Some nights it seems to be OK.
Other nights, it’s painful for everyone and full of glaring, crying and frustration.
Not to mention food on the floor.
I’m talking about family dinner. Specifically, family dinner with two working parents, a toddler and a preschooler. And a dog waiting not that patiently for more food to fall on the floor – and please let it be chicken.
We believe in family dinner at our house. Even before we had kids, Philip and I would sit down together most nights and talk about our day. I had sporadic family dinners growing up, but enough of them to know it’s something I like and wanted to continue. I think Philip probably feels the same.
After the kids were born, family dinner often became me nursing at the table and eating with one hand. Then it turned into having a high-chair next to us. Then another one. Now we all get our own regular chair, and usually we stay seated.
But it’s not without its challenges.
Jack is restless. There used to be a lot of yelling at him to stay seated, but now I think we’ve both grown accustomed to how he likes to eat – sort of half sitting on his chair, half standing. He isn’t running around, and doesn’t try to leave the table, so that seems like a fair compromise. Viv squirms a lot in her booster seat, but she’s getting better.
Philip always has to concoct some kind of sauce for any food we eat – usually something he makes in a ramekin that involves some combination of barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, mustard or salsa. He makes it after we all sit down, so there’s always a 5 minute lag between the start of dinner and the actual start of family dinner.
It takes that much time for the kids to pick at their food and begin to whine. Someone wants ketchup. Someone else wants milk. Or water. Or a baby cup. Or a big girl cup. Or a napkin. Not that fork. Some of Philip’s sauce. Something, anything I didn’t put on the table.
So now it’s my turn to get up and down a hundred times in a 20-minute meal. By now Philip is sitting down and trying to eat. Jack is squirming, Viv is putting her fork in her cup. The dog is … staring.
More than once, fed up, I’ve told Philip that I’m going to start eating dinner by myself every night. I haven’t, but sometimes I really, really want to.
And I often think about buying a bigger dining room table, so we could serve food family style, instead of plating it all in the kitchen. If we had everything on the table at once, I tell myself, I wouldn’t have to get up 20 times. But I know that isn’t true. Something would be missing – probably ketchup.
We try to talk about our day – and sometimes it works and for about 45 seconds life is calm and normal and wonderful. I know as the kids get older, dinner will calm down and before we know it we’ll be struggling to get any kind of comment out of a sullen teenager instead of asking Jack and Viv both to stop talking over us.
“How many people can talk at once?” we ask them.
“One!” they both chime.
“Right, so mommy is talking, you have to wait your turn.”
“But I just want to tell you this, mom, do you like my idea? That I tell you? That’s my choice, mom, do you like it?”
And on it goes.
I know we’re teaching our kids important lessons about table manners. The art of conversation. About spending time together as a family. Even about healthy eating. That doesn’t mean it isn’t exhausting and often frustrating and downright annoying.
Sometimes on the weekend, I’ll buy something fancy for dinner, and we’ll serve the kids pizza or grilled cheese and put them to bed. And we’ll have steak and wine and twice-baked potatoes at 9 p.m. In our sweatpants.
And then we still scarf our food down too fast, out of habit.
Jacqueline Palfy Klemond is the local news editor. She considers it a good family dinner if there are no bodily fluids involved.