When I first started writing about sustainability issues about nine years ago, there was a lot of chatter about how environmentally unfriendly divorce can be. Divorce uses up a lot of resources since someone usually has to go out and buy all new stuff. I remember thinking at the time that if things ever got so bad that I was considering divorce, the last thing I'd be concerned about was the environmental damage a new couch would cause.
Of course, I never believed I'd get divorced. Yet, here I am, almost 10 years later, divorced after a separation that lasted more than three years. I haven't talked about it much publicly, but if you were to go back through this blog over the past several years, you might notice a change in language when I talked about my family. I started using phrases like "feeding my family" instead of "feeding my husband and my boys" or "the men in my house."
I was wrong about getting divorced, but I was right about one thing: I didn't care at all about the new things that had to be purchased to support two households. Environmentalism be damned; I had a family in crisis. My utmost priority was taking care of my boys and healing my family, and so much of that healing happened around our dining table. My commitment to family dinners took on added importance as that nightly check-in became a way for me to gauge how my sons were handling the changes, and for them to gauge how I was doing, too.
I'm incredibly grateful for the chapter in Laurie David's book "The Family Dinner" that talked about family meals after divorce. She wrote about how she fought to keep family meals after her own divorce, even when no one felt like having them.
If family dinner had stopped, the lesson to my kids (and to myself) would be that we weren't whole anymore, that something was broken forever. I honestly didn't believe that to be true. The message I did believe, and the one our continuing dinners provided was – This family is changing, but we are a family that is going to get through this and come out strong and connected.
Although I had read and written about the book several years before my separation, that advice stuck with me, even though I thought my family would never need it.
We've kept family dinner alive. My sons and I meet at the dinner table as often as possible, although our seating arrangement is different than it used to be. One thing David suggests in her book is to switch up where everyone sits so that the place that used to be occupied by the parent no longer living in the home isn't a constant reminder of the fact. That was excellent advice.
Shifts in tastes
Other things have changed, too. The first was that family dinner didn't happen as often because my sons weren't with me every night. They were with their dad on many nights, and when they were, they ate differently than they did at home. This is not a knock on my ex. Since I did all the cooking when we were married, it's not a skill he had when we first separated. He understandably took the boys out to eat a lot, and because of that, their palates started to change. Restaurants use a lot of fat, salt and sugar to make their meals appealing.
I'll be honest. At first this really angered me. For years, I'd cooked healthy meals using the best ingredients, and suddenly my sons were turning up their noses at food I cooked. They'd make comments like "I used to like your meatballs, but I don't for some reason anymore." But I knew the reason. The restaurant food was changing what they expected food to taste like.
For a while, a lot of meals went uneaten in our home. I shed a lot of tears over my sons not wanting to eat the food I’d lovingly prepared — and about the friction that was causing at the table.
Finally, I realized I needed to take the same attitude about meals as I had about the environmental impact of furnishing two separate homes. My version of perfection at the dinner table be damned; this friction over food was ruining our family meal time. I had sons who needed to connect with me at the table more than they needed to try new foods.
Together with comfort food
I began serving a steady rotation of our absolute family favorites, foods that can definitely be described as comfort foods. We eat a lot of chicken pot pie and French dip sandwiches at our dinner table now. I still use the best ingredients I can afford, but that's another thing that's changed: my grocery budget. Although I didn't have an unlimited grocery budget before, I had a generous one. Now, I hawk the organic meat aisle in my grocery store for half-price "manager's specials" (meat that's close to the sell-by date) and I stock my freezer with it. In that freezer, you may also find a frozen pizza or two for nights when I'm out at a work-related event.
The things I've learned in the past four years could fill a book. It might not be a book for everyone, but what I've learned about family meals could be helpful to someone in a similar situation.
This is our new normal: Three of us at the table. Varied schedules. I'm committed to meeting around that dinner table as often as possible, and I believe our dinner ritual has done lot of good, helping us be as okay as possible with the new normal. I believe it's okay to serve meatloaf and mashed potatoes two nights in one week, particularly when that meatloaf creates a meal with no friction so the conversation and the connection can be the focus.
The most important message at the dining table during this time echoes what David said: "This family is changing, but we are a family that is going to get through this and come out strong and connected," not "Eating organic food is the more important than what we're going through right now."
I still believe that feeding my boys healthy food is incredibly important, and as our family moves along in the healing process, I'm slowly adding a little variety. My sons are both teenagers now; the oldest will go to college next year. Our family dinner time is even more precious since it happens less frequently now that he works several nights a week. My younger son starts his freshman year of high school in two weeks, and he'll have his own crazy schedule with sports and other school activities.
I'll never regret focusing on being at the dinner table together after our family changed; I truly believe that not worrying so much about the variety of foods I served kept the conversation going between my boys and me. Comfort foods didn't just make a good meal; they helped us make it through.