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Mealtime Mechanics

"Mealtime Mechanics"

By Leanne Ely

Excerpted from: Healthy Foods: An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Well

(Champion Press) March, 2001

It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So why do I still think my open refrigerator door is going to suddenly inspire me with gourmet thoughts and tasty dreams for this Tuesday night dinner? Isn't it evident that it's almost time to panic? The chicken is as frozen as an igloo in Antarctica and there is no way that the ground round will thaw anytime before Spring. What's a woman to do? The natives are restless and are beginning to circle the cat. I better do something quick. Hungry?! What do you mean you're hungry? It's only 5:45 -- get a grip! No one decent eats before 6:00. Maybe if I go and open the refrigerator door again, inspiration will strike.

But what is this? What doth my eye spy lurking there in the dark recesses of the freezer? To my complete and utter joy, there are approximately three tater tots and five fish sticks at the very back, trying to strike out on their own. Make that four tater tots - what looked like a brown ice cube is actually a tater tot completely encased in its own ice tomb. If I promise them ice cream for dessert, do you think this will be enough?

The tater tot is stuck to the freezer rack and comes apart as I try to pull it out. Back down to three tater tots. Nope, definitely not enough for two growing kids. Now what? Yikes, it's 6:00 - now it's time to panic.

You-know-who should be bursting in on the scene in about 15 minutes. What am I going to make? Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches along with a banana each for the kids with a promise for ice cream cones tomorrow - if they promise not to tell a soul their mother, the cookbook writer, is feeding them so pathetically and is fresh out of ideas (and ingredients) for dinner.

I eyeball those fish sticks and 3-1/2 tater tots. Evil thoughts fill my mind as I whip out the can opener and make a unique casserole, just for you-know-who. A fish stick here, a tater tot there, some Y2K cream of chicken soup in the middle, sprinkle with tarragon, top with cheese and garnish with the half a tater tot rescued from ice - I'm a genius! And as Martha would say, it's a good thing.

Sitting down to dinner as a family has almost become the exception and not the rule anymore. The family table has been sacrificed for various activities and the results are disheartening. Many families feel disconnected from each other, children are incommunicative and the opportunity to really know and care about each other is gone in the quest to get to soccer practice on time.

A little thing like trying to sit down together as a family for dinner every night, will have an impact on the family like almost nothing else. For a lot of families, this could be the only time in the day possible to interact and connect. Giving that time up to activities will undermine a family's cohesiveness. Think about it. If you don't have time to be together, you can't expect your family to be close and loving. It won't happen unless there is that investment of time.

So how do you revamp life to fit into this goal of sitting down to dinner together as a family? Let's take a hypothetical family, the Busbees (dad, mom and 2.5 kids-typical American family) and see if you can relate to their schedule. They have been complaining about the lack of family togetherness and when the family dinner table was suggested, they thought it sounded great. But the question is, for whom?

Betty Busbee, the mom, has a minivan with a bumper sticker that says "If I am a stay-at-home mom, why am I always in the car?" Naturally, she volunteers in both kids' classrooms. In addition, she teaches Sunday school, manages the family's finances, and does all the cooking and cleaning. She's also a homework helper to both kids and the captain of the phone chain for school. She does all of that in-between her time in the car where she takes the kids to music lessons, band practice, ballet, tap, clogging, gymnastics, 4-H, cub scouts, girl scouts, choir, swimming lessons, swim team, soccer, baseball, volleyball and croquet.

And now, with her hair standing on end and a mad dog glint in her eyes, she asks, "YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?" Clearly, this is a woman who needs a break. This is a family that needs to realign their priorities.

How is this done, anyway? How can a busy Busbee family get a grip on what's important to them as a family? It starts with just that question: what is important to our family? And is what we are doing accomplishing our goals?

Let's take a look at the Busbees. For starters, Mr. and Mrs. Busbee can set down some hard and fast rules: one activity each for the kids. That can even be cinched up a little tighter to make sure that the kid's different activities are on the same day. I use that tactic a lot to keep my schedule from flying out of control, and I only have two kids! How much more important this rule is when there are more children in the home. I have one day a week that the kids have music lessons, we go to a convalescent home, and do all the errands - sort of stacking the day with all the run around stuff, rather than scattering it all out all over the week. It works well for us and helps us keep our priorities straight. You want your home to be more of a home and less of drop off point or launch pad. There's no place like home is in real danger of becoming, there is no place that's home.

