The Romance Novelist Wisdom That Helped Me Relax About Food This Year

updated Nov 24, 2020
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In January of this year, back when we were all children, I read a tweet from author Jennifer Lynn Barnes about the prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. Barnes recalled, “One time, I was at a Q&A with Nora Roberts, and someone asked her how to balance writing and kids, and she said that the key to juggling is to know that some of the balls you have in the air are made of plastic and some are made of glass.” 

The comparison instantly resonated: there can be plastic work balls, or glass family balls, or vice versa, and they change from day to day. The mission: keep the glass balls in the air, and if  you drop a few plastic ones, it’s no big deal. But prepare to learn the difference, because we all have a lot of balls in the air, from returning texts and phone calls to the minutiae of our work, to who is picking up the kids from school, to who has grown out of their winter coat, and do we have milk? As Barnes said: “Nora was not talking about juggling five balls. She was talking about juggling FIFTY-FIVE balls.”  

After Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, for me all these balls got different labels overnight. Juggling each day now looked like keeping our infant daughter entertained enough to not distract our son from Zooming with his preschool class while sending my husband to the basement to do a work call while I scaled recipes for a cookbook project with one eye and kept the other eye on the chaos of 20 preschoolers sent on a scavenger hunt in their respective homes to look for something orange. It looked like asking for deadline extensions. It looked like wiping down takeout containers. It looked like home haircuts. It looked like learning basic epidemiology to explain enough about this virus to our son to help him understand why things were suddenly changing, but we hoped, not so much to freak him out. 

To create some structure for us amid Covid’s ocean of unstructured time, I started meal planning. In the Before Times, I’d never found life to be predictable enough for meal planning to be practical. But now, no one was going for drinks with coworkers, no play dates at the park, not even visits from my parents who live on the other side of town. We were all home, all of the time, so while our social schedules had cleared right up, our minds and spirits were a mess. The low-stakes math of figuring out dinner suddenly became a dizzying calculus. Where I used to muse, “Is it cold enough to make us want boeuf Bourguignon?” the questions became, “How many snacks have my children had and how recently were they consumed? How much whining have I heard today and how much more can I handle? Can I melt cheese onto this?” 

And of course, the question underlying all of it, that every parent has probably asked themselves every day since March: “How can I make my children feel safe?” Planning meals began to feel  like a way to help us make sense of things. It gave me a clear route to getting everyone fed, which could otherwise feel like a heavy lift at the end of a very long day, and it meant that no matter how off the rails things went, we at least had one familiar thing – the dinner table – to keep us in a regular, if bumpy, orbit. 

But as quarantine wore on, the meal planning that was so helpful — a glass ball — also needed juggling, or at least reimagining. Picking up groceries began to feel unsafe. Being able to improvise and “have fun with it” while making dinner became literally laughable (in that way where you laugh to keep from crying). I laughed to myself, deranged, as I came up with cute names like Fridge Smörgåsbord or carefully wrote the word Leftovers in my swirliest, most elaborate cursive. Some weeks, not a single meal I had planned ended up on the table as we opted for Snax 4 Dinner™ (a tried and true favorite) or familiarized ourselves with the takeout options from local restaurants. 

After a decade of believing with my entire being that food was and would always be a glass ball, I could see now that what was on the table was actually a plastic ball. The glass ball, the non-negotiable, was making my kids feel safe and cared for by protecting our daily practice of sitting down and eating—anything—together. 

So my meal strategy pivoted again, this time from planning to something more akin to preparedness for a Bad Day, on any day. How could I deliver a sense of comfort in the form of a meal that I could more or less have on-hand? And what depth of comfort are we talking about? As the weeks went by, I found easy, low-pressure meals to prescribe for any flavor of bad day. For standard-issue grumpiness, probably good old Snax4Dinner and a few well-placed dad jokes would sort us out. For days when the kids seem fine but my husband and I are reeling, they get something easy like sandwiches and we order takeout after they’re in bed. And for Defcon-level, awful days where everyone is feeling extremely un-chill, the theme is basically Dinnertime at the Vacation Rental: burgers on the grill (ground beef from freezer reserve, thawed, seasoned, and grilled on cast-iron on the stove); toasted brioche buns (also freezer reserve, thawed via toaster and slathered with the nice butter); beers for my husband and I and chocolate milk for our son; and the coup de grace, my son’s desert-island food and my link to serenity, store-bought frozen crinkle-cut French fries, cooked in the oven on the longer end of the instructed time for extra crispitude, and finished with extra salt thankyousomuch.

We’re nearing the end of this year and it feels bizarre to say that I’m brimming with gratitude. Don’t get me wrong, when 2020 is over I will sing in the streets, bang pots and pans, and with enough Champagne, possibly spit on this year’s memory. But it’s also the year that taught me that I am the mom my kids need — just as I am. Beyond the food and the meals and the crinkle-cut fries, in their world, I’m the glass ball; everything else can bounce.  

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