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Photo: Deborah Rainford (Unsplash)
Happy Friday. I’d planned to write you a quick note that I’d be taking this week off— the first week off from the newsletter since I started writing you here, last February. That’s 51 weeks without missing a beat, while moving across the pond and back, throughout summer and holidays, despite sick days and whether you pay for a subscription or not—I’ve tried to show up in your inbox with inspiration and exciting visuals, recipes, strategies, and juicy (if occasional) travel guides.
This week, I felt like I needed a break— personally and professionally— to catch my breath, recover from a streak of sick days, and get ahead on new content for you.
But last night, sitting in my car, sipping the last of a shared Oreo milkshake (oof—very off-brand for me!), I thought might be more fun to show up here and come clean with you, because the kind of week we’re having is one most adults and all parents face at some point: the kind of week you just can’t cook—and need an emergency feeding strategy, stat.
I’m not sure if I’ve shared here before: we live in upstate New York, 90 miles north of New York City. For the seven years we’ve lived here, my husband has been going back to the city weekly for work, and I go when inspired/necessary (most of my work happens in my own studio/kitchen). It’s been this way for a good bit, but especially since the pandemic and while we lived in Hungary this fall, I’ve been alone with my kids many nights a week. That’s three to four nights a week of dining alone with my kids, and more if my husband works late, even locally.
Some of you do this every day—you’re heroes.
Parents who do this don’t have the calm gaze of another adult across the table when children whine or complain (even if—yes—they are sometimes also charming and grateful). This means no joyous clinking of wine glasses. No backup parent reminding the kids to thank mama for dinner and take their plates to the sink. And no late second adult dinner/snack some couples enjoy when they choose to feed their kids early and eat an adult dinner together, later—an idea I’ve always found curious and charming (and if I’m honest, sexy).
We aren’t those people. We’re one family, one meal all the way, even if part of the family is currently eating their favorite take-out dinner, a city away.
When we lived in New York City (for nearly twenty years and our first five years of parenting), busy weeks meant a few more nights of take-out—or stopping in the local ramen bar on the walk home from the subway. This was great because it was easy, affordable, and had a bonus: ambiance. Whether you were alone, alone with a kid, or eating as a family, other people were doing the same thing as you. Other couples and singles and bouncing children and reminders that you’re not alone. No one’s kids are perfect. And you, (adult), deserve to be fed by someone else sometimes, too.
Where we live now, takeout options are minimal, at best. And dining in, like anywhere these days, is expensive and butts up uncomfortably with sports and homework, for families with older kids (like mine).
I don’t mean this as a complaint. We are privileged, those of us who have the luxury of spending time with our kids, but everything leading up to dinner is my least favorite part of parenting: those hours that parents (often moms) spend rushing between school pick-up and fill-in-the-blank sport/activity/hobby. That’s at least 10 hours a week where we’re between things: helping kids change, snack, clean up, and do homework — outside of any meaningful flow toward our personal goals.
These times are often emotionally challenging (for the kids, for us), and on top of it, these are the same hours we’re thinking about/planning/starting family dinners.
As the delightfully truthfulsays:
Once you have kids, you can no longer play fast and loose with the hours of 5 to 7 pm. 5 to 7 pm is the big show. You thought the tantrum about socks was tough when you were getting out the door at 8:15 am, but that was nothing. That sock tantrum was cute and cuddly compared to the hangry/exhausted/overstimulated rages that can sweep through a house between 5 and 7 pm, the two hours when you are also expected to prepare dinner, eat dinner, clean up dinner, bathe your children and put them to bed and we haven’t even gotten into homework or lunchbox packing….
In my writing, I’ve mostly avoided the topic of how family dinners can be wrought (though I love engaging in the discussion on the topic—see here and here) because I am an optimist. Because I choose joy (for myself and you, here). And also because breakfast and weekend foods are my sweet spot, while family dinner is a reality/challenge I mostly accept and occasionally embrace.
Just not this week.
This week, I decided to give myself an out—a total out. Not a grazing platter/snack-board, or a cereal-for-dinner kind of out. Not a boxed mac-and-cheese dinner kind of out. But a fully (or mostly)* no cooking, no clean-up, no table service style out.
