The Meaning of a Dining Table

When our family is all at home, there’s really only one place where we come together.

We divide off into separate bedrooms and different beds. We take turns in the bathroom. In the living room we sometimes share entertainment, and maybe for a while we even share the couch, but that usually doesn’t last long.

There’s only one place where we all do the same thing at the same time. Our dining table. 

I’m not one of those people who believes that the dinner table is the foundation of society. There are times when we eat our dinner in the living room. I’ll come right out and admit that breakfast is almost always a living room affair as I sip coffee and catch up with news on my laptop and the kids alternate between playing, getting dressed, and eating a yogurt or some dry cereal. 

These days, when we do all sit at the table together, it’s certainly not the idyllic scene you’d imagine. There’s usually someone who won’t eat. There are negotiations and complaints. The kids aren’t quite old enough for us to have any deep and moving conversation. Conversations in our house rarely last longer than a minute or two, we’re still working on that.

One eater and one objector to our meal of split pea soup.

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

Our evenings are a rush. I leave work early to get on the train and then get in the car and then pick up Tessa and then pick up Graham and then we get home and it’s already past 5:30 and less than 2 hours until bedtime. Only 2 hours! That’s all the time we have to talk and catch up, to play inside or outside, to get dinner ready and then to eat it. 

Occasionally I enlist their help, but they’re both too short for the counter so any work is done at their chairs at the dining table.

When their dad and I were together, we had a big-ish dining table. One with a fold-up leaf so we could expand it for company. One we got to fit our much bigger apartment before we moved up to Boston. I lost it in the split, so now the kids and I have a very small bare bones dining table. Hypothetically it can hit 6 but it would be snug. For now it sits up against the wall and has seating for 4. 

"This is hard work," says Graham. Let the child labor commence.

A photo posted by Jessica Woodbury (@jessicaesquire) on

Like most things in the house, the table is often cluttered. The fruit bowl may be full or may be empty, depending on whether the kids are actually eating things like apples and bananas or refusing them (which means I stop buying them). I have placemats but never both with them. Most of the tableware is small and brightly colored. 

We don’t always eat the same meal and it’s not always at the same time. But that’s now. I know that as they get older we’ll be around that table more and more. That meals will last longer, that conversations will start to happen. We’ll take that time we’re all sitting together to catch up, or I’ll try desperately to get tapped in to their lives. Time will be harder to come by, connection more of a challenge. Dinner together may start to be an exception rather than a rule. 

But we’ll always have those meals. Imperfect as they are and as they will be. We’ll have that one place where we try to slow down for a minute. 

Imagining my little ones as big kids and teenagers and even adults is still something I can’t manage. But that won’t stop it from happening. 

Someday they’ll leave. And then we’ll have that dining table to call us back together for holidays and celebrations. 

When the kids are gone, I tend to eat like a college student. Cheap food, on my couch, eaten hurriedly. I save the dining table for the times we’re all together, for the times when we’re a family. For whatever reason, that table, as small and simple as it may be, stands for just about everything.

Your Exception. My Rule.

I keep waiting for that time when I’ll be sitting down at a table with a bunch of my friends and be able to nod along and say, “Yes. Me, too.”

I don’t know how this has never quite happened, but it hasn’t. It has often felt like I’m just on the verge of achieving it. Or there are times when I think everything has aligned only to find myself at that table not able to nod along after all because everything has shifted. 

It can be a low key catch-up conversation with friends. Or it can be a parent support group at work. Talk of spouses, date night, sharing household management, children’s activities, birthday parties, and having no time at all for a book. I sit there, I listen, and I try not to get all in my own head about it but it’s a struggle. I can get stuck in my head, stuck in feeling different. It can remind me of everything that’s wrong with my life and everything I don’t have.

When I actually do have things in common with my friends, it tends to be something unusual for them. Extraordinary circumstances. I am guessing I am not the only single parent who feels a little bit rage-y when people talk about the difficulties of solo parenting for a few days when a spouse is out of town. Even when we are the same, it’s not the same. For me solo parenting is all about getting into a rhythm and following a schedule. For regular people it’s being thrown out of whack, being spread too thin, and feeling unmoored.

