breathing while eating

fried oatmeal I

I read a piece the other day that keeps clicking at the inside of my brain. It’s an honest piece from a mother who believes in family dinner but doesn’t share it with her family very often. Why? Well, she writes that her two kids both play club sports and her son is in choir as well. “Some seasons, one or the other of them will have a weekday or two off, but I never do. The schedule is intense, relentless and year-round. I can’t say, ‘This will be over in three months,’ because it’s never over. Once a week, from now until forever, my son has 20 minutes to eat his dinner in the car between activities. We’ve had maybe two weeknight family dinners in the past two years.”

Now, I taught high school for years, and I was always concerned with how over-busy my students were, how soccer practices and debate tournaments and musical theatre and volunteering at the local hospital to acquire enough hours for their resumes for college kept them exhausted before they even sat down to read the two chapters of The Great Gatsby I had assigned them to read for the next day. I’ve thought often about how little I want my daughter to be over-scheduled and stressed out before she even hits 18. This piece, The Busy Trap, encapsulates how I feel about this quite well. “They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

So I read the family dinner piece and thought about what it might like to have a teenager or two in the house, and how Danny and I want to encourage Lucy and whatever kid comes after to slow down and put some space in their days. And then I read the family dinner piece again. Her kids are both in elementary school. From the wording, it sounds like they are in the 2nd and 5th grade.

They haven’t eaten dinner together more than twice in two years.

I thought and thought about writing this piece. I hesitated because I don’t want it to sound as though I’m judging that mom. There’s enough judgment of moms in this culture, and particularly on the internet. It’s clear that she is doing what she can to keep her family happy and moving.

Our kid loves to move. She never stops moving. She dances and spins and leaps and shimmies. Last night, she said to me, “Mama, I’ll wait for you. I’ll sit down and I’ll dance as I sit.” Damned if she didn’t plop herself down on the bathroom floor, twist her shoulders around to some internal rhythm and pout her lips in time to the beat she heard in her head. She loves to dive under water, sleek as a seal, kicking her feet to swim to the other side of the pool. She taught herself to swim when she was under 2 by requesting to see videos of “kids splashing” on YouTube. Every once in awhile, we’d let her look at our phone and then we’d watch her study and study those backyard pool videos. The first time we took her to a pool, we put water wings on her arms and then we watched her dive in. The swim coaches sometimes watch her as they yell out instructions to the kids on the swim team, churning up white water behind their feet. Several times they have said to us, quietly, “Please say you’re going to keep bringing her.” So we do. We three swim nearly every afternoon together at the athletic club pool. We have a lot of dance practices and swim team meets ahead of us.

So I don’t want to judge. And I’m not judging. I don’t know what it’s like to have a 5th grader whose internal rhythm insists that she swim and dance and play soccer and sing her heart out at choir practices. I want to give Lucy the world.

But I also want to give her dinner with us. I want to give her some space at the table that isn’t about moving and competing and doing better. I want to sit with her, laughing, saying why we are grateful that day, in that moment.

Look, family dinner isn’t always lovely and peaceful. Sometimes we light candles and Lucy tells us the stories of her day, making us laugh. Sometimes she eats three bites of food reluctantly then stands up to start spinning, opens the door to the porch, and begins dancing out her story on the deck. We have to gently remind her to come back to the table. I ask her, “What is your body telling you? Close your eyes. Are you really full?” About half the time, she’ll admit she’s still hungry and sit down. The other times, she says, “Nope! I’m full!” We ask her to take her plate to the kitchen and we sit talking with each other as we finish our dinners and watch her dance in the gloaming light outside.

But whether the time at the table is good or bad, it doesn’t really matter. It’s just like sitting meditation for me. There is no good sit or bad sit. My butt is on the cushion and I’m doing it. I want to be here. And for us, being here means sharing some time at the table together.

It could be that in 4 or 5 years, someone will remind me about this post and I’ll wince. Maybe we’ll be running for the ferry for the next swim meet when I’ll see a reference to this in an email on my phone. Maybe I’ll be home writing while Danny takes her to the swim meet and I’ll eat some food at the computer as I try to finish a deadline. Man, I hope not.

