There’s one thing you can be sure of in parenting: as soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out, everything changes. I had finally gotten dinners going in a good rhythm: a rotation of three weeks worth of menus, complete with protein and produce options for all four palates in our family (daughter who loves all vegetables but dislikes meat, son who loves meats but dislikes most vegetables, parents who enjoy more variety than tacos, quesadillas, noodles, and salmon). I even scheduled crock pot meals on Monday and Wednesday when our daughter has swim practice. The kitchen was like a well-oiled machine, cranking out packed lunches and snacks at 7am, with dinner on the table when Dad gets home at 6:30pm.
I have to admit, I totally rocked.
Then we got our son’s soccer schedule: practice Tuesdays and Thursdays, 5:30 to 7pm. Dinner time. Combine that with our daughter’s swim practice? Sports, four nights a week. And we’ve got to figure out how to feed these kids.
As every parent knows, feeding children is a monumentally tiring task (see chart). We no longer have the luxury of simply ordering takeout or fixing ourselves a piece of toast when we’re feeling lazy. Even if we do that for ourselves, we still have to ensure that we provide three balanced meals a day plus two healthy snacks for these little people for whom we are responsible, who wonder after we’ve labored over menus and so considerately included pizza one night, just for them, “what are those green specks in the sauce?”
I used to be a foodie, but now that soccer has jammed the cogs of my kitchen and brought its greased machinery to a screeching halt, I have to say that I am officially done with food. Two crock pot meals a week were good – the kids don’t like slow cooker meals, but I could whip up simple alternatives for them so that my husband and I could enjoy the briskets and stews they turn their noses up at. But separate dinners for the adults and the kids four nights a week? I don’t think I can handle that.
When we lived in Minnesota, most of our friends had at least three children. I would see them all at soccer practice, Mom dropping this son off before taking that one to baseball, while Dad took the daughter to ballet. All of these activities took place after school, of course, and I always wondered, “When do they eat? Where do they eat? What do they eat? ” And the answers, more often than not were on the way home from practice, in the car, and McDonald’s. Of course. How else do you juggle homework, sports, piano lessons, dinner, downtime, and showers in that small span of time between the school bell and bedtime?
The problem with the drive-thru option, aside from the obvious irony of encouraging healthy activities and then feeding our kids grease bombs, is that I like to eat dinner, at the table, with my family at the end of the day. No TV, no electronics, but a set table with real food – a protein, fruits, and veggies – napkins and forks, glasses with ice in them, and each other. I heard a story about this very dilemma yesterday on NPR, Family Dinner: Treasured Tradition or Bygone Ideal?, and I was very sad to hear the chaotic state of the 8-minute meal that Alison Aubry aired as a typical family dinner – iPods, smartphones, kids wandering off from the table. It seems family dinners are going the way of the typewriter and the film camera. We just don’t have the time or energy for them anymore.
I grew up around a table with my family. Because we were seated together, with Mom’s food as the centerpiece, family dinners taught us to “give a meal the respect it deserves,” as Cheryl Mendelson so beautifully put it in Home Comforts. Those meals taught me table manners, the art of mealtime conversation, and to respect and listen to my companions at the table. Because of those meals, I knew how to behave when I went to someone else’s home for dinner – a friend’s house, or Grandma’s, or later in life, a boss’.
So despite my doneness with food, and managing the protein and calorie needs of four hungry athletes, and the varied preferences that generally result in seven different food choices on the dinner table, and budget constraints, and time and schedule constraints, I’m going to give it my best shot to maintain our family dinners. My husband and I have already agreed to treat the family to junk food once a week. We’ll just spread those McDonald’s hamburger wrappers on the table, squirt ketchup on them for our fries, and catch up on each others’ days before tossing all the paper packaging into the trash, without washing a single dish.
The other nights, we’ll have to come up with some quick and easy, protein- and produce-rich meals that can be prepped and served within 15 minutes, after sports and before bedtime. Because though there may be a tremendous amount of chaos leading up to sitting down at the table, once we are seated there, a calmness descends. We come together as a family, sharing food and laughter, worries and fears. We ask and answer questions, and my husband and I are discovering, that ever so gradually, our kids are coming to respect the table, and the food that is laid upon it.