By comparison, I definitely grew up in a household where family style meals were the norm. My mom would probably argue that she didn’t cook that often, but she absolutely did. She used an arsenal of fairly familiar meals and fresh ingredients. Although I stopped eating meat at age 15 and Mom didn’t pander to my whims, I always found it easy to make a full meal out of what she prepared for the family. Lesson 1: You won’t get special treatment, and meals are prepared for everyone. Make your own adjustments.
Regardless of my fickle teenage whims, I looked forward to the smell whipping me in the face when I came in the back door after activities or sports practice. One whiff told you whether it was orange juice chicken, spaghetti, Chinese (an all-encompassing term for various stir fry dishes) or, to my chagrin despite its relative merits, meatloaf.
But that whiff conveyed many other things: even though I knew, I asked what was for dinner. Even though she knew I knew, Mom told me. I knew she cared enough to buy the groceries and fix an involved meal even when she probably didn’t feel like it. I knew we would all sit down to the table together. I knew to pull back my hair and wash my hands, and to use manners: a napkin in my lap, no elbows on the table and please and thank you even as a sullen teen. Sulking may have been mildly tolerated as a teenage phase, but overlooking these simple expectations was not. I could certainly stalk off to my lair after dinner, but not before asking to be excused. I knew, above all, that many things in my life were consistent and predictable, and that the comfort of our routines feels good.
The lesson of the meal prepared for the greater, familial good mattered because I was free to make my own choices, but Mom wasn’t going to plan dinner around me. Lesson subtitle: I love you, but the world doesn’t revolve around you. Second lesson subtitle: you will act appropriately, and our family has rules and standards.
When my older daughter was about age three, I did what I thought I was supposed to do as a new parent and picked up “kid-friendly” things like fish sticks, chicken nuggets and miniature pizza bites. Then, I started reading the ingredients and the sodium content and thought about the lack of real ingredients. By contrast, the meals my husband and I ate were well planned, fresh and enjoyable. I stopped immediately and realized I was on the road to developing a picky eater. It’s shocking how quickly a child stops informing you of what they don’t like when no other options are presented. Now, Chez Stephens, your plate must be cleared but a small treat or dessert is always an option when that happens. If you don’t clear your plate, no other meal options are offered and you’ll find yourself hungry. I don’t mention to my kiddos that I was once in deep trouble for pouring my glass of milk into a nearby plant instead of drinking it. More on that later.
It probably didn’t hurt in the early years that I turned mussels into “We’re having seashells for dinner!” Regardless of the tactics, my eldest now eats an impressive array of foods, and I suspect the small one will follow suit. The eldest loves “snacky dinner,” which in our house translates to a sampling of things like cheeses, meats, crackers, fruits and vegetables. She considers cherry tomatoes a preferable snack and loves finding a fridge full of washed and ready to grab items like grapes, carrots, cantaloupe and grapefruit. Sure, she would devour a pantry full of Ding Dongs and Twinkies, but they aren’t there, so there isn’t much opportunity. She is baffled that other kids don’t love bananas as much as she does, and recently did an impressive pitch to a neighbor kid joining us for dinner on the virtues of “my mom’s mushroom pasta.”
We’re not saints – we keep around things like fruit snacks and cookies, but the household favorites are ice cream sandwiches and dark chocolate bars that we dip in peanut butter. Currently, there are some packaged cupcakes and a boxed yellow cake mix baked and frosted in chocolate frosting on the counter, but it all works here. A friend just told me that she felt like she was corrupting my child when they stopped by Burger King recently and Sophie told her that she had been there once or twice before. Definitely, definitely we are not martyrs – we don’t preach our approach, we just do it, and the way other families do things is up to them and we are not judging. However, I’m not going to lie that I felt a strong pang of pride. She gets fast food, because we are as harried as the next family – but the fact that it isn’t a staple of our lives makes me feel some sense that we are getting it right.
More importantly, I realize that every single day of my upbringing, Mom was teaching me simple lessons. I cling to these things when I feel overwhelmed by the challenge of raising small humans. And then, I realize that it isn’t about how many meals we ate at the table together as a family last week – it’s about the day when it all blurs together in the collective consciousness of my daughters, and they remember that more often than not, I cooked for them as a feeble expression of my love.