Sweet Relief: Sharing Meals and Simplifying Cooking as a Single Parent

Meals sneak up on me in single parent life.

After negotiating my way through breakfast and packing a lunch for a picky, EOE-affected 5-year old I’m ready to be done with food prep and cooking for a while. But then the daily tornado of work and life-ing settles for a half second and it’s dinner time. Again.

And the challenge isn’t just what we should eat - but the motivation to cook when it’s just the two of us (and one of us would prefer to eat only gluten free chicken nuggets every night).

As a single parent I struggle to get excited about finding new recipes or trying new foods BECAUSE TIME. And also because it’s really kind of a huge bummer to spend a bunch of that precious time trying something new, only to have its particular grossness described to you in a kid voice somewhere a whine and a wailing lament.

But the sense of loss goes way beyond all the amazing cookbooks from my single years tragically repurposed to hold up cutting boards.

Cooking and eating with just me and my kid night after night is actually one of the times when I feel the sharp loneliness of single parenting. Food is such a fundamental joy, and the kitchen should be a gathering place. I find myself missing the natural conversation that happens over making food, and the laughter and stories that surface at the dinner table. I wanted to reclaim that experience for myself and my kid, so I’ve made myself part recruiter/part event-planner, for my circle of single parent friends, kiddos, and any one else who’d rather share in the chaos than go it alone.

And it’s helping. A lot.

Having another adult at the table makes meals feel whole.

First of all, just knowing I have plans to eat with other people actually motivates me to go to the grocery store and think creatively about food again. It’s one less day that I end up eating my daughter’s leftovers because I’m too tired or uninspired about an actual meal for myself.

And, most importantly, knowing I’ll have friends to talk to while we make food pulls me out of the spin cycle of my head. There’s something soothing about chopping vegetables and stirring pots while catching up on what’s exciting, or scary, or ridiculous in our lives. Dinner table conversation with my friends is brainstorming, and laughing, and problem-solving. On the hard days it feels like opening a window and letting a bunch of fresh air and light into my perspective. It makes everything feel more possible, and lets me see the baby steps toward the big goals I’m defining for my life.

And my child actually eats when she has other kids modeling good choices.

This one is huge for me, because food has the potential to become a real tug of war in our house. For over a year my daughter has been barred from wheat, nuts, dairy, soy, eggs, and fish because of EOE. In other words, all of the things kids usually eat. Our grocery shopping and feeding ourselves routine feels like working out some next level math equation in order to avoid the yet-to-be-determined food allergy that makes her esophagus swell up to the point where she pukes - literally - all the time.

It’s not awesome. But we make the best of it by getting creative with The Spiralizer for veggie noodles and recipes from this incredibly helpful website Allergy Awesomeness.

But, let’s be real - there’s been a lot of drama around food with all the doctor’s visits and having to explain restrictions to teachers, family, friends, and well-meaning-but-somewhat-annoying strangers. And when my 5 year-old wants an excuse to engage in battle with me, choosing not to eat or demanding only certain foods (i.e. the ones made mostly of sugar) is her weapon of choice.

Having other kids at the table diffuses that tension. She gets lost in make believe and storytelling, and forgets to make a fuss about what’s on (or not on her plate). The other kids eat what’s been served, and she follows along. Look, I’m not saying that I want my child to spend her life swayed by what other people are doing, but in this case I’m totally down for a little peer pressure. I can deal with group think if it means we’re hitting some basic nutrition standards.

Most of all, we leave feeling like we’re part of a larger family - that we have people to share life’s simple pleasures (and super helpful leftovers) with.

It’s that simple. Cooking and eating with other parents and kids makes me feel seen and heard, loved and supported. It’s a simple ritual to share with huge value in terms of feeling connected to a larger family we’re creating for ourselves. When we go to another house for dinner the change of scenery helps us press the reset button on our emotions, and when people come over it makes our house feel like even more of a home. Either way, we feel a little more full both physically and emotionally - and a lot less alone in our little world.