The dinner hour used to be my worst time of the day until I started doing this.

When I was a teenager, my dad and I were at an airport with some extra time to kill. I told him I was going to stop at a Caribou Coffee and meet him at the gate. As the minutes ticked by, my dad was getting worried that I might be late and miss the flight. He asked someone where Caribou Coffee was. Apparently there were six in this particular airport! He ran around the airport at full speed, looking for me, terrified of missing our flight. I ran into him fifteen minutes before boarding and was surprised by what a state he was in. Apparently the stress was so extreme that his eyes were damaged and his vision was never the same. He always complained of “floaters” that would impede his vision. He’d never had any vision problems until the infamous “Caribou Coffee incident”. The stress of that incident was something life-changing and he referred to it often. I couldn’t imagine how he must have felt, until I had kids and had to start enduring dinner time.

This is an actual picture of dinner time at my house. Two of them are standing in this picture but one is often crawling on the table.

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The dinner time drama is always the same at our house. My boys take naps from 3 until about 5 every day and wake up starving. This is the timeline of events:
5:00: Desperate phone call to my husband asking when he will be home for dinner. He promises 6:15
5-6:15: Little boys attack the refrigerator as I try to hold them off so they will have an appetite for dinner.
5:30: The phone rings and I pick it up. Boys attack the fridge and eat an unbelievable amount of snacks in three minutes flat.
5:33: Appetites ruined.
6:15 Dinner is on the table.
6:20: Husband calls to say he is going to be late and he will be home by 7. Boys attack the fridge again while I am on the phone.
7:00: A reheated dinner is on the table.
7:20: Dad rolls in and we sit down to eat.

I try to get the boys to sit down and eat dinner with us but they aren’t hungry, or not hungry enough to eat grown up food when they have stuffed themselves with string cheese, bananas and yogurts over the last couple hours. Instead of eating dinner, they crawl on the table, throw food at each other and spill drinks everywhere.

I have read articles that herald the benefits of a family dinner. Less obesity, better grades and higher self-esteem are all benefits reaped by kids who eat dinner with their families. In fact I’ll bet most canonized saints and brain surgeons had a family dinner every night. But will our family really reap those benefits when every dinner is reminiscent of the stress of that infamous Caribou Coffee incident?

I decided to make a change a month ago and it has radically changed my state of mind during those precarious hours between 5 and bedtime. While the boys are sleeping, I cook dinner and then clean the entire kitchen. At five, each child’s dinner is sitting on the table, waiting for them just as they wake up. Since they always wake up ravenous, they eat whatever I put out for them! The best parenting advice I have ever gotten is from my friend Tanya who told me “Leslie, hungry kids eat”. They happily eat kale, spinach, curried red lentils, even fish during the magical hour of 5 pm. Since they aren’t sitting at the table against their wills, we have wonderful conversation about their day at preschool, and many other topics they have never talked about before. This evening, for example, I learned that my four-year-old isn’t sure what to do about a girl who has been trying to kiss him and that my six-year-old is regarded as the fastest kid in his class. Imagine that! After dinner, we just put our dishes in the dishwasher and the kitchen is clean. My husband later comes home to a clean kitchen and a happy wife. What a great way to start the evening!

Ever since this change in our dinner schedule, I have started to understand the benefits of a family dinner. Although I am sad that dad isn’t a part of it, I am so glad to enjoy these moments which are so rich in the little details of their lives. Someday my boys will not be crawling on the table and will be hungry enough to eat whenever I serve them dinner. Until then, I love my early dinners with these little boys.

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