That picture . . . the one above with the charred chicken and burnt on mess of carbon and chicken juices? That was literally the results from my last attempt to actually cook dinner.
Truth be told, I’ve always been a better baker than a cook. However, before having my children, well, before having one particular child, my culinary endeavors never resulted in the charred mess that was our Wednesday meal. I was actually pretty decent. Linguine and clams, shrimp stir fry, chicken tikka masala. I could hold my own.
And then I had a fringy kid. And the fringy kid grew older and learned to walk and talk and scream. And then we gave her a younger brother who regularly triggers her neurological system into overwhelm. And it never fails. About 5 minutes after turning on the burner to brown up some meat, meltdown occurs. The type of meltdown that cannot be ignored. The type of meltdown that requires my full attention to keep everyone safe. And while the meltdown is occurring, the chicken gets browned, then blackened, then out and out carbon covered.
I’ve tried taking the food off the burner before swooping in to diffuse the meltdowns, but sometimes I forget. Sometimes I get pulled away too emergently to think straight. Sometimes I do take it off the burner and then the hunger sets in and triggers more meltdowns and then I can’t even get enough peace to make a pb & j.
Before you go lambasting my husband for not stepping in . . . he’s usually not there. We often end up solo parenting during the evenings. So, we can’t divide and conquer.
My solution. I’ve stopped trying.
I rarely cook dinner fresh at dinner time.
And yet, these pesky kids still want to eat. And all the experts suggest they should eat something that doesn’t just come from a box and a microwave. So, here’s what I do to try to meet the needs of the hungry hoards, keep my own sanity, and prevent the smoke alarm from ringing loudly every day.
I practice self-compassion
Us parents have all sorts of messages shouted at us about providing proper nutrition for our kids. It becomes easy to use those messages to shame ourselves. Let’s not do that. Our fringy kids often have taste or texture aversions to various foods. Our time and energy is split and divided in so many different ways than more typical parents. It’s okay if we can’t get balanced meals into our kids all the time. It’s okay to choose our battles. It’s okay if they have a month of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or crackers and cheese. They will survive. We’re all doing the best we can. It doesn’t make us bad parents.
We have 2 crockpots
Throw and go meals work the best in my house. After problem child #2 heads off on the bus and problem child #1 sleeps while problem child #3 watches a morning show while eating breakfast, I throw in some chicken, a bottle of bbq sauce, chuck the dial to low and voila. Dinner done. Sometimes I’ll throw some frozen veggies in the microwave at dinner time, or throw a bowl of grapes on the table, and sometimes we just eat the chicken.
We eat separately
I often make a meal for the kids and then sit down to eat my own meal after they’re in bed or once my husband gets home from work. I get to eat what I want. I get to sit down through the whole meal. My food that’s supposed to be cold is actually still cold instead of room temperature, and my food that’s supposed to be warm is actually still warm instead of cold. Most times I’ll sit with the kids while they are eating and talk to them about their days. Sometimes I use the rare 5 minutes when their mouths are full and they are too preoccupied to fight to hide away in my room, close my eyes, and prepare for the bedtime battle.
We eat separately, but in a different way
Sometimes, we just need to be in separate rooms while we are eating. Sometimes my daughter is just too tired or overloaded that she needs to eat alone. Sometimes we just need to not be together. When you’ve learned your fringy kids' cues, you can tell when they’re on the verge of nuclear catastrophe. When she’s on the verge, we divide and conquer. As in, we divide her from the others and conquer the sensory overstimulation. Sometimes she’s entirely on her own, and sometimes I’ll get the boys settled and then go sit with her. No, this doesn’t go along with the standard and oft-quoted studies that emphasize family meals. But, you know what? Our kids are different. Their needs are different. A family meal of all 5 of us rarely results in the pretty Norman Rockwell painting that promotes wellness and family togetherness. Plus, correlation does not equal causation. Just because kids who ate family meals together grew up more well doesn’t mean it was the meals that caused the wellness. It is highly likely that families who prioritize family meals are actually families who prioritize relationships, and this is what promotes wellness. Us fringy families have to prioritize relationships in different ways than the norm. Sometimes prioritizing relationships with a sensory kiddo on the verge means we need to separate. That’s ok. No shame. Do what works. Though, we also emphasize to our kbear that it’s not because she’s getting punished. We reinforce that it’s to help her feel less icky.
I Give Myself Credit
And finally, not only do I give myself compassion, but I also give myself some credit. Us parents of differently wired kids are no less than superheroes. Many parents struggle to get food on the table. Parenting is hard with the most typical of kids. Having the added challenge of not being able to cook on a stove because we're managing meltdowns instead? Superhuman. Give yourself some credit. The simple things of life, like cooking dinner, bedtime, saying no to a child's request, altering a schedule, stopping for errands on the way home from school, having a school break, going to church, going to a restaurant, watching a movie . . . all of these things are typically simple. But with Fringy Kids? All of these things are super complex.
So, on the times when I end up with the smoke-filled kitchen as I’m calming a melting down kid, or when I forget that we need to do things differently and I try to create a nice family meal together only to have it backfire, I pour myself a glass of wine and remember that I can actually cook, just not when my kids are living in the house with me. I'm too busy being a superhero.