Happy meals: Balancing a love for food with a 10-month-old dining companion

KIDS THESE DAYS

Mealtime looks different from the eyes of a new parent. Photo: John Robinson Mealtime looks different from the eyes of a new parent. Photo: John Robinson

I am a bit of a restaurant freak. Or at least, I used to be. I’ve eaten off of the whole spectrum of flatware, from the greasiest spoon to some of the finest dessert forks. I go out of my way to be a gracious guest—I ask the server’s name, I try to express my pleasure at the staff’s talent (even if said talent is not making great cuisine), and I always try to tip well.

I know this girl who is the worst restaurant guest. When the service is slow at her favorite joint, she sounds off with a cacophony of exasperated grunts, and she never uses a napkin, even if her face looks like a half-finished Kandinsky painting. She throws the main course around the room, smooshes the vegetable sides into her plate, and finger paints with the leftovers. As for tipping—a messy grin is enough, right?

Mealtimes with my 10-month-old daughter are never boring. She’s gone from a helpless micro-human-like-creature to this singing, food-flinging dervish. Our baby is a little person now—granted, a little person who leaves the table with most of her meal magically aggregated on the seat of her pants, but a person none the less—with funny little preferences. She loves plain greek yogurt, flips broccoli florets upside down to nibble on the stalks, and will eat most anything we put cumin in. She’ll devour all the pita at Zoe’s, she loves the pickles at Beer Run, and she’ll demand bites of pizza from just about anywhere.

With this party of three, we don’t get out to restaurants as much as we used to. Apparently there’s an oyster spot in town? A bar in an alley or something? We find ourselves choosing a dinner destination based on new criteria now. Is it open at 5pm? Is the place loud enough that the aforementioned singing and grunting will go (mostly) unnoticed? Can we beat a hasty retreat if the bullet points of this plan all fall to bits? Needless to say, this family is hitting up fewer hot spots these days.

Mealtime at home has morphed, too. The chef is usually exhausted by the afternoon, and more than once we’ve scrapped a sauce or dish in order to run off and soothe tears, or been distracted by playing the ever-important role of tickle monster.

The smell of garlic on my finger tips, the feel of a perfect tomato, the sizzle of olive oil in a pan. I love the experience of cooking, but after a day of work, the baby-feeding frenzy, and finally burrito-wrapping her up for the night, there are few things less appealing than the thought of prepping, cooking, and eating a meal. I wish I could channel Ina Garten sometimes—seems she’s always ready to prep a four-course meal with a smile.

To reconnect with the pleasure of feeding loved ones, I remind myself of that feeling I had when I first fed that little pseudo-person. Not equipped with the instinct or physiology required in those early weeks, I was late to the feeding the baby party. But the bottle was warm, and even holding it for the first time, it felt oddly familiar. I knew how Ina must feel when she nails a dinner party—like a hero. She drank so contentedly, so graciously. Every sip felt like a gratified, honest thank you.—John Robinson

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