We’re calling this— FAMILY DINNER, YES-DAY STYLE. Also henceforth known as FAMILY DINNER VACATION (or winter break, or summer break, or mother’s day—or any holiday you need to slap on it to remind yourself: YOU DESERVE IT).
Here’s what FAMILY DINNER VACATION means: It means no rules (or at least fewer rules), no work (or less work*), and no overthinking quality/nutrition, just for a day or a few. Even on YES DAY, saying no is key—because saying a hard no to one thing (dishes and meal prep), often means saying a heck yes! to something better (making valentine’s day cards with my son, and cuddling my girl on the couch, watching Gilmore Girls).
In the spirit of YES DAY or VACATION — I did/you can choose to be the fun parent, for once. To say yes to root beer (naturally caffeine-free), and extra whipped cream. To skip correcting irksome habits— just for this week. You can eat in the car or at the counter/bar in your favorite restaurant (where you can face your food and enjoy it, rather than face the kids and study them for signs of gratitude, kindness, or brilliance—anything to tell you you’re doing this right).
The goal: pure connection, listening, laughing, and then tossing your paper napkins/cups in the garbage with the receipt, and zero guilt.
Here’s an important detail: This wasn’t just about saying yes to my kids. It was just as much about saying yes to me—to every craving, to every whim, and any urge to skip out on adult responsibilities, an option few moms rarely (if ever) have, or allow themselves—even for a few minutes a day.
There’s also a caveat— or a few: I still cooked a healthy, hot breakfast, and packed (balanced) school lunches every day this week, so it wasn’t a true zero-work week. And, it cost us, naturally, a few pretty pennies. But let’s be real: there’s a considerable cost to the time and energy it takes to shop, plan, make, and clean up dinner at home, also. It’s not invisible nor free work, just because many of us (women/mothers) have taken it on as such for generations.
So while it may feel frivolous to suggest the following in the midst of inflation, rising grocery costs, and a worrisome economy (I get it, we are feeling the pinch, too)—it also feels crazy not to, because who can cook/write/work/parent or do anything, 52 weeks a year, without a break?
Not me, friend, and not you, either.
So, here goes!
HOW TO PULL OFF FAMILY DINNER VACATION (aka YES-DAY/WEEK FAMILY DINNER RULES):
Saying yes to your kids is fine and fun. Saying yes to yourself is vital.
It’s okay to set boundaries and budgets, but only if they serve you. (I felt more relief came from not worrying about an actual dollar cap on a particular meal, but rather thinking in terms of splurge meals and meal deals, and creating a loose balance within. Likewise, yeses to ginger beer, lemonade, and hot cocoa—sugary drinks we’d normally save for weekends, holidays, and vacations—felt cool to me, but sprite/colas/soda was still a hard no.
Manners are on break. No rude or disgusting behavior, obviously, but also no nitpicking. (For me, this meant the week off from reminding my son to use his napkin and not his shirt to wipe his hands—and not waiting for or expecting them to say please and thank you. To no one’s surprise, except maybe me—my kids thanked me profusely every night we went out, without any nudging at all).
You set the timeline. It can be one day/night, two, three, or a week, depending on your needs and means. Just like on vacation, you don’t start truly relaxing on your first day off. Let your body/mind/nervous system tell you if/when one night off just isn’t enough.
Try to eat not at a table (at least not, yours). Aim for the floor, on a picnic blanket, on the beach, in your car, at the bar/counter, or anywhere you naturally feel relaxed, more playful, and generally off the hook from adulting.
Ok, details! Below, here’s what our FAMILY DINNER VACATION looked like, in and around Kingston/Accord, New York, including menu and budgets.
OUR YES DAY/YES WEEK
MONDAY: I cooked Instant Pot Coconut Salmon (from Instant Family Meals) with rice and steamed kale salad for my crew, and sat with them to catch up on their day while they ate; Then, I left them (and my husband) with the cleanup and skipped out to a dear friend’s house for a ladies date. We cooked risotto and scallops and shredded kale Caesar together, which we ate fireside, with wine and chocolate cashews for dessert. Best date in months. I felt physically/emotionally nourished, went to bed two hours past my bedtime and still slept like a dream.
Bill: approx. $30 of ingredients for family dinner, approx. $20 (each) of ingredients for date ladies’ night. (Still way cheaper than a restaurant meal out + a babysitter!)
