Dinner- The Ultimate Daily Challenge by Ori Lenkinski
*originally published in Hebrew in the Parental Choreography Blog on Haaretz
I once saw a meme in which a woman sits crumpled in an armchair with the words “Why Do They Want Dinner Every Single Night?” above her. I chuckled inwardly and moved on not realizing that the meme would become an integral part of my inner playlist, an image I would reference many times a week around 5 PM.
That end-of-the-day challenge. That chance for family connection. That moment of communal nourishment after a long day.
When I was a waitress and one of the waitstaff forgot to place a table’s order in the computer system or forgot to deliver the drinks or any other of the myriad mistakes you can make while serving food, we would walk away from the famished, enraged customers, shrug our shoulders and say to one another, “it’s just dinner.” The cheerier, more easygoing sister phrase was “it’s only lunch.”
That isn’t to say I took these mishaps in stride. During the period that I waited tables for a living, I had recurring dreams that the edge of my bed was connected to a table and my job was to simultaneously sleep and serve the customers seated there. I always forgot the extra ketchup.
Years later, in my home, with my kids, when facing down the daily challenge of producing a good evening meal, I try to shrug my shoulders and repeat that pearl of wisdom, “it’s just dinner,” but some days it’s just not possible.
Some days, dinner is Mt. Everest and I have not a shred of a plan as to how to surmount it.
I am involved in an ongoing internal research project about the factors that separate between a day in which setting a modest meal on the table between 5:30 and 6:15 feels possible, enjoyable even, and the days in which dinner makes me want to skyrocket myself off the balcony.
The conclusion I have come to, though I am still collecting data, is that a day in which I have completed my work tasks by the time dinner prep rolls around is a day that I am not thrown by its prospect. A day in which even one email is left to linger past sundown is a day that I cannot, for the life of me, conceive of a meal that everyone will like or, at least, agree to eat.
These days often end is some kind of egg situation. Or takeaway.
But there are many factors that play in like how tired I am, what we have in the kitchen and what kind of a day I’ve had.
The thing is, the work-life struggle for balance isn’t consistent. It doesn’t parcel itself out to two neat evenings a week. There are weeks where my cooking game is strong and we have nutritious, wholesome meals every night. And then there are weeks when I am catching at loose threads all day every day and our Wolt bill soars.
The strange thing is that it isn’t the actual preparation that is difficult. Once an idea is in my mind, the meal can come together quickly. It’s the creative energy needed to think of what to make.
Every house has their go-to meals. In my childhood home they were spaghetti with meat sauce, schnitzel and mashed potatoes and omelets. As the executive chef of my home, our go-tos are awfully similar. Sometimes, when I am stuck, I try to imagine the fallbacks in other homes. For example, my best friend growing up was from Mexico and their “boring” dinner was chicken mole. A friend recently told me their go-to is shrimp and black beans. At a picnic with friends a few weeks back, one of the families turned up with Shepherd’s Pie. These mundane meals in another home are so exotic and enticing to me and yet, at that witching hour when the food needs to be heated or sliced or fried or whatever, they elude me.
Another strange side of this dinner coin is that a few of my biggest dinner hits, meals that went into the permanent repertoire, emerged as last-minute inspiration-less attempts turned smash hits. The first time I made corned beef hash I sheepishly approached the table with it, sure it would be an automatic reject. Two bites in, my older daughter asked, “what is this?” Those are not encouraging words usually. I said, “corned beef hash. It’s big in the States.”
“Hm.” She said and kept eating. And thus a dinner staple was born.
Then there are those occasions when I think I have a winner only to be turned down. My try at a soup recipe I saw online became the laughingstock of our dinner table and is still remembered as “trash soup”.
So is dinner a breeze or a feat?
Only time will tell. And tell. And tell.