Happy (choke) Valentine’s (gag) Day.
Sorry, but I’m not a big Valentine’s Day person. Just never have gotten into it as a holiday (my mother, an avowed V-Day hater, takes credit for my aversion). I’m warming up to it slightly these days, and I do try to make it special for the kids, but basically my celebration of this non-event is limited to making a few out-of-the-ordinary meals for the family and gratefully taking the excuse it gives me and J. to eat a dinner alone after the kids are in bed, so we can actually hear ourselves trying to talk to one another.
Since today is a Monday, however, we’ve already just about completed all the celebrating we’re going to do — I’m not foolhardy enough to try to squeeze in a bunch of extra cooking efforts on a hectic weekday. The major Valentine’s splurge in our household is the annual “Chocolate Breakfast,” which consists of homemade crepes spread with Nutella and rolled around strawberries, bananas, or both. We indulged in that sugarfest yesterday morning before heading off to church (wind ’em up and inflict them on the Sunday School teachers, I say!); as a cautionary tale, I’ll just mention that anyone planning to feed a toddler crepes with Nutella and strawberries would be wise NOT to do so right before intending to stuff said toddler into his good clothes and show him off in a public place.
In my mind, the Valentine’s chocolate breakfast is observance enough; but of course if I want to have a special, quiet, adults-only dinner with J. that doesn’t require paying through the nose for a restaurant meal and babysitter, I’ve got to do not one but two dinnertime displays of festivity as well. We took care of those on Saturday evening to maximize on the time we’d have to eat and clean up without feeling as though we were slamming into the weekday preparation rush. For J. and me, the menu is always easy to come by; we’ve got a few favorites that we pull out for such occasions. This year, we settled on a risotto with Cabernet wine (which handily comes out a reddish-purple color) and a spinach salad with pan-fried goat cheese rounds.
When it came time to figure out the boys’ menu, though, I found myself struggling a little bit more. They have relatively different palates, making it a challenge to think of a full menu that both of them would really enjoy. Also, I wanted their food to be simple for me to prepare and not too messy overall, so I wouldn’t have a ton of kitchen cleanup to worry about before making a second meal. And on top of it all, it was supposed to be a Valentine’s meal…so even though I don’t really do the “cute food” thing, I knew the boys (especially L.) would really appreciate some visual nod to the occasion.
I know, I know — it’s not strictly necessary to put a lot of thought and effort into the kids’ dinner on a “date night,” if your main goal is just to get them fed and cared for and into bed with a minimum of fuss so you can enjoy a grown-up evening with your sweetie. I remember distinctly that when I was growing up, my parents’ date nights — whether in-house or bona fide out-to-dinner-babysitter-hiring affairs — usually meant that my sister and I would get a frozen dinner early in the evening. I can’t fault my mom for that, since she cooked for us, spectacularly, every other night of our lives. But for my own reasons, I’m not a frozen dinner fan, so I wasn’t going to take that route.
It’s likely, though, that many parents have taken the easy out and served up a frozen kids’ meal this weekend (or may be intending to do so tonight). I may be too late in offering up this particular meal makeover; but then again, Valentine’s Day isn’t the only special occasion on which the adults might be hoping to jump ship and head out for a night on the town, so a kids’ menu of fun, easy, special-occasion food could come in handy almost any time. In planning this particular dinner for my boys, I kept coming back to just one guiding principle: Love.
I know it’s corny. But actually, the “Worst Cooks in America” people were on the same page last night — their challenge was all about cooking for love, too. Having been separated from their families and friends for the duration of the “kitchen boot camp,” the final four contestants were each reunited with one family member; they then had to cook a meal inspired by a special request from that person. One of the recruits was asked to cook venison for her hunting-enthusiast husband; another had to prepare a Thai-inspired dish for his takeout-loving sister. And me? I thought about my kids’ favorites, the things they would really love to have, and came up with this Valentine’s Day Dinner:
Honey-mustard Chicken “fingers” wrapped in bacon (both of my boys LIKE chicken, but they LOVE bacon)
Tomato-pesto puff pastry hearts (for the “cute food” effect; also, P. still doesn’t like rice or pasta side dishes, but likes hand-held things that resemble bread and pastry)
Roasted broccoli (One of L.’s favorite vegetables; I let him choose)
We didn’t have a dessert planned, but there was pudding in the refrigerator that they were happy enough to eat; however, a perfect easy ending to this meal would be homemade vanilla and cocoa wafers, which come together quickly, are cute and tiny and kid-friendly, and taste even better than the store-bought variety.
Whether you use this menu tonight, on another special occasion, or just as an everyday dinner to remind your family that you think they’re pretty great, I hope you’ll think about these recipes the next time you’re tempted to reach for the frozen dinner box. Valentine’s Day is only one day out of the year; we have 364 other chances to commit to showing our kids that we love them by putting in the effort to cook them real food.