What Happened When I Stopped Making Meals For My Family

by Kristen Downs
A two-part collage of kids making meals in the kitchen
Kristen Downs

Drastic behaviors call for drastic measures. My children’s reactions ranged from “Oh no you didn’t!” to “What does this mean?” as they stared dumbfounded at the sign posted on our refrigerator. Observing the sheer chaos I had caused, I relished the pleasure of liberation.

Kristen Downs

While I have fantasized about posting a sign saying Mom’s Left for the Pacific Crest Trail or Mom’s on an Eat-Pray-Love International Adventure — carrying nothing more than a backpack and none of the worries that accompany parenthood — that was not the sign I posted that day. Who hasn’t dreamt of escape? That Monday, I did the next best thing: I closed the kitchen, and experienced relief and validation.

I look forward to the 2-3 times per week that we can sit down as a family and enjoy a delicious meal I have thoughtfully prepared. The other nights we are lucky to have a sandwich in the car as we race off to the kids’ sports events. I (affectionately) call this meal “shit on a shingle.” Typically, at family dinner time we share our highs and lows, give compliments, take turns, and have proper manners on a perfect day… although lately that behavior exists solely in my head.

Enforcing polite dinner table behavior has become the bane of my existence in this family of six. No one would believe it if I told them how often our family meals digress into fits of hysteria. Usually, dinner begins with interruptions from siblings as we take turns sharing; then a child passes gas (from one end or the other), claiming to have made a valiant effort to contain it. Another child barks “Who’s serving milk tonight?” while the child on duty sashays to the fridge, either whining or dancing to elicit attention. Without fail, amidst the chaos, a boy child has to be excused to “take a dump.” Clever timing.

My husband and I have tried everything from immediately excusing them from the table to passing the baton when it’s time to speak. Some consequences have included bedtime with no dinner and additional jobs to give Mom back some energy. Despite our sheer exhaustion as parents, we pulled out all the “Parenting with Love and Logic” tricks, but on this particular evening it landed flat.

Unfortunately, spaghetti was the meal served that Sunday and I vividly remember my husband and me demonstrating the proper twirl of small bites on the fork. All four children proceeded to eat like piggies (picture Ralphie in A Christmas Story) as we cautioned that they would never have dates in high school with such disgusting habits. As if they cared! Nevertheless, we persisted in our attempt to raise polite adults. I’ll admit the kids were pretty hilarious sucking spaghetti as they erupted into fits of laughter observing my youngest “floss dance” as he was excused to serve milk.

My husband and I challenged each other with an “I dare you not to smile” look as our youngest displayed his radical dance moves. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at our parenting fail. Having seen my angst, my husband ended dinner immediately and I escaped for a long walk in the woods. I planned not to come back home until the children finished dishes, or college, and were at least tucked in bed. In hindsight, as no one seemed to have missed my absence, I should’ve seized my opportunity to set off for the Pacific Crest Trail…

The next morning the sign was up: “Mom’s Kitchen Closed Until Further Notice.” Mom was on strike due to unpleasant dinner behavior and smiling like the lady in the picture. “You’re not packing lunches?” chimed my privileged elementary-age children. My eldest two children, confident they were not affected, smugly packed their own lunches as a habit.

It wasn’t until dinner that the consequences of their actions and new reality set in. “What’s for dinner?” my starving sons inquired. “Beats me!” I responded. “There’s nothing to eat!” exclaimed my daughter, to which I replied, “Bummer!” My 10-year-old seized the day, proceeding to make his self-proclaimed “famous” lunchmeat layered sandwich, while my 7-year-old pleaded with my 12-year-old to teach him how to make oatmeal.

I personally took great pleasure in the teamwork that ensued as I sipped a glass of cabernet sauvignon and read the newspaper. My daughter fried a gourmet egg sandwich with the confidence of a savvy teen one-upping her mother. No one seemed fazed, so internally I questioned whether I needed to reformulate my game plan.

How many days can children eat oatmeal? I wondered, as my youngest begged me to let him buy McDonald’s — with his own money. By Day 3 they were sick of oatmeal and sandwiches, and tried cereal. While I’m no gourmet chef (I reluctantly took on cooking, rather than leave it to my husband, for the sake of our children’s nutrition), I tend to provide variety at least.

My husband, who could subsist on sugar and beer, was seemingly the most affected as he lacked the nutritional energy to prepare a meal. “Tell the kids how much you miss my cooking,” I pleaded, as he needed some stake in the game too. I conveniently let the kids observe as I made myself a meal, leaving the preparatory items on the counter so they could manage themselves. Luckily, they took the hint as the week progressed and even learned how to grill their own Reuben sandwiches.

Honestly, this mom could’ve continued all month. Fortunately for the children, our cousin was visiting on Saturday, so rather than make him starve too, I challenged the children to display appropriate behavior during the family dinner I had dutifully prepared for our guest. With the exception of their inability to say grace when asked (wouldn’t you know, our cousin happens to be a senior minister), which was a whole separate embarrassment, they managed to each share what they were thankful for.

There was no hitting, farting, dancing or burping, only polite laughter and much grace during our family dinner. I breathed a sigh of relief that evening.

After a week, the sign came down. I choose to believe, however, that it left a lasting impression. My husband is back to his co-parenting weight, my children are additionally responsible for preparing Sunday meals, and I have renewed peace and respect.

I’ll admit, though, I still dream of a vacation…