Visiting my elementary aged kids at school for lunch is like being on safari watching a bunch of wild animals in their natural habitat. I could narrate my observations much like an episode on National Geographic.
“Here we see a kindergartener accidentally dropping her tray, applesauce and marinara flying. The rest of the herd is traveling too close behind and we may have a stampede on our hands.”
“Two children reach into the milk cooler. One grabs the last chocolate milk and a fight ensues. Which child will reign supreme? He has size on his side but she has wits. See the display of superiority and verbal discord!”
“Strawberry ice cream is on the menu today. Long considered an official food group among this species, many children have eaten only their ice cream for lunch and are now using the small plastic spoon to slingshot corn across the table.”
My sincere appreciation to elementary school teachers, lunch ladies, custodians, and cafeteria monitors everywhere as they are on the front lines of this safari every day!
It is during these lunchtime visits with my kiddos at school that I see an amazing thing. I witness my children actually eating the school lunch. They only have about 20 minutes for lunch, and they spend a significant portion of that time chatting with friends, playing with their food, and giggling – but even still, I have witnessed them eating a main course and on occasion a vegetable. I also noticed they didn’t give the lunch ladies or cafeteria monitors any fuss about what was being served!
But by the time their hungry bellies arrive home each night, the tables are turned. We are kitchen adversaries. Sometimes it seems no matter what I offer for dinner (unless it’s candy or ice cream), they protest. I am fortunate to have one child who is a fairly good eater. She will at least eat some items from each food group and she can usually find something she likes among what is offered. However, my other child is quite the selective eater. She once even mounted an extended peanut butter and jelly boycott, which shattered my heart into a million pieces because PB&J’s were a tried and true go-to, the last man standing when time was of the essence or all other options had been exhausted! She enjoys cheese, blueberries, bread, oatmeal, and all sweets, but isn’t a fan of protein or vegetables. While I never wanted to be the short-order chef parent who was making a separate meal for the kids, I’ve thrown away one too many kids’ plates of poked-through pasta and endured a few too many dinnertime battles to care at this point. It’s about survival now.
Enter…Mommy’s Special Plate. Now, I created Mommy’s Special Plate a number of years ago for several reasons: 1) the need to use up leftovers and about-to-expire yogurt in the fridge, 2) waning hope that perhaps making mealtime fun and entertaining would encourage cooperative participation, and 3) sheer exhaustion with the dinner process and a last ditch effort before “I give up!”
Mommy’s Special Plate involves me making an animated production of creating a very special dinner for the kids. A pretend British accent is even sometimes involved! I look through the fridge. Leftover quesadillas? Yes. Small amount of strawberries cut up a few days back? Toss them in. Turkey lunch meat? Sure, why not. A couple of meatballs from a previous night’s spaghetti? If the shoe fits! Crackers and cheese? Anything to make the kids think they are actually just snacking and not really eating a full, healthy dinner!
A big part of Mommy’s Special Plate is presentation and the element of surprise. I don’t merely toss a few baby carrots on the plate with some ranch dressing expecting the kids to eat them. Oh no, I cut the baby carrots lengthwise into four sticks. Somehow this makes them easier to bite or more palatable or something, and the kids are more likely to nibble on them. I might add a couple pepperoni slices leftover from make-your-own pizza night, or a cooked chicken breast cut into strips. I am sure to always include lots of dipping options. While I don’t have the time or patience to cut watermelon into heart shapes, I may cut it into long strips so it’s interesting to pick up. I’m looking for efficiency and as little protest as possible.
I throw the kids off their complaining game by offering food in a different shape or format than they are expecting. The key to the plate is to offer a small amount of a lot of different things, which works perfectly since we are usually leveraging leftovers anyway.
Sometimes I’ll grab an interesting plate that will provoke conversation and distraction. Perhaps the snowman platter when it’s not even winter, or the handprint plate the kids made in Wisconsin Dells. If they are distracted by the plate, maybe, just maybe, they will accidentally put a grape tomato into their mouths! I let them serve themselves from Mommy’s Special Plate while we reminisce about where the serving plate came from.
You will often see Mommy’s Special Plate making an appearance on a Thursday. We started off the week bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hoping for the best in dining experiences! We may have tried for a family dinner of lasagna or crockpot roast on Monday only to be met by protest. Taco Tuesday usually comes and goes with only minor complaining, as long as I remember to only put one tiny teaspoon of meat on the tortilla with nearly one full cup of cheese – per child requirements. We may have even skated through Wednesday without having to bring out the cereal as a backup. But by the time Thursday rolls around, everyone has dug into their trenches, armed for the long dinner battle ahead. The kids are demanding microwave single serve Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Everyone is tired, it’s late, and I’ve heard “That’s disgusting!” to just about every dinner suggestion I make. We need food and we also need to stay sane! And for the sake of surviving this crazy little thing we call dinner time, we get out our creativity and our leftovers and we partake in Mommy’s Special Plate!