Sippy cup? Check.
The child? Check…? Wait. Where’s Caia?
This is usually the moment in our family dinner process where I ask the remaining household adults (which include my husband and my mother) who has my daughter, Caia. Usually, someone can see her, but nobody is watching her. This nightly ritual has been exacerbated recently by two things: Caia started walking, and she is officially over the main floor of our house now that she’s home 24/7.
Family dinner with a toddler is no easy feat. Not only are we navigating the transition to solid foods, but we’re also trying to establish a routine and build critical skills so that Caia can eventually feed herself with utensils, not just her hands. Now we’ve added a global pandemic into the mix and I’m just happy we mostly remember to keep our daughter fed at this point. (Yes, there have been forgotten meals.)
As a working mother living with both anxiety and depression, I can honestly say that I’ve never felt as stretched and exhausted as I do while weathering this pandemic and trying to maintain some normal habits as a family. At one point in late March, I found myself sobbing hysterically on the floor while trying to undress a screaming, spaghetti-sauce-covered Caia for bath time.
I’m never going to get the spaghetti sauce out of these clothes. WHY CAN’T SHE JUST COOPERATE?
As my husband took Caia into the bath, I toppled over onto the floor and realized something: Caia isn’t going anywhere. I’m not going anywhere. Who cares if she’s covered in spaghetti? And with that realization, I decided to let those little things go.
Since that moment, I’ve learned five things about trying to have family dinner with a toddler during a pandemic:
- Let them be covered in spaghetti. Caia has serious FOMO (fear of missing out). When it comes to family meals, that means she wants to eat what we’re eating. This is great and terrible. It means less food prep (yay!), but it also means bigger messes. Caia loves spaghetti, blueberry pancakes, and pretty much every other richly colored food that’s out there. She also loves to play with her food, which often includes rubbing it on her face and hair. This has resulted in many days of Caia walking around with purple, red, orange, and green stained skin and clothes over the past month. Pre-pandemic me would be chasing her around with a washcloth and changing her clothes after every meal. But who has time for that now? Save yourself the sanity (and laundry) and let them enjoy all the sensory experiences of eating solids.
- Family meals don’t have to happen at the table. Our house has been turned into a domestic war zone. In addition to there being toys and other odds and ends all over the place, our dining room table has been turned into a makeshift sewing center since our family has been making masks to help pass the time and give back to our community. This has been a blessing in disguise for us because it’s forced us to get creative with how to eat dinner. Half the time, we throw down a blanket on the floor, set out the food, place Caia in one of our laps, and eat. This has turned out to be a win-win because when Caia gets bored with sitting still she can wander around at her own discretion. One less meltdown is a huge accomplishment in our house right now.
- Turn obnoxious tasks into a game. Caia has a problem with overstuffing her mouth. I’m not sure how normal this is, but she will put the biggest piece of food – or take a handful of food -and shove it in her mouth. We’re trying to get her to swallow before putting more food in, but this has been a difficult task. To encourage her to show us her mouth is empty, we created the “AHH” game. At any point during dinner, one of us will look at Caia, open our mouth, and say “AHHH!”Because she loves to mimic, she does the same thing back. Caia laughs and claps, and we get to see how full her mouth is. It’s a win-win. However, to avoid building a bad habit, we also have her mimic other things during dinner like taking a bite and saying “MMMM!”
- Now is not the time for “perfect” meals. I’ve had to stop going on Instagram lately. The abundance of posts about glamorous “pantry” meals and new ways to prepare food so that your kids are “eating well” while quarantined is beyond overwhelming for me. First of all, I usually don’t have half of that stuff actually in my pantry. Secondly, I barely have enough time to feed myself, let alone make sure that my daughter is getting a completely balanced meal. At this point, I’ve lost count of how many times Caia has had PB&J for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Toddlers are finicky eaters. Their tastebuds are really starting to develop, they are incredibly sensitive to texture, they eat inconsistently, and they crave the familiar in times of stress. This, to me, is the perfect reason to not try and go above and beyond right now. Caia is getting fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, and fats in various forms throughout the day. So let them eat PB&J (or any quick and easy food that they love) and give yourself a pat on the back for feeding your child.
- Put tiny hands to work. The old adage, “many hands make light work” is definitely true when it comes to trying to prepare dinner, but what about trying to prepare dinner with a toddler? While it doesn’t make “light work” it does make for easy work. Although toddlers don’t have the coordination to peel potatoes, they are great at tasks like shredding lettuce, putting scraps into the trash, tasting food, and loading/unloading the dishwasher. This has been a win-win in our house because while Caia plays with dishes or food scraps we actually get to work on putting dinner together in a (somewhat) timely fashion. The cherry on top? We know we’re building good habits for the future.
- There’s plenty of time to build traditions (whether you start now or later). I was worried about Caia having the opportunity to participate in key family traditions since the pandemic started. We celebrated her first birthday in isolation and I feared that she wouldn’t know what a true “birthday experience” – which includes a 3 verse version of “Happy Birthday” sung in English and Polish – was on my side of the family. Even though we couldn’t be together with the whole family, we were still able to sing to her. We did all three verses in both languages and Caia loved it. All that matters is that we started the tradition and, one day like I did when I was a kid, she’ll ask about the history of it. And when the time comes, my mom and I will share the story.
- Be kind to yourself. Okay, so I lied. I actually learned more than five things. But this one is important in every aspect of parenthood right now: just be kind to yourself. I know this is easier said than done. But we’re all doing our best at an uncertain time. You’ve got this.