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Life with Liz: Top-shelf blues

Those pesky kitchen appliances are at it again. I guess I really have to accept the fact that I’m an adult when I spend more time thinking about my refrigerator than I do about anyone else in my house.

The last year has changed our eating habits. In the “before times,” I made sure the kids ate breakfast before they left the house, I occasionally packed a lunch or two (and it was almost always the same thing: thermos of soup or mac and cheese, a piece of fruit or vegetable, a pack of yogurt, and maybe some cookies or crackers), and we all made it home for dinner together.

When we first thought we’d scored a two-week mini-family vacation, we celebrated every morning with a big breakfast: pancakes, waffles, bacon, sausage, eggs. It was quite the buffet. Since they weren’t really on a school schedule, lunch and dinner kind of blended into each other and we ended up eating a large family meal sometime during the late afternoon.

Movie nights then provided us with another snack opportunity, and we pigged out on brownies, ice cream and popcorn. As the initial two weeks ended, we realized that if this was going to continue, we were going to have to change our meal plan or else buy a lot of new pants. We were also faced with the reality of not going to the grocery store any more frequently than we had to.

The next round of attempting to feed a family during a pandemic consisted of me trying to keep everyone on a three square, balanced meals a day plan. This did not last long as everyone in my family does not work on the same schedule. The boys are much more into a late brunch, E prefers something light in the morning, I like something light for breakfast, and a bigger meal after work but before actual dinner, which is when the WH was ready to sit down and pig out. Since we were all also with each other all day long, the last thing we wanted to do was sit down together at a table and talk about our days.

So, we got to plan C. Plan C consisted of me stocking the fridge and the pantry with an assortment of breakfast and lunch grab-and-go options and washing my hands of the process after that. First come, first served, ya snooze, ya lose, and by the day before the shopping trip, everyone was “starving” because there was nothing to eat. Sometime after lunch, I would make some sort of slow cooker, or one-pot meal, that could be kept warm for an hour or two, and everyone could come and graze when they felt like it. The beauty of this system was that if they didn’t eat whatever I’d made in its entirety, I packed it up for leftovers, and after a day or two of this plan, I had a third night of “heat whatever you want up in the microwave” and I was off the hook.

We then instituted a plan where the kids were entirely responsible for cleaning up the leftovers. This was in part because they need to contribute, and in part because I figured if they were aware of what was put in the fridge, they would be more likely to remember to pull it out to eat it. And, so, this plan led to the new fridge problem: top shelf tunnel vision.

As far as my kids are concerned, there is only one shelf in the fridge: the top one. Absolutely everything has to be stored on the top shelf. The milk they use for cereal, the ham and cheese for sandwiches, the cookie dough that E has chilling, and a week’s worth of leftovers. All of it packed into the top shelf. Did they need ketchup? Yep. Found it on the door, put it back on, you guessed it, the top shelf. The next person to need ketchup looked in the obvious place: the door, didn’t find any, so they went and opened their own new bottle. When they were done, they put it in the fridge. Where? Yes, obviously, on the top shelf.

One day, I extracted a frozen head of lettuce from the produce drawer. I was stunned. The 1970s-era fridge couldn’t possibly fail me now. I decided to get to the root of the problem and gradually started emptying it out.

When I finally got through to the seventh or eighth layer on the top shelf, it became clear that the kids had packed so much stuff up there that proper circulation was virtually impossible. As I pulled relics that were months old from the depths of the other shelves that hadn’t been used for months, the WH started composing homages to the reverse cocoon that our refrigerator had become.

“That big beautiful head of broccoli went in there with such hope. Dreams of being added to a creamy Alfredo sauce or sautéed up in a zesty stir-fry died there in the darkness, and now it is shriveled and black, a shadow of its former self.”

As he unpacked the groceries later that week, he intentionally loaded up the bottom three shelves, addressing each item as he put it away. “I’ll see you again in a few weeks, when we feed you to the chickens.”

As the light at the end of the tunnel becomes brighter, I realize that I need to be very grateful that all our kitchen appliances have held up under the increased strain of the last year. The dishwasher, which usually ran once a day at the most, sometimes sees as many as three cycles a day. The oven is in almost constant use, either slow roasting something for dinner, or turning out one of the many treats the kids have perfected making themselves.

None of them are more grateful for the end of this thing than the top shelf of our fridge, which longs for the day when it can be alone with a