By Katie Hellmuth Martin
Somewhere in her Magnolia cookbook, Joanna Gaines says her favorite part of the day is dinner — not eating it, but making it. That says a lot, coming from a mother of four (and she had a fifth after the cookbook was published).
I muted my knee-jerk cringe of a response. Whose favorite time of the day is making dinner? When you have kids around? Especially if your house is small and you don’t live on a farm for the little people to run around on?
The late afternoon into the evening is an intense time after the children return from school or activities. Each kid wants to see and talk to you. A mother of four once told me that when her teenagers were younger, she needed therapy to figure out how to answer them all at the same time when they got off the bus.
I can understand how preparing dinner might be a soul-centering activity for a single person: If my kids are plugged into devices or the TV, I plug into a Marketplace podcast and make dinner and enjoy it, as long as it’s a meal I can make from memory. But even then, I may jump onto Instagram to connect with friends and get distracted and burn the precooked Bob Evans mashed potatoes.
Dinner. What does it stand for? Commercials, movies and TV shows condition us to think it’s normal to gather around a table and eat relatively calmly. But does this happen? Do parents expect it to happen? If it doesn’t happen, do parents think they are failures?
A motherly figure close to our family asked me: “How did your mother do dinner? Did you sit around the table or did you eat in front of the TV?” This person was an eat-dinner-together-around-the-table type. What kind of judgment trap was I walking into?
Growing up, I ate with my family at a circular table as a party of five, but I do remember being interrupted by my basketball practice at 5:30 p.m. and my brother’s tantrums about the texture of the fat on the pork chop, or my mom’s disappointment that my dad was not ready to eat until 9 p.m. because he needed time to unwind from work.
In my adult life, my hubby eats in front of the TV, and now, with kids, we sometimes eat together or I prepare food for them and they eat while wiggling, or I eat with them while standing at the counter because I don’t have a chair at the table, which is located in the kitchen. Rarely, in fact, do we eat at the table. It seats four, but before our fifth came, we didn’t sit there because it is butted up against the wall of our kitchen.
Sometimes dinner just gets in the way. It can take me four hours to make the easiest of meals — box macaroni with bacon and broccoli — because I’m also cleaning the kitchen, emptying the dishwasher, prepping the stove, carrying a baby in a carrier or navigating a toddler at my legs. Then, dinner is ready, followed by distraction, herding the kids like bunnies, eating (maybe), and cleaning the plates, pots, pans and counter.
By then it’s 9:30 p.m. Another “late” bedtime. What’s the point? My husband is a commuter. Dinner is usually all me, or sometimes a joint venture with a neighbor. Sometimes Sal’s Pizza if it’s a deadline night to write this column or finish client work or blog tasks.
The nights I don’t make dinner are lovely. My toddler invites me to the couch to watch TV (“Mommy, sit!”) or play with his cars in the toy room. Or my older son begs me to watch him play Madden on the XBox.
The toy room, by the way, is our dining room. Our family eats at the four-person card table (an heirloom from my Nana that I re-painted to ruin the vintage woodwork design so it would match our kitchen), which means that we rarely sit together there.
In the exploratory phase of this column, I learned from my hubby that the reason he’s always wanted to break the wall between our dining room and the kitchen isn’t because all men want to break down walls in their houses, but that he gets claustrophobic in the dining room. We have a large table in there that seats six, but he won’t sit at it. It became a slime-making shop table.
So what do we do with dinner? We only live about 80 years. If you live to 100, there’s a chance that the last decades of your life will be complicated by dementia or other things. So enjoy this kid life; this altered state of reality until … I’m not sure when. This is the new normal.
Dinner is what you want it to be, and can include dancing, or cereal with no cleanup, or a meal you are proud of.
Meanwhile, after reflecting upon this column while making dinner, this will be my last Kid Friendly column for a bit. Introspection can be emotionally draining. As another mom-friend said to me as we enter November — which is the month of no school and early dismissals for teacher conferences, professional days and Thanksgiving break: “We are all hanging on for dear life!”
Peace. Hug your children. Even if they are being stinkers. We are all stinkers.