Fend for Yourselves

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    You would think, after so many years in this business of raising a family, that we would have it all down to a science. Or at least a well-greased, satisfactorily seasoned, pretty-well-blended routine.

    Just swing open our kitchen pantry’s floor-to-ceiling doors, and behold the bottles, jars, boxes, and cartons that fill shelf after shelf. It’s all there, ready for the cooking. Multiple brands of brown and basmati rice. Assorted cans of specialty vegetables that add a dash of color to any plate. And here, standing tall and bold, is our collection of exotic marinades, ready to give that extra kick to any filet, loin, or boneless breast that might happen to come along.

    So don’t be shy. Go ahead and join in with our kids as they make their usual, plaintive, sad-eyed plea: “Is there anything to eat?”

    The answer, at our house, is almost always a resounding no.

    Look past the stale saltines, the half-filled cereal boxes, and the random packs of instant oatmeal, and you will find enough straightforward ingredients and sincere foodstuffs to constitute the makings of actual, bona fide meals. If we pulled everything together, fired up the stove, set the temp to 350 and the timer to one full hour, we might create a hearty dinner for four that fills the basic nutritional needs of any hungry family.

    If only we would.

    Let me be clear: Mom and I do not lack the culinary skills to rise to the dinner-making task. And we do possess elementary competence when it comes to managing our time, operating basic kitchen appliances, and converting ounces to pounds and cups to quarts. We did go to high school, after all.

    So it’s not that we are unable to cook basic meals.

    It’s just that we don’t want to.

    I suppose we could blame our unwillingness to cook on those age-old excuses of being too busy or even too stressed. Sure, we have our fair share of madcap scheduling as we race from school to soccer to dance to the orthodontist’s office, and it stands to reason that more than a few main courses on many nights of our lives get served to us by the cheery uniformed tribes at Moe’s, Chipotle, and Chick-fil-A.

    But the truth is, the school-week gerbil wheel on which we all run only accounts for a pinch of our overall meal-prep laziness. Summertime is just as bad—we’re constantly scrounging for quarters to give the kids so they can go buy pizza and burgers at the pool. And when fall arrives, pick any given weekend and watch us make an early dash to the bagel or doughnut shop in lieu of actual breakfast cooking at home. I wish I were one of those dads who insisted on whipping up awe-inspiring stacks of chocolate-chip pancakes for his adoring children every Saturday morning. But that’s just not me. Our kids, now both in their early teens, have learned that they only get hot breakfasts when they scramble their own eggs.

    And don’t bother reminding us just how much we are thumbing our noses at the curative magic of the much-vaunted sit-down family meal. The parenting experts who harangue us through the news media tell us that parents and kids sitting down to eat together can provide enough physical and emotional nutrition to jumpstart children’s failing grades, fine-tune their psychological harmonics, sidestep their looming obesity, turn them into concert-level cello players, and even guarantee their entry into every Ivy League college, plus Oxford.

    Maybe our dinner-on-the-fly attitude comes from realizing that sitting down to eat together isn’t the Norman Rockwell painting we’ve all made it out to be. Eons ago, in those blissful years we now refer to as B.C. (Before Children), our parenting goals were lofty and pure. In the family dinner of our dreams, we imagined heaping plates of healthy food emerging nightly from carefully planned weekly menus. Bright and lively conversation would follow a heartfelt grace, and our happy offspring would share scintillating anecdotes of the day’s accomplishments and surprises as bite after bite disappeared until every plate was clean.

    Then actual children came along. And for a while, when they were small, we could hold them hostage and make them eat anything we put in front of them. But of course, it didn’t take long before they began to fight back, and soon enough the table scene devolved into confrontations over the exact number of green beans they were required to eat and endless whining about how food portions on their plates must not, under any circumstances, be allowed to touch each other.

    These days, we still do our best to sit together around the kitchen island whenever we can (we gave up eating at the dining room table long ago), even though the kids spend most of each meal torturing one another, not laughing at my clever jokes and witty repartee, answering questions with the monosyllabic enthusiasm of courtroom witnesses, or yelling at the dog to stop licking the dirty dishes sitting in the open dishwasher.

    My wife and I did hold out hope that last year’s modest kitchen re-do might turn us both into freshly minted gourmet cooks. And it’s true that buying tasteful new dishtowels, decorative bowls, and a hodgepodge of spices and extracts from the most expensive kitchen store in town do make us look and feel the part. But what will we do now with so many bottles of top-of-the-line balsamic vinegar? Our freezer, filled with individually wrapped cuts of choice meat, has become a monument to good intentions; we just keep falling back on eating store-bought chicken tenders and burgers on the grill. At least we’ve learned – unexpectedly and purely by accident – that shallots make everything taste better.

    We may as well face it: Left to our most primal devices, we would eat out in restaurants every night of our lives. But until we live in that perfect universe, we’ll cobble together what we can and try our best to laugh every time Mom simply calls out “fend!” – family slang for fend for yourselves – when we inquire about dinner. And if we ever get around to inviting you over to break bread, don’t even bother asking what’s going to be on the menu.

    Trust us. We have absolutely no idea.

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    Tony Farrell
    Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. He lives in Richmond’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will. He writes for the DadZone every other month and shares theater reviews occasionally too.