I want to be here. It doesn’t have to be dinner. Lu’s an early riser. Breakfast together is just as good as dinner, even if it’s at 6:30 in the morning. I want to choose our lives so that we’re walking more than running, telling our stories instead of talking about the next thing we have to do,  and laughing instead of trying to work out how to make it all happen.

We can’t have it all, people. It’s just not possible.

Virginia Woolf, one of my writing heroes, wrote that writing a novel requires a lot of sitting and staring out the window time. She also wrote this: ““One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Dining well doesn’t have to mean lavish meals at five-star restaurants. I think it means breathing while eating.

Danny and I are both going to make sure that Lu has the chance to follow her passions. We also want to make sure that she’ll be sitting at the table with us as often as we can make it happen.

fried oatmeal II

oatmeal french toast

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 20 minutes

Total Time: 25 minutes

We ate oatmeal with cherry-ginger syrup Sunday morning, and then we had a lot of leftover oatmeal. Danny threw some dried cherries and coconut into the pot, and then patted it into a hot-dog pan we have. The next morning, we had long rolls of chilled oatmeal. He and Lucy surprised me with a little oatmeal french toast for breakfast.

Now, because the oatmeal was in big rolls, he fried them in an inch of hot oil, which made a crisp crust. Goodness! However, if you pat your leftover oatmeal into a square pan, and had inch-thick squares, you wouldn’t need that much oil. Just make oatmeal french toast.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups cooked oatmeal, chilled in 8x8 pan overnight
  • 2 to 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk (you can use your favorite non-dairy milk here)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • pinch ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 140 grams gluten-free all-purpose flour (you might need more, so leave it out on the counter)
  • 1/4 cup oil (sunflower, canola, or coconut oil are good)

Notes

Be sure to use certified gluten-free oats to make this dish, if you are making it for someone who needs to be gluten-free.

23 comments on “breathing while eating

  1. Lynn

    I don’t think you are “judging” that mother…I think you are reading that and thinking you’d sure like to NOT have a life like hers. Me too. Who really wants that kind of rushing?? Perhaps as parents we need to look ahead and decide our children can participate in ONE activity per school year…and keep time for family and dinners. We get to have whatever kind of family we choose. I think that’s what people tend to forget: you don’t HAVE TO let your children participate in everything!

  2. Anay

    Shauna, I came to your site looking for recipes and became amazed on the way you tell your stories. You have a gift, and now I can´t stop reading you!! It seems that that little girl of yours apprehends the world through movement… beautiful!! :) Overall, a fantastic family, keep on the good work!!

    Anay

  3. Kit

    Thank you for this article/blog post. It should resonate with us all, children or no. Your writing is very much appreciated. Kit

  4. terry

    Our dinner table is sacred to us. It is our little sanctuary at the end of the day. Yes-we read stories and interact in other ways during the day but there is something about food and proximity and sitting with lit candles and shining faces that makes this time together special. Somehow it is where we laugh and relax best. I hope we never lose this.

  5. MargieAnne

    Hi Shauna. I’m glad you are thinking about the future and the problems that come with being over scheduled.

    I once listened to a Youth Leader who was also talented in many other directions and had a successful business give advice to a bunch of wanna be volunteers.

    Choose 2.5 extra curricular activities outside your home life. Nothing is more precious than your family as you have determined. If that is good advice for adults then it must hold true for children. School is a given so that leaves one major activity and another less intensive. Does it seem too hard to limit a talented child to that degree? I think it just means being very careful what activities you help you child choose.

    You have a delightful way with your daughter and the best thing you can do is help her retain her love of life and joy forever.

    Great post and interesting breakfast.

    Blessings

  6. Candice Barter

    I am there too. My family sits down to eat dinner together every day. This was just a priority that my husband and established when my daughter was born. She would snooze in her baby carrier while we ate. We have battled through many food issues at these dinners and talked about our favorite part of the day. One day soon, both of my kids will be in school. I’ll be racing home from work to cook dinner and I hope that we don’t let life get in the way of dinner time. It is the only part of each day when we are all still in the same space.

