The story of how I met my husband is a classic tale of girl meets boy, love and marriage. Except the girl was a professional chef who was recently recovering from a break-up and brain injury (not related), and living at home. The boy, an engineer, was recently recovering from a marriage and living part-time with his two young sons. Not a traditional recipe, but so far it’s turned out happily ever after.
After culinary school, I worked as a caterer, private chef and cheese maker. As a professional chef, I have cooked for the rich and famous, been on television and radio, and developed hundreds of recipes. A little over three years ago I met my toughest clients: two little boys.
A mix of families, cultures and food, Jackie Freeman's new ParentMap column "Blended" follows the culinary adventures of one step-mama chef and her two kitchen monkeys as they learn to make scrumptious and sane mealtime choices. This is the introductory column; stay tuned for more!
My husband and I married last November, and have formed a loving blended home. His family escaped as refugees during the Vietnam War, landing in Seattle. My family escaped Europe a generation before, and made their way from the east to the west coast. Our home is a mix of cultures, religions and, of course, food. The boys, now 5 and 8, celebrate Christmas with their mom, Tet with their dad, Passover with me and everything in between.
After years of being a carefree kind of gal, I’m still surprised to look in my rearview mirror and see car seats, soccer bags and enough errant Goldfish crackers to fill a small aquarium. The boys (my “kitchen monkeys,” deemed as such because they are always climbing, grabbing and screeching underfoot as I make dinner) fill my life. There's also a cat, dog, soccer practice, homework, science fairs, stories, stinky feet, more vomit than I previously thought was possible, Lego construction, and whatever the heck Minecraft is supposed to be.
Over the past three years we have found a balance. We’ve learned to love each other (and each other’s many in-laws and friends), adjust routines and comfort levels, make compromises and eat amazing (and not so amazing) meals together.
The meal part has been mixed. I’ve had to develop some tricks along the way.
Half the week we eat like civilized adults, quietly dining on fine food. The other half of the week we have our two kitchen monkeys, and meals are, well…not quiet. One day the boys love broccoli, the next day they refuse to eat anything with a speck of green. When one loves meat, the other is a vegetarian. One wolfs down his food so fast nobody else has even picked up a fork, while the other has turned part sloth and takes an hour to eat. It’s enough to make a chef and new stepmom lose her mind.
Enter the “No-thank-you bite.”
At first I tried to make them to eat everything on their plate (an antiquated technique I learned from my Bubba as a child). I quickly learned that does not work. One day I gave up and said, “OK, take one bite. If you don’t like it say ‘no thank you,’ and we’re done.” Bingo!
Sometimes, after that first nibble, we’re all surprised to find a second, or even third, bite follows
And so the great meal- and sanity-saving “No-thank-you bite” came into existence. No matter the dish, each monkey has to take at least one full bite. They can decide if they like it or politely say “no thank you” and move onto something else. I found it empowered them to take a chance, try new foods, and make healthy choices without repercussions. It gave them a manageable step to a bigger bite. One taste is possible, compared to the unimaginable task of eating the whole piece. Sometimes, after that first nibble, we’re all surprised to find a second, or even third bite, follows (I can’t seem to make enough roasted broccoli to satiate them, now).
The “No-thank-you bite” has extended to friends. When kids come over to play (those insane moments when you intentionally invite more children into your home to completely destroy it), I have overheard the monkeys say, “You have to take a ‘No-thank-you bite,’ then you can decide.” Makes me proud.
Thanks to this solution, this working chef and new stepmom may make it through another meal. Dinner can be a pleasant adventure (though no less noisy), as we try new food and discover loves and dislikes.
I might just get the hang of this after all. Well, except for Minecraft. That I will never understand.