When I was growing up, we always ate dinner together as a family. We sat at the table, napkins in our laps, and talked about our day. I’ve always wanted that for my own kids and I know that someday, it’ll happen. Right now though, sitting through dinner with my toddler twins is a nightmare. A nightmare. I don’t know if it’s because they’re loopy as they approach bedtime, if they’re not very hungry, or if they’ve just fallen into bad habits, but dinner is far more stressful than breakfast or lunch. In fact, we won’t even eat with them because we can barely get through the meal. To give you an idea, here are the highlight clips from a typical toddler dinner at our house…
Whatever I make is wrong. After a five-minute game of musical chairs, in which each boy insists on sitting in this chair, no this one, no that one, I’ll bring their plates in from the kitchen. Without fail, before the food even hits the placemat, one boy decides, “No, I no want dat! I no want dat! I want (insert random food item that he’s probably eaten once in his whole life but is definitely not DAT)!”
The utensils are never right. While the one grumbles about his unsavory food options, his twin usually decides that he doesn’t want to eat with a fork. He needs a spoon. No, not the green spoon, he wants the orange spoon. No, the blue spoon. No, he needs a big spoon. A grownup spoon. Of course, my picky eater decides to wait until after I’ve already returned with a grownup spoon to inform me that he too wants a spoon. He wants an orange spoon. Except, we don’t have an orange spoon. So he pushes his plate away, throws his arms on the table, and dramatically drops his face into his hands. “I want orange spoon, orange spoon,” he cries. Okay, fine, fine. I pull an orange spoon out of the dishwasher, wash it and give it my son, who instead of thanking me, usually says something like, “This orange?”
It’s a crisis if I cut their food. Now that they have their coveted spoons, they’re going to use them, even if it makes getting food to face impossible. I’ll watch as one painfully tries to scoop an entire chicken tender into his mouth. When I can’t take one more excruciating second, I offer to cut it into pieces. At first, he agrees that chicken pieces seem to be a smart choice, but as soon as I make the first slice, he screams, “Noooooo! I want big, big, giant piece.” He picks up the two halves and tries shoving them back together, thinking a good squoosh might save his chicken. When that clearly doesn’t work, he wails, “Fix it, Mommy, fix it!” I explain that I can’t. I might as well have told him that I killed Mickey Mouse.
Food rarely makes it to their mouths. Still, determined to make that effing spoon work, he once again tries to get what’s left of the chicken tender into his mouth. When I try to show him that he might have better luck if he sticks it with his fork, I get, “Nooooo! Dat’s MY chicken! I do it myself!” So I back off, only to watch in horror as the tender, balanced precariously on his spoon, falls to his lap, and then the floor, seemingly in slow motion. Oh god, oh god, the lower lip starts to quiver, as he watches the dog gobble up his dinner.
Dipping sauce is always the answer. In an effort to stave off an inevitable meltdown, I offer them both a little container of hummus to dip their cucumbers in. “Yes, yes, I like hummus!” they both exclaim. Phew, problem solved. They’re happily dipping cucumbers in hummus, so I think it’s finally safe for me to actually sit down.
Nevermind, dipping sauce is the devil. I realize too late that the boys have more hummus than they have veggies to dip. Once those cucumbers are gone, one boy decides to start scooping hummus out with his hands, eating some off of his fingers while the rest plop, plop, plops onto his lap. Not to be outdone, his brother picks up the tiny hummus container, puts it to his face, and starts moving it in circles around his mouth. It’s not clear if he’s actually eating it or just trying to smear it around. But when he starts rubbing the goop all over his face with his hands, explaining that he’s making a “hummus beard,” it becomes kind of obvious.
When Daddy comes home, it’s showtime! For some reason, this is when the crazy really starts. There’s a lot of excitement, orders for Daddy to sit here, no sit here, no sit in dat chair. He sits down, happy to see them, notices the hummus beard and makes a totally rookie mistake. “Buddy, what’s on your face?” he innocently asks. On cue, my boy holds up the hummus container for Daddy and then dumps it onto his curly head and says, “Is a hat.”
They smell snacks. It’s funny, but even though my boys never seem to hear me when I’m asking them to put their toys away, they can hear the crinkling sound of a bag of chips from miles away. If my husband dares to sneak off into the pantry for a snack, it’s a chorus of, “Whachu eating, Daddy? You eating pretzels? I have some?” With a mouthful of food, he crunches, “No, guys, I’m not eating,” but my kids are no dummies. “I want pretzels! I want pretzels!” they whine.
I stupidly negotiate with terrorists. Seeing an opportunity, I tell my boys that if they try a spinach ball, they can have a few pretzels. One of my boys will eat pretty much anything so it’s like, totally, that’s a deal. The other is negotiating right back. “How ’bout one LITTLE bite?” he asks. He takes a nibble and chews with verve and aplomb. He might even tell me he likes it. Then suddenly, he gets a look on his face like he’s eating soap, and spits it all back onto his plate. In disgust, he picks up the other spinach ball, smooshes it up in his hands and angrily throws it on the floor, like, “How dare you even exist, spinach ball.”
Once they’re full, it’s mutiny! At this point, both boys seem to recognize that dinner is over, which apparently is their cue to throw plates like it’s a Greek wedding. Only instead of shouting, “Opa!” it’s “I all done!” in a sing-song voice. One might then slide his placemat off the table, while the other flings his precious spoon across the room, and knocks his water onto the ground. As I’m retrieving the fallen dinnerware, they’ll slide off their chairs and, covered in hummus, run circles around the coffee table, before disappearing down the hall. I’ll yell to my husband, still secretly eating pretzels in the pantry, “Get a wet paper towel! They’re covered in hummus and headed for the playroom! Hurry!”
The dog cleans up. Once the boys are being entertained by Daddy, I sigh deeply, put the food away, and start doing the dishes. I wet a rag and bring it into the other room to clean off the table, but someone else has gotten there first. I watch as my 90-pound Labrador Retriever, with her paws up on the chair, licks every last scrap of food, every smear of hummus off of our dining room table. “Ruby, no, Ruby, no, no, don’t,” I reprimand weakly, too tired to fight one more battle. Finally, dinner is over. Maybe tomorrow night will be different.