Monday, November 16, 2009

Mealtime

One of the things I find most stressful about being a parent is dinnertime. Before being a parent, dinnertime didn't really matter. Eric and I often ate in front of the TV with bowls of pasta, or we went out, or we ordered in... it wasn't really something we thought a lot about. We could skip dinner altogether. Or just eat pie and ice cream. I mean, we are adults, and dinner is just a meal. Sometimes, it was grand - when we had time to shop and cook and sit down together... or when we treated ourselves to a nice meal out (which, really, happened way more often than our budget should have allowed for). But, more often than those two scenarios, it was something that just happened.... with little to no planning because there was always something we could scrounge up and, really, it was just another meal.

Being a parent changes mealtime. Now I feel all this pressure to eat healthier (note, I didn't say healthy), plan meals, and - this is the really stressful part - eat together at an appointed hour that is more or less fixed in time, and way earlier than either Eric and I are accustomed to eating. Kai definitely thrives on a schedule (she's a child, after all), and so she eats at prescribed times (in between snacking at all other times, of course). Which means, if we want to eat together, we have to eat during those prescribed times.

I admit, this is a relatively new stressor. In the beginning, there was no pressure for us to eat together. I'd breastfeed her when I got home, and again before she went to sleep, and that was that. Eric and I could continue our old routine of eating whenever and whatever suited us (sans the nice meals out, of course). As we transitioned away from breast and towards normal feedings, we continued to feed her on her own schedule, particularly because we weren't exactly going to be eating the same thing, and it was so much easier to defrost some baby food and put it in front of her without worrying about what we were going to eat as well.

But, Kai has been eating pretty much whatever we eat for about 5 months, and as a result, I now feel pressure for us to all eat together. One too many public service announcements about the importance of sitting down for dinner together as a family. Honestly, I don't think these commercials are really geared towards us... they are more likely targeting families with older children - you know, the kind of children that sit through meals, don't throw food, and can actually talk and tell you about their day. But, for some reason, I feel like because Kai can eat what we eat, we no longer can get away with just watching her eat (well, we can't get away with it as often, at least).

Logistically speaking, dinners together at an appointed hour are much more challenging they would appear to be on paper. It means someone has to make dinner by about 6:30, which is also the time we are often walking in the door with Kailey after a long day. This is also why the easiest dinner option continues to be grabbing some yogurt, bread, cheese, peas, fruit, cold cuts (you get the idea) out of the fridge and plopping some random assortment of food in front of Kailey, holding off on official dinner prep until after she goes to bed and we have had a chance to unwind a bit. We have taken this approach to meals with some frequency for the last few months... but, increasingly, every time we feed Kailey "random things out of the fridge" rather than a "planned meal" I feel guilty.

Slowly, as Kai has continued to increase her repertoire of food choices, this guilt has translated into more family dinners, and I am slowly learning the tricks to a successful family meal. After 12 years of not really worrying/caring about dinner, this has been a bit of an adjustment.

As with most of our transitions, we have taken this one slowly. We started by trying to have dinner together once a week, on a weekend. Or, if we were feeling particularly ambitious, BOTH weekend days. On the weekend, making the dinner isn't the problem -- there are two of us, someone can watch Kai while the other person cooks, and we can start cooking before 6 PM -- all the elements to a successful family dinner, right? Well, all the elements to successfully getting dinner onto the table. Then there is the small matter of actually eating together, which is also a bit stressful, as the meal involves little actual conversation and a lot of, "no, Kailey, EAT it. Don't throw it." or "Kailey, try your chicken. No more berries. No. No more berries. NO. Don't throw it. Or spit it out. Eat it. Are you done? This is dinner. Are you done? Eat it. Sit. No. Sit. Sit. Sit." And she tends to "finish" before we have even started, which sort of defeats the purpose of eating together.

However, after about a month of what could only be called unsuccessful family meals, we have started to learn some tricks to making family dinners work. First, we no longer serve the entire meal together. Fruit and veggies are like Kai's desserts. If she sees peas, corn, carrots, or any variety of fruit - that's all she'll eat. Whatever we've made for the main course will just sit there, until it lands on the floor. But, if the only thing on her plate is the main course, she'll eat it.

Second, Kailey can be bribed -- with fruits and vegetables! I know this probably won't last -- it's too good to be true. But, Kai will try most anything if you tell her she can have some peas once she tries it. I just don't feel badly about bribing my child with vegetables, and I plan to continue to use the tactic until Kai wises up and realizes that the veggies are not really a choice (or, that she can have her veggies irrespective of whether she eats her main course, desipte my threats). Soon, she'll realize that she could, in fact, barter for something more forbidden... say, dessert or something that she might not really get if she refuses that main course. But, until that time, I plan on bartering with peas.

Third, Kai seems to eat better if she gets to be involved in the meal in some way, and involving her in the prep of the meal distracts her from the fact that she's hungry while we busy ourselves preparing it -- win-win. So, we've taken to having her set the table with us -- an activity that can be drawn out over about 10 minutes. First we put the plates on the table (Kai carries her plate from the kitchen to the living room), then run back to the kitchen to get a cup, then back again for a spoon, back again for a fork, then a napkin... and, eventually, you've killed 10 minutes and Kai is feeling ready to eat anything that you put in front of her because of the anticipation of dinner (at least, this is my theory). Using these tricks made our weekend dinners much more pleasant (as in, we'd all sit and eat our food for about 10 minutes, before Kai started trying to toss items overboard and causing general chaos).

A successful 10 minutes of eating together was enough to motivate me to try a few weekday dinners. We have gotten better at planning things for weekday meals that only take 15 (or fewer) minutes to get onto the table, which is about how long you can distract Kailey by allowing her to "help" with dinner. We are up to about 3 - 4 dinners together a week, which I think is pretty good. On the nights that one of us is working late or that we are just too exhausted to deal with dinner (or we don't have anything in mind that can be made in 15 or fewer minutes), we resort back to scrounging through the fridge and assembling a random assortment of food for Kailey. But, we are starting to eat together with greater frequency. So, here's to continuing to muddle through family dinners! Maybe someday I'll make dinner every night (although I am really not holding my breath... and neither should you!)

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