  7. lisa

    My mother would only allow us two after school activities when we were young. For me that meant Girl Scouts and piano, or whatever it was that I was into. At the time, I thought it was for her sanity since we lived out of town a bit and there were two of us (kids). Now, I’m really grateful for whatever reason she did it because I really remember the ritual of family dinner. I kind of miss it and every once in a while I try to revive it, but it’s definitely a challenge with the very irregular schedules that my husband and I keep, especially since we have no children to create a schedule for. I do like the idea of breakfast being an option — it’s an alternative that might work for those whom dinner together is a fantasy.

  8. Margaret@KitchenFrau

    We have 4 children, of which only the youngest (who’s 16) is still at home, and I get what you are saying. For us it was an absolute priority to eat the evening meal together every night, and I’m glad to say we managed it most nights throughout all the years our oldest kids were so busy. It wasn’t always easy — sometimes dinner was only 20 minutes where we were all at the table. Each child had several activities, but if they happened directly during our dinner time or at a time when we couldn’t make it work, they just couldn’t register for those activities. One daughter was in a lot of dance classes, and she just wasn’t allowed to chose the ones that affected our family dinner — there were enough other classes she could chose from. I am so glad now that we had those dinners together.
    I also had an aunt and uncle that had those same values, and their rule was that the family had to sit down together to at least one meal every day, and if dinner wouldn’t work that day, then they got up early to have a sit down breakfast all together. There is always a way — maybe it’s a picnic in the park or the car between activities — as long as you are all together for a meal, without outside disturbances.
    I think if you are aware of it now, you will make sure family meals happen when the busy years come!n Good for you.

  9. Erin

    Just a little personal anecdote to give you hope for the inevitably busy future: growing up, I was a busy, involved, worn-out kid. Soccer, volleyball, quizbowl, volunteering, church youth group, honors courses, student council — you name it, I did it. And yet, as the only child of two fantastic parents, not only did we have breakfast together most days, but our family dinners together were the highlight of my schedule. No matter what assignments loomed the next day, I put everything aside for a brief cushion of peace at my mother’s table. We three would sit and discuss our days, eat and breathe in the nourishment that came both from home-cooking and that soul-reviving quality of conversation with loved ones. Now, as a grown woman in my own home many miles away, I look back on those memories and cherish them. No matter what Lu gets into as she grows up, you can make family time together happen. I think it all has more to do with your attitude and your approach to life than any finite boundaries of time.

    (Notwithstanding, of course, soccer games halfway across the state.) xo

  10. Wendy

    I read that piece too and found aspects sad, but I also took from it that flexibility is important. If dinner at 4 pm works for them, then that’s their family time. I have two kids, the younger now heading off to travel for a year and then college, so we’ve been through lots of phases. I think that for those of us for whom a family meal is important, we figure out a way to make it happen most of the time. Maybe not every night like when our kids are small, but often, and with pleasure. I did have some time when my husband’s job got him home after the younger one’s bedtime so dinner then was me and two kids, with me sharing a glass of wine later while my husband ate dinner. As the kids got older, when he worked late, we three might linger around the table for an extra long time until he arrived and joined us. As for kids’ activities, we worked around them a little and limited them each to one club sport and one music activity at at time through elementary school. Not an easy thing in fast paced DC but they had plenty of time to play outdoors and for creative play with friends from across the street. As they got older, I still made them choose their activities carefully and sometimes our dinner hour got later and later, and sometimes one of us was missing, but we carried on. Now, both kids are starting their adult lives all over the world and my husband and I will go back to our family dinner of just the two of us. But, when we are all together, we always enjoy our time at the table.

  11. Andrea F

    Thank you for adding that the daily meal together need not be dinner! Since so many kids’ activities, and parents’ as well, are in the evening, sometimes breakfast is the best meal to have together. It starts the family off for the day with love!

  12. Tagati

    Aloha,

    How funny to see your recipe. I used to make “hoecakes/oatcakes/singing hinnies” all the time growing up with leftover oatmeal. Luved it best with butter and honey dripping off of it (and I’m almost 60!).

    Nice story too about making time to just connect and breathe.

    Mahalo.

  13. Sophie

    I’m the eldest of 3 girls, and while we were growing up we all did a million activities — dance, athletics, choir, band and part time jobs eventually as well. But we managed to eat together as a family at least 3–4 times a week — if not more. Sunday night dinner was, and is, a family tradition, and we just did what we had to do to eat together during the week. Even if it meant eating at 8:30 instead of 6. You’ll make it work.

