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Mealtime Mechanics

Mealtime Mechanics It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So why do I still think my open refrigerator door is going to suddenly inspire me with gourmet thoughts and tasty dreams for this Tuesday night dinner? Isn't it evident that itís almost time to panic? The chicken is as frozen as an igloo in Antarctica and there is no way that the ground round will thaw anytime before Spring. Whatís a woman to do?

The natives are restless and are beginning to circle the cat. I better do something quick. Hungry?! What do you mean youíre hungry? Itís only 5:45 -- get a grip! No one decent eats before 6:00. Maybe if I go and open the refrigerator door again, inspiration will strike.

But what is this? What doth my eye spy lurking there in the dark recesses of the freezer? To my complete and utter joy, there are approximately three tater tots and five fish sticks at the very back, trying to strike out on their own. Make that four tater tots-what looked like a brown ice cube is actually a tater tot completely encased in its own ice tomb. If I promise them ice cream for dessert, do you think this will be enough?

The tater tot is stuck to the freezer rack and comes apart as I try to pull it out. Back down to three tater tots. Nope, definitely not enough for two growing kids. Now what? Yikes, itís 6:00-now itís time to panic. You-know-who should be bursting in on the scene in about 15 minutes. What am I going to make? Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches along with a banana each for the kids with a promise for ice cream cones tomorrowÖif they promise not to tell a soul their mother, the cookbook writer, is feeding them so pathetically and is fresh out of ideas (and ingredients) for dinner.

I eyeball those fish sticks and 3-1/2 tater tots. Evil thoughts fill my mind as I whip out the can opener and make a unique casserole, just for you-know-who. A fish stick here, a tater tot there, some Y2K cream of chicken soup in the middle, sprinkle with tarragon, top with cheese and garnish with the half a tater tot rescued from ice...Iím a genius! And as Martha would say, itís a good thing.

Sitting down to dinner as a family has almost become the exception and not the rule anymore. The family table has been sacrificed for various activities and the results are disheartening. Many families feel disconnected from each other, children are incommunicative and the opportunity to really know and care about each other is gone in the quest to get to soccer practice on time.

A little thing like trying to sit down together as a family for dinner every night, will have an impact on the family like almost nothing else. For a lot of families, this could be the only time in the day possible to interact and connect. Giving that time up to activities will undermine a familyís cohesiveness. Think about it. If you donít have time to be together, you canít expect your family to be close and loving. It wonít happen unless there is that investment of time.

So how do you revamp life to fit into this goal of sitting down to dinner together as a family? Letís take a hypothetical family, the Busbees (dad, mom and 2.5 kids-typical American family) and see if you can relate to their schedule. They have been complaining about the lack of family togetherness and when the family dinner table was suggested, they thought it sounded great. But the question is, for whom?

Betty Busbee, the mom, has a minivan with a bumper sticker that says "If I am a stay-at-home mom, why am I always in the car?" Naturally, she volunteers in both kidsí classrooms. In addition, she teaches Sunday school, manages the familyís finances, and does all the cooking and cleaning. Sheís also a homework helper to both kids and the captain of the phone chain for school. She does all of that in-between her time in the car where she takes the kids to music lessons, band practice, ballet, tap, clogging, gymnastics, 4-H, cub scouts, girl scouts, choir, swimming lessons, swim team, soccer, baseball, volleyball and croquet.

And now, with her hair standing on end and a mad dog glint in her eyes, she asks, "YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?" Clearly, this is a woman who needs a break. This is a family that needs to realign their priorities.

How is this done, anyway? How can a busy Busbee family get a grip on whatís important to them as a family? It starts with just that question: what is important to our family? And is what we are doing accomplishing our goals?

Letís take a look at the Busbees. For starters, Mr. and Mrs. Busbee can set down some hard and fast rules: one activity each for the kids. That can even be cinched up a little tighter to make sure that the kidís different activities are on the same day. I use that tactic a lot to keep my schedule from flying out of control, and I only have two kids! How much more important this rule is when there are more children in the home. I have one day a week that the kids have music lessons, we go to a convalescent home, and do all the errands-sort of stacking the day with all the run around stuff, rather than scattering it all out all over the week. It works well for us and helps us keep our priorities straight. You want your home to be more of a home and less of drop off point or launch pad. Thereís no place like home is in real danger of becoming, there is no place thatís home.

The other thing the Busbees can do is not sweat the small stuff. Letís say dinner together is impossible a couple of nights a week. Have breakfast together if you canít do dinner, even if it means getting up a little earlier than normal. The important thing is sitting down together. On the other hand, it may be impossible to sit down before 7:00 pm for dinner. I am unaware of any rules that say dinner must always be eaten at 6:00. Flexibility is what will make this work.

I have reworked my schedule so that my children are a part of the dinnertime preparation and routine. This is one more way to develop good relationships with your children. Both of my children look forward to their turn when they get to be momís kitchen helper. My daughter, though just 10, can already make burritos, scrambled eggs, pancakes and bake cookies, and makes lunch for her brother and me regularly. She can easily clean up a kitchen single-handedly. She has learned to do these things by my side as my kitchen helper. My eight-year-old son is an expert carrot and potato peeler, pancake turner over-er, and terrific salad maker. And he has learned to dry and put away dishes, sweep and wipe down the counters and table. If something needs vacuuming, I call in the expert, my son.

