Family Time

Yesterday, I was with my three nearly-grown children, and we stopped at Panera for lunch. At the table next to us was a young family. Mom and Dad were there with two young daughters—one about nine or ten going on sixteen, and a younger daughter of five or six. In the middle of the meal, Dad said good-bye and left to go to work. Mom stayed at the table with the girls while they all finished their lunch. As they sat there, it was hard not to notice that Mom’s cell phone was sitting on the table, loudly and regularly letting her know she had messages and notifications. Each time the phone alerted her, she looked down and responded.

Lately, I have noticed more and more parents interacting with their phones rather than their children. And I have heard from my children that many of their friends are on their own to make food at home, eating on the run, in their bedrooms, or in front of the television. So here’s my question: when are you spending uninterrupted quality time with your children? How do you show them that they are important and worthy of your time and undivided attention?

I have written about this before, but early in my parenting—and even when our family structure shifted, and I became a single parent—I established dinner together as a deeply important part of our day. This is the time when we come together as a family—and we are together for an important purpose: eating our evening meal. But dinnertime has become so much more over the years. Dinnertime is when we connect. We check in on each other. We talk about life, issues, morals, values, and what is happening in our individual lives and in the world. This meal has become a regular and expected time together as a family.

Now, I have two children in college, and they are home for the Christmas/winter break. Still, each night when I get home from work, we sit down together to consume our evening meal. We laugh, we talk, we eat. And now that they are older, we hash out political issues and share our views, we discuss environmental dilemmas, and we weave together the fundamental pieces of our day into an intricate tapestry that solidifies our family connection.

The unwritten rule, and one that is mostly followed, is that there are no devices at the table. This is family time, and devices are a distraction. Constantly looking at a device and responding to notifications demonstrates that we are not giving others our undivided attention. And it pulls us apart rather than bringing us closer.

And so… about childhood—this is time you will not get back. Establish a daily time to put away your devices and sit down with your children. Talk to them. Listen to them. Learn from them. They are amazing little people who will grow up to become wonderful adults. And those adults will need to know how to connect—deeply and meaningfully—with others. Scheduling some daily time to connect with family can make all the difference.

Dinner Grades

The other day, I was brainstorming dinner ideas, which is not an infrequent occurrence, and I suddenly realized I had a pot of pasta with green onions in the refrigerator. This pasta had started out to be pasta salad for a school event on Wednesday. But after an incident at school that day, the event had been postponed until the next week. Half of the pasta had been made into salad for a pot luck on Friday, but the rest of the pasta (complete with green onions) was still in my fridge. In limbo. And there was my dinner starting point.

I turned to the trusty Internet to find a recipe that would work for my particular pasta dilemma. Oh, and my daughter is currently testing out a vegetarian diet, so I had to find something vegetarian yet hearty enough to satisfy two ravenous boys. Not too tall of an order, I suppose.

I searched pasta and green onions since those were the ingredients already mixed together. Chicken… nope, bacon… nope, shrimp… oh, come on. I finally stumbled on Spaghetti with Skinny Green Onion Sauce. It was made with peppers, onions, and tomatoes with a base that included tomato paste and cream cheese. I could easily swap out the spaghetti for the pasta I had! I went to work, hoping the recipe would turn out as good as it looked.

As we sat down and began to eat dinner, a quiet fell over the diners at the table. That’s always a good sign. A minute or so later after several bites, C said, “This is really good, Mom—I give it an A+!” (as if grading dinner was a thing). He paused for just a second, then he looked me straight in the eye and added, “That’ll bring your grade up.”

Next to him, his younger brother’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped in a split second of shock. Then he pulled himself together. “That was rude!” he commented, and I burst out laughing. The thought of being graded on my cooking was humorous in itself, but the fact that this meal would “bring my grade up” made me wonder what my grades had been on previous meals.

Too bad I’ll never know. But at least dinner was a hit!

 

Ice Cream

The question was bound to come eventually. We had finished dinner (though apparently not dessert), and I was upstairs when I heard it, asked from one boy to the other, older brother to younger.

“What is it about those two flavors that make it better to mix them?” he asked. A burst of laughter threatened to give away my own curiosity on this issue. In truth, I had wondered this same thing countless times, but because this was a long-standing habit, I was used to it, and never asked.

