Growing up, my family ate dinner together every night. My Dad would get home from work a few minutes after five o’clock just as my mom was putting the finishing touches on a protein frying in her pan and whatever vegetable she was going to be force feeding me that night. It was my parents’ chance to talk to my sister and I, it was my sister’s and my chance to do whatever we could to get the other to laugh without being caught by our mom and dad, and it was the dog’s chance to scavenge some scraps (especially on Brussels sprout night).
Our dinners sometimes were eaten in silence. Sometimes there were arguments. Sometimes I had to gag down the food my mom cooked. And even though most times there were pleasant conversations, as I got older, I didn’t see the value in it. I saw through the lens of a teenager which allows for about as much perspective as tanning goggles. In my mind, my friends, girls, basketball, or any other engagement I thought was more important all had my attention more than dinner with my family. I could not understand why my Mom kept bringing me back to the table even though I had lost my appetite for family dinners.
Dinners with my family now are few and far between. Most nights either my wife or I get home sometime after eight o’clock. Dinners are eaten at the kitchen island, eating whatever my wife happened to cook three hours before and was nice enough to wrap up for me . The kids pop in and out of the kitchen, usually out of breath from running back and forth, the dog hovers closely just in case I drop something, and my wife tries to sit with me in between making lunches for school and yelling at the kids to get ready for bed…again.
My wife eats with the kids most nights but every Wednesday, on my day off, I become the only thing standing between my kids and starvation (or at least that’s what they tell me, “Daaaaddd, we’re starving!”). Wednesdays are my night for dinner with me and my kids.
What they want ranges from cereal to “that chicken thing Mom made the other day” so I consult the refrigerator which is like the Island of Misfit Toys. Odds and ends of former dinners sit on the shelves, expertly prepared by someone else besides me, all waiting for their chance to be reheated (an keep me from having to cook something from scratch). I start pulling out anything that isn’t growing fur and isn’t marked ‘Do Not Eat’. It doesn’t take long for me to have the kitchen island covered in a sprawling buffet of Tupperware containers and Saran Wrapped goodies. I hope my kids recognize sometimes quantity is in fact better than quality. Our Wednesday menu is long and somewhat difficult to wrap your head around, like the first 200 chapters of War and Peace.
I have reheated meatloaf, re-sauced spaghetti, opened cans of black olives and Cranberry sauce (why we have Cranberry sauce in February is beyond me), and whipped up tuna and Miracle Whip. I have made scrambled eggs, substituted a lack of green vegetables with applesauce, finished the crumbs left in a bag of Cheez-It’s, made salads with raisins and bacon bits, and have prayed to the gods of potatoes and dairy for Mrs. T’s Pierogies. I have played amateur alchemist trying to put together dinners for the kids and while I’m not sure I have made anything good, I’m fairly certain I’m close to creating gold.
I don’t get to sit down with my family every night so, under the guise of reheated macaroni and cheese and slices of canned Cranberry Sauce, I use Wednesday dinner to stay connected to my kids. We are able to tune out the world and just be together. To talk, laugh, sit in silence, remark how, with enough Ketchup, my food isn’t so bad, and maybe have an argument about the nutritional value of cheesy chicken and canned pears with them. But no matter what occupies our dinnertime, in that moment we’re together, there is no other place I would rather be. In that moment, I understand why my mom and dad sat down with my sister and me every night to have dinner. It wasn’t about trying out new recipes or figuring out Lima Beans are the devil’s peanuts but it was about the moments taking place as we sat together. The food, despite how bad I thought it had been, was what brought us all to the table.
I know my kids are quickly approaching an age which will predispose them to a losing their appetites for dinner with their family but that doesn’t stop me from hunting down cans of tuna, Cranberry sauce, and the treasure trove of food in Tupperware containers in the refrigerator (and in a pinch, milk and Life cereal) so I can keep “cooking” for my kids. Because while they may not see it now and will most likely ignore it later, there is something special about leftovers on Wednesday and it isn’t the food.
*photo courtesy of http://www.indianapublicmedia.org