You know those zingers you get from your children’s pediatrician? Those gentle but firm suggestions the doctor gives you while her eyes bore a hole through you like, “I know you have Mom brain, but you need to listen to this!”
That was our pediatrician Mary Martha Felkner (who has unfortunately just retired from her practice, sniff!!!) telling me about the importance of family meals. Outwardly, I was nodding. Of course, I get it. I was raised on family meals. I am one of five children. We sat down to dinner together every night.
But on the inside, I was going, “Ain’t no way.”
I have three sons 4, 2 and 2. I can’t remember how old they were during that particular conversation with Dr. Felkner, but it was probably somewhere past breastfeeding the twins and getting Wade out of his high chair, and it just didn’t seem feasible.
Trying to prepare a meal for my children, much less my husband and me too, by 5:30 or 6 p.m., without anybody getting hurt in the meantime is tricky. (I mentioned I had three boys, right?) My best bet is to throw something together in 15 minutes or less, preferably five. My usual go-to is heating up something frozen from Costco or boiling pasta to go with spaghetti sauce my husband has made ahead of time. (Between the two of us, he’s the cook!)
And oh yeah, I rarely sit down while my children are eating anyway. I’m the one running around getting more milk, another fork, some paper towels to clean up a spill. I’d rather eat later when I can relax rather than speeding through a plate of food before the first toddler declares himself “Done!”
The way I figure it, there are two kinds of moms: sticklers about food and sticklers about sleep schedules. I’ve yet to meet a mom who is both. I don’t think it’s humanly possible to prepare an uber-healthy homecooked meal that can wait until your spouse gets home from work and still get your children to bed at a decent hour.
Clearly, I’m the stickler for my children’s sleep. (I swear by “Healthy Sleep Habits Habit Child.” It’s a game-changer.) We start the bedtime routine by 6:45, and I love to have everybody down by 7:15. Then by 7:30, let’s hope, I’m cleaning the kitchen and throwing something on a plate for myself (my husband likes to eat later.) I eat dinner on a tray, sitting on the couch, watching the news with my husband. Not exactly what Dr. Felkner was talking about, is it?
I neglected to mention in her company that for the past two years we haven’t even had a kitchen table set up in our house. We’ve been using the dining room as the “Baby Zoo” – our affectionately-dubbed play area where we could gate off the twins, while Mommy washed the dishes. As the twins got older and we took the gates down, we put a kid-sized table and chairs in there so the boys could eat lunch or do artwork together. But still, it was mostly a playroom.
Mealtime usually meant feeding our 4-year-old Wade at the kitchen island and the twins, Johnny and Wes, nearby in their high chairs. Family meals were either cookouts or something we did at a restaurant – we have a tradition of eating breakfast out every Saturday morning. (During the pandemic, it’s often been at relatives’ houses.) My mom and sister each live a mile away from us and have us over for meals quite regularly – lucky us!
Lately, though, I’ve been eyeing our dining room and wondering if we’re making the most of the space. My husband’s birthday was coming up, and he told me he wanted to keep things low key. Aha! What if I surprised him by setting our kitchen table back up and letting his birthday dinner be our first sit-down family meal together in this house? (We moved here when the twins were 11 months.)
With major assists from our babysitter Emma and my mom, in between soccer practice and a Zoom meeting, I got the table from my mom’s garage and chairs from our attic. Wade helped me screw the legs back into the table and he, the twins and I clean it off. I managed to get meatloaf and mashed potatoes cooked by the time Gus walked through the door and all seven of us – my mom and sister included – sat down to dinner. I poured a glass of wine. (Believe it!)
It was Gus’ birthday, but I think I felt as excited as anybody sitting around that table. The boys were so happy just to be sitting “at the big table.” My mom and sister had to be grateful not to be eating off their laps, and my husband, in his quiet and understated way, seemed to appreciate the new setup too.
Tired as I was from the whirlwind prep, I had this huge rush of satisfaction. This is what Dr. Felkner was talking about! We could do this here, together, often.
During one run to the refrigerator for more milk, I looked over at my boys, legs dangling from their booster chairs, and imagined them growing bigger and taller in those chairs, still talking and laughing and eating together.
I’m not sure if I can articulate yet why it feels so important for a family to break bread together, to sit for a while and talk without anybody’s nose in an iPad. But I already know I’m not the only one who felt it. The morning after Gus’ birthday, the first thing Wade said as he tumbled out of bed was that he wanted to eat breakfast at the big table.
The boys have been sitting at the “big table” for breakfast every morning for a week now. They’ve taken to asking me to sit down with them. Now that there’s actually a place for me to sit, I usually take them up on it.
I’m not saying we are sitting down to dinner as a group every night yet, but now I know we can. Dr. Felkner, we are moving in the right direction.