I’ve been back at Stanford for over a month, getting in the groove of preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner – for two. My son is the plus-one who always needs food more than me, or at least that is how it works. I stock a reservoir of his usual favorites from weekly trips to the grocery store, trying to differ each meal for him, especially during the week.
A typical thought process to achieve this goes something like this: He’s having eggs, yogurt and strawberries for breakfast, so lunch should include something with bread, probably a turkey and cheese sandwich with a side he hasn’t had in a few days, maybe barbecue chips or plain pretzels and dip. He likes to dip his food in something, almost anything. Applesauce or pudding could be added as an extra, too. (The variation for lunches must be working; his preschool teachers tell me he eats well.) Now, for dinner, maybe pasta with bolognese (I’ll sneak some cauliflower in the sauce for veggie count), a roll and, if he finishes his food, Oreos, gummies or graham crackers might suffice the end of my hybrid culinary efforts for the day.
I say hybrid because I put meals together with half-prepared and ready-to-eat foods. These days, I rarely cook from scratch and somehow my sink still piles up. As for my own meals – well, when you are a parent, you might need to sacrifice your personal palette during mealtimes. I frequently share what’s on the menu for my little one and snag more preferred snacks in between. And then, there are the dishes – the mighty, intimidating aftermath of eating at home.
As most parents understand, and the childless might imagine, this daily effort – while not difficult – becomes demanding through repetition. Sure, I enjoy the conversations I share with my son at home while we eat. After all, this is an important family ritual. But some days, I am tired of preparing meals. Baking a meatloaf from Trader Joe’s and making a side of broccoli cheese soup becomes, put simply, too much.
But to the credit of a thoughtful parent, who was also spending a Saturday morning with her child in an Escondido Village courtyard, I received great advice:
“You should go to a dining hall,” she said, adding that children under five eat for free. When Sunday came, the decision to visit the Arrillaga Family Dining Commons for brunch was easy. I told my son we were going somewhere new to eat and there would be plenty of food. He sat still in the stroller on the way – for parents, this means your child is happy.
When we arrived upstairs, I looked around at all the food – everything appeared appetizing, accessible and not messy. I grabbed a plate for my son and began adding eggs, sausage, pancakes and a bowl of mac and cheese. Next, we went over to the drink area, where I allowed him to push the lever for chocolate milk. I plucked our silverware on the way to a table and set his food down.
After we sat down next to each other and gave our thanks, I snatched a few napkins and began eating with him like we always do. I helped him poke a few softer pieces of egg, cut up the sausage and pancakes and reminded him to wipe his face with a napkin. While he’s old enough to eat on his own, he sometimes needs help to make the transfer from food to mouth. We talked about the other tables, the food and the big building we ate in that looked like a “house” (to him, we were in a big place). Once finished, we cleared our plates, just like we do at home.
My son said he loved the “yummy food” and was excited to return a few days later. He drew a smile when he saw a couple of familiar faces from our courtyard sitting at another table. I don’t think of eating at a dining hall as just a respite from the responsibility of providing my child with something to eat, but as a treat, a special meal we can share together once or twice a week.
I have a family of two, but eating food prepared by others and sharing a table with others didn’t feel distant or foreign. Maybe getting our food and clearing our own plates offered a domestic autonomy that we cannot find at a restaurant. Though our table at home is where most of our meals will still take place, the dining hall table almost seems like an extension of that. For my son, it’s just bigger and more fun.
Contact Courtney Clayton at cclayton ‘at’ stanford.edu.