It’s a definite flaw, how much I dwell on that feeling of exclusion. I wish I had the ability to sit down at that table and say, “Yeah, none of that applies to me because I’m just so unique and badass.”

I think I’m inching closer to it little by little.

I don’t really want to be normal anyway, do I? My philosophy these last couple years has been to stop feeling like I have to follow a set of rules and simply do things as they come, to figure them out fresh, to stop trying to fit things neatly into a predetermined package, to not worry about meaningless little dramas.

Even in this big city full of modern and progressive people, I realize I am something of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I look like I fit in, but actually I am something else entirely. 

I kind of like being the wolf most of the time. When people discover these things about me they either find it fascinating or withdraw a little because they don’t know how to react. I’m cool with either one. I like surprising people. 

Someone asked me the other day about majoring in Biochem when I was in college and I admitted that part of the allure was the response when I told someone my major. I liked seeing the surprise in their eyes. I liked seeing them intimidated. I liked being worthy of awe.

I’ve learned before that when I catch myself in this kind of mental trap, one that only causes me grief and isn’t useful that it’s best for me to actively push past it. I have to start to stop, recognize it, and remind myself of the decision I’ve already made. 

Next time I’m going to stop and remember. “None of that applies to me because I’m so unique and badass.” After a few times it’ll start becoming second nature. And that terrible doubting part of me that so desperately wants to be just like everybody else will once again be set right. 

Mother’s Day, Again

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This is my Mother’s Day jewelry. It’s the first year Graham has actually known what Mother’s Day is and while we were walking through Old Navy he said, “You know, Mother’s Day is coming up.” So I let the kids peruse the clearance jewelry rack and helped rein in some of their crazier choices until we ended up with a Mother’s Day ring. The kids insisted on a ring of their own. They actually stole my Mother’s Day ring from last year (which I helped them pick out at the clearance rack at Sears) and co-opted it as their “Power Ring.” 

It’s a five dollar ring that I bought for myself and the blue-painted glass is already a little chipped. But it means something to me.

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These are my Mother’s Day flowers. Tessa still has no idea what Mother’s Day is, but she brought them over to me with a big smile and when we came inside she put them all in a little cup. 

There’s never a guarantee that your kids will give you these moments. They can’t be forced and they never come when you’re expecting them. That’s how motherhood is, there’s no script, no plan, just things as they happen day by day.

I don’t really like Mother’s Day and I don’t really like writing about Mother’s Day. I have said it before but the day just keeps coming every year so I keep having to say it again. It feels like I want to say pretty much the same thing every year. I still feel ambivalent and strange and lonely and I wish it would just disappear as a holiday.

Happily, for the third year I have something that means something to me that’s tied up with Mother’s Day, and yesterday Boston had their second annual Listen To Your Mother show. It is a beautiful thing in my life and it’s beautiful to have it at this particular time. It’s a bright spot to bring people together, to help give voice to stories that need to be shared. 

Three years of Listen To Your Mother does a lot to help me feel less caught up in my own internal weirdness on this holiday. (As a sidenote, “Internal Weirdness” is really a defining characteristic of mine and could also make a great band name.) The show doesn’t magically fix it all; my three years of Listen To Your Mother have also been three years that I haven’t had anyone to give my comp ticket to. And each year when the cast disperses into the audience to hug their families, I quietly head off to get my things. I have friends there who care about me and our cast members. It is wonderful to see them and to feel their support. It’s still strange, though, to keep doing this without having that safe place in the audience where I know someone is waiting just for me. My piece this year was all about the distractions of mothering and how they got me through the first difficult days on my own. And I kept thinking this year that LTYM is a lot like that. I have the distractions of getting the show ready to keep me from dwelling on that missing piece. 

Today I will avoid social media, just like I do on those other holidays I hate, but I will also celebrate that I made it through my hardest six months of the year. Once again I made it through that roughest patch relatively unscathed. Now it’s Spring and I can’t help but feel that Spring means something special and wonderful when you’ve had a long, hard Winter. I know that all over the country people have had leaves on the trees for months, but ours have just barely started to appear and I feel absolutely certain that ours must be more beautiful and more loved than any other leaves. I’m hoping that metaphor applies to the difficult winters of life, too.

