Overcoming Dinner Challenges
The e-mail from Kerri Mercer made her need clear. The Raleigh mom of two's request for help from the Food Nanny echoed the challenges many families face:
Crockpot tonight! I say to my mate,
He rolls his eyes and says, "I already ate"
My son is but five and set in his ways,
Will only eat food that is orange he says
Carrots, crackers, apricots, macaroni and cheese,
Anymore food that is orange, oh please?
Daughter is two and eats only pasta and rice,
Bring on the carbs Mommy. Isn't that nice?
Husband is meat and I am veggie,
Now you see why I am so edgy
Food Nanny your help we do need,
I'm a doctoral student with no free time and a family to feed!
Mercer's entry in an August contest by Carolina Parent won her a visit from Liz Edmunds, author of The Food Nanny Rescues Dinner. While many of the readers' submissions rang true, Mercer's blend of humor, poetry and genuine need earned her a consultation with Edmunds.
So, on a bright fall afternoon, with Edmunds in town as part of her book tour, the two went shopping before heading to the Mercer family's home in North Raleigh for lessons in meal planning and cooking. Soon, the smells of herbed salmon and yeast bread filled the kitchen as Edmunds explained her philosophy of assigning a theme to each night of the week and then planning around that.
A dinner menu for the week was posted on the fridge. "I'm really excited about it!" Mercer said. "I never know things this far in advance."
Edmunds, tiny and energetic in a white chef's coat and dark-washed jeans, had helped Mercer get a pan of salmon surrounded by brightly colored vegetables in the oven. Next they worked on pizza dough for a later meal "because my 5-year-old will actually eat pizza, even though it isn't orange," Mercer said.
Having explained how to save on yeast (buy it in bulk) and how to help dough rise (warm kitchen), Edmunds was now trying to save on cleanup. She plopped the dough on a counter and began to work it with her hands. "There's no need to get out a mixer and get something dirty when it's so easy to do this," she explained. Mercer joined in with the kneading.
The mother of seven, Edmunds turned what she learned from feeding her family into a business helping others feed theirs. By giving each evening's meal a distinct focus, such as Italian or comfort food, the Utah-based author helps busy parents de-stress planning and grocery shopping and anticipate that first home-from-school question: "What's for dinner?"
"My kids always knew when they came in from a sport, they came in from a job, that there'd be a plate (of dinner)," she told Mercer.
Developing cooking confidence
Throughout their time together, Edmunds encouraged the younger mom. "Don't be afraid of the dough. Nothing's going to happen to it," she said at one point. "It's OK if there's a hole. See how easy it is?"
"It's just frighteningly easy," Mercer said as they finished up the salmon, prepared to freeze pizza dough for another night's dinner, and used some of that same dough to make breadsticks. "This is foolproof. I can do this."
With a picky 5-year-old and equally picky 2-year-old, a job, a husband who works outside the home, and a doctorate degree in progress, mealtime had not been fun for Mercer. But she grew visibly more confident as she and Edmunds worked side by side. "It looks better than anything I've ever made," she said at one point, admiring that night's main dish while breadsticks browned in the oven.
Sticking to the plan
Weeks later, Mercer said she has mostly followed the plan she and Edmunds developed. "It's been great," she says. "I feel like I have more time than I had. It has alleviated a lot of the rush. Instead of stressing about what I'm going to feed them, I already know."
Mercer now shops on Sundays and then cooks and freezes some meals ahead of time. She's made a few adjustments in the schedule Edmunds suggested – pizza is on the night when she has classes and her husband is in charge of dinner – but she also now feels confident enough to branch out to recipes beyond those in the cookbook.
And she has been amazed at what her children will eat, from meatloaf to zucchini bread, which means the family is saving money on eating out, and Mercer is no longer cooking multiple meals to satisfy different tastes.
Mercer says she has e-mailed Edmunds for help three times since their meeting, and she's become a complete convert to the cookbook, which she gave to some friends as Christmas gifts.
"It was perfect to have her. I could not recommend the book enough," Mercer said during a phone conversation one December morning. "It's so much less stressful. It's Wednesday. It's Mexican night. We're having burritos."
Aleta Payne is the associate editor of Carolina Parent and mother of three boys. She was reminded during Edmund's visit that a little meal planning goes a long way.