Today’s Menu

Dedicated to…well, you know who you are. 

Oh wait, no – she’s still alive. That may have come off like I’d lost a friend. I didn’t – though we now live hours apart and have written whole new (and unexpected) chapters in the stories of our lives. Still, very much kicking. We do touch base a few times a year and, without fail, we typically bounce right back into our snarky banter. 

The last time we spoke, I imagined her confusion as I carried on a fairly intelligent conversation about cooking for the family. At least, I think it was intelligent. If memory serves, when she and I shared an office wall, over a decade ago, she would talk about homemade this or scratch-made that, and I would counter with the latest about frozen meals for one. 

She was vegetarian before it was hip and I was running the table on processed popsicle casseroles.

I don’t mean to brag, but I did finally learn to cook. 

Though it took a minute. Well, three million, six hundred seventy-nine thousand, two hundred minutes, actually. But who’s counting?

When I first moved in with my instant family (just add water, oh sure, what could be easier?), I spent quite a lot of time taking a single serving, by my standards, multiplying it by four, and presenting it with a flourish of “Bon Appetit!” Or, I would look at whichever box I pulled out of the pantry and think, “Okay, serving size, 4oz…so…what, make four of those?” 

I have since learned that serving sizes are created for ladybug luncheons (first) and (second) “serving” means just that. Sure, Julia Child, you can put anything you want on the table, but there are zero guarantees that it will make it beyond the form of being served. Turns out that neither my single-girl-serving-size math nor my “just trying to be a healthy-ish forty-something” were both wanted additions to my insta-family’s menu.

I will never live down the first cake I presented to these people. It was store-bought. It was also maybe four inches in diameter. 

That seemed big enough. It was not. It was also not a cake. It was a fruit tart. A tiny fruit tart, presented to three people expecting a very large cake made of chocolate or vanilla and frosted with buttercream (purchased specifically from someplace called Ukrops that I hadn’t heard of but would damn sure be given both a lesson and tour of the very next day).

I quickly learned that my tiny fruit tart was actually meant to be eaten, in one sitting, by a struggling (step)mother while hiding in the bathtub with a glass of wine and a box of tissues.

But yes, I did learn to cook.

From scratch. Homemade. In actual portions. 

I still have hiccups here and there, but, I have gone far beyond boxed this, bagged that, or a need to have a freezer full of backup Stouffers boxes available at all times. In fact, I don’t actually remember the last time I opened my freezer for something pre-made.

Just kidding.

 It was Tyson’s Chicken Patties and it was two weeks ago. I purchased an Air Fryer (finally…according to the boy teen) and chicken patties were the requested inaugural meal. It was quite nice, actually, to keep it simple with a few sides. As I’m writing this, I am making a mental note to repeat said meal…yes, that was quite nice.

Over the last several years, I have gone from one who was leery to rotate a dial on the stove or preheat an oven to one who demands control of the entire kitchen. 

Demands control? You could say. 

I may be a bit passive-aggressive, actually. I know I am a control freak, this is not new. And, trust me, this next statement is as confusing to me as it is going to be to you but…

I tend to throw a tantrum here or there about how nobody ever helps me cook my glorious dinners…but then when they do show up to help, I basically get annoyed because they are either in my way or doing it wrong. 

Or both, if I’m being completely honest.

I do think I’ve narrowed down this baffling behavior to sometimes I just like company while I’m slicing the peppers. Sometimes, I like to know that my family knows I’m working hard to make something amazing for us to enjoy while spending time together. Sometimes, I like to not feel like I’m working in the hotel kitchen preparing to deliver a requested (or not) entree.

We have workshopped various methods of getting my family members in the direction of the kitchen prior to the plates hitting the table.  

In lieu of those methods, I suppose we could revert to the previous cooking method during which I would work at a louder and louder reverberation, wondering when (or if) anyone would show. Clanging pots, banging pans…where are the people!?! I knew they could hear me (well, maybe not in the era of invisible earbuds). Still, they could certainly smell something happening, right? And still, again, we have eaten dinner within the same window each night for nearly a decade, so it shouldn’t be a surprise, night after night, that sometime between 5:30 and 6:30 pm, dinner would be served…again…right? 