TUESDAY: I whisked the kids from karate straight to blue-plate-special hour dinner at a tiny diner, where everyone got what they wanted, and things I never make at home (grilled cheese for Greta, hot dog for Matyas, fries, and coleslaw for me—plus a piece of pie to share). It was, frankly, mediocre food-wise, and sorely lacking in greens, but a truly satisfying experience. I came home lighter and truly giddy, making my kids laugh at my silly voice as we skipped through the streets—a me they hadn’t seen in a while.
Bill (with tip): $ 38
WEDNESDAY: When a tummy ache/school stress thwarted weekly riding lessons, we turned it on its head. We noticed the evenings getting lighter and used it as an excuse to celebrate—and finally try the new street-style taco spot on our way home. We inhaled pork and fish tacos for me, steak for Màtyàs, and mild shredded pollo/chicken for Greta, plus rice and beans, chips and guac, ginger beer, and Mexican (cinnamon) hot cocoa loaded with whipped cream (I feel seen) and got home in time for an episode of Limitless before bed.
Bill (with tip): $87 (with a $5 bonus for our next visit. I’m a sucker for loyalty cards!)
THURSDAY: A scheduled late school pick-up led to a crunched turn-around between school and karate (no time to run home for a snack). Since we blew the budget on Wednesday, we opted for a cost-friendly but luxe-feeling drive-through trip (rare in our parts) for a heavy snack/early dinner en route to karate— to lighten my load, later. On order: two Impossible Burger meal deals (with cheese), extra French Fries, and that Oreo milkshake we passed around munching happily from our heated seats. During karate, I skipped my standard power walk and stayed in the warm car with the French fries and a favorite song— a warm bath for my ears. (We ate bowls of fruit later during homework, and drank milky tea before bed)
Bill (drive though, no tip): $34.
FRIDAY: I built my work day around a mid-day almond croissant and a latte with a friend/editor, at a favorite bakery and brought home extras for the kids (after-school snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, their choice). Kids get school lunch on Fridays (chicken nuggets or bagel pizza) and dinner is still TBD (see below), but I’m not sweating it—not this week.
Bill (with tip): $24.50
As I told the kids, we can’t do this kind of thing very often. But I, for one, feel every inch of the value on my skin.
I’m a yes, and kind of person. Would I love it if my husband and I both had great salaried jobs, tons of quality time with the kids, and could still sit down for a civilized steak dinner with candles and linens every night of the week, under the same roof, before retiring to the den? Yes, yes I probably would. But life in a post-pandemic world is different for a lot of families. Many of us are doing what it takes to make it all work right now, and there’s room for honor and grace and small spots of joy (and yes, milkshakes!) in whatever way you are making it work.
Some parents take secret day baths or indulge in private, mid-day pilates. Some eat bonbons or binge-watch their favorite shows. My favorite form of self-care? Paying someone else to make dinner.
So here we are, Friday. My husband’s back home, the weekend is nigh, and my deadlines are in. I might just have the energy to make a nice soup and some warm garlic bread tonight like I did last week. Or, maybe not. Maybe winter break isn’t quite over. Either way, when I’m back—back here and back at the stove, we’ll all be better for it.
Enjoy your weekend, friends.
MORE DINNER STRATEGIES—FOR WHEN YOU DO FEEL LIKE COOKING:
Dear Sarah,I could relate to this so so much! We have had a difficult week too: Ábel caught a cold and started teething again, I had insomnia for a couple of days,then migraine…My husband had a lot of work,was barely at home. After 5 days of fighting with the elements,trying to control the mess and trying to cook 3 meals a day while a two year old is screaming at my leg…I finally understood that I need to learn to ASK. Especially because I am blessed having two grandmothers nearby. So instead of feeling guilty of not being enough (strong?effective? good? Quick?) I have just asked for help. One evening we had hamburger from the local restaurant and the rest of the week we got real comfort food from the grandmas. We are more relaxed,joyful-and ready for the next week’s challanges. As moms we want to do all,,perfectly,ALWAYS. But we deserve a break or better said,breaks are essential if we want to give the best version of ourselves to the world. Big hugs from Hungary! Judit
I really needed and appreciated your honest and thoughtful post this week. I really love cooking and eating, but as a parent of 3 teens with kids and husbands all over the place and me often the only parent at home, sometimes I just don't have the bandwidth. I love cooking, but I also love not cooking : )