Thanks to our wonderful cast for stories that helped sustain me, it was an honor to stand next to you. Thanks to our thoughtful and kind producers for going on the LTYM journey with me again. Thanks to our sponsors who mean the show actually gets to happen: national sponsors BlogHer/She Knows and Luvs, local sponsors Improv Boston, Barefoot Garden Designs, The Fenway Group, Carvalho & Roth Orthodontics, Jamberry Nails Independent Consultant Jess O’Toole, and Sanela Salon.

And thanks to my friend Kathy who never forgets me on Mother’s Day, you can’t possibly know how much it means to me, dearest.  

East Coast, West Coast

I have lived a lot of places. My longest stretch anywhere is 7 years. But when asked where I’m from, I usually say, “Out West.” It feels like the right answer. I spent almost all of my childhood and much of my early adulthood in the Western US. It feels like the place that formed me. 

It will always have that distinction, but as I’ve spent time in places that are distinctly different from it, I see that it’s not exactly the place I’m most at home. 

When you move around a lot as a child, when being ready to leave is your default mode, when you say, “I’m tired of this room,” after you’ve been in it for a year, you tend to see things differently than people who settle down and stay in one place. You develop a certain skill at being at home anywhere. 

It’s an excellent skill, one that’s served me well all through my life. Whether I was changing apartments or moving across the country, I could quickly make myself at home.

Another thing I’ve learned as I’ve moved from the West to the South to the Northeast is that this is possible because everywhere is perfect for part of you.

Over the last two weeks I was in Arizona and Utah and got a chance to bask in the West. The geography is immediately recognizable. The roads are wide in a way only Western roads are, 8 lanes big enough for a freeway just for a plain old city street. Stop lights everywhere. Strip malls and parking lots. No one walking on the sidewalk. Large, clearly-lettered signs are impossible to miss at every intersection. People are mostly quiet, mostly polite, but don’t go out of their way. Relaxed is a better word for it than slow. They are migratory and curious and will drive all day without giving it a minute’s thought.

There is a part of me that’s perfectly at home here. A part of me wants it to always be dry and a little hot and drive everywhere and go about my business at whatever pace I like.

The South, where I lived last, doesn’t feel entirely different. But it is bolder, prouder in some ways and more humble than others. It is also slow and relaxed. Sometimes. It has more passion and more politeness. People talk to each other in the South, greetings are exchanged no matter what you feel like doing. The cities are complicated, often difficult to get around, neighborhoods are tucked in and hard to navigate. The South is often kind and often cruel and rarely easy.

There is a part of me that wants to live here forever. A part that wants to hear people say “Yes, ma’am” and “thank you” and make eye contact and invite people over. 

And, of course, there’s the Northeast where I live now. It’s pretty different from the others, moving here was the hardest adjustment. Here people are brittle and tough and don’t help you. They walk fast, they don’t look up, they go about their business, they get things done. They share the sidewalks well and the roads badly. They care but they don’t like to show it at first. Driving is awful and instead of trying to give you advice, they just tell you not to even try. (Which is probably the smartest advice they can give.) They complain bitterly but defend even more bitterly. And they never leave.

I get it now and so there is a part of me that is wholly happy here. The part that is impatient and solitary and down to business. 

All of these are me in part. And perhaps that’s why I can’t ever picture settling down anywhere. I’ve never been able to say I wanted to live somewhere forever or settle down somewhere. If you asked me where I’d live if I could live anywhere I wouldn’t have an answer for you. I just find my home, whatever part of me it is, and I adapt. 

Maybe someday there will be a settling down. Maybe there will just be more moving every few years, more adjusting, more discoveries. 

Either way, I always find home, whether it’s East Coast, West Coast, Gulf Coast, or no coast at all. It’s not that home is what you make it. Home is just finding the part of you that belongs.

Hey, long time no see, Tuesday Free Write!

