How I Get Dinner on the Table When Culture Is Key

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(Image credit: Megan Spelman)

I grew up with the ethos that rice is life. Rice holds such an exalted place in the Chinese culture as a staple food and life force that the word itself represents an entire meal and conveys hospitality; it’s our custom to greet another person by asking whether he or she has eaten rice yet.

My husband, an all-American guy who grew up in a Seattle suburb on pot roast and boxed mac-and-cheese, did not.

Thankfully, our 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son have grown to like tofu and rice as much as they like pepperoni pizza and burgers, and they understand that mealtimes are important to me.

It may sound touching, but it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. There are plenty of days when I cave to being a short-order cook because I don’t have the energy to negotiate my family’s matrix of food quirks.

I work full time in the tech industry, which means I usually don’t think about dinner until my commute home: What’s in the fridge? What’s in the pantry? What leftovers can I repurpose? What meal requires a moderate amount of effort and offers the most options to appease everyone’s respective preferences?

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

At least three times a week, the answer to those questions is Chinese stir-fry. As soon as I get home, I make a pot of rice, which takes 45 minutes in the rice cooker. In the meantime, I survey the produce bin and protein options, aiming to make two or three stir-fries, or two stir-fries and a soup.

I know, it sounds crazy — but ultimately I’m okay with making a few different meals for different parties at the table if it means we can happily eat together.

I know, it sounds crazy — but ultimately I’m okay with making a few different meals for different parties at the table if it means we can happily eat together.

Because my daughter has an aversion to anything green and my son likes only beef — I wouldn’t be the first parent to have two children with completely different tastes in food — I often end up making “deconstructed” stir-fries. So, what normally is one dish (say, chicken with baby bok choy) becomes two: Dish one is stir-fried chicken, with plenty of sauce for the rice, and dish two is stir-fried baby bok choy. My son devours the vegetables and my daughter loves the chicken. The grown-ups happily mix the two.

My 75-year-old mother, who lives with us, in many ways anchors us in these Chinese traditions, encouraging me to bridge three generations and multiple culinary cultures come dinnertime. But my mother’s palate has changed over time and she now prefers milder foods, which means there’s a meal number three, often a quick soup with Chinese cabbage, tofu, and bean thread (cellophane) noodles.

Is it more difficult than making one meal? Definitely. But it’s also easier than it could be.

(Image credit: Christine Han)

And the kids don’t know that I’m Mr. Miyagi-ing them. Dinner is always communal and there often are several generations gathered around the table, and my food teaches their palates my own cultural history.

Speedy stir-fries save me on hectic days, even if I’m making more than one. But they’re also the reason we eat rice together more often than not.

Welcome to Dinner with Kids

This series explores the shifting dynamics of the dinner table when kids are involved. We asked families of all shapes and sizes for their tips for mealtime success. You’ll learn a few things, laugh a whole lot, and find that when kids are involved, dinnertime is always a little more eventful.