On Letting kids leave their food (and eat it later)

I freakin’ love dinnertime, which since lockdown started, have been full on, family affairs with all of us sitting down to eat together as one noisy, messy, sometimes semi-dressed unit.

It feels like a sort of show that takes place every day, building slowing and reaching a crescendo just as everyone really needs to get something in their tummies – #hangercanbereal. Prep usually starts anywhere between 5.30pm and 6.30pm: I’ll call to the kids and Sam to go for a bath, pop on a playlist, light a candle, and clear the table of ALL THE STUFF (our kitchen table is home to paintbrushes, pants, screwdrivers, books. You name it, it’s probably there). Also, by “clear” I obviously just mean “move” everything from one place to another.

I’ll scrub and chop some veg (never peel – it’s where all the goodness is stored), and chuck something in the oven or pop some rice or pasta on the boil. About 15 minutes later, just as dinner is underway and I’m considering pouring myself a glass of wine or making a phone call, two boys – very often naked – tend to career in to the kitchen followed shortly by a beautifully clean baby (is there anything better?) being held by a slightly dishevelled looking Sam. Not sure why but post bath, the kids are always bordering on hyperactive. I guess it’s that sliver of soap that did it.

By now, Sam is reaching for a beer and Abe is in his high chair, banging on the table for something to eat; someone will pass him half a crust of bread, some leftover banana or a toy to play with and he’s happy again. Shouts of “Where’s my spoon?” (every kid has their favourite spoon, right?), “Can you bring in the pepper?”, “Where’s Abe’s bib?” reverberate through the room. At this point, the noise is growing steadily and my music, which by now feels way too loud and folksy, gets paused and slowly, slowly, people and food assemble at the table. I ask Jack and Sonny to go and get their pyjamas on, before encouraging them to be helpful by starting to lay the table, bringing some toys in from the garden or calling one of their much loved grandmas to say hello.

At this point, the noise is growing steadily and my music, which by now feels way too loud and folksy, gets paused and slowly, slowly, people and food assemble at the table.

I’m always last to the table and can’t decide if everyone starting before me is totally the right thing (no chef wants their food to get cold, right?) or if I feel like they should wait for me. Either way, I collapse down in the chair next to Sam and take a minute to look around me; we’re all here, together, right here, in this albeit kinda chaotic moment. Nothing else matters.

We often start each evening meal by ‘doing our numbers’, a tradition we’ve started in lockdown whereby we very sophisticatedly grade our days out of ten using our fingers (just one of the wonderful reasons why we’ve been given fingers after all, kids). It’s such a life affirming little activity because even if we might have felt like it’s been a bit of a shoddy day (BOASD), it’s rare that the older two kids don’t both proudly pop up the sweetest of ten little fingers. We’ll always check in on the person with the ‘lowest’ score and ask what went down for them. By now I’ll pass more veg everyones’ way before getting started on my own plate of food. Just as I’m about to take my first bite (and by now I am hungry), I hear those words: 

“I don’t wonnnn it,” Sonny says in a quiet, moany tone, slanting his head downwards whilst prodding his oversized fork at a totally delicious and freshly made, if a little bland, risotto. (Sounds fancy – it’s not. It’s literally just rice, peas, broccoli and LOADS of parmesan)

When the kids reject food we make for them, I admit it triggers me. 1 in 9 people around the world are food insecure and there’s our kids refusing to eat a plate of hot, nutritious food plonked right in front of their mouths. I often try to explain this concept to the kids in a kind and calm way, and Jack, now 6, is starting to comprehend the notion that not everyone has food to eat, and we are one of the incredibly privileged lot that do. I often take parcels to the food bank with the kids and any food waste in our home is a known big no no.

When the kids reject food we make for them, I admit it triggers me. 1 in 9 people around the world are food insecure and there’s our kids refusing to eat a plate of hot, nutritious food plonked right in front of their mouths.