Dinner, Plated Style

review pic Dinner, Plated StyleBeing the only adult in my house makes cooking seem absurdly arduous when I already have so little time. Find a recipe, buy the ingredients, do all the prep, get the cooking done and then sit down to eat. Just finding time to eat in the evenings before bedtime can be tough. So I’m looking for lots of ways to make things more simple. Ergo today’s Plated review, making dinnertime a little easier.

affiliate links pic Dinner, Plated StylePlated Dinner, Plated Style is a new service that does the first half of your work for you. Here’s what you no longer have to do if you use Plated.

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Find a Recipe. You may be wondering why you’d want someone else to decide what you eat, but this really does make sense. If you’re like me you probably have tons of recipes you make, some of them more often than others. But meal planning gets really old.And if you want to try something new it can be a big gamble. To break out of meal planning, Plated has a menu each week of simple recipes made by their chefs. 

Buy Your Ingredients. I do not love grocery shopping, I know this is shocking. When you order meals from Plated, your ingredients are all provided (with the exception of staples like olive oil or chicken broth). You receive a box at your door with your ingredients for your week’s meals in it.

Prepare Ingredients. Not only do your ingredients come to your door, they also come pre-measured and pre-packaged. There may be some prep left before you cook, but this will be included in the recipe cook time.

I tried a few different recipes over the course of a few weeks to see how I liked them. Overall, I think the service is on the pricey side for people on a budget, but a nice option if you have the money, if you love food and if you’re short on time. 

I’ll walk you through one of my meals from start to finish to give you a look.

Choosing the Meal

 Dinner, Plated StyleEach week, Plated gives you 5 choices for recipes. (Update: They now do 9 options each week.) Each recipe gives you a picture, the ingredients, calories, cook time, difficulty level and other details. This week, for example, the choices are Pan-Seared Chicken with Mushroom Sauce, Tea-Poached Salmon with Edamame and Snap Pea Soba Noodles, Moroccan-Spiced Steak with Shallot Yogurt and Raisin-Carrot Couscous, Chicken with Three Tomato Pasta Sauce and Blackened Shrimp Tacos with Grilled Mexican Corn. As you can see, each week covers several proteins and cuisines.

Pros: Great variety. Interesting dishes, way more cool than what I’d pick out myself. Simple recipes. Plus you get a PDF of the recipe in your account so you can keep it on file.

Cons: 5 choices is still a small number and some weeks I didn’t want any options. I thought there was too much chicken. And as someone who’s not a fish-lover, I usually had at least 1 or 2 dishes that weren’t even an option. If you are kind of picky this may be a problem. (This week’s menu, for example, I see nothing I actually want to eat.) Most of all NO VEGETARIAN OPTION. The meals tend to revolve around meat, which is fine, but I wanted more fun vegetarian dishes.  Plus you can’t necessarily adjust the recipe or change the protein unless you’re doing that on your own.

One recipe I chose my first week was Farfalle with Sausage and Peas. A simple choice. There’s almost always a pasta dish in the lineup and this is one of my favorites in general so it seemed like a good option.

The Food

When it arrived, all my pasta ingredients were in one green bag with a clearly labeled sticker. And each ingredient was labeled as well. I took them all out to take a peek at what lay ahead.

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The delivery area for Plated is still limited, but this means you get your ingredients shipped very fast which means they’re nice and cool and fresh. The raw proteins and anything else requiring refrigeration was separately in a part of the box with cold packs. Nothing ever seemed off temperature-wise when I received it. Spices are included, which is either a plus or irrelevant depending on your pantry.

Meats are vacuum packed, everything else is generally sealed in a labeled plastic bag.

Quality was great. My English peas were gorgeous and the sausage… well it was the star of the dish, but that comes later.

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 Pros: Quality is excellent. Ingredients are fresh. 

Cons: Some ingredients will still require extra prep, such as chopping or (in the case of my peas) shelling. If something is missing (and this did happen to me when I ordered double of a recipe and only got 1 instead of 2 of something) the trouble of getting it replaced is a hurdle, and you’ll probably do without or buy it yourself, like I did.

The Cooking

The recipe cards are big and bright, with pictures and simple instructions.

