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The B4FD Project features blog posts from guest writers that explore the far-reaching benefits of family dinner.

Family Dinner Month 2012: Sept 17 -- Oct 29, 2012

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Why I Went on Strike

by Dr. Anne K. Fishel

When my sons were 12 and 14, I went on strike. To demand more respect for my nightly dinners, I hung up my apron and just stopped cooking.

We had developed a pattern that, frankly, I was fed up with. Each night, my sons requested that I try a new recipe, rather than serve a tried-and-true dish. But, most nights I wanted to make a quick dinner that didn’t require opening a cookbook and that didn’t require a lot of brainpower either. Most upsetting was the way they took on the role of Sam Sifton to my Julia Child — they gave detailed critiques of everything from the seasoning to the presentation. I was much more interested in talking about what happened at work or school, plans for the weekend or an interesting item in the news than I was about how well the dinner had turned out. To be fair, they were also eager to help with the chopping and sautéing, and they were both skillful and chatty.

One night, after knocking myself out to prepare chicken piccata with lemons and capers, a new dish that received very mixed reviews, I reached my limit, and announced my strike. I told my sons that I wouldn’t return to cooking until we had a new contract. After two nights of scrounging and dad’s cooking, they capitulated and asked (I like to remember that they pleaded) that we head for the bargaining table. We hammered out a new contract: My children wouldn’t criticize meals that were confirmed family favorites, and I would welcome my younger teenaged son, an accomplished cook and caterer, to cook red meat for the first time in our vegetable-dominated kitchen.

As we cooked together, I discovered that I was no longer the boss in the kitchen. My son knew far more than I did about how to make a tasty hamburger, cook bacon in the oven, and prepare a short rib. He taught me a thing or two about how best to chop an onion, how to layer on seasonings, and how to use a micro plane without grating my knuckles. I think that he also came to appreciate all the care I took in preparing family meals. As we chopped and sautéed next to each other, with mutual respect for our differences, we were reworking the push and pull of adolescence. My making room for his expertise was a harbinger of changes to come — my children knew things that I didn’t, and they were willing to teach me.

In my clinical practice, I often have the experience of seeing a change start in the kitchen that then spills over into other realms. A father and teenage son who don’t do anything together anymore, for example, might start to choose vegetarian recipes to cook together, to accommodate the son’s new political stance on eating meat. As the son experiences his father’s appreciation and respect of a difference between them, he feels that he can start to share more of his life with his father. A mother with young children wants them to start taking more responsibility so invites them to choose a new recipe from a children’s cookbook, like Pretend Soup, to help make once a week. A couple who can’t collaborate on parenting or on their shared business decides to try some new recipes that they can teach their young-adult child who is soon moving to her own apartment. This cooking collaboration is fun and creates the confidence to resume other joint projects.

While talking about feelings is my bread and butter, I also have to acknowledge that sometimes, talk just isn’t enough and action needs to be taken. I’m not advocating going on strike, but the new roles that my sons and I hammered out — appreciate what I have to offer, and I’ll make room for your expertise and different tastes in foods — have served us well. This mutual respect and re-balancing of power in the kitchen has rippled into other areas of our lives. If there is something going on in a family that needs change, consider shaking it up in the kitchen.

Anne Fishel is part of The Family Dinner Project based at Harvard University. She is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School and the Director of the Family and Couples Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She has lectured and written about the benefits of family meals, having raised two sons, age 20 and 22, who still love to cook, eat and talk.

7 comments to Why I Went on Strike

  • This story really resonates for me as the mom of a teen and a tween. I’m grateful that my older kids love real food and are pretty adventurous. (My youngest is another story!) Still, sometimes I feel like I’ve raised such “foodies” they can be picky or critical if the food isn’t exactly to their “standards.” They will sometimes turn up their noses and sniff a bit if dinner is just a “plain” meal of pasta and sauce. It’s disrespectful to the chef, obviously, and not a good life lesson.

    I love how Dr. Fishel turns this around to become a learning experience for all. Top of my family “to-do” list this year is to really get my teen and tween in the kitchen more. It’s a great time for them to learn more about cooking, and for me to learn from them. (And of course to get more help!)

  • This is a great story! I recently told my kid that even though I love cooking I work really hard to get all the ingredients, make the weekly plans and then cook everything, and I would like them to thank me (or whoever cooks) for dinner. Now the cheerfully (and with a sense of humor) say “Thank you, chef” to me or whoever was the cook (or were the cooks) for the night. I feel much more appreciated!

  • Great idea! At my kids’ sleep-away camp, there is a tradition to always cheer (loudly) “Let’s Thank the Chef” And everyone responses “Ho!” For the first few days after camp, they automatically keep doing it at family meals and then it dies off. But it’s a good idea all the time!

  • Just so we don’t run the risk of having cries of “HO” echoing around Brooklyn at meal time: at Beam Camp the ritual response to “LET’S THANK THE CHEF” is “HUH;” more a Marine-like grunt of agreement than a question or, god-forbid, an unpleasant epithet.

    • No, we don’t want “Huh?” at the dinner table! Campers, I believe, can sometimes add a loud fist bang to the table after the chant, something you may not want to introduce at home.

  • [...] here, along with lots of other great posts. This week alone, my piece was accompanied by “Why I Went On Strike,” an article from an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at the Harvard Medical School [...]

  • Waverly

    I think your article drives home the point that there are incredible opportunities that await all of us at the family dinner table. Sometimes it is hard to make it happen; sometimes it is even unpleasant; but life is better when we eat together. Thank you for your wonderful article. Turning the reigns over to the children once and awhile is a great idea!