Are struggles over family dinner exhausting you?

Mother choses to cook the food she wants rather than always putting her children first
Looking after myself and cooking food that I like. Photo by Freya Dawson

I’ve cooked for my family almost every day for the last 21 years.

My husband doesn’t like cooking and isn’t interested in it. My two sons were never interested in cooking either. It wasn’t something they were drawn towards. We had some fun times cooking a few batches of biscuits and pancakes when they were young, but they never wanted to explore further.

I’ve made some attempts to encourage my husband and sons to get involved in cooking at various times in the past, but because I place a great value on respectful relationships, I haven’t ever attempted to force, train or manipulate them into doing more of the cooking.

My eldest son moved out of home 2 years ago and miraculously taught himself to cook when the skill was finally really needed. I was happy to provide some basic instruction and recipes and he’s managing very well. This is yet another example of effective and efficient self-directed learning. It’s been clear to me all though my years as a parent that learning through inner motivation (self-directed learning) is the most powerful and efficient way to learn.

That is all well and good for him, but my eldest son’s willingness to learn to cook when he left home came very late in the piece for me. I’d been cooking for him for the previous 19 years.

One of the main things that I had to learn and master in those years was how to find a balance between the needs of my family and my own needs.

How do you cook for your family every day for 21 years without ending up resentful and depleted?

I’m not talking about cooking for a family that will eat anything you put in front of them. I’m talking about cooking for a husband with a long list of food aversions due to childhood trauma and two sons who were extremely picky eaters when they were young. They basically wouldn’t eat vegetables (except potato chips and a little carrot) and liked very plain food — which is almost the exact opposite of the food that I like. I love vegetables, diversity, and international flavours. I’m a foodie who found herself living with 3 (now two since one left) blokes with conservative palates.

I can assure you that I didn’t find joy in this situation for many years.

To start with, I fell into the trap of putting my family’s needs above my own. This is not surprising since that is the conventional role of a mother in our society; make caring for your children top priority, even if it’s at a great cost to yourself and you end up feeling like a martyr and resenting them.

Falling into the trap of sacrificing your own needs may be even more prevalent these days due to the popularity of attachment parenting and peaceful parenting. Its easy to get confused and let things get way out of balance. I know I did.

I had to learn the hard way that being attentive, attached and respectful of your children, should not come at the expense of caring for yourself.

I had to get to the point of physical and emotional collapse; seriously weakened, with adrenal fatigue and experiencing daily intense emotional reactions, before I finally sought help and started to dig myself out of the hole I was in.

Parenting is a long haul job and if I was going to not just survive, but thrive, I realised that I was going to have to prioritise my own nutritional needs and care for myself a whole lot better.

How to deal with conflicting food preferences?

I had to figure out how to deal with the conflicting food requirements of my family. What my sons and my husband wanted in the way of food was different to what I wanted. The fact that they wanted me to do all the food purchasing and preparation was also in conflict with what I wanted.

How do you deal with this sort of situation in a respectful and cooperative way?

Creative problem solving was the skill that got me through this situation and allowed me to emerge from the last 21 years in great physical shape, without any resentment and still happy to cook for my family.

This is a skill that is great in a crisis or to find solutions to an acute family problem but also very helpful to sort out long term issues like how to feed the family.

What is Creative Problem Solving?

There’s a whole lot to say about creative problem solving, too much to go into here, and I discuss all the details in my book Joyful Parenting.

The two main aspects of the process of creative problem solving that are relevant to this particular issue are:

1. It’s not something that you have to figure out on your own.

In fact, the only way to find really effective solutions is to involve the whole family. That means being open to hearing the opinions and ideas of even young children and letting them know that they are responsible for helping to find solutions that everyone in the family can accept.

In our family, this meant being open to a great deal of body autonomy and children who chose what and when they wanted to eat without parental control.

Cooking for children is a whole lot simpler and less stressful when you give them basically what they want and don’t constantly try and train them into eating what they don’t want. I offered food that they liked and was easy to prepare, kept a few backup options in the freezer, and didn’t waste energy trying to control what they ate. Amazingly, they have thrived.

2. Be willing to question your beliefs about everything to do with the issue.

In my case, this meant being willing to question my beliefs about good nutrition, my role as a parent and most importantly, my beliefs about myself.

It turns out that the belief that was most often causing stress and problems in relation to food and family was this:

“I am not worthy of deep and lasting self care.”

This belief was the foundation for a lot of the problems I experienced and I had to take active steps to question and unlearn it before the job of cooking for myself and my family became a joyful part of every day rather than a burden.

I’m still cooking every day for myself, my husband and my youngest (and very hungry 17 year old) son and I’m giving my own food preferences a lot more priority. I am even inspired to cook food that only I will like (such as anything in a recipe book by Yotam Ottolenghi) and on the days I prioritise myself I happily serve my blokes leftovers or food from the freezer.

The beauty of creative problem solving is that it’s an ongoing process rather than just a way of finding a one-off solution. In fact, it’s become more of a way of life in our family. I’m not bothered by conflict in the way that I was many years ago, because I know that together, we will always find our way to solutions that everyone is happy with.

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Freya Dawson

Freya Dawson

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I’m a parenting, unschooling and spiritual mentor and writer. I help parents live with their children without stress or struggle.