Endless Meals

Sit down and finish your dinner.

Are you done or are you just distracted?

All the rest of us are done. Could you please eat your dinner?

Just FINISH. If you want that food, then EAT IT.

For CRYING OUT LOUD, Sammi, FINISH YOUR DINNER!

I can’t sit here with you anymore. Eat what you want and then bring your dish in.

My husband and I had decided early in our children’s lives that we would eat together as a family whenever possible. We had both grown up that way, largely, and especially given the research that showed how valuable a family meal is to raising connected families, we’ve maintained this policy even as our children have gotten older and busier. Seated at the end of the dining room table closest to the kitchen, the four of us have always used the time together in the traditional manner — catching up on our days, joking around, planning family events together.

But when we were done, there was Sammi. Still sitting there. Still eating.

Unlike other families I knew who struggled with a picky child at mealtime, Sammi’s issues were seldom that she was refusing to eat what was on the plate in front of her. In fact, if we suggested that she might be finished, she would often tell us that she was still eating. Then she would take a bite, chew it slowly, and begin a conversation. Five or six minutes later, we’d realize that she was not using the time when someone else was talking to take another bite — instead, she was watching, nodding, interacting, but not eating any more.

Pick up your fork and put some food on it, we’d say, rolling our eyes. You know how to eat. Just eat your dinner!

Thirty minutes would pass, and the other three people at the table would be long done with their meals. We’d linger, chatting. Maybe one of us would get up to switch a load of laundry, rifle through the mail, answer the phone. Those left at the table with Sammi would keep chatting, fussing with our dishes, maybe having another helping of something, just to pass the time.

An hour after sitting down, Sammi would still be spearing pieces of food, now long-cold. By now, her sister Ronni would be off and playing, or reading a book in a chair nearby. Either David or I would have lost the ability to sit at that table a moment more, and would be in the kitchen doing dishes or hanging out with Ronni. The parent left at the table might start reading to Sammi or to him or herself in an effort to stave off the frustration and boredom of still being at the dinner table.

After ninety minutes, it would be nearly bedtime. If Sammi was still sitting at the table with her food, we often began a countdown to the end of the meal.

In ten minutes you need to get ready for bed. Eat whatever you can finish by then.

Bedtime is coming in five minutes. Finish.

It’s almost time to go upstairs!

Dinner time edged right up to bedtime for years and years. There were never, ever any family board game nights. We seldom had dinners in front of a movie, lest the adults lose our focus or vigilance over the state of Sammi’s plate. A summer walk at sunset? Never — we were still at the dinner table.

It helped to know that Sammi’s slow eating was likely a symptom of eosinophilic esophagitis, or reflux, or both. It helped, but not enough. I kept feeling that nagging, nagging sensation in my own belly — something else was wrong. This was nearly her only symptom. Why did the problem of slowness persist even with drinking? She drank like a toddler even at age 8, puffing her cheeks out to fill them with water and letting it down a tiny bit at a time. It seemed wrong. It seemed strange. I sat there, night after night, staring at Sammi eating in slow motion, musing and, despite myself, fuming.

We watched her, the sound of doctors labeling her “failure to thrive” whispering through our heads as she delicately balanced four peas on her spoon. Feed her more calories, they told us. She needs more nutrition, they insisted.

Let THEM try, I thought, over and over, waiting for the end of another interminable meal.

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9 thoughts on “Endless Meals

  1. My daughter was diagnosed as Failure to Thrive as an infant. Although she’s past that now, at 6.5 years old, she has a diet very high in carbs and low in everything else. I’m told to feed her meat and veggies but she just won’t. I’ve worked at conceding defeat and letting her eat whatever she wishes, whenever she wishes.

    • Stephanie, I totally agree and understand. The battle of food becomes the sum total of your relationship. If there’s a way out of that battle, I’m all for taking it. I’d look at it less as defeat than as peaceful surrender and truce. Good luck to you and your daughter.

  2. […] As the years went on, I marveled at this little girl’s consistent ability to enjoy food despite the trauma done to the very mechanisms she required for eating it. Despite suctioning at birth, swallow studies, endoscopies and years of restrictive diets, she never really disliked food. She happily helped me prepare giant loaves of challah only to linger, slowly, over one slice she barely finished. She acted excited over birthday cakes whose frosting was the only piece that made it into her mouth. She inhaled deeply the smells of dinner on the stove and then ate tiny bites, taking hours to finish a small helping. […]

  3. […] the endless meals of her earlier years, Sammi’s times of sitting at the table became a fight between my […]

  4. […] wondered if her inability to eat well was affecting her ability to concentrate. Myriad gastrointestinal issues had kept her from eating […]

  5. […] misery, any reserves of patience or space in her brain to make the developmental leaps a child with a full stomach and no pain can make. She did not, much of the time, and I needed to dig deep to find my own […]

  6. […] how no one is a statistic. I’m writing about how no one is a “problem,” a “failure,” or a “diagnosis.” No one is the sole, lonely source of a challenge they are […]

  7. […] The truth was that, days before we left, I noticed that the temperatures where we were traveling would be cooler than we’d experienced since the spring. I pulled out long pants and long-sleeved shirts for Sammi to try on, and we discovered that she’d outgrown nearly all of them. Her strong shoulder pulled the shirts up at the bottom, revealing a flat but lightly-padded stomach and requiring us to race to the store the day before our trip to buy her all new shirts. The pants I could never imagine on her legs — outgrown by her older sister what seemed like moments ago — fit her perfectly, and she strutted onto the airplane in style and comfort. She’d grown, and I hadn’t even had to beg her to eat. […]

  8. […] my antennae high up over my head, scanning Sammi up and down and all around, every day. When she  didn’t eat well, when she couldn’t focus on reading well, when she said the food came back up in her mouth, […]

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