The point is when children have a vested interest in helping the family reach its goal of drawing closer, they pitch in and do what they can to help. If the burden is all on momís shoulders to do all the cleaning, cooking and cleaning up, sheís overworked, overburdened and what should be a relaxing, enjoyable time is just another thing on her list of things to do. Not only will these trained and efficient kitchen and household helpers make a difference at home, theyíre having an opportunity to exercise their work ethic at an early age-something that will serve them and their employer well when they get older. This all works in tandem with the idea that as the workload is spread out, the family has more time together. Everyone is happier, especially mom!

Once you finally do get to the sitting down together part, enjoy each other! Donít rush through dinner and start barking orders to get the table cleared. Sit and savor the moment. Laugh at your preschoolers silly joke told for the fiftieth time, listen intently as your son talks about catching that fly ball. By giving your children eye contact and truly listening, they know they are loved and cared about. Good healthy food on their plates can never take the place of a parent who is truly there with their child, in the moment, listening to their stories, complaints and goofball jokes.

But where was dad in all this dinner preparation? Why scrubbing the toilet bowl, of course. Actually, the real reason I didnít include him in this dinner time scheme is because for us, heís usually arriving after all the action has taken place. And Iíve found thatís the case with a lot of families. But that doesnít mean Mr. Wonderful gets the best spot on the couch and full remote privileges. Helping to clean up or taking the kids off your hands a bit after dinner, offers great time for dad and kids to reconnect. Nothing will cause a woman to get more resentful quicker than having a hubby come home and get comatose on the couch after dinner. There are still dishes to do, children to be bathed, stories to be read. So even if your husband misses all the preparation for dinner, he can still be a big part of this new and improved plan of family togetherness. His participation is as important as everyone elseís.

All of this will help create a family identity and bring everyone close. I tell my kids that they are "the excellent Elyís and we do things excellently". I donít tell them this so they can proclaim themselves superior to the world, but so theyíll eventually hold up high and excellent standards for themselves and their own families when they are grown. From their vantage point and ages, Iím sure my children probably donít see how any of this interrelates but it does. Like a gigantic tapestry, all these things act like different colored threads to make one beautiful masterpiece. If all you could see was the backside of a tapestry, you would see all the work that went into making this fine piece-the knots, the patterns and continuity of color-all of the hidden work. Not too impressive, if that was all you saw. But when you turn it over, the beauty of this work will take your breath away. This is what the family dinner table represents. A constant thread in the tapestry of our familyís life. While only a single thread to a bigger canvas, its interwoven pattern strengthens and clarifies the big picture on the other side. Without it, the whole thing would fall apart.

Momís Super Hat Trick #1

The Taming of the Shrew

    Sometimes trying a new food, can be more trying on a parent then the child, if you get my drift. There are times when food needs to be an adventure. Not everyday, but just especially when introducing something new, especially little guys. Here is a great trick for presenting a food to your child.
The On-A-Stick Trick
    "Iíve got the world on a string..." so the old song goes. But if youíre a kid, you could probably care less about the world being on a string or this old song. Now, if you had the world-on-a-stick, well, thatís completely different.

    Kids will eat anything if they get to poke it with a stick. At least one bite, anyway. Cut everything up, put it on a plate (not touching!) and give them a big toothpick. Give them a rule or two, like donít put the toothpick in your sisterís eye, refrain from putting the toothpick in your ear-things like that. Then let them go to town! Theyíll have a blast and may actually try something they wouldnít have tried before.

    You can also serve it kabob-style already stuck on a stick. Thatís fun too, but getting to actually skewer the food themselves is great entertainment.

Momís Super Hat Trick #2


    You want to increase your chances that your child will actually like the new food? That he will actually eat the new food? Try it on-a-stick, try it with-a-dip.

    Will he it with a dip? Will he eat it on a chip? Does he like this new food taste? Or will this squash just go to waste?

    It can down right depressing trying to expand a younger childís repertoire. But not when you can whip out a stick and bring on the dip!

    The dip factor is an old trick, but unfortunately, many parents are tempted to give kids ketchup on everything or bury the vegetables in icky ranch dressing. Check out the dips in the recipe section for some other ideas. And then keep a lot on hand!

Buy the book, "Healthy Foods: An Irreverent Guide to Understanding Nutrition and Feeding Your Family Well"

About the Author:

Leanne Ely is a nutritionist and former caterer, with a passion for cooking and writing. Her first book is: "Healthy Foods: An irreverent guide to understanding nutrition and feeding your family well," by Champion Press. Leanne writes a newspaper column called The Manic Housewife and has the world's shortest radio program, (one minute) called, "Manic Minutes", coming to a radio station near you.

Healthy Foods: An irreverent guide to understanding nutrition and feeding your family well!

Copyright © Leanne Ely. All Rights Reserved. Excerpted from the book, "Healthy Foods: An irreverent guide to understanding nutrition and feeding your family well" (Champion Press, March 2001.) Used with permission.

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