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The Fresh Hell That Is Cooking for Kids

It seems unbelievable to me now, but for a brief period in my 20s, I considered going to culinary school. I was watching a little too much Food Network back then, though you couldn’t blame me. Those were the halcyon days of the network, before it became Guy Fieri’s screaming inferno, serving up nightly bowls of mediocrity drizzled with Sriracha mayo and Julia Child’s tears.

Back then, the shows were instructional and the hosts were mostly trained chefs. Mario Batali taught me how to make pasta from scratch. Sara Moulton taught me knife skills. Ina Garten taught me how to satisfy a nerd named Jeffrey. All those skills proved to be invaluable (if you’re reading this, Jeffrey, I know you’d agree).

Those were halcyon days for me, as well — I was newly married, living in a hip downtown Chicago loft, and a stone’s throw from some of the best restaurants in the country. I didn’t cook because I needed to; I cooked because dinners were culinary adventures.

“What should we have tonight? Spicy Thai curry or grilled Neopolitan eggplant?” I might ask my husband. Oh, the intoxicating freedom of it all! We could visit entire countries and never leave our kitchen!

“You’ve always wanted to go to Morocco? Me too! Let’s make a tagine!”

“You’ve always wanted to start a family? Me too! Let’s make more people to swoon over my meals!”

I was so. very. stupid.

Today, my cooking life goes a little differently. Each week, I plan and prepare around 17 meals for a family of five that includes the following: a self-appointed pescatarian tween (if you’re not familiar with that term, a pescatarian is a vegetarian who will eat fish), a husband with a fish allergy (do you see the problem here?), two nut allergies, and a picky 5-year-old who exists on dried cereal and one specific brand of fluorescent mac and cheese.

My family has so many dietary requirements, I joke that feeding them is like cooking in a hospital ward. But that’s not quite accurate — if I were a hospital cook, I’d enjoy the camaraderie of the kitchen crew (in my mind’s eye, they’d be a salty yet big-hearted group), not to mention a paycheck.

Instead, my dinner prep feels more like cooking in a jail; one where I’m the prisoner. At least this prisoner’s allowed to drink wine.

Sadly, my options are few. Our town has limited take-out offerings, and it’s hard to find a meal delivery service that can account for all of my family’s food issues. My husband walks in the door from work just in time for dinner, if we’re lucky. Since I write from home, cooking for my family is my job by default. If I quit that job, children starve to death. The stakes are pretty high.

Sure, I can look on the bright side and see how cooking for my kids has taught me a lot about giving up control. It’s like that famous quote, “If you want to see God laugh, tell him about your plans.” Or in this case, “If you want to see God laugh, spend an hour making those Japanese meatballs that Gwyneth Paltrow’s kids devour but yours feed to the dog under the table.”

Maybe it’s time I finally started heeding the advice of famed pediatrician and notable sadist (I kid) Dr. William Sears, who thinks it’s time parents stopped putting so much pressure on themselves when it comes to feeding children. The job of parents, he says on his website, is “simply to buy the right food and prepare it nutritiously … [then] leave the rest up to the kids. How much they eat, when they eat, and if they eat is their responsibility; we’ve learned to take neither the credit nor the blame.”

Sears is, of course, the man behind the infamous attachment parenting method, which he originally outlined in his seminal doorstop, er, parenting guide, The Baby Book.

Attachment parenting seems to suggest that mothers quit their jobs and dangle their offspring around their necks for two years after giving birth. (Or maybe I read it wrong?) So it’s a bit of an about-face to see Sears advocating hands-off parenting when it comes to food.

Did one too many nights of scraping untouched “carrot swords” and “egg canoes” into the garbage bin push him over the edge? I wonder …

Don’t worry, Dr. Sears. You’ve just figured out what the rest of us eventually did after reading The Baby Book: that it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent if you can’t manage to feed your child the way society tells you to.

Ahem. That said, I find Sears’ mealtime advice to be remarkably sound. On my good nights, I try to remember it. On my bad nights, I serve my meals with a bitter side of mom guilt, reminding my family how impossible it is to cook for a pescatarian and a person with a fish allergy and a picky eater and — we know, we know, Mommy!

Then I lift my wine glass in silent solidarity to my imaginary hospital cooking crew, Big Lou and the gang. I may not have the rich culinary life I once did, but those gals always have my back.

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