Dinner time was important to our family as it was the only meal we ate all together as a family. We may not have always had a table to sit around, but we always sat together to eat our evening meal.
The time of our dinner was pretty much determined by Rod’s work schedule, which wasn’t unusual for folks who work 9-5 jobs. And the cuisine usually consisted of meat and rice with the occasional veggie.
For the better part of 30 years, we kept to this dinner routine; whatever we were having was piping hot and ready to eat at 6 pm.
In the days and months after Rod died, there was no dinner routine. Or any other mealtime routines for that matter. I’d either eat when I realized I was hungry or wondered when the last time was that I ate, or I’d just skip it altogether.
I remember a specific day some time in April, 2014. I got home from work, and I was feeling hungry. That wasn’t the memorable part. As I was rifling through the fridge and pantry for something to eat, I realized I was looking for ingredients to prepare a specific meal.
It was weird, like an out of body experience. My body continued its ingredient gathering and meal preparations, but my mind screamed out Stop! What are you doing? How can you just continue? It's like I was observing myself gathering things to create that dish that I had a taste for.
What's more, I was happy about it - anticipating the satisfaction of my craving - and not bothered at all by cutting the recipe to cook a single portion. How can you be happy about preparing a meal for one? my mind continued. You realize that you’ll be eating that by yourself, right?
It was a challenge to keep going. How can I be happy about cooking a meal at all - let alone for one - if Rod wasn’t going to be here to enjoy it with me? I remember a wave of guilt coming over me, like it was wrong of me to make something just for myself, and double the guilt for daring be happy about it.
It was like watching the protagonist in a horror flick go into the abandoned warehouse alone, armed only with a lead pipe, to investigate the screaming that they heard from the street while walking by. No matter how much you scream at the TV, they just keep on heading into that warehouse, probably to their death.
Yup, my head was convinced I was going to die for wanting something for myself - and for being happy about it - when all I was doing was making dinner.
Needless to say, I didn’t die. In fact, it was quite good as I recall.
As I continued to come out of the widow fog, I began to think about meals again on a more consistent basis. I mean ‘real’ meals, not a bowl of cereal or bag of Cheetos at random times of the day (or night). I remembered my well-ingrained dinner time routine. And now that I know I actually might get a taste for a cooked meal, I decided to pick back up with this old routine.
Perhaps reestablishing this 6 pm dinner time habit could bring some modicum of normalcy to life.
It was a good idea, but it didn’t last very long.
I went back to school full time nine months after Rod died, so dinner time (as well as other mealtimes) was now predetermined by my class schedule. Because it was different on different days, I had to eat what was available to me whenever I had time to eat it.
I was eating like a college student - anything that would fit into my backpack, or cafeteria or vending machine food - not like the stay-at-home wife of a 9-5’er.
That wasn’t the only thing that deterred me from reestablishing the 6pm dinnertime routine.
About a year and a half after Rod died (while I was still in school), I traveled to Spain to visit extended family. I adapted well - too well, perhaps - to the local mealtimes while there, particularly having the biggest meal of the day in the early afternoon instead of in the evening, or typical 'after work' hours of the US. Upon my return home, I decided to continue having my big meal mid-day. And because I work from home, this was actually an option.
It was the combination of these two things that made the 6 pm dinner time (as I had always known it) obsolete. I realized that all of the reasons we - as a family - had for observing that dinner routine were no longer valid.
The timing of my dinner routine wasn't the only thing impacted after Rod’s death.
Rod was a meat-and-rice kinda guy and not a fan of veggies, so I planned our dinner menu accordingly. I’d throw in a veggie here and there if I decided I wanted one, but I found it difficult to expect the kids to eat their veggies while they observed the lack of veggies on their dad’s plate. And Rod wasn’t going to eat them just to put on a show for the kids.
I always thought I could be a vegetarian, that I wouldn’t miss meat all that much. But I wasn’t about to cook separate meals - for myself or anyone else. I cooked one family meal and we all ate it. Veggies, when they were available, were optional.
The first epiphany I had in this area was that I could make as many veggies as I wanted to go with my meat and rice. So I started cooking more veggies.
Then I realized that there are other sides instead of rice that I might prefer with my meat and veggie. So I started making different side dishes.
Then I remembered my musings about eating meat, and I decided to test that theory. And you know what? I was right. Twice or three times/week is plenty of meat for me.
There are times I look at my veggie filled plate in the middle of the afternoon, and I can just feel Rod rolling his eyes at me, wondering where the 'real' food is.
My adaptations to mealtimes didn’t end with when and what I ate, but also how I eat.
I find that I no longer subscribe to the notion that I must have each component of my meal ready at the same time and served all together, whatever time of day I make it. (I expect this was influenced, at least in part, by my time in Spain as well.)
For example, if I’m in the process of making something and suddenly get an idea for a side or other accompaniment that would go well with whatever I'm making, I make it, too, even if it'll be done after the first dish.
Sometimes inspiration strikes after I get my first bite or two; I’ll keep my plate warm and go with it. Sometimes I may be too hungry to wait for the late addition, so I’ll keep eating what I’ve already cooked while I prepare and cook it, then eat that dish separately whenever it’s ready.
I no longer adhere to the mealtime routines I had with Rod. I’m not even sure I have mealtime routines any more (dinner or otherwise) - except that I eat whatever sounds good whenever I get hungry.
Letting go of something that Rod and I shared as part of our everyday life was a challenge at first, one that I resisted. It was one more touch-point going away, one less thing in my life that bore evidence of our time together.
But as I've allowed my eating habits to change, becoming more in tune with my own body and now solo lifestyle, I actually started feeling better in my own skin.
It’s true, I could have been eating like this all along, but the fact is that I didn’t; I chose to adapt my schedule and diet to the preferences of others. For this, I have no regrets. But with those preferences no longer in play, I can now focus on my own preferences. In the beginning, I didn’t even know what those were. I allowed myself to explore, and I’ve discovered some amazing foods - and a lifestyle - that I would not have even thought to try before.
So, instead of hearing Rod ask, “What’s for din-din, mom-mom?” I ask myself, “What am I hungry for?” And I’ve gotten to where I’m ok with that.