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Since my recipe promised to take just 30 minutes, the sight of my un-shelled peas had me wondering if this would work. I timed it and it took me around 12 minutes or so for shelling. Would this still work? And would it be simple? Especially since I am very very prone to taking twice as long to cook everything than it says it will take in the recipe?

To my surprise, it worked out great. 30 minutes, almost to the second.

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Sure, it took two pots going at once (which felt a little more crazy than you’d think, given that the kids were being wrangled to the dinner table as this picture was taken) but it went and it was nice and simple. The peas were by far the most time-consuming part of the recipe, but the freshness they brought to the dish was totally worth it. I’ve never shelled my own peas for a meal before and wouldn’t have thought to if I’d done my own shopping. 

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 When finished it was a lovely dish. The peas and the shallots were perfect. (Shallots instead of onion, another smart change I wouldn’t have thought of.) But the SAUSAGE. I am a sausage-lover, but this one had me raving. It was full of flavor, each bite was like going on a little taste journey and it had this amazing maple finish that had me doing my food moan.

In fact, I hesitate to make it again on my own because I don’t know if I’ll find sausage worthy of the dish, beautiful in its simplicity.

Now, with all that said, not all the dishes I made for Plated were slam dunks. I was super excited about a side dish of udon noodles with peanut sauce and it came out all wrong, the sauce was too thin and I have no idea why.

And then there was the paella debacle.

Plated has a minimum of 4 plates (or servings) a week but I was tired of cooking two different meals and instead just decided to get all 4 plates of the same meal and cook it all at once. A chorizo paella seemed like a great option for leftovers so I got all my prep ready, got started and…

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When it was time for my rice to be done, it still looked like that. It was bomba rice, which I’d never used before, and according to the directions it should’ve cooked in 17 minutes. It didn’t. I let it go to 30. No change. I started scouring the internet to see if other Plated users were having the same problem, but it was early in the week and I could only find a couple people who’d made it and theirs seemed fine. I tweeted, but as it was outside business hours I didn’t get a response. So I started googling. 

My recipe told me to cook the rice on Low heat. (I still have it so I know for sure.) The internet? Said cook on Medium High. So I did and FINALLY I had rice. Of course, it was nearly 10 pm because I’d waited until the kids were in bed to cook and I’d spent some serious time waiting for the rice to cook and then figuring out how to cook it and then ACTUALLY cooking it. So I wasn’t exactly happy. Was it delicious? Yes, though the chicken in the dish was unnecessary and there was far too little chorizo, just some tiny pieces. 

Pricing

You can order Plated plates a la carte whenever you want. Membership is $10 per month and will cut down the price of a plate by $3 to $4, depending on how many you get per week. Plates with membership are $12 per plate for 4 plates a week and $10 per plate for 6 plates a week. So as a member you can get 16 plates (aka 8 meals for 2 or 16 meals for 1) for $202 a month. Or you can get 24 plates for $250. Obviously going for the 6 plate option is the better deal. If you usually find yourself with a budget of about $800 to 1000 a month for food, this would fit just fine into your current budget, especially if it kept you from ordering in or going out and possibly spending a lot more than $10 per plate.

Update: Plated has thankfully done away with membership, which was kind of confusing and crazy when you wanted to take a week off from the service. Now it’s $12 per plate no matter how many plates you order, with free shipping if you get 6 plates or more. 

If you’re wondering how it’d go over with kids, I think you’d be surprised. A lot of family-friendly dishes, assuming you have not-too-picky eaters. Stuff kids may be skeptical about, but if you’ve got good eaters, I don’t see a big deal. 

Really, though, Plated’s target customer doesn’t seem to be a family but singles or couples with busy jobs. People who end up going out for dinner because they want good food and don’t have the time to prepare it. Though I think it should be a good option for families with working parents as well.

It’s also a great gift for your foodie friends, so you may want to keep it in mind come birthdays or housewarmings.

Plated is currently available nearly everywhere in the continental United States. You can order here Dinner, Plated Style.

Disclosure: I received a month-long membership and 4 free plates from Plated and Klout. I was not required to review their service.