Ever since I can remember, any time we went out for ice cream, W would order one scoop of vanilla and one scoop of mint chocolate chip in a large bowl. Then he would proceed to stir it up until it was all one flavor—vanilla-mint, melty and smooth.

I had been observing this phenomenon for years. I bought cartons of classic vanilla and mint chocolate chip ice cream, so he could prepare this concoction at home. And yet, I had never asked the reason why.

Sometimes, brothers can take not knowing only so long, and they finally break down and ask. But then I heard him ask, “What does it taste like, anyway? Can I try it?” And I wondered if he really wanted to try it, or if this was his way of getting some of his brother’s ice cream. Vanilla-mint or diluted-mint would not be my own personal choice….

The question of why he mixes these flavors was bound to come eventually. From upstairs, I didn’t hear the full answer, but for me, it was satisfying just to hear the question asked.

Just once…

I went grocery shopping on the way home from work yesterday. Grocery shopping is probably my least favorite job of the week, so I would definitely consider it a chore.

It was Friday afternoon, and the market was crowded with faceless shoppers on their way home from work. The only thing that would have made it worse was if there had been an impending snowstorm when everyone has to go out for bread and milk. Who knows why….

Anyway, I picked up everything I thought we might need for the majority of the week since I don’t want to go back right away. I got bread and milk and meat and veggies. The grapes looked good—green with a hint of blush (and they were not mushy)—so I picked up a couple pounds them. I might have gotten more, but I’ve learned over the years. If I get grapes and they are a touch too sour or the flavor isn’t just right, no one eats them.

I arrived home to two teens who could help me unload the groceries while I started dinner—it was fairly late by this time. I pulled the grapes out of the bag and tossed them into a colander and washed them. I tried one, and it was the perfect flavor and firmness. I ate a couple more as I made dinner.

When J came into the kitchen to set the table for dinner, they were still in the colander in the sink, so she tried one, as well. Her reaction was nearly identical to mine. “Ooo, those grapes are good!” she commented, stuffing a couple more into her mouth.

“Umm, dinner in two minutes!” I told her.

“They can be dessert!” she informed me, eating a few more.

When dinner was nearly done, J brought the grapes to the table. With two teens digging in, those grapes didn’t stand a chance. By the end of the meal, there were three grapes remaining. The two teens were too stuffed to eat even three grapes more.

Just once, I would like to come home from the market and not have to return in another day or two to pick up something that we have run out of. Apparently, this week is not my week. At least I can take comfort in the fact that they’re eating healthy!

 

Teen Dinner

So there I was yesterday afternoon, minding my own business, sitting in my office proofreading a document. It was 3:30, and I was thinking about how the evening was likely to play out. At home, my youngest was packing for a weekend camping trip with the Scouts. When I left work, I would go directly home and drive him to where the troop would be meeting. However, I had just reread the email, and a worrisome feeling came over me like a shadow.

According to the email, my son was responsible for eating dinner before the troop assembled, a fact which was frequently true before camping trips. However, before I left for work on this particular morning, I had cooked a pound of spaghetti and popped it in the fridge so the assembly of a dinner casserole would be hastened before I sped off to a class. In my mind, I could see the bowl in the fridge, his hands reaching for it, and the majority of it disappearing before I even got home. Once he got to it, that will be the end of the spaghetti.

Anticipating his approaching dinnertime, I texted him, listing the food options he might choose other than the spaghetti. Thankfully, we had some leftover chicken he particularly liked.

If you are looking to evoke a slight panic at the end of the work day, there really is nothing like the realization that your hungry teen might consume your partially prepared dinner!

Family Dinner

When I was growing up, we always had our evening meal together as a family. I have maintained that tradition as much as possible in my life with my children, as I feel it is important that we sit down together and share a meal and conversation. At dinner, we can sit together, relax, and enjoy each other’s company while we are doing something we need to do anyway. After all, from my experience, there is nothing as effective as food to bring teenagers to the table.

Our family meals might start out calm and orderly. “Could you pour the milk?” “Please pass the salt.” “This is really good, Mom. Thanks.” But any time you have three teenage siblings in the same small space for any length of time, “calm and orderly” can unravel fast and stuff begins to happen. I’m just gonna say it: Our family dinners can get a little rowdy. Take last night, for example.