  14. Kimberly

    I just want to say that I was a competitive swimmer in a club program. Every day during the school year, I practiced 3 hours in the evening. During the summer it was two-a-days working out 6 hours or more per day.

    This wasn’t because my parents were obsessed with making me an Olympian. Hardly. I was an enthusiastic athlete who loved what I did. From swimming, I learned some important skills: teamwork, sacrifice, time management, the importance of being fit, following through with responsibilities, dedication, and delayed gratification.

    Can kids learn this other ways then competitive sports? Absolutely! But that doesn’t mean that time spent in competitive athletics is just a resume or college application padding. Sometimes they serve a larger and very useful purpose.

    1. shauna

      Oh yes, Kimberly. Thank you for saying this. I watch the high school kids swim every afternoon now, and those kids are focused, lovely, attentive, and polite. More importantly, Lucy watches them, intently. I never meant that sports are a padding for resumes. (I meant the requisite hours of volunteering can sometimes be that.) Your life seems like the life Lucy will have. And I will be thrilled for her if she has found her passion.

      1. Kimberly

        I agree with your overall concern, because club sports can very easily take over a schedule!

  15. Bekka

    Hi Shauna,

    I have been reading your blog for years but have never commented. I was so struck by this post though that I felt the urge to finally say something! I grew up in a household where we, for the most part, had dinner together every night. When I was a bratty teenager, I took it for granted and typically sat through dinner mumbling about this and that mostly thinking about when I could return to my room and listen to my angsty teen music. I’m now 30 and look back at dinner with my family as something to be cherished. More children should be so lucky to have that. Many don’t. I have been traveling for the past six months in Central America and the times when I feel the loneliest are when I have spent too many nights in a row making dinner for just me. To be able to share a meal, to talk with your family about your day, to make silly jokes, this is priceless in a society that is so transfixed on being busy all the time. When my sister and I both went gluten free my mom embraced it and figured out how to adapt when she cooked for us. The first thing I want to do when I return to the states? Have dinner with my entire family. I think your daughter will one day look back on her childhood and also appreciate the fact that you shared meals together, even if she ends up going through a bratty teenage phase like I did! ;-)

    ~Bekka

  16. michelle

    Shauna I love your writing. It’s what keeps me coming back again and again to your site — your honesty, your willingness to look at those places that may be uncomfortable. Thank you for your wisdom which you share so beautifully through the written word.

  17. Rachel (De Ma Cuisine)

    I wholeheartedly agree. For us, it’s necessary to not be too busy, to have evenings together, to enjoy our little life. And that oatmeal, it looks delicious! I usually freeze my leftover oatmeal and then reheat it another time. I like your idea better. ;)

  18. Marie

    mmm, I love this. I am 23 now, but I grew up playing soccer a lot. My sisters and I were really competitive in the sport and through my high school years, we were committed 5–7 days a week. I look back at that time and remember all the great memories, but I also remember my mom being so miserable and us being tired and breakdowns at 11pm, when we were finally just getting started on the hours and hours of homework we had to do. I also remember not having very much time for other friends, or fun things. There was a trade-off for sure. I don’t remember very many family dinners during that time. Often we ate in the car, or packed enough food in the morning to take us through dinner. Now that I am married and my sisters and I are grown up, we make a huge effort to have one family get together a week. Sometimes it is dinner, sometimes it is breakfast, often it takes place at either 8am or 8pm. That family connection time is still important even though we are all older. (ps I am sure things will change once we have kids, but for now, I will cherish these impromptu family connecting times. )

  19. Jade Sheldon-Burnsed

    My husband and I don’t have children yet… but we have talked about how we would really like to make eating together an important thing. Neither of us really had that growing up. I loved reading your perspective…

  20. lmend

    it can be done. dd 10+ has marshall arts two days a week. one night, i take her and dh (darling husband) cooks (fish tacos, easy and quick) (I defrost fish during the day for him and ensure all ingreds are in the fridge), and one night he takes her and i cook (roasted chicken). these are our only pre-decided dinners for the week, but just knowing about them and having them there is such a help. as other readers have commented, aside from these two nights, our choices for activities dd can enroll in does depend on the hours those activities will take place. we eat together every night. we think it is a really important building block for our family’s life.