It’s Monday night. After an hour and a half of chopping, boiling and grilling (spaced in between missing-toy-train-reconnaissance missions, broken Lego disaster recovery and multiple buffering incidents with the Thomas the Train movie on Netflix), I have successfully finished preparing dinner. I have cedar-plank grilled salmon for the Professor, wheel pasta at the request of Huck Finn, spinach salad for me with crunchy jalapeños for Lancelot. Everyone should be happy. It’s dinner time!
“One minute until dinner! Let’s make our way to the table,” I cheerfully announce.
“No!!! I don’t wanna eat! I’m playing TRAAAAAAAAAAINS!” yells Huck.
“Okay, one minute,” repeats The Professor. “I just have to make a station for my Lego train and I have to finish the caboose and put the station over here.”
“Okay,” I agree, “Go ahead and finish the caboose, then pull the train into the station here at the table. “ Then I proceed to take Huck’s hand and lead him to the table.
“Nooooooooo!” Huck screams, louder now. “I don’t WANNA eat! It is YUCKY for me!”
Lancelot sits down. I manage to strap the screaming, crying 3-year-old Huck into his booster seat and hand him his favorite green fork. He throws it to the floor, then erupts in an ear-splitting wail. “Oh nooooooo! My FORK!” He stares in distraught amazement at his fork on the floor.
I get him a new fork and gently remind the 5-year old Professor to go to the table to eat. “I haven’t finished the station yet! It just needs some Legos right here,” he explains, running into the playroom to grab a handful of Legos.
“I don’t LIKE salmon! It is yucky for me!” screams Huck, but Lancelot quickly fills his plate with wheel pasta.
“Get in your chair!” I sigh in exasperation at The Professor. He starts steering his Lego train around the kitchen island, heading for his chair. Then he continues around again, away from his chair.
Huck and Lancelot are eating, I think. At least, they are sitting down. I sit down. I start pouring salad dressing on my spinach when crisis hits.
“Oh noooooo! My foooooooork!” cries Huck, staring at his second fork on the floor under his chair. I get up and get a third clean fork for him and grab The Professor’s hand on the way, leading him to his chair. Meanwhile, Huck moans, “This is a PURPLE fork! I want my GREEN FOOOOORK!” So I hurriedly wash the fallen green fork and put it in his hand.
Finally in his chair, The Professor announces, “Salmon, yum! … I will not eat this piece, because it has black stuff on it. This all has black stuff on it. Disgusting. I need water!” I take the offensive pepper-speckled salmon bites off his plate and go to fill his water glass while he eats a few (maybe three?) bites of plain salmon and then says “ThankyouforthefoodmayIbeexcused,” hopping down from the table before I can reply.
“Dank you for the scooze, may I food?” mimics Huck, sliding down his booster seat to the ground to follow his brother out of the room.
Dinner is over, and I haven’t even finished pouring the dressing on my salad.
I’m pretty sure what I shared above is a pretty typical meal for families with young children. At least, my friends describe similar scenarios, and I’ve witnessed things like it at other people’s homes, too. Is it joyful? Ha. Is it even pleasant? Not really. I’ve been trying to have lovely, peaceful, healthy family dinners for a long time and they have never met my hopeful expectations. I know all about the benefits of family dinners (including higher self-esteem and lower risk for substance abuse, pregnancy, depression, eating disorders and obesity). I want to connect with my children and my husband. I am sold on the idea. I am on board!
But clearly what I’ve been doing isn’t good enough.
It hit me this morning when I was replaying the scene in my head. What I’ve been doing isn’t good enough because it’s too much. I made something for each individual, but it took four times the prep time and resulted in a very fragmented table. I took almost two hours in the kitchen when I could have been playing with my kiddos or asking about their day, not just doing damage control – and I threw at least half of the prepared food away in the end anyway.
It was too stressful, too. When the food was ready, I expected everyone to be ready to eat, but preschoolers generally follow their own timelines. Would it have killed me to wait a few extra minutes for the Lego train to actually pull into the station? And that little phrase I’ve taught them – “Thank you for the food. May I please be excused?” … It’s nice and all, and I really loved the sound of it when I read it in a parenting book, but is anyone saying it in the way it was intended? It’s supposed to be about appreciation and respect – but I don’t think there was a bit of gratitude involved last night.
There has to be a better way to approach family dinners, and it centers around simplification. My approach hasn’t been good enough because I’ve been subconsciously focused on too much doing and too many arbitrary rules. I am going to switch my approach. Maybe the green fork on the floor was a symbol of the fork on the path I’m taking. I’ve been on a stressful road. I want to be on the peaceful path.
If I want a Good Enough Family Dinner, I need to let go of some control. Food nourishes us, and time as a family revives and centers us. Family dinners can and should be peaceful and joyful. I want to let things be. I want to take less time to prepare, and spend more time just being with my family. I am ready to embrace Good Enough Family Dinners and give up control.
Any idea how I can do that?