The other thing the Busbees can do is not sweat the small stuff. Let's say dinner together is impossible a couple of nights a week. Have breakfast together if you can't do dinner, even if it means getting up a little earlier than normal. The important thing is sitting down together. On the other hand, it may be impossible to sit down before 7:00 pm for dinner. I am unaware of any rules that say dinner must always be eaten at 6:00. Flexibility is what will make this work.

I have reworked my schedule so that my children are a part of the dinnertime preparation and routine. This is one more way to develop good relationships with your children. Both of my children look forward to their turn when they get to be mom's kitchen helper. My daughter, though just 10, can already make burritos, scrambled eggs, pancakes and bake cookies, and makes lunch for her brother and me regularly. She can easily clean up a kitchen single-handedly. She has learned to do these things by my side as my kitchen helper. My eight-year-old son is an expert carrot and potato peeler, pancake turner over-er, and terrific salad maker. And he has learned to dry and put away dishes, sweep and wipe down the counters and table. If something needs vacuuming, I call in the expert, my son.

The point is when children have a vested interest in helping the family reach its goal of drawing closer, they pitch in and do what they can to help. If the burden is all on mom's shoulders to do all the cleaning, cooking and cleaning up, she's overworked, overburdened and what should be a relaxing, enjoyable time is just another thing on her list of things to do. Not only will these trained and efficient kitchen and household helpers make a difference at home, they're having an opportunity to exercise their work ethic at an early age-something that will serve them and their employer well when they get older. This all works in tandem with the idea that as the workload is spread out, the family has more time together. Everyone is happier, especially mom!

Once you finally do get to the sitting down together part, enjoy each other! Don't rush through dinner and start barking orders to get the table cleared. Sit and savor the moment. Laugh at your preschoolers silly joke told for the fiftieth time, listen intently as your son talks about catching that fly ball. By giving your children eye contact and truly listening, they know they are loved and cared about. Good healthy food on their plates can never take the place of a parent who is truly there with their child, in the moment, listening to their stories, complaints and goofball jokes.

But where was dad in all this dinner preparation? Why scrubbing the toilet bowl, of course. Actually, the real reason I didn't include him in this dinner time scheme is because for us, he's usually arriving after all the action has taken place. And I've found that's the case with a lot of families. But that doesn't mean Mr. Wonderful gets the best spot on the couch and full remote privileges. Helping to clean up or taking the kids off your hands a bit after dinner, offers great time for dad and kids to reconnect. Nothing will cause a woman to get more resentful quicker than having a hubby come home and get comatose on the couch after dinner. There are still dishes to do, children to be bathed, stories to be read. So even if your husband misses all the preparation for dinner, he can still be a big part of this new and improved plan of family togetherness. His participation is as important as everyone else's.

All of this will help create a family identity and bring everyone close. I tell my kids that they are "the excellent Ely's and we do things excellently". I don't tell them this so they can proclaim themselves superior to the world, but so they'll eventually hold up high and excellent standards for themselves and their own families when they are grown. From their vantage point and ages, I'm sure my children probably don't see how any of this interrelates but it does. Like a gigantic tapestry, all these things act like different colored threads to make one beautiful masterpiece. If all you could see was the backside of a tapestry, you would see all the work that went into making this fine piece-the knots, the patterns and continuity of color-all of the hidden work. Not too impressive, if that was all you saw. But when you turn it over, the beauty of this work will take your breath away. This is what the family dinner table represents. A constant thread in the tapestry of our family's life. While only a single thread to a bigger canvas, its interwoven pattern strengthens and clarifies the big picture on the other side. Without it, the whole thing would fall apart.

Excerpted from the book Healthy Foods: An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Well (Champion Press) March, 2001.

Copyright (c) Leanne Ely

All Rights Reserved, Used with permission

About the author:

Leanne Ely is a nutritionist and former caterer, with a passion for cooking and writing. Her first book, Healthy Foods: An irreverent guide to understanding nutrition and feeding your family well (Champion Press) is due out on bookstore shelves in March. Leanne also writes a newspaper column called The Manic Housewife, is the editor of Healthy-Foods, a free weekly ezine (to join, send an email to join-healthy-foods@xc.org) and has the world's shortest radio program, (one minute) called, "Manic Minutes", coming to a radio station near you.


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