Back To The Table

No more meta-blogging. No more. I refuse. I will say only that I keep getting little pokes from the internet inspiring me to just write. Just write. And I encourage you to do the same. No more hesitation. Tell your stories. I want to hear.
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As most of you know, we spent our fall semester in Texas staying with my parents. One of the many benefits of this arrangement (and there were MANY…) was that someone else was in charge of the kitchen. I come by my love of cooking honestly; my mom is a fabulous cook whose heart is seated solidly in front of the oven. I can’t say I remember any specific dedication to family dinners as a kid, but I think that’s just because that’s the way it was for most families back then. There was no movement to “return to the table” because I think the majority of us had never left it. Lest I lapse into nostalgia for the simpler times, I’ll just say that most of my activities were school-centered, and thus, didn’t involve running all over town at regular times throughout the week*. There were plenty of late pickups from school, and Camp Fire meetings, but somehow, they never seemed to require white board calendars, or complicated eating schedules. It was just a given that we would sit down at the table and eat dinner, and that it would be a home-cooked dinner a majority of the time.

(Let me also be sure to mention that I have no rosy-eyed view of what it took for my parents to be able to plan meals and actually get them on the table, day-to-day, week to week, on and on and on. I fully recognize how difficult that is. But they just did it, because that’s what you did back then.)

Anyhow, needless to say, being in Texas with my mom at the dinner helm was great, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I missed being at my own dinner helm after a while. Yes, I did get plenty of opportunities to help with meal preparation and plenty of opportunities to cook some meals on my own, but while meal planning can get tedious, there is some pleasure I take in sitting down once a week and planning out what we’ll eat, making shopping lists, going to the store (sans kids… what a luxury), and feeling good as our groceries deplete themselves over the week. Like I said, my mom is an excellent cook, her food is amazing, but she loves cream. And butter. And cheese. And nice, rich cuts of meat. And hearty stews. It’s all delicious, but I’ve always been a veggie person. I spent many years as a vegetarian, and I have a deep and abiding love of fresh, simply adorned vegetables that has lasted in spite of my reawakened love of bacon. I love all those things that my mom loves, but they seem to appear much less frequently in my meals.

Naturally, then, one of the first priorities upon returning home was to restock the fridge and plan a week of meals. I got Dinner: A Love Story as a Christmas gift, and I’ve been cooking my way through it over the last few weeks that we’ve been home. There have been some major hits and a few misses, but what I appreciate most about the book is the simple inspiration to cook a meal at home and to sit down together and eat it. Meals don’t need to be projects. And I don’t need to stress over whether my hyper 2.5-year-olds sit down and eat with us. I cook something good, something that is reasonably kid-friendly (meaning it’s not something absurdly spicy, or horribly stinky–otherwise, I’d consider most anything acceptably “kid-friendly”.), and I put it on their plates and I sit them at the table. If they don’t eat anything, if they can’t keep their wiggly bottoms in their seat, so be it.

At this age, I think it’s mostly important that they begin to see this as a ritual, that we stop at the end of the work day and sit down with each other and speak to each other. Maybe they don’t yet fully participate, maybe I’ll have to make someone a peanut butter sandwich later, maybe I’ll have to get up repeatedly in the middle of my meal to refill a sippy cup (or to eventually give up and turn on a video so that my munchkins will let me eat…), but they will hopefully get the message that this is something we do, that this is common behavior in our house.

I make no secret here that I’m not religious, but I read somewhere about how religion functions well within a family for setting up family ritual, how it’s important to have a set of family values. And while regular church attendance works well to instill habits, rituals, shared values among a family, church attendance is certainly not the only means to set up rituals and values. In our family, our one rule is to Be Kind. That’s it. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your friends. Be kind to your parents. Those are our values. And eating dinner together, showing love through the effort of home cooking, is a ritual I’d like to foster.

This week, we’ll be making chana paneer, cecio e pepe, and a Tuscan beef stew (haven’t figured out what else yet… any suggestions?). So, what’s on your menu? What are your strategies for getting your little ones to the table, getting them to eat a variety of foods, getting them to sit still? What are your rituals?

