The idea of a family dinner is quite lovely. Everyone pausing in the middle of an otherwise bustling day to gather around a spread of delicious food to connect and share. The reality of a family dinner is more like one kid whining that there is too much sauce on the pasta while the other kid complains that the shape of the pasta itself is all wrong. It can feel like there are two options: Make one meal for everyone — like it or not! — and grit your teeth through the groaning. Or become a short-order cook, whipping up a variety of mini-meals in an effort to please them all.
But once the kids hit a certain age or skill level, a third option mercifully appears, and that is the “Whatever Night.” A “Whatever Night” is exactly what it sounds like: “What’s for dinner tonight?” “Whatever.” (This is what my own parents used to call the “Every Man For Himself” dinner.)
Katie Bingham-Smith writes for Scary Mummy that she implemented Whatever Night when it finally became clear that no matter how she prepared a meal, her three teenagers would morph into instant food critics who critiqued everything from the meltiness of the cheese to the chewiness of the steak. They were now, she decided, old enough to make their own damn meal. Bingham-Smith writes:
I go to the store and get a bunch of things, everything from a few frozen meals to meat to fresh fruits and veggies. I make sure we always have staples like bread, rice, pasta, and peanut butter. Then, they can have (and make) whatever they want during dinnertime.
In many ways, the pandemic has forced families to slow down to a pace that felt impossible a year ago. I can remember, last March, staring at the large wall calendar that hangs in my kitchen. One by one, we’d crossed out basketball practices, soccer games, playdates, and family get-togethers...Read more
She provides the options, and they choose what to make for themselves. Maybe once in a while a couple of the kids join forces to make something they both want; or maybe they’re tired and don’t feel like fending for themselves tonight, so mum’s tacos sound pretty good, actually. But she’s decided to take the argument out of it completely.
One thing she’s not compromising on, however, is the actual sitting around the dinner table as a family. She sets the dinner time and they all gather to eat whatever together.
I enjoy it a lot more when I know my kids won’t say the garlic bread is too hard or too soft, or that the pasta isn’t cooked right. I like not having to watch them load up their plate with grilled chicken and rice, add a side of a half bottle of ranch dressing, only to declare they really don’t like chicken anymore after a few bites and they wish they hadn’t put so much Hidden Valley all over their bird.
I’ve been doing something similar for years without giving it too much thought. Although the variety of things I cook that my 10-year-old will eat (and enjoy) has expanded over the years, I cannot stomach a constant rotation of spaghetti, turkey tenderloin, meatball subs, turkey burgers, and prawn. So a couple times a week, when I want to make something that is either too spicy for his palate or something I know he’s tried many times and flat-out doesn’t like, I tell him he can have “whatever.”
Up until now, that has generally put me into the short-order cook category on those days. He typically makes his own lunch now, though, and Bingham-Smith has me realising that he’s old enough and capable enough to cook his own hot dog or smear peanut butter on his own bagel for dinner, too.
We won’t be having Whatever Night every night like her family does, but letting him practice preparing his own basic dinner once or twice a week will be a nice transition over the next few years until he’s able to cook his own spaghetti and sauté his own prawn.