When the family meal isn’t what it used to be
For many Solo Moms, sitting down at the dinner table and making sure your family is eating healthy meals together is a sign of success. And also, secretly (deep down in the vault of never mentionables), it’s a little bit of an unprintable gesture involving the middle finger to those naysayers who don’t think you can have a family if it ain’t nuclear. Frankly, considering how many stories we are told about dysfunctional “familias nucleudosi” (don’t look that up; I never got past first-year Latin) you have to ask yourself why anyone would aspire to a Norman Rockwell–like family setting every school night. But I digress.
Dinnertime, as we all know, can be that time to bond with your kids and establish connections in a relaxing and nourishing way. You begin to know which meals will evoke more relaxed conversations (just a hint, it often involves comfort food) that engender a family feeling. You make sure to have a nice sit-down at least once or twice a week.
Sure, not all meals are perfect. There are the familiar squabbles, often involving whose chore was not completed, a certain ingredient (“Mushrooms? I would never put mushrooms in the salad . . .”), and my most recent favorite—who is being more disrespectful of mom’s efforts by picking apart the food or declaring he or she isn’t hungry.
This is mostly a teen development and a precursor to the further shattering of the dinner mystique. By the time it is over, you will want to call a sociologist and suggest this person study driving kids places as the new bonding experience. Captive audience, as it were. Excuse me. Yet again, I digress.
As your lovely, sweet children become teens and start participating in activities, study groups, after-school events, and “I’m staying at . . .” moments, that is when you begin to realize that you must change your meal planning. It is very hard, as a hardworking Solo Mom, to throw yourself into an extra gear to make sure that the lasagna is bubbling and ready to eat, only to find that you are sitting at home, eating alone, having a pity party. It hurts. And what hurts the worst is that you are not that person!!! You are a strong, independent woman who has raised children mostly by yourself, and yet here you are, alone at a dinner table, feeling resentful and sorry for yourself. To quote the Bard, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth. . . .”
You tell yourself that this is part of the process of separating from your child. Sooner than you think, you will be sending your lovely, properly nourished offspring out into a world of dorm food (you hope) and what you imagine is a set of healthy eating habits. Stop. Take a moment here and remember how you approached meals at the tender age of 18 and then realize how much you have evolved—and how much you miss it when there aren’t any mushrooms in your salad.
When your teenager comes home and announces she and her pals stopped off at Chipotle or In-N-Out Burger because they were starving!!! and of course now she is ready for dessert, not pot roast or homemade lentil soup, do not get annoyed when she does ask for dessert. Do not angrily throw your own dinner in the sink or shovel it in too quickly because suddenly you are eating alone and it’s too much to bear.
Take that moment and remember how much you once enjoyed adding spices to your dishes. Go out and buy yourself some fresh chiles or cumin or mushrooms or turnips. Take out the candlesticks. Maybe a linen napkin. Roast yourself a cauliflower from a New York Times recipe. Nothing too elaborate, just simple and elegant, the kind of food adults like.
Start making those mainstream kid-friendly meals as reheatable side dishes. Start hanging out with the inimitable Trader Joe and his frozen-food section for those moments when your child actually declares hunger at the requisite hour. Sure there’s room for two. Invite your child to join you for a Caesar salad with real anchovies or oysters on toast. Or at least grilled-cheese sandwiches with a touch of sriracha. And if you get that face—you know, the squinched-up one I’m talking about—you can blithely say: “Oh, well please heat up that plain grilled cheese I left for you. I don’t mind! Light the candles would you, please?”
Yes, of course it’s a bit selfish, but why not? You can have your intimate conversations in the car because you made a delicious (nutritious) snack for the ride to the water-polo tournament. After all, you are still a great mom.
You just happen to be a Solo Mom who’s looking forward to enjoying meals in a less haphazard, more relaxing, and perhaps more civilized way again!
Margot Kessler, a screen and television writer living in Los Angeles, is the sporadically witty Solo Mom of two lovely daughters.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.