“Look out for the cup, if you keep tipping it you are going to spill it! Don’t tip it, it’s going to spill. IT’S SPILT!”
“Sit down please. Sit down please. SIT. DOWN. PLEASE! No, not on your face, on your bottom….”
“Don’t throw the fish finger. DO NOT throw the fish finger. If you throw the fish finger…I TOLD YOU NOT TO THROW THE DAMN FISH FINGER…..”
Ah! Meal times with the family.
It’s not that I even like Cheerios (which is why it was so hard to explain to my co-worker that time I went into work with a phalanx of them stuck in my beard).
So why do I bother insisting on this anarchic routine twice a day (three times at weekends, goddamit)? Wouldn’t it just be easier to just leave a pile of food on a plate on the floor and let them pick at it like skanky hyenas over the course of the day?
Sure it would.
But there is something in that which goes against every fibre of my being.
And this is probably because both my wife and I come from families where food is a deity, and meal times are the closest to worship we will ever get.
My name is the Secret Father, and I’m a foodie.
There, I said it.
If it is not home grown, organic, fair trade and hand knitted I don’t want to know. And I expect this ethic to extend to my children too.
So you can imagine my chagrin when, having prepared a chickpea (organic), spinach (from the allotment) and garlic (organic, home grown) dhal, I have to sit there and watch as my son picks out all the spinach and all the garlic, and then painstakingly removes each damn chickpea, one by one, until he is left with nothing more than a bowl of dhal stained rice.
Which of course because it is a starchy carbohydrate, with very little nutritional value, he adores.
And then the whinging starts. “Hungry. Hungry. HUNGRY!”
And this then leads to “The Discussion” between Mrs Secret Father and myself;
Mrs SF: “Well, we can’t let him go to bed hungry”
Me: “Why not? He needs to learn to eat what he is given”
Mrs SF: “But he will wake up in the night hungry!”
Me: “Just leave him. He won’t starve himself”
Mrs SF: “I’m going to get him something else to eat”
Me; (hissing) “Don’t! Don’t do that! Don’t. Do. It”
Mrs SF: *returns with a selection of yoghurts, garlic bread and Cheerios.
Me:*gives wife a Paddington Bear stare.
You get the picture.
Basically my wife comes from a family of feeders. She would be mortified if one of her brood went to bed one calorie short on their daily allowance. Because that would mean she is a BAD MOTHER.
And I come from a family where if I left anything on my plate, my father and brother would swoop like vultures within seconds and pick over the carcass of my leftovers.
And if I left it, I knew there was nothing else.
And I knew that feeling hungry was a rubbish feeling. And I learnt that when I was hungry it was harder to play football, harder to run and jump and harder to cycle so far from home that the Police had to be called.
And as a boy, that just wouldn’t do. So I ate everything I was given.
But now these days, after a long day at work, when everyone is grizzly and just a little bit short with the day, it is tempting some meal times to just give in. Because being out to work full time, there is only so much “quality time” that I can have with my children.
And sometimes, just sometimes, I don’t want to have to spend that “quality time” being strict and grumpy and stern at the dinner table. Meal times should be fun.
So I don’t want to have to spend that time repeatedly insisting, like some demented parrot, that a 2 year old child who is off their head on carbs and yoghurt, should “sit nicely at the table” for a few more minutes.
Because frankly, asking a 2 year old to just sit still is hard enough without complicating things by adding the “nicely” bit.
I don’t want to have to negotiate every damn mouthful of whatever it is that my children are refusing to eat that day. Because let’s face it, my toddlers are the SAS of negotiation and will have me waterboarding a bowl of Calpol in no time.
I don’t want to have to spend 25 minutes on my hands and knees wiping the floor clean, whilst simultaneously having leftovers poured on my head by a cackling child. Because whatever fashion is on trend at the time, squashed knee raisins and rice noodle hair is never going to be a “look”.
And I don’t want to have to keep hounding down an errant toddler who has breached the sacred perimeter of the dining room table for the 50th time in five minutes, just because they can’t possibly eat another mouthful unless Iggle bloody Piggle is sitting with them.
And because yelling “STOP twerking at the table!” is something I should never have to shout in my own home.
And so I frequently ask myself – why do I bother? Why not just feed them pizza, cake and fruit shoots and let them eat it all in front of CBeebies? Why not just let it all drop for an easier life?
Because I can’t.
And the answer is both profound and frivolous.
Frivolous because part of me (the weird-uncle-that-lives-in-the-loft part of me) actually enjoys the noise and vibrancy and chaos of meal times.
That’s not to say I enjoy having sausages squashed in my ears (because sausages are big and my ear holes are small), but there is something rather great about a noisy, colourful table, heaving with food, vitality and conversation.
Even if that conversation is just increasingly shouty, repetitive instructions.
And the answer is also profound because meal times are a celebration. They are a celebration of nurture, life and energy; of the family unit with all of its drama’s, weaknesses and foibles; and of the human condition. We may be weak and fragile and yet we are a social animal that craves company.
And what better company than those sitting around a table devouring a delicious meal together?
Food is what keeps us going, and mealtimes have been uniting people, families, tribes and clans throughout history, providing sustenance, company, rest and a chance to connect over the breaking of the bread.
Despite the tantrums, the persistent nagging and the occasional flare up, I am going to continue to teach my children the importance of eating as a family. However much they play up, my instinct tells me that this connection will be invaluable in years to come.
So that when my tribe eventually breaks up, which it inevitably will do, we will hopefully always have that one thing remaining in common.
The love of a decent family meal together.