I didn't grow up in a very large family, so this whole idea of cooking for a bunch of picky kids is very foreign to me. I have had to figure things out along the way and always marvel at those moms with their monthly/weekly menus and shopping lists.
I am very lucky to have a really wonderful aunt who is not just a successful editor in her own right, but she has 8 kids (all are adults now) but she always seemed to have the whole dinner thing down. I remember going over for dinner and there would be a table full of people, most of them her kids, and there was always a huge amount of the most delicious and healthy food.
She has graciously gifted me with some of her time and wisdom on getting good wholesome meals on the table by dinner time for a large amount of kids (picky or not) and I hope you find it as helpful as I did!
An Interview with Aunt Rishe:
1- What are your thoughts on quality and quantity versus variety when it comes to planning a meal
When you have a large family of young children, pat yourself on the back if you can get one hot thing on the table at night and one cold thing. So if you get chicken and salad, GREAT. if you get rice with onions/peppers/mushrooms, and cantaloupe, FANTASTIC. Variety? Not necessary. That is for later, when your life eases up.
2- Can you give a basic weekly dinner menu in your house
Sorry, I am lazy to answer this one.
3- Do you make a meal plan every week/month or plan per day
I try for every week, but sometimes I goof off on that. One thing I find very helpful: once I’m already spending Friday in the kitchen, I try to cook LOTS so we will have supper Sunday night for sure and hopefully Mon night also.
4- How do you cater to picky eaters when cooking large quantities of food for a large family
I don’t. I don’t think it is advisable for mothers to cater to picky eaters. Making a big deal out of what a kid eats, or how much, only encourages eating disorders later on. You put the food down. Whoever wants it and needs it will eat it. The others can wait til breakfast the next day if they want to, or they can take a fruit or make themselves some toast.
True story: I had a little girl, Chanel, who was teensy. She was much thinner and smaller than her younger sister. In fact we called her Pencil because that is how she looked, except she was also short. She was so short that at her elementary graduation, I looked across the auditorium and spotted her in the crowd and said, “How come Chanel is sitting with the high school?” I didn’t understand why all her friends were a few inches taller than she was. That is when I realized how truly short she was. I had to order custom high school uniforms for her because they didn’t make them that small. (I also had to special-order tiny underwear for her when she was two years old.)
Anyway… throughout her childhood, every single night at supper, I would put out the serving bowls, then ask each child what they wanted. “Shula, rice? Meat ball? Salad? Hindel, rice? meat ball? salad?” and down the line, filling their plates with whatever they wanted. When I would get to Chanel, and I would list the options for her, she would always reply the same thing, night after night: “Just a drink.” Except she didn’t say R so it came out, “Just a dwink.” She was the cutest thing. I would fill her cup and keep moving with the serving of supper. Even at six years old she was a smart, mentally mature little person and I knew she would eat what she needed, when she needed. I trusted her to know her own body better than I could know it. (By the way she would eat a few bites for breakfast and a few bites for lunch. It was just supper that she skipped completely.)
This continued until one day in the ninth grade Chanel came home in her tiny custom-made high school uniform and said words I had never heard before: “Ma, I’m hungry.” She then went to the freezer and took out a loaf of Sova whole wheat bread and a package of cheese. She made herself three grilled cheese sandwiches, six slices of bread, and sat down and ate them all. (I just stared.) She began doing this every day after school. That year, she grew five inches. At her high school graduation, she was three inches taller than me. She’s been eating well ever since. I am so glad I trusted her.
5- What does a general picture of dinner time look like in your house (with lots of kids at the table) [is it buffet? is all food put on the table? do certain kids set the table and others do the dishes?] Just a general idea will do
I would usually put the food on the table and a stack of plates, forks, etc. We would sit down together and I would serve each child (when they were little). When they reached the age of about eight, they could help themselves, but we did sit together and talk. We had “jobs” – different kids doing different jobs in the house. I wasn’t so great at enforcing them but I did my best and the kids turned into pretty nice adults B”H. I am not prejudiced at all, really I’m not!
6- Do you have any help when preparing dinner (someone who cuts and peels etc.) if not, do the kids help make dinner
I had one daughter, Hindel, who was particularly gifted in the kitchen department. I would very often collect the ingredients onto the counter and leave it for her to put together. She had a small repertoire of suppers that she could make from the age of about ten. She could make chicken with potatoes and onions (in one big roasting pan); she could make a fresh salad and dressing; she could make French toast; she could make anything I showed her how to make. It was fair because she didn’t have other jobs in the house such as childcare, sweeping, clearing, etc.
Then I had another daughter Shula who had (still has) the unusual ability to do tiny, careful work with her hands. She would make, for example, a layered salad in a glass truffle bowl that was gorgeous and delicious; it took her two hours sometimes to make it. But she seemed happy doing it, so fine. I had another daughter, Zeesy, who was very independent. She decided one fine day that she wanted to start baking challah (we had always bought) and she could figure it out from the diagrams in the purple cookbook. And she did. She taught her sister and on down the line and now they all teach their women in their Chabad Houses how to make challah.
Leah (another daughter) was very careful and exact. If I asked her to make seven dozen rugelach, her last one looked exactly like her first one. It was amazing. She never got lazy with it no matter the quantity. Then there’s Mirel. She blows me away because she’ll open a magazine or cookbook, spot a complicated, ten-step recipe that to me is totally Greek, and casually say, “I think I can make this.” And then she does. Who gave birth to her?
7- In regard to salads- so you have a large salad every night with dinner? If so, is it the same salad every night and who prepares it?
We did have a fresh salad most nights. Not every single. Am I under oath? Sometimes I would make frozen vegetables. I admit it. The kids only liked them with shredded cheese and salt.
8- What time of day do you make dinner
I always found that as long as supper ingredients are lined up on the counter, and there’s a clear and reasonable plan, I am unstressed about it. So I try to line them up early in the day. Putting it all together is the easy part. It’s the buying/gathering of ingredients that stresses me.
9- Do you ever serve (or even HAVE) left overs and do you ever cook and freeze
You’re kidding, right? Of COURSE I serve leftovers! I love leftovers. Sunday night for sure, hopefully Monday night too. The key to having people enjoy and want your leftovers is to heat them up properly, so they don’t get dried out or taste gross. Sometimes I’ll fry the leftovers. That always works. I’m not a big freezer person but sometimes I’ll make a huge vegetable soup or several roasts and freeze them in smaller containers. When I need them, I sure am happy I did it.
Sometimes I make lots of supper (four chickens, five pounds of green beans, ten pounds of potatoes) thinking I’ll have enough for two nights but then it goes in one night. Oh well. As long as it goes to give the people I love and care about the energy to live good and happy lives, I would be an idiot to complain.
And there you have it-
For those of you who have the whole dinner thing/menu plan under control, I take my hat off to you. For those of you who are still trying to figure it out, just know that you are not alone!
Thanks again aunt Rishe for your great advice and sharing your personal experiences with us.
Wishing you all a wonderful week,