Maybe he doesn’t like risotto, I hear you ask? Sure, of course everyone has different tastes and children are no exception but we’re not talking spicy chickpea curry here (spicy chickpea curry – mmmm) or stuffed peppers (woah, they bombed around these parts); we’re talking a plate of cheesy rice and vegetables which I’ve seen Sonny eat a hundred times.

Before I even have time to respond, a little voice beats me to it. You see, we have a phrase in our home around food and it goes like this: “If you don’t like it, the next meal is [INSERT EITHER BREAKFAST, LUNCH OR DINNER, whichever fits]. And so in a loud, clear but still gentle and kind voice (note to self – our kids are our greatest teachers), Jack announces to Sonny, but mostly to the table, “If you don’t like it, the next meal is breakfast, Sonny.”

I don’t flinch. I mean, I say this a lot but I had no idea Jack knew it! We all look at Sonny, waiting to see what his next move will be now that he’s been reminded of his verdict. “I don’t wonnnnn it”, he repeats, this time sounding increasingly stubborn and pissed off. He gets up to go.

Now I know this is the point where you’re thinking, couldn’t she just whip him up another meal? A bowl of pasta? Grab something out of the freezer, for moments just like this? And yup, I guess I could but I don’t. Call me mean but I have a rule that no one gets special food or second dinners around these parts (we’re fortunate that the kids don’t have any food intolerances but I also can’t help thinking that maybe this “one plate for all” has something to do with it?). Instead, I say the following:

“Go hang out in the other room then Son – we’re eating in here, OK poppet”

Sonny slopes off, whilst the rest of us continue tucking in. Silence falls for the first time the whole evening. Everyone is calm and content and I finally get round to pouring myself and Sam a glass of very average plonk (it’ll more than do though). One down, I think to myself (insert pain stricken emoji face). You see, I really don’t like having an empty seat at our table but I like even less a sulky three-year-old on the verge of ruining the atmosphere for everyone. Maintaining a calm environment at home and especially at the dinner table is sacrosanct to me and I try my best not to let anything or anyone interfere with that, even my own little Sonnychops.

You see, I really don’t like having an empty seat at our table but I like even less a sulky three-year-old on the verge of ruining the atmosphere for everyone.

We continue eating and talking and I leave Sonny’s plate of risotto right where it is. Jack tells us about Louis Braille (his piece of schoolwork from that day), Maria, our au pair, updates us on her drama school applications and Abe astounds us all and brings so much joy with the sheer quantity of risotto he’s able to knock back whilst still grunting for more. Somewhere in the midst of it all, a Sonny-shaped figure has silently slipped back into the room, and is back at his place at the table. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him silently scooping up his risotto with his favourite spoon. I consider asking him if he wants me to heat it up but then again, he is happy and eating so I leave him be. Never disturb a happy kid – rule number one! 

Photo by Marta Dzedyshko (Pexels)

By now Sam has picked up his guitar and I’m bouncing Abe on my knee.

A small but sizable portion of risotto remains in the middle of the table along with some broccoli stems – I’m already looking forward to my lunch tomorrow. (I swear food tastes better the next day.)

“Let’s do our numbers!”, squeaks Sonny, beaming with joy as he scrambles to stand up on his chair, his lovely little belly full and round, his plate empty.

“Let’s do it, Sonnychops,” I reply.

2 Comments

  1. Victoria Stocker
    October 7, 2020 / 6:17 am

    Ahh I loved this post! Family time as I always imagined, but for now its just the 3 of us 💔 👶 We’ve always aimed for 5pm dinner but prob fail 50% of the time, but J has just started school FT and is SO hungry when he gets home, so im gonna move dinner forward to 4:30pm! I agree dinner is a lovely time to all ‘be’ together. J often complains he wants to watch something and sit in other room (like when he was smaller) but now its a firm no, we’re sitting at our small but adequate fold out table in the kitchen so we can talk about our day. I agree it is triggering when they say they dont like it and you’ve spent ages cooking! I like your approach of ‘the next meal will be…’
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