Thursday, September 27, 2012

Food for Thought

I've made a lot of mistakes as a parent. The one thing I know I did right, I get no credit for as I merely recreated a ritual I'd learned in childhood: the family dinner.

Years of meals with my parents, sisters and brother blur together, but I know I laughed so hard I snorted milk from my nose, my mother threatened us with no dessert unless all vegetables, including hated lima beans, were consumed, and my father imposed one rule: "What we say at the table, stays at the table." My sibs and I followed that rule, mostly because we thought our friends would be bored silly with reports that someone had spilled milk three times in a row and someone else had tattled about me slipping a grocery-sack book cover around a mystery so I could read while pretending to do homework.

When I became a mom, I had definite opinions about cloth diapers (pro) and anesthesia during childbirth (con). Over time, I'd change my mind about those issues and many more. Raising kids is a lifelong lesson in humility, in figuring out what works and what doesn't, and in staying flexible.

Oddly enough, my new-parent self didn't have an opinion about family dinners because I didn't know there was an alternative. When some friends admitted they fed their children at five and ate dinner with their husbands at seven (with wine!), I didn't copy them because I couldn't face preparing and cleaning up after two meals. Besides, I returned to work when my second child was nine months old, and there were days when the four of us were lucky to sit down to eat at eight p.m.

Dinner became our time to decompress and talk. That's not to say meal times at my house were marked by deep, thoughtful conversation. Often, one or all of us couldn't wait to be excused from the table. We had stand-offs about food, and I'm not talking about vegetables a lot of kids are reluctant to try, like eggplant and Brussels sprouts. My daughters refused to eat pasta and, bless their hearts, recognized it even when it arrived in the shape of wagon wheels or shells.

Our dinner conversations sometimes ended in tears or with a kid stomping off to her room and slamming a door. Nevertheless, we ate together as a family most evenings, even when sports and school activities meant the meal didn't happen until nine or nine-thirty. The food wasn't always prepared by me. Hubs cooked one night a week, and when the kids got bigger, they played chef one evening out of seven. For many years, Friday meant take-out pizza.

One daughter qualified as a picky eater, and only one chicken dish pleased her. In the interest of peace and filled bellies, I made it a stand-by: chicken thighs marinated in salad dressing, coated in ground-up Triscuits, and baked. Foodies we weren't.

By the time my kids were in middle school, they knew not all their friends ate dinner en famille, and when my oldest daughter was in high school, she made it clear she wished we'd ditch regular meal time. During their college years, however, my kids' attitude toward mealtime morphed. They'd come home on break and ask me to make "my" King Ranch chicken or "my" stew. Now that they're grown with responsible jobs and places of their own, they tell me they miss our nightly meals and appear to look forward to our Sunday dinners together. They still don't eat pasta, though, the brats.

Parents tote plenty of guilt, and, God knows, I'm the last person to heap another burden on the over-worked and over-scheduled. As one whose kids are grown, though, I look back and know the family dinner was our best, most-enduring ritual and bonding experience.

Is a shared meal the only way to achieve such togetherness? Of course not. Didn't I say raising kids is a lifelong lesson in staying flexible? I have friends who insist the best bonding time happens in the car when ferrying kids from one school event to another. My brother-in-law swears he got to know his kids by coaching their soccer and ice hockey teams.

I have trouble keeping my eyes on the road when chatting with kids and am meh at sports. For me, dinner was doable and turned out to be the glue that held us together.

A national Reclaim Dinner challenge began Monday, September 23, but it's not too late to join the effort. (Thanks to Jonathan Fields for the link.) By the way, this is not an all-or-nothing deal. If you eat together at home two nights a week now, the challenge encourages you to bump it up to three. Baby steps.

That's not all, folks. If you'd like a month's worth of dinner recipes plus ideas for conversation starters, go here. (The Tuesday recipe was for a ratatouille-like dish and the conversation starter was the movie Ratatouille. Isn't that a smart and sneaky way of keeping the family together for three hours? And there could be popcorn!

Your turn: what family ritual/bonding experience meant/means the most to you? Is it dinner, talking in the car, sports, travel, a week at the shore, or something completely different?


Jennette Marie Powell said...

I am totally with you Pat - bring on dinner! My husband's family didn't do this when he was growing up, and it's a bonding time he's come to appreciate in our home now with our daughter. My family did do dinner together, and although I didn't think anything of it at the time, it's an opportunity I'm glad I had now. Now, with all our busy schedules, sometimes it's the only time we have to really connect, especially since our daughter started driving.

Julia said...

Oh yeah, Pat. Dinner time is almost a cheater's way to help solve problems. There you all are, looking at each other, and things just .. come out. Like milk through your nose! Thanks for your thoughts.