*Should I mention that the decline of extra-curricular emphasis in schools perhaps leads to the need many parents feel to include soccer, dance, art, swimming, etc., etc., in their family’s weekly “free time” schedule? I’m not saying that school-based activities are either superior or inferior to private lessons, but just that many modern parents feel the need to provide these outside-school activities possibly because we’ve decided that school is *only* for academics and as such, have redistributed funds away from school-based extracurriculars, and there is a cost to that, and one of those costs is the family dinner, eating in shifts, stressing ourselves out, running hither and yon to expose our children to various interests… Need I mention that I was nary a few credits away from finishing my degree in Music Education, and that my own public school music education was absolutely integral to my young life?

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4 Responses to Back To The Table

  1. Brandy says:

    We are trying so hard to make family meals a priority with savannah. That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes just eat a sandwich in front of the tv because we are just worn out, but it happens more than it doesn’t. As far as getting her to sit still at the table, I have kind of given up on that. Someone told me (and I have no idea if its true or not) that children are not capable of sitting still until they’re around seven years old. They want to move, it’s just natural for them. So we constantly remind savannah to keep her bottom in the seat (not in a mean way, more of a gentle reminder). Moreso for her safety than anything else because there have been way too many times she has fallen out of her booster seat because she was precariously balanced on the edge.

    She is pretty picky about food, especially vegetables, but I think it’s because she wasn’t really exposed to many of them. We have discovered the magic qualities of ranch dressing. Many times the broccoli serves only as a vessel to get the dressing to her mouth, but I’ll take it!

  2. southcitysadie says:

    Point taken; I’ll try to post more often, too. : P

    I tried to do family meals for awhile, but since giving up their naps (eek, almost 2 years ago!), I & N are out of sorts by the time D. gets home at 5:30, so I feed them around 5 or 5:15. And sometimes I will let them eat at their little table in front of the TV while I eat and read a book. Anything to make the early evening smoother until lights out around 7:30.

    I totally agree with you about the importance of rituals. The book “Simplicity Parenting” talks about this. Just doing a small thing consistently means a lot to little kids, especially at the beginning and towards the end of the day. I love that my BF/college roommate always has milk and a cookie ready when her 2.5 year old wakes up from a nap. I & N always get a cup of warm milk when they wake up in the morning.

    Good point also about the decline of extracurriculars corresponding with increasingly hectic family schedules. But don’t get me started on the expense of outside activities… one reason that I & N have participated in very few classes.

  3. strongblonde says:

    i’m going to check out that book. a book that B and i just read was : kitchen counter cooking school. it was a great reminder about how to do more whole cooking, how to reuse your leftovers throughout the week, not letting things go to waste, and how to make things from scratch (so that you know what’s in them!). we both enjoy cooking and meal planning, so this was a fun read. omlettes are our go-to meal when we don’t have a lot of time-they usually use up some of the veg in the fridge, too. another blogger introduced me to the website budget bytes which is AWESOME. tonight we make the chicken yakisoba (under 400 calories for a HUGE serving–which is mostly veg). other staples for us: korean beef, spinach and mushroom enchiladas, roast chicken, soups, tacos, oh man! maybe we should do a recipe share or something? 🙂

    looking forward to reading more of your posts again. you actually inspired me to write a dumb post today about my dress dilemma (darn. that would have been a better title). it’s like riding a bike, right? you just need to do it again.

    and we grew up the same way. and you’re right–no one really talked about it because it was just what happened. i wasn’t involved in any outside of school activiites either (although i’m guessing that it is mostly related to the cost of the whole thing). i often wonder if i’m doing a diservice to the kids since they’re not enrolled in anything. no swimming. no nothing. they do preschool 2 days a week, but that’s it!!!

  4. Stacey says:

    Hi, just found your blog, and this post really resonated with me! I am at the end of a two-month trip to visit in-laws in Italy with my husband and our 2.5-year-old twins, and I completely understand what you’re saying (everything!). My mother-in-law is a great cook, but I am ready to cook my own meals. I like to experiment, use a lot of vegetables, and have nice strong flavors in my food, but I tend to be pretty sparse with the butter and cream and cheese, not to mention the meat. I too was a vegetarian for years. And my family always gathered for a family dinner, and we always do here in Italy, too. Actually, in this small village in Italy, we gather for lunch as well. It’s very common for lunch breaks to be 2-3 hours so people can go home and eat with their families and maybe even take a nap. I struggle sometimes with getting my kids to eat (much less stay at the table), but my husband and I have always always always sat down at the dinner table, no TV, and eaten together, even when our kids were newborn and we were exhausted. We leave for home on Thursday,and I’m SUPER excited to go grocery shopping, hit up the farmer’s market, and start cooking.

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