Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Many Faces of Dinnertime

God, I hate dinnertime... you know, that awful period between about 5 and 6.30 pm, when the kids are BEYOND exhausted, bored out of their skulls, and NOTHING will amuse them, not even television. Above all else, they are STARVING. Ravenous, even. But, because it is so late in the day, you don't want to give them a snack, for fear of spoiling their appetites. Of course, what eventually results from all of this is an absolutely mind-blowing, life-threatening, boneless, spineless fit that usually takes place in the middle of the kitchen floor. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you what we at my house call the Arsenic Hour: you either wind up giving it to the kids, or taking it yourself.

So, my question is simple: after all of this incredible fuss has subsided, how is it possible that the three little people I live with TURN UP THEIR NOSES at the dinner table, no matter what delectable meal I painstakingly prepare for them? They're hungry, right? They need FOOD. So, why not GOOD food?? More specifically, why is the food that I slave to plan and prepare never acceptable to them?!

Let me just say this in my own defence: I was a child of the 70's, a generation definied not only by the revolting clothing, but also the revolting casseroles our mothers lovingly provided for us. I swore blind that when I had my own kids, I would NOT prepare meals boasting "Crunchy Cornflake Topping!!" or sporting names like "Green Bean Supreme", or "Hamburger Hot Dish" (something my brother, sister and I came to refer to as "Burger-Noodle-Barf"). I would also not stoop to the level of the quick-fix: no "Helpers" or "Sides" out of packages for my progeny.

You name it, folks, I've tried ALL the alternatives. I've bought the specialty children's cookbooks, written by dieticians from every major health facility. I've tried the "cute food" cookbooks that instruct you to cleverly disguise nutritious morsels into ridiculously intricate works of art on a plate (I had to give up this nonsense as soon as baby #2 arrived, and time completely evaporated on me). I've even tried the cookbooks that get the kids to make their OWN meals, only to have the children screech "Now we're supposed to EAT IT??? EEEEWWWWW!!!!!" upon the recipe's completion.

I also confess... reluctantly... that for a time, I embraced that Dark Side of Parenting... and made two meals every night: one for the kids, and another for the adults. The kids' meal consisted of precious few ingredients: usually cheese, bread, peanut butter, milk and bananas... with the occasional green grape thrown in for good measure... But, it allowed my husband and me to occasionally eat what WE wanted, without all the exuberant, offensive fuss.

What happens when you fall into that nasty trap of constantly catering to your children's culinary whims, besides spoiling the living hell out of the little critters, is that Mother Eventually Burns Out. It's just not possible to keep up the job of being a gourmet short order cook for five different customers, three times a day, without 1. being well-paid to do it, and 2. getting days off on a regular basis. Needless to say, the pay and the perks stink.

So, this year, when my youngest turned two, had offically outgrown her baby seat and proved that she could chew and swallow just about anything that would fit into her mouth (but that's another story for another time), I laid down the law with my kids. I told them that from that point on, I was going to cook good, regular food from a good, regular cookbook (let's hear it for the "Best of Bridge" series!!), and they were going to sit at the table and politely try a minimum of three bites of everything on their plates. ONE meal for the whole family. And if they didn't care for it, well then, tough. As Buddy Hackett once famously said, at his house he always had two choices for dinner: take it, or leave it. We were going to try the Buddy Hackett system!!

Well, the system has some flaws, undoubtedly. My six year old has become our resident Rude-Face-and-Noise-Maker, while my ten year old has perfected the WHHHIIIIINNNNE... The two year old throws things: forever burned in our memory is her first full sentence, "NO din-der!! ALL DONE!!" followed by tossing her entire plate of food halfway across the room.

Yup, the system has flaws all right. But, I guess the key to making it through the Arsenic Hour, the "Hour of Power", is to remember who actually HAS the power... We parents have the power to be firm and consistent. And, most importantly, WE have the power to insert wax earplugs before sitting down to dine with the children.

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