Tuesday, October 7, 2008

What's for dinner, Mom?

What’s new at the gas station? The prices! A new one every day. Who knows how much the price will be once this is published, but this morning it was $3.95 a gallon, up six cents from the day before, which was up ten cents from the day before that, which was up five cents from the day before that. I never thought of the possibility of keeping the gas tank filled being more expensive than keeping the hungry mouths at home filled. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

There are seven in our family to feed, and like the gas prices, they like to know what’s coming up. Often when fixing dinner I have had to repeat what’s on the menu six times as each member shows up separately to ask what we’re having. You’d think I’d have wised up after a while and posted it on the dry erase message board, but I never did. Somehow it never connected with me, who made most of those menu decisions, how important the dinner entrée and side dishes could be, especially for those ravenous teenaged boys.

Now that two boys have moved to an apartment, and a daughter has college classes scheduled during dinner, we are down to five or less expected eaters. The apartment guys sometimes show up unannounced, especially when their refrigerator is as empty as their wallets. I don’t mind, because I’m still in the habit of cooking for seven, and it is assuring that now and then I know they have eaten something that isn’t fast food.

These unexpected additions to our mealtimes have made me realize an important aspect of our family life: the tradition of eating dinner together. They can show up at a certain time and be relatively, if not positively certain, that they will not only be fed, but that they can dine with company. We eat together virtually every night of the week, with the exception of Friday nights, when my husband and I sometimes opt to eat out. Even then, I still had to fix a meal for the kids when they were young. Now they are old enough to fend for themselves, and since I still cook for seven, there are often tasty leftovers they can dive into.

This eat-together-every-night has not come without its battles and periods of disruption—although they have been few. We made a decision early on that we would not easily surrender this hallowed family circle for extracurricular school events, after-school jobs, and excessive eating-at-a-friend’s-house excuses. Yes, all of the above have been done, but only after serious discussion and weighing of other options.

We went through a time period where dinner was regularly disrupted for school sports participation—specifically football. We decided that even this could be overcome. The whole family went to the games, and dinner was packed to go. The younger kids loved to watch their big brothers battle it out on the gridiron, and mom and dad held their breath with each devastating tackle. But dinner together went on as scheduled. It was a season in our lives that we remember with joy, and the compromise enabled two boys to fulfill some dreams.

However, we did not cave in to every wish that competed with dinnertime. There are so many out there. Without a firm conviction that each individual needs family time to survive outside pressures and have a safe haven where they belong, we would not have lasted a moment. Kids are usually only around about eighteen years. You can pack a lot into that time without sacrificing family life. This is the time when the family unit is more important than individual achievement—and saying that goes so much against the grain. This is the time of your greatest influence on your children. There are so many voices out there pulling your children away from the values you want to instill. This is the time where they learn that family is more important than career, pursuing hobbies, working out, and hanging with friends.

It was a hard day when our second son said he wanted to move into an apartment. Our first son had chosen to live at home during college to save money, so we had hopes the next one would too. We were not a couple who counted the years, months, or days till the nest became emptier. We dreaded it, but managed to let go with good grace when this son decided to strike out on his own. At first he didn’t show up spontaneously very often. He called for recipes. The ones I used to make for him, he now made for himself, including apple pie! But school got busier, so he went through a crock pot stage, and I got asked less and less about things like cooking vegetables, and when fruit was ripe. Finally the day came when he showed up and said he was tired of grilled cheese and inquired if we had any food in the house.

A year later his older brother, who had spent much time at his brother’s apartment, decided he would move in with him and help with the rent. He cooks even less than his sibling and works weirder hours, so few meals were made by their combining forces. However they both pop in at home more often, like ravenous baby birds with their beaks open wide. I’m glad to oblige, and have even gotten better at sending them off with some extras to peck at the next time the hunger pangs strike.

But there’s more to it than filling the belly. They need their emotional tanks filled too. They need to talk. They need you to listen. They need your opinions so they can know how to form their own. You can take your car to the gas station. You can put the hose to the port on the car. But until you punch that grade selection and the gas starts flowing, the tank isn’t getting filled. That’s why they don’t show up in the middle of the afternoon and ask for food. They don’t show up at midnight to get fed. They show up at dinnertime. We pass around food and everyone eats with gusto. But what we really have for dinner every night is the same thing: conversation.

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