I even post, by the week, each night’s menu on the family calendar. Don’t roll your eyes – there are so many reasons unrelated to my Martha Stewartness. Yes, I am a planner in that I prefer only one grocery trip per week. And yes, there is a smidge of OCD which means lists and planning keep me mentally level. 

Also, I like to give the kids advanced notice menu so that I can then watch them decide and mumble about what they aren’t going to like from plate to plate. 

And so, in my mind, when the house beings to actively smell like the posted meal of the day, I think that maybe my housemates might start wandering in the direction of the kitchen. 

I’m not even embarrassed to say that I have, at times, given up and plopped down at the dinner table alone, digging in while the food is still hot, tardy roommates be damned. My husband thinks that’s passive-aggressive, as well. 

I’m not sure about the passive part, but tomato-tomahto.

There are a lot of pieces to the emotional recipe of being the family chef.

I still have hiccups here and there. 

I am getting better at admitting recipe defeat but it’s still not easy to call “uncle” on a meal that took time and energy to put together (albeit poorly). If I’m not the first one to notice an off taste, I’m definitely the first one to notice that someone else at the table is having trouble navigating the contents of their plate. I read dinner table faces like an expert and know within seconds whether a new recipe will make the “keeper” folder or not. 

Yet, I am often compelled to keep shoving a failed food down my own gullet rather than admitting defeat, leaving the rest of the family in an awkward position of, “Oh, okay, so we are going to eat this then.

I’m not much better with the wins. I like saying things like “oh, not too bad,” or “could be better,” though I know I am about to get a stream of five-star reviews. Am I blushing? What? This? Well, just something I wanted to try out

Of course, those winning meals often lead to the Debate of the Leftovers. It’s funny, when I first acquired these people, “leftovers” were a foreign concept, not because there weren’t any to load into Tupperware, but because extras were simply tossed out. Thinking back, maybe that did make more sense than I gave credit as the kids were in school, Rich was often on the road, and I was eating four-inch tarts in the bathtub.

Now, I often make dinner with thoughts of, “oh, man, this is going to be great for lunch tomorrow.” Rich and I both work from home, so upping a dinner recipe makes sense in order to cover the coming mid-day. The debate comes when the spoils of my kitchen victory are scooped up not only once, but twice, or even thrice and, argh, there go the leftovers. 

Is now a good time to mention how often we end up tossing the leftovers that do make it to the refrigerator? The ones that we discover weeks later that I forgot to eat for lunch? Serves dinner. Everyone loves it. Slow down, we need the leftovers! (Weeks later) Well, I guess we’ll just toss these leftovers…

Maybe this is why many have just given up on the traditional family dinner hour. 

We persevere, here, insisting on family dinners at the actual dinner table as many nights per week as possible, no devices allowed. No, I know – I know all about the “others.” I hear about the “others” occasionally and how the “others” aren’t forced to eat together all the time and how the “others” are allowed to eat in their rooms/bathrooms/the backyard/in front of the tv/on their skateboard. 

No judgment. We’re just real ball busters here, what with our together time. 

The reality is, that we all love our dinners together. For us, they provide a touchstone. Sure, the kids may grumble their way to the table, but they always end up staying long past the last fork is set down yammering about one thing or another.  

It’s part of why, for us, summer drags a bit (this one especially), with both kids typically at different locations during that 5:30-6:30 pm window. The mood in our house is just different when we are overdue for a family dinner. It’s like the lack of a check-in causes us to forget that we like each other. 

Perhaps that’s why, this summer, I have broken one of my very first stipulations in taking this head chef position years ago. I have started prepping a pile of food for four, but only actually fixing each plate as our dinner participants arrive from where their day has taken them. 

Yes, I did finally learn to cook. 

I also learned that it’s not always the cooking that matters, it’s the feelings behind it.

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