every meal and make sure the right groceries were on hand. And I, too, hate the complaints that sometimes follow my answer to the "What's for dinner?" query. I get especially upset when my kids refuse to eat what I've made for them, or stop eating until dinner time is nearly over, and then demand something else. I struggle between giving them the hard lesson of going to bed hungry or giving in and letting them pick something else -- quick and easy for me to serve, and nutritionally acceptable. My husband would close down the kitchen without hesitation at that juncture, but it goes so against my Jewish mother instinct to let a kid go to bed hungry that I usually give in and find that apple, that handful of shredded mozzarella, that yogurt ... until they've had their fill.

I still feel guilty when I drag out the boxed mac n' cheese, the chicken nuggets, the frozen pizzas, or settle for take-out. I feel worse spending money on restaurant food when half of it goes to waste. But I also know there are only so many hours in a day, and only so many home-cooked meals I have time to prepare.

I'm glad that last night, at least, I fed them from the heart, and they felt loved and full at the same time. And it doesn't hurt at all that I've got some leftovers.

Now where did I put those cookies?

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