Monday, September 20, 2010

When Home is... creating a world for your family

Magazine editor, writer and cookbook author Jenny Rosenstrach’s definition of home hasn’t changed since she was a child: ‘It's the place you go "where they have to take you in." And I realize I'm butchering Robert Frost there, but it's the place I can be my worst self, my best self (hopefully more of the latter) and I'll still be loved unconditionally.’

Jenny had been editing food and features on magazines Real Simple and Cookie until last year when she co-authored the upcoming cookbook Time For Dinner and began the website Dinner A Love Story. Working full-time with two young children led to Jenny making a deal with herself: ‘I would only continue to work full time if I was able to put a meal on the table for my family more often than not.’

And she did, splitting the dinner duties ‘down the middle’ with her husband Andy. How she and her husband continue to do this for their family is chronicled on the website.

So, why did the evening meal become the most important time of the day for this family? ‘The short answer: It's the only time ALL day when I actually sit down and look into my children's faces. And I think it's probably the only time all day long when THEY sit down and look at my face. We're focusing on each other. That's the biggest thing.’

‘Other nice dividends: they are willing to trying different foods because they are so used to us introducing new things, they share stories about their day they wouldn't otherwise, it's something so naturally part of the day that to not do it at this point would be weird. That's ultimately what I want it to be. So when they're teenagers their bodies will just be programmed to return to the dinner table at 6:30pm no matter how annoyed at me they are.’

The kitchen is very much the centre of the family’s lives. When Jenny thinks of ‘home’ it’s the ‘four square feet in the kitchen where all five of us (including our Boston Terrier) seem to be standing on top of each other. Sometimes I wonder why we even bother having other rooms in this house? Wait...I just answered my own question. For when they're teenagers.’

While working on lifestyle magazines didn’t change Jenny’s basic definition of ‘home’, it did change the aesthetic of it; ‘I feel certain I would be $2000 richer and not have marble countertops if I hadn't edited 8 trillion stories showing family kitchens with marble countertops at Cookie!’

Having children has probably contributed the most to decorating and home organisation decisions. A mantra Jenny learned at Real Simple is one she still follows today: ‘Control the controllable’. In the kitchen she has a desk and bulletin board, known amongst the family as ‘Command Central’ where all the organising and scheduling gets done.

‘I think this space is important to me because it gives me the illusion of control. I am powerless to control the leak in the ceiling, the dog getting sick, the recess drama – but I can at least make sure the class lists are somewhere I can always find them!’

All parents know that cooking dinner while hungry children wait is one of the hardest times of the day. To avoid more stress, when her children were younger, Jenny used the ‘Babysitter in a Box’: ‘a carefully curated container of kitchen gear and foods (think rice maracas made out of tupperware bowls) that kept them busy making a pretend meal while I made the real meal.’

Today, she has the ‘OK shelf’: ‘an easy-to-access shelf containing a bunch of kitchen-related bowls and pourers that my daughters don’t have to ask me to use. (The answer will always be “OK.”) Every item on the OK shelf is either non-breakable or so cheap (hello Ikea tea set!) that it matters little if they chip it.’

But Jenny’s hidden dollhouse idea is perhaps one of the most fun ways of keeping children entertained in a small space.

‘Last year, I found my six-year-old lying on her stomach in front of a row of my favorite magazines — all opened to stories about decorating. Her paper dolls were hopping from one “room” to the next, lounging on teak patio chairs, cooking on Viking stoves, and cooing with babies sleeping inside Netto cribs. In other words, Abby had constructed her own two-dimensional, temporary, composite dreamhouse.’

‘We set to work tearing out pictures of rooms from Ikea and CB2 catalogs and old issues of magazines. Once she had her favourites, I used blue painters tape to affix each “room” inside an accessible kitchen cabinet door. Then I used the tape to outline each room. Turns out Abby wants nothing to do with me while she gets lost in fantasy land, but I still love that she’s right there underfoot while I’m making dinner.’

