Food Flights

Megan’s lunch is having a party. The bright green Jell-O in one section of the divided plastic plate wavers and wiggles, making complete the rest of the meal, nestled among the plate’s décor — red, yellow and blue ABCs. She smiles, toothless, pokes her sticky finger right into the center and makes the green shimmy a bit more, laughs outright and looks to me, as if to say, “Okay, joke’s over. Take it off my plate, off my tray and continue my real lunch.” Most days, she takes matters into her own hands, literally, grasping an unwanted morsel, thrusting her arm to the side of the tray, so her fingers dangle the food over our kitchen floor. She waits, waits, waits until she catches my eye, finally releases the tidbit to the floor, all the while keeping the stare. Take that.

Her brother, he is another one all together. The middle child, he merely grasps the grape tomato and glances at it, then flings it up and away, behind the high chair and moves on to the next bite without waiting to hear it splat on the floor. We say, “Michael!” but he doesn’t even look up, engaged with lunch, no cares.

Nothing is funny or carefree about her youngest brother’s meals. Jack works quickly, methodically, picking his way across the plate, the colors of the ABCs now worn pale. But wait, we’ve given him a pea, and he doesn’t like them. Or a peach, but he is full. His completely round face reddens, red, red, like a wildly furious fat man, and now his whole bald head is quivering. He is incensed and he plants his chubby hands on the tray and quickly waves them, scissor-like, across the tray, again and again, clearing it of the offending food. And everything else. Jim wonders aloud, “So, you think our baby could have a stroke?”

Jim suggests we install a floor grate, allowing the multitudes of tossed food to drop to a wild animal kingdom we would adopt and install under the kitchen. Instead, we sweep the kitchen floor after every meal.

One by one, the kids graduate to stepstools at the table, finally to regular chairs. We think we can sell the ABC plate along with the matching spoon, fork and cup at a garage sale along with the yellow plastic bathtub we bought at Target and the receiving blankets handed down from cousins. But we lost the matching cup with the handles on both sides that they all dangled like drunken smokers from their pudgy, sticky hands long after the juice was gone. No one bought the rest of the set, even for a quarter.

After awhile we sweep only every day, eventually every week or two. Megan no longer believes a graham cracker is a treat; she, then her brothers, discover pop.

Jim and I discuss and reject the rule of the “Clean Plate Club,” certain it leads to overeating. But we decide (as if we had any control) that the kids must give everything on their plates a try. They don’t.

Sometimes I say, “You can’t eat that until you finish this.” But Megan explains, while motioning on her tummy, that her insides are split up into parts, that she has no room in the bean part, only in the Popsicle part.

While driving in the car, we keep Megan happy with rice cakes. Michael sneers at the rice cakes; we up the ante to donuts. For Jack, we reduce ourselves to offering an Oreo but he hurls it, all the way from his car seat to the front seat. No dice.

I invent “surprise lunches,” the regular fare but something different thrown in, maybe an M & M on top of a PBJ. Or I position some grapes like eyes and slices of hotdog like a mouth.

Megan is deliberate and focused while shopping for school supplies, choosing just the right lunch bag – Belle for herself, Thomas the Tank Engine or Pinocchio for her brothers. In what seems an instant, she rejects any such item in favor of a brown bag. Jim packs the most lunches. I buy treats for the class on birthdays, snacks for games; we pare down to juice bags, later just water bottles. God knows how many water bottles are left on various fields throughout the city.

We carp:
“You eat too little.”
“You eat too much.”
“Lay off the junk food.”
“Eat a balanced diet.”
“Don’t diet.”
“Who put the empty box of Cheese-Its back into the cabinet anyway?”

Jim wonders aloud who buys the packages containing 120 pizza rolls. I tell him to look in the freezer, quick, before the boys and their friends devour them all in one sitting.

We opine that Megan cooks too much macaroni and cheese in her dorm room microwave. Later we offer that she doesn’t cook enough, we think she spends too much money eating on the fly. And the boys, they are cereal hounds. Still at the age where bowl after bowl appears to go unnoticed by their hips. When will it catch up, this and the cheap trips to fast food restaurants? Michael even has a scale to rate restaurants, the best value for the dollar, that is, the one with the most food, cheap.

I could measure years by the numbers of dirty bowls left around the house for cereal, ice cream, Chex Mix. Our grocery bills soar then plummet except on those increasingly rare occasions when they are all eating at home.

The scraps of food tossed from their high chairs were cheap, rarely whole meals ended up on the floor. The moments, frequent, golden but unnoticed, like cents. Days like dollars.

Years. And years.
Even in the mess, I knew I’d miss those years.

Nancy Burke Hupp: Nancy’s children are now in their late teens and early twenties. Despite the fact that her children no longer throw food, her kitchen floor is not much cleaner. Rather than engage in housework, she lives in South Minneapolis and spends her time working and writing and to her children’s amazement cannot text to save her soul.