Miss me? Sorry, readers. I know I’ve been sporadic lately about posting. Last week was a doozy that culminated in P. getting very, very sick with a respiratory infection; believe me when I tell you that trying to manage all the needs of the household AND blog while holding a 23-month-old who’s suddenly decided to channel a clinging baby koala is not something I recommend. However, a week, and weekend, of challenges in the household-management/food and cooking arena has inspired today’s content, so I’ll consider us all the beneficiaries of life’s ups and downs.
I had planned to write this post anyway, but it’s particularly timely that fabulous Bettina over at The Lunch Tray just happened to ask the question: Are family dinners just too hard to pull off? At the same time, a new reader visited the comments board here at RRG and asked how I manage to get a home-cooked meal on the table every night, since J. and I both have full-time jobs and we’re doing the evening daycare pick-up, just like so many other families out there. So it appears that today, the stars are aligned perfectly for this topic. (I love it when that happens.)
Hard to pull off? Yes, sometimes, and I am fully aware that they’re probably less difficult for me, at this stage of the game, than they are for many, many others. I don’t know what it is — I just seem to have inherited some genetic ability to plan, organize, and cook meals that makes it a little bit easier for me (much the same way that I bet lots of you have gotten the cleaning and household organization gene, which I seem to lack). But questionable genetic advantages aside, the real secret is this: I Expect Feeding My Family To Require Some Serious Effort.
That’s it. See, cooking and parenting are similar in that they both require of us to manage our expectations wisely. If you expect that your 2-year-old will sit calmly through a five-course meal at an upscale gourmet restaurant at 9 p.m., you are probably not managing your expectations realistically (and yet, so many people still attempt this type of feat!). Likewise, if you expect that you can juggle all the demands of your life — family members’ needs, household needs, work needs if you happen to be employed, etc., etc. — while effortlessly putting a flawless meal on the table every single night, you’re not only managing your expectations poorly, but you might actually be somewhat delusional.
I don’t mean to be a downer. It’s not a negative thing, this expectation of effort. I prefer to view it as a realistic set-up for accurate planning and execution. If I think it’ll take me some time and energy to get all these meals planned, organized, cooked, and served, I can organize my life around that expectation and MAKE SPACE FOR MYSELF TO DO IT. That might mean making some concessions, such as cooking or doing prep work at 9 p.m., or making myself get into the kitchen during the boys’ afternoon rest time on the weekends (when I’d rather just be resting myself!); it might have a ripple effect through the rest of my household chores, such that I’m throwing towels in the dryer at 11 p.m. or cleaning the bathroom sink at 7 a.m. while brushing my teeth and getting ready for work. But the stuff gets done.
The other expectation I have, by the way, is that every once in a while I will have to let some of it go. Not in huge amounts. Not whole days of carefully planned menus; not expensive groceries out the window. But in little ways. Witness this weekend’s Sunday Dinner:
OK, it didn’t photograph that attractively, but it tasted great (and the kids loved it). Here’s the thing about Sunday Dinner this week — on the meal plan, you’ll note that it was supposed to be accompanied by pasta. I’d also planned to bake some homemade breadsticks. I’d also thought I’d set out some fresh fruit.
Didn’t happen. Clearly. I had to let the extras go and trust that the eggplant and salad on their own would be enough. (They were.) Because Sunday happened like this:
7:30 a.m.: Wake up, stumble downstairs. J. and I decide over my desperately-needed coffee that P. should probably stay home from church, but L. should get to Sunday School. J. volunteers to take L. to church; I think to myself that if P. can detach from my shoulder for more than 10 minutes, I’ll be able to start some prep for dinner, because L.’s got a birthday party this afternoon.
8:00 a.m.: J. asks if I’ll make him breakfast. Like, real breakfast, requiring a skillet and eggs and other stuff.
8:15 a.m.: L. spies Daddy’s breakfast on the stove and starts haggling for a hot breakfast of his own. Since he doesn’t like eggs, he talks me into making cheese quesadillas.
8:30 a.m.: P. decides he can’t be left out. Asks for a quesadilla like his brother’s. Spits out the first bite and runs away.
9:00 a.m.: I finally start eating something of my own, then try to get L. ready for church. P. freaks out and begs to go with Daddy and L. Now it’s a sprint to get every member of the household dressed and ready to get out the door for 10 a.m. services.
11:15 a.m.: We return from church; I eye the clock and realize that I’ve got just about 2.5 hours to get everybody fed, napped, and changed into play clothes; birthday gift wrapped; cajole L. to sign his friend’s card himself (we’re working hard on those fine motor skills); throw a load of laundry in; and start dinner prep, because if we return from that birthday party any later than 4:30, there’s no way eggplant parmigiana is getting to the table for 6 p.m. without a significant portion of the work done ahead of time.
Whew. Long story short, I got the sauce made, the cheese shredded, and the eggplant sliced and salted before taking L. to the birthday party, but yes, it was a commitment. And an effort. And when we returned from the party (at 4:30), I still had to bread the eggplant, cook it up, and layer the whole thing together before popping it in the oven. It may not take a lot of time or effort to cook some pasta; it may not be that hard to slice a bunch of fruit and set it on the table; but I frankly did not have the energy or the will to do anything more than what was absolutely necessary. I wanted to sit down and spend time with the boys and J. I wanted to let P. curl up in my lap, which he’d been dying to do all day.
And that’s a SUNDAY. The supposed day of rest. So the answer for today is…no, family dinner is not impossible. But it is a feat, sometimes. If I didn’t plan ahead of time, have an arsenal of quick-cook options available to put on that plan, and use my slow cooker liberally, I can’t imagine how we’d survive the weekday rush. That’s why I keep planning; that’s why I keep prioritizing family dinners; and that’s why I continue to expect that feeding my family well requires a good deal of commitment and effort from me. If I didn’t, it would be too easy to let it all fall by the wayside. There are some things in life that are too important to let them yield to our modern, harried lifestyle, and this is where I draw my own personal line in the sand.