I consider myself a fairly generous person.
I give to charity, volunteer on a regular basis, sub in Pickleball when someone is in a jam, wave cars into traffic when I’m in a good mood, and watch dogs for my sisters and friends when they’re on vacation.
Just don’t ask me to share my food.
I like to order my own meal when I go out to eat, and I have a strict hands-off policy with my plate. My family knows this, but my friends are always a little surprised when they suggest splitting an entree, and I bark, “I don’t do that.”
My friend Johnny B. recently treated me to lunch, and suggested splitting a caprese salad as an appetizer. It sounded like a good idea until I mentioned that I planned to order nachos as a main course.
“So we’ll split the nachos too,” he said.
Um, no. I made it clear the nachos were just for me. If he wanted a main dish, he was on his own.
He eventually ordered the caprese salad and made a meal of it with some Italian bread. (I declined his offer to steal a tomato or two, what with my heaping plate of nachos on the way.)
We were both happy because we had our own meals, and didn’t have to worry about anyone grabbing a bite or two. This is a concern when out with people who never seem happy with their own dish, eying yours until you finally relent and offer them a sample.
I’m not sure why I have such strict rules about my food, but I think it stems from growing up in a family of seven children and always worrying that the food might run out. Some of this concern was certainly justified: my mother had 12 large bottles of soda delivered every Thursday and by Saturday, everything was gone except the dreaded bottle of birch beer.
Growing up, we had the same seats at the dining room table every night, and I was the 7th of 9 people to be served. Thinking back on it, it would have been fair to switch directions for the serving dishes, but we never did. It began with my father at the head of the table and moved to his right around the table. (Mom was naturally the last to serve herself.)
As the serving dishes moved counter clockwise, I watched as pieces of chicken, roast beef or veal cutlets were snapped up by siblings who had better spots in the rotation. And though there was always plenty of food, the fear of being gypped of rations is hard to shake.
Today, I’m admittedly the world’s worst food sharer. I don’t even share at a tapas restaurant, which is based on the concept of ordering several small plates to share rather than feasting on a single entree.
Several years ago, I went to a tapas restaurant in New Haven, CT., with friends, who suggested ordering several small plates. I refused to go along with it, insisting on ordering an entree while others feasted on tapas.
“No one comes to a tapas restaurant and doesn’t share,” someone sniped. “That’s the point of it, in case you didn’t know that.”
But here’s the thing: we’ve all been out with people who order something, and then spend the entire time nibbling on other people’s food. As the Curmudgeon, who is even more possessive of his food than I am, points out: “If I order five scallops, I expect to eat five scallops. I don’t want anyone depriving me of that.”
Some families avoid this predicament by serving food in prescribed portions, ensuring that there is always enough to go around.
I’d never seen food plated until I began dating the Curmudgeon, whose mom doled out the food. Standing at head of the table, she parceled out pieces of swordfish or filet mignon in modest servings at family gatherings.
She always took pains to give smallish servings of the main dish so there would be plenty to go around for seconds. Yet her strategy always baffled me: why not just give everyone twice as much so they were satisfied the first time around?
My family was strictly family style, piling the food on plates and passing it around the table rooming-house style. It was a bit of a free for all, but I understand my mother’s thinking: who would want to plate nine dishes every night?
We had a strict dinner hour that began at 6, and you were expected to show up every night. If my father was running late, he’d call my mother and tell her to start dinner without him, but he tried to make it home most nights.
This is in stark contrast to my own dinner hour, which has fallen victim to sports schedules, CCD, bar association meetings, tennis clinics, softball games, dog training classes and bowling outings over the years.
I’m a mom who cooks every night and relishes the thought of family dinners, yet feels lucky if we all sit down for a meal twice a week. We’re one of those American families who’s skipping the all-important dinner meal together, though I wish we could pull it off more often.
When I asked my son if he planned to join us for a homemade meal of lasagna last week, he responded: “I’m eating dinner, but I don’t know when it will be. This is my night to go bowling. I thought you realized that by now.”
I’ve decided that family meals must be made a priority, much like attending Sunday Mass, walking the dog or visiting elderly relatives. Left to chance, it’s just too easy for the dinner hour to disappear. Studies show that families who eat dinner together produce happier, more productive kids.
According to the Family Dinner Project:
Recent studies link regular family meals with the kinds of behaviors that parents want for their children: higher grade-point averages, resilience and self-esteem. Additionally, family meals are linked to lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and depression. We also believe in the power of family dinners to nourish ethical thinking.
Family meals don’t just happen like they did in the old days. On any given day at 6 p.m., my daughter is beginning cross country practice and my husband is at the Y, so I must make it a priority if I expect to break bread with my family more often.
Dinner is very important to me, perhaps because it was such an intricate part of my life growing up. My dad cared so much about the dinner hour that he took time out to call my mom to say he’d be late.
Having dinner with the family was a priority, a time to catch up on the day’s events and rehash the headlines. Something is missing without that touchstone, though I know a lot of families struggle with the same problem.
So I’m setting a dinner hour at 7:30 this summer and hope it will be honored. I don’t have high hopes, but I’m trying. And if someone can’t make it, I expect a phone call.