Unwinding is the Only Thing on This Menu
"This is where we're from, this is what we do, and this is who we are"
Spring break recently passed, and while most years I drag my family to a far-flung mountain lean-to for goat brains or an equatorial beach shack for grilled fish, this year, you couldn’t have convinced me to go to Philly for cheesesteaks. Traveling with kids is exhausting—not just the trip itself, but the rebound. We weren’t ready for it this year. Baby Naeem was keeping us awake at night, Zoraida was having dizzy spells, my joints throbbed, and 8-year-old Marcel was chewing his fingertips like a madman. We needed to hang back and get into a rhythm.
Zoraida and I hypothesized that we’d been making ourselves too busy, traveling at every opportunity and looking too far afield for fulfillment. It prevented us from steeping in the local waters and from maintaining the sort of calm, consistent routines that are grounding—laundry and budget on Sundays, dinner out on Wednesdays, pizza and a movie on Fridays. We decided to spend the break getting back in touch with the familiar. So, a few weeks before vacation, we had a video call with my dad and told him we were canceling our trip to see him in Barcelona. After hanging up, our shoulders sank like we had just dropped handbags full of gold bricks. (Canceling also made us thousands of dollars richer.)
Adventure is enriching, but for kids, it’s crucial to have a sense that, “This is where we're from, this is what we do, and this is who we are.” For that, you must create home rituals and routines; they give kids predictable checkpoints in chaotic times. Fifty years of academic literature supports the positive impact of routines and rituals on child development and marital satisfaction, but I already knew that. In my life, they’ve always been fortifying, especially food routines.
I was twelve when my parents split. My mom and I moved from our big house in Spain to my grandparents’ two-bedroom apartment in suburban Albany, NY. The adjustment was awful at first, but my grandparents stepped up. Every Tuesday, my grandfather took me to one of his many old man depression-era lunch counters, Mike’s First Prize Hot Dogs in Schenectady. The staff knew my order within a month: two Texas dogs (meat sauce and onions) with yellow mustard. Then, on Sunday afternoons, my grandmother prepared whole-family lunches. Usually, she served spaghetti with sausage or meatballs and a pie: apple or lemon meringue. I’d wind spaghetti around my fork, devour it like a nervous dog, and then pass out on the floor watching Mr. Bean re-runs. The meals didn’t solve everything, but when my mother and I felt like we were in a free fall, they gave us definition and a soft landing place.