Sheila Seabrook said...

I grew up with the TV on during lunch and supper, so we watched TV instead of talking (although you'd never know it now because when we get together, everyone talks at once!). So when we had kids, we put the TV as far from the dining room as possible and made meal time talking time. There were times when my husband and I wanted to cover our ears and sing "la la la". The kids told us everything. Well, almost everything. Our boys were in French immersion, so if they really didn't want us to know about something, they would just talk to each other in French. Brats. :)

aroseisarose said...

I still hate pasta, lima beans and a host of other things (I'm Picky Eater Daughter), but our family dinners have never really been about the food. They are one of my most important commitments and a weekly reminder of what matters and how much I have to be grateful for.

Sheila--when we were younger, my parents spoke in French when they didn't want us to know what they were talking about!

Lark Howard said...

My family ate dinner together when I was growing up too, Pat. My mother was a dreadful cook, so I think I blocked them out once I left home.

I've never had kids and when I was single during my crazy business travel days, I got out of the habit of cooking. Now my husband cooks breakfast every morning and that's become a ritual I miss when I'm away. Hey, who doesn't like having coffee and a hot breakfast on the table when they get out of the shower?

And I'm with you, Amy, on pasta and lima greens--YUCK!!!!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

I'm glad you won your husband over to the dinner side, Jennette. And you're right, once kids start driving, they find dozens of reasons to be out and about, so it's extra important you have time to connect with your girl. Yay, dinner!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hi, Julia! Yes, dinner time is almost cheating because it's easier to talk than to listen to ourselves chew. Also, if we impose the old "wait until you're excused" rule, we're a captive audience for one another. Thanks for stopping by!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Your boys told you everything, Sheila? How did you manage that? Did you slip truth serum into their mashed potatoes? If so, where did you obtain it and is it available in industrial-size vats?

How clever your boys were to speak French when they didn't want you to know what they were saying. I wonder if their French teachers knew and gave them extra credit?

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Aw, Amy, now I'm all teary-eyed. Thank you for your commitment to Sunday dinner with the family. Your father and I are grateful for you and your sister. What amazes me is that you turned out to be the foodie in the family. I mean, you'll try offal and bycatch, if not pasta.

Ton pere at moi, nous en parlerons ce soir.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Lark, I think our moms are sisters from another mother. My mother loves doing laundry (huh?) and dislikes everything about the kitchen. Our family meals improved dramatically once she got her hands on the I HATE TO COOK cookbook by Peg Bracken.

A hot breakfast on the table when you step from the shower has to be heaven! Good for Steve!

Coleen Patrick said...

I'm with you on the family dinners. Now that my kids are teens, the weekdays are hit and miss at dinner time. But Friday night, without fail, we all get together. :)
Pat I'm still thinking about the no pasta thing. Pasta is still my go-to, no-brainer meal. You get points for that Pat!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

It pleases me to think of you and your family together tomorrow night, Coleen. Thanks for the pasta points. Once, I tried to pass off orzo as rice, and Picky Daughter took two bites before she put down her fork and said, "This is pasta." I couldn't fool her with couscous, either.

LynNerdKelley said...

Love this post, Pat. I agree that dinnertime together is very important. There have been studies done about this topic, and it's been proven that it's an important time for families to be together.

We always ate together as a family, more often when the kids were younger. If there were events we had to go to, we didn't wait until we got home. We'd grab some drive through food, so we weren't sticklers, but it's a special time for families to bond.

Our family also bonded while playing games. Plenty of hearty laughs during game time. That's something I grew up with and we passed it on to our kids. Even as adults, we always love to play games. Have a wonderful weekend, Pat!

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Hi, Lynn! Game night's a great bonding experience. Thanks for that reminder.

Parenthood has a way of shaking the stickler out of us, don't you think? When kids have away games, it's the drive-through or nothing.

Hope you get to play games this weekend!

Karla Darcy said...

I love this post. My family was big on family dinners and it was a wonderful time growing up. My husband's family ate for nourishment and raced through dinner and rarely talked. When we had kids he discovered the joy of the family dinner and is so much closer to the kids because of it. Nice job, Pat.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

Nice job converting your guy to family dinners, Karla. Closeness to kids is a huge benefit.

When I don't rush through a meal, I'm satisfied when I get up from the table. The quantity of food consumed may be less, but emotional satisfaction fills me. I suspect your guy appreciates that collateral benefit, too.

louise Behiel said...

Family dinners are lovely and an integral part of family life, imo. and we continue in my family with Sunday dinner with my kids. The grandkids love it.

Pat O'Dea Rosen said...

The Rosens will toast you and your family tonight, Louise. I hope you feel the warmth headed your way. Bon appetit!