And, as most parents would agree, the best thing about this dollhouse is: ‘When she’s done, I close the door. All gone.’

For me though, what really makes Jenny’s home a ‘home’ is her Recipe Cupboard Door.

‘This idea just came to me. Before I renovated my kitchen I used to put recipes on stickies inside the cabinet door because I hated hunching over a cookbook. A recipe door seemed to be just the right height for recipe referencing. When I pitched the idea for Cookie they let me pick an illustrator to execute the vision. I was lucky enough to get Gina Triplett, who is part of the incredible design team Gina and Matt.’

‘The only tricky part was figuring out which recipes were deserving of such an honour. Ultimately, to qualify for “cabinet door” treatment, we decided the recipe needed to be both steeped in family history and, of course, be delicious. The line-up: one recipe from each of our grandmothers; Rosa’s Mud Cake which my best friend’s mum served at every one of my best friend’s birthday parties when I was little; and a recipe made by Aunt Patty the first time I met my husband’s family in 1992.’

‘Now we have a private living memorial to those who have influenced me in the kitchen and my kids will grow up with a certain reverence for these dishes.’

There are some other ways Jenny and Andy keep the family connected. Originally buying a chalkboard for the kitchen wall because it looked pretty, Jenny now realises the family can’t live without it.

‘At first I used it as a way to remind my babysitter of playdates and activities, but now it’s more like my calendar and a reminder for the kids that screams, “Look how much fun you’re going to have this week!!!” When it’s not updated, I hear about it. I’m even expected to write up an itinerary for the weekend and, in the summer, include the weather report.’

Jenny and Andy also like to leave notes for the girls on napkins in their lunchboxes, although she has a warning to parents who have not yet started packing lunches. ‘Do not start with the napkin note – you are only setting yourself up for failure. And setting yourself up for disappointed kids when you can't think of anything cute or creative to say beyond "I have run out of things to say to you." Which I'm always tempted to do, yet somehow don't think they will appreciate the irony.’

Creating a sense of family through their home has evolved naturally for Jenny and Andy and will continue to do so as their daughters grow; ‘We never sat down and decided these things. Like everyone we borrow from people who have done it before us. Our friend Jay took each of his three kids on a one-on-one vacation after each one turned six. I didn't even have kids when I heard about that ritual and I thought that is something we're going to do. I just loved the idea.’

‘But the thing about kids is you don't have to make elaborate rituals for everyone to have fun. They are so naturally joyful about things that we just follow their cues. Once my husband forgot to bring home a present from a business trip for them, but he did have an unopened pack of gum. You would've thought we gave them Malibu Barbie. Now, it's the only thing we ever bring back as a souvenir!’

To visit Dinner A Love Story and for more information about Jenny’s book Time for Dinner, click here.

All photos © Jenny Rosenstrach


Anonymous said...

Much as I enjoyed this article, I found the following statement a teensy bit sad: 'It's the only time ALL day when I actually sit down and look into my children's faces.' One more reason for me not to work full-time! Although great that both parents contribute to the evening routine.. Thanks G - Jan X

Germaine Leece said...

I think she may be saying that dinnertime is her time for focussing on the kids. For me it is when we read bedtime stories on a one-on-one that I feel I'm really 'with' the kids despite being with them all day, if you know what I mean! gx

norab said...

Thanks so much for introducing Jenny Rosenstrach - I love her ideas! The dollhouse on the cabinet door is too cute. I too find that dinner time is a great time to actually have conversation with my kids (that and the walk to school on the two days I'm not rushing off to work). While there is often lots of talking going on in my house, a shared meal gives us all the opportunity to enjoy each other's company. Now, I'm off to check out Jenny's family recipe ideas on her website... Thanks!

Claire said...

I'd have to agree that sitting down for family suppers is the favourite part of our routine - we all have to talk about our best bits of the day which means not only do the kids learn the art of conversation, but they also have to recall what they did and remember that even if it wasn't all good that good things happen all the time. We also don't have any other distractions so are totally focussed on each other - I love it!


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