I don’t know how things deteriorated as quickly as they did, but it started with one of the younger siblings deciding that the oldest would be responsible for fetching anything that was needed—milk, salt, dessert, utensils. The jovial requests picked up in intensity. When younger brother said, “Hey C, can you get me some ice cream? Oh, and I’ll need a bowl. And a spoon. Don’t forget the ice cream scoop…,” C decided spoon, bowl, and scoop would be best delivered via air mail. And so, a spoon flew across my kitchen into the [thankfully] nimble hands of little brother.

“Did you just throw that?” I turned to ask. But by the time the words had come out, a ceramic bowl passed through the air from one boy to the other. “STOP!” I commanded. “Do not throw dishes and utensils!” Seriously? Why is this even something that has to be explicitly stated? This could have gone very badly, but thankfully, it did not. It was not until a few minutes later, when C was playfully tossing a cup in the air to tease me that he dropped it. At least that one was plastic. It does make me wonder what they do when I’m not home.

Come to think of it, this may just be the very behavior that has carved so many chips out of the edges of my dishes….

Lockdown

It was one of those crazy conversations that starts at the dinner table. The cat was outside, sitting at the end of the walkway waiting to come in, as he so often does. W got up from the table and let him in. When he closed the door, he said, “There. Now we are in lockdown for the night. No one goes out. No one comes in.” He sat back down at the table to finish his dinner.

“If that’s the case, you’d better lock the door,” I told him. Rather than get up, he leaned back in his chair, attempting to reach the door. He couldn’t quite reach, and the chair nearly toppled.

“You’d better get up to do that,” his sister advised. “Or you’re going to be the one going out. To the hospital.” W heeded her advice and stood to lock the door. “Or maybe,” she continued. “We’ll have to explain to the ambulance drivers why they can’t come in. GO AWAY! We’re on lockdown!” she demonstrated.

“But then they’d just kick in the door,” W said. “Lockdown or no, they don’t care.”

“True,” I said through my laughter.

By the time I got up from the table, I had completely forgotten about the “lockdown.” The cat was once again meowing at the door, and I let him out, clearly not thinking.

A few minutes later, J spotted the cat out the window. “I thought you let the cat in,” she said to W. “What happened to the lockdown?”

W looked out the window. “Wait… how did he get out? I let him in!”

I turned from the sink to see two kids looking at me. I shrugged sheepishly. “I forgot about the lockdown.” But then we noticed the cat going after something outside. He had clearly spotted something of interest, and he was hurrying toward it. I had been baking for an event at work, and I was sweating, so I took the opportunity to go see what he was after.

“Mom, you can’t go out. The lockdown!” the kids reminded me.

“I’ll just be a minute,” I told them. “I want to see what he is after. DON’T lock me out. There is no lockdown.” And of course, in my mind, my word was the word in this house since I pay the bills.

Nevertheless, I returned to a locked door and a sticky note. “Sorry. We are in lockdown. Come back tomorrow at 6:00 am.” Are you kidding? That’s a long time to be outside without a jacket.

I knocked on the door. “Let me in!” I laughed. “There is no lockdown!”

Yeah, they let me in. If they hadn’t, I would’ve gone to the neighbor’s house. I keep a key there just in case my kids do something crazy—like declare a lockdown and refuse to let me in!

The Cactus

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Tonight at dinner, my daughter went running up to her room and came back to the table with something in her hand. “Here,” she said, thrusting it into my hand. “Do you like my cactus?”

Over the past year or so, she has developed a love of succulents. I’m not exactly sure when this happened or why, but slowly, the plants began to disappear from the windowsill in the kitchen and reappear on the windowsill in her room. I noticed that some smaller pots were materializing, and shoots had been taken from the plants of mine that hadn’t yet made the trek up the stairs. [I am really hoping she doesn’t decide she needs some of my Christmas cactus in the next few days because it has just started to poke out some teeny tiny bud-lings….]

I examined the ceramic cactus in my hand. It was “growing” in a pot that almost looked like a wicker basket. The plant had understated spikes that gave the green ball a distinct cactus look. And the cactus bloomed with two dusty pink flowers.

“It’s beautiful!” I told her when I had finished my inspection.

“I made it,” she told me.

“No you didn’t,” I responded, only partially convinced by her words.

“Yes I did. It came out of the kiln yesterday.” And then she turned it upside down, so I could see the bottom. “My initials,” she pointed out.

Indeed, the bottom indicated that the piece was handmade. And it was beautiful! She just started taking a pottery class at school, this year. I can’t wait to see what else she brings home!

The Butter Monster

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When my children were little, I tried to make boring chores relatively entertaining for them. I felt that if I could bring a little fun to the mundane, it would help my children to develop a sense of adventure as they approached every day situations. I don’t believe I always succeeded, but we certainly had some fun along the way.

Years ago, as school was starting, the stores were pushing autumn baking, I was in the grocery store with two little ones taking care of our weekly shopping. Because I knew it was not their favorite time, we began to play a game. As we walked through the store, out of the blue, I told them that we had to be careful not to be seen by The Butter Monster.

Truth be told, I have no idea where that came from. Nor did I have any idea what we were running from. However, we made our way through the store, ducking behind displays and dodging other shoppers. We moved quickly up and down the aisles, grabbing the items we needed as we passed.

My two little children (I think they were maybe 4 and 6 at the time) were giggling and squealing like they were outside playing a game of tag. And then it happened….

We turned into the baking aisle and nearly bumped into a display of baking mixes, that was topped by a huge cardboard cut-out of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. “Ah!” I practically screamed, trying to maintain some composure while I still entertained my children. “It’s the Butter Monster!!” I whipped the grocery cart around and high-tailed it out of that aisle. We hid one aisle over while we caught our breath and tried to stifle our giggles. Somehow, we managed to finish our shopping.

On my next trip to the store, I asked the manager if it would be possible for us to have the cut out of Dough Boy when the store was done with the display. While they thought I was completely insane, they saved it for me. We brought the Butter Monster with us to Thanksgiving dinner that year and sat him at the table, spreading our fun to extended family.

Maybe grocery shopping isn’t such a “boring chore” after all. I realize that I might have made a hasty judgment. Just because I find a chore “boring” doesn’t mean my kids need to, as well. Perhaps, with memories such as these, my children can reframe the “boring chores” and look on tasks such as food shopping as an adventure!

{Image is a photo of the Butter Monster being placed at the Thanksgiving table years ago}

Appetites

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For some reason, I had ventured into this summer thinking I might catch a break in the grocery department. My youngest was planning a backpacking trip right after school ended, a week at camp in June, and another week at camp in July. With all that time away, I wouldn’t have to buy as many groceries, right?

Wrong. Instead, my son has been on a feeding frenzy this summer. When he returned from three days of backpacking, he needed calories. And lots of them. With three days of hiking—and carrying a pack to boot—he had worked off most of the nearly non-existent fat reserve he maintains. His muscles needed fuel.

When he returned from camp, the story was nearly the same. The boys were active from sunrise until bedtime—classes and hiking and traipsing around the camp, uphill in all directions, it seemed. And the boys were responsible for cooking their own meals. Some days, the food was overcooked; some days, it was closer to raw. He ate, sure, but….

These teenagers, their hunger comes in layers. There is the: I just got up and I’m kinda hungry hunger. That one is easily satisfied with breakfast, or in the case of my oldest, who rises midday, lunch.

There is the: I’ve been at practice for three hours and I didn’t eat enough before I went. Please let me at the food NOW kind of hunger. That one requires some leftover dinner, generally a more substantial meal will satisfy this hunger.

My youngest has been experiencing the: I’ve been away [at camp, backpacking, etc.] working out all day and I haven’t had anything to eat all week but rehydrated pack food or food burned by the boys in my patrol kind of hunger. This is serious. This hunger requires hundreds maybe thousands of calories over a period of days to finally satisfy. In truth, I am not sure there is enough time between camp pick up last Saturday and camp drop off this Sunday to make a dent in that hunger. And the food at the grocery store is getting sparse from my frequent visits.

Catch a break on groceries? Not a chance. The money I don’t spend on the weeks my youngest is away is just a small down payment on the groceries for the following week. He is hungry, and he needs fuel for all of his summer activities. And he’s not the only one. I have three active teenagers, after all.

*[Image is a photo of the typical state of the food supply in my house.]