Elevating Family Mealtime (& Bringing Back the Joy in Eating)

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With October well underway, we are now firmly in the last quarter of the year, which has got me thinking long and hard about the resolutions I set all the way back in January.

One of my biggest challenges for myself was to complete my 100 Hours in the Kitchen project, which, surprising even to myself, has changed much more than my confidence in making substitutions in a recipe or even creating my own dishes.

I started the project as a way to get myself out of the box of always following a recipe to the letter and always feeling like I needed to go buy whatever ingredients I might be missing, rather than try and make substitutions or go without. I was so uncomfortable with just trying something new because I dreaded failing at it (mostly just because it would mean that I then would have to provide a second dinner, ha ha).

But the project has morphed into a lot more than just challenging myself each quarter to make a dozen new recipes—

It’s actually started changing the way I look at food and eating and mealtimes in general.

Perhaps the biggest change that I’ve undergone is that I am much more conscious of wasting food now than I used to be, and I’ve gotten a TON better at using up odds and ends.

But somewhere along the way this year–or maybe it even hails back to my days of doing an elimination diet or maybe hails back even further, to when I was in the first trimester of pregnancy over two years ago and feeling sicker than sick, with no appetite to boot—I lost much of the joy I took in the experience of eating and preparing food for others and sitting down together to a meal.

Vigilantly counting calories for almost a year and a half definitely has something to do with all that too since it made me realize that those cookies I was making literally just about every week–while delicious–were not doing my waistline any favors. And then with the elimination diet, I just felt this message being screamed to me that MOST FOOD NOWADAYS IS TOXIC and that I was slowly killing myself every time I ate a slice of bread.

While I don’t think eating cookies on a daily basis is a good extreme, I’m positive that thinking that most food is toxic is also not a good extreme—for months after I completed the elimination diet, I would look at a food label and see that it had soy or gluten in it, and I would inwardly feel my insides squirm with guilt.

With all of my reading and research, I DO know that YES, we should be eating as much “real” food as possible, made with whole, natural ingredients (that are as fresh as possible).

And much of the time, we do pretty well.

I also know that if I continue to let myself think every time I eat a salt cracker that I’m doomed to be sick and unhealthy the rest of my life, I’m going to be deeply, deeply unhappy when it comes to my relationship with food.

So the last quarter of the year, I’m not choosing to focus on any one “type” of dish to try in my dozen new recipes (although I still plan to try out at least that many new ones; I’m just letting them be whatever kind of food I want).

What I AM going to focus on is the whole experience of eating itself, and how to elevate it to the enjoyable experience it ought to be.

Confession: I absolutely love reading books and magazine articles and blog posts about French culture. I love the aesthetic, I love the devotion to butter and cream, and I love how much joy and pleasure they obviously take from their dining experience. In fact, one of the most influential books I’ve read this year was French Kids Eat Everything, which detailed one American mother’s journey as she re-trained her (very picky) American children into eating food more like French children would. (That book ENTIRELY changed how I approached feeding Raven, btw.)

In that book, along with several other guidelines on how French culture encourages children to be good eaters, there is a section devoted on making the experience of eating enjoyable, and how important that one aspect is in encouraging reluctant eaters and elevating the experience as a whole. (Because, as I believe she pointed out in that section, if you’re just hounding your kid to please take one more bite or extolling how much nutrition they are or are not getting, the experience isn’t exactly going to be pleasant for anyone.)

SO, I have a plan going forward (of course I have a plan going forward—I’m a plan FREAK).

And my plan for elevating our mealtimes is as follows:

1. Clear off the kitchen table and keep it free from clutter. 

Confession #2: Our kitchen table hasn’t been free from clutter in probably two months (and, that time when it was, it quickly got cluttered again within 48 hours). This regularly means that on any given day, for any given mealtime, we are eating next to the laptop, a few boxes of things we’re currently trying to sell, a board game or two, and my notebook where I keep my to-do list (not to mention an assortment of books and magazines that somehow always end up in the mix, as well).

This doesn’t exactly make for an elevated, “fine dining” experience.

So, the clutter must be conquered, and I must find a way to keep it thus. The biggest challenge (I already know) will be with the laptop, since there’s no other place to put it when we’re using it. So with that, I’m just going to have to force myself to get in the habit of clearing it off to the pantry shelf behind the table at least for the mealtime, if nothing else.

2. Break out the nicer plates.

While we don’t have china (ha—not even close), my mom did get us a set of beautifully simple but elegant white dishware for our wedding that I love. Because it’s a little on the nicer side (and the plates tend to be bigger, which means I actually have to think about coming up with side dishes so the meal doesn’t look sad), it doesn’t get used as often as our “everyday” dishware, which has chips and dents up the wazoo.

But I know that whenever I bust out the white stuff, I automatically feel like I slow down to savor the meal more, so that’s a super easy fix to incorporate (even if I just do it during our dinner, rather than at all mealtimes).

3. Buy fresh flowers when possible.

We’re currently on a pretty tight budget, so fresh flowers (even just a $5 bouquet from the grocery store) isn’t always in the cards. But when it is, I want to get in the habit of taking advantage of it because flowers make all the difference in the world in improving my mood and the overall aesthetic of our home (as I talked about both here and here).

4. Cut down the meal prep stress.

Part of the reason why mealtimes don’t always get the positive “ambiance” that they could is because I’m often so stressed out just from the preparation of the meal itself that by the time it’s done, everyone’s starving, the toddler is screaming and tugging on my legs, and there are pots and pans everywhere (not to mention one aspect of the meal that didn’t exactly turn out quite as planned, mostly due to my being too crazed and harried to catch my error in time).

Lately, I’ve discovered the following techniques seem to help out with making the prep way less stressful:

– actually choosing what I’m going to make for dinner LONG before it’s time to actually make it (oh, this is so, SO important)
– reading through the recipe I’m going to be following as my guideline multiple times before starting so I have an idea of what’s needed in prep time and materials
– putting on music in the background (which seems to calm down Raven and encourage her to play elsewhere just as much as putting on a movie for her does, which I try to avoid doing very much)
– putting all the chopped vegetables and things into bowls and getting out all the ingredients and measuring cups BEFORE I start actually cooking
– starting dinner 20 or even 30 minutes before I think I need to because as much experience as I have in the kitchen, things almost always take longer than I think they will (or longer than the recipe claims they will)

5. Talking about more things than just how our day was or the election coming up (yuck) while we eat. 

It may seem kind of silly, but I’m kind of tempted to make a little list or jar of topics for dinner so that we can avoid (at least sometimes) the endless loops of what happened that day (because it usually means rehashing whatever’s stressing us out) and the latest hogwash going on in the political world at large. Those topics are so easy and they do sometimes need to be talked about, sure, but they don’t necessarily make for the most relaxing of dinner conversations.

So it’s something I want to work on.

I’m excited to try these out, and I’m feeling pretty confident we’ll notice a pretty big boost in our mealtime experience overall.

How do you elevate your mealtimes? I’d love to hear your suggestions! (Oh, and if you know of a good source for uplifting dinner topics…)

Related Posts:
4 Ways to Make Your Food Presentation More Beautiful (Guest Post)
How I Cut Our Food Waste in Half
100 Hours in the Kitchen Project
My Weirdly Effective Technique for Keeping Our Table Clear of Clutter

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