With every autumn comes the fall of dining civilization


THE MEALTIME rhythms have changed recently at our house. Breakfast has become a brisk affair, bowls of cereal are consumed, then bodies go flying out the kitchen door. Lunch has become a challenge. Guessing what kind of sandwich should go in the bag lunch is like figuring out the current top tune. The favorite seems to change daily. Supper time has become a sometime thing -- sometimes it is early, sometimes it is late.

The kids are back in school, and like many other households in this situation, we have had to make adjustments at mealtime.

This autumnal shift in rhythms shouldn't come as a surprise. With kids now in the 6th and 9th grades, I should be prepared for the switch from summer's languorous style of eating to the do-it-now style of the fall. Moreover, I've had plenty of notice. Since late August mailings from the school have been arriving at our home like zucchini from the garden, each one thicker and more surprising than the one before it.

Nonetheless, when the alarm clock sounds on autumn mornings, I regard it as a call to arms. In summer I think about getting out bed. In the fall, there is no time for thinking, only moving.

Orders for breakfast are taken from kids who are still in the shower. While the kids are upstairs getting dressed, the adults are downstairs pouring cereal, toasting tarts. When a kid arrives in the kitchen, he is treated like a CEO arriving at a board meeting. He is directed to his seat and quickly presented with the main order of business, wolfing down a Pop-Tart.

Usually one parent is in charge of food, the other is in charge of clothing. The clothing parent may be tracking down a pair of shoes, a tie, or some gym shorts. In an ideal world, kids should keep track of their own clothing. But on school mornings, you aren't concerned about ideals, you are worrying about getting to school on time.

As breakfast is being eaten, the parent in charge of food is making bag lunches. A few years back I tried to make the perfect bag lunches for my kids, ones they would polish off with no leftovers, no rejects.

Back then I queried the kids on what they wanted in their sandwiches, on what kind of bread they preferred and I even asked which direction, horizontal or diagonal, they wanted the bread sliced. I made a few of these "perfect lunches" for the kids, and they ate all of them, for a few days. Soon, something was "wrong" with the meat, or the bread. Or they were bored with the condiment, the old malaise-over-mayo syndrome. When part of these "perfect lunches" was not eaten, I felt defeated.

Since then I have adopted a laissez-faire attitude about bag lunches. I don't count on everything in the lunch being a success. I confess I often can't resist tossing my favorite foods, like orange slices, into my kid's lunch. Sometimes the orange slices are untouched. But that is the way it goes in lunch-making. You peel some oranges, you take some chances.

Besides, in a kid's world, lunch is just one stop on the buffet. While adults tend to see each day as being divided into breakfast, lunch and dinner, kids aren't that restrictive. They see each day as one continuous eating opportunity. A big feeding time at our house, for instance, is when the kids get home from school. When the kids were smaller I used to call this after-school eating session a "snack," now I think it could be best described as "carnage." Now mounds of bananas are peeled, bags of chips are attacked, boxes of macaroni and cheese are pillaged.

In my mind, I like to think of supper as a pleasant gathering of family members, held at approximately the same time every night. In reality, supper time is on flextime at our house. Sometimes it happens around 7 o'clock, sometimes 8, sometimes 9. It depends on when the adults get home and when things get defrosted.

During supper all contact with the outside world -- whether it comes from a telephone, a beeper, or the front door bell -- is ignored. Attempts are made at making interesting conversation, but often we end up discussing logistics, talking about who will get picked up when. In the summer, supper time seemed to flow late into the night. But now suppers seem to come quickly to adjournment. There is homework to be finished. Papers to be signed. Book bags to be organized. Tomorrow is a school day.

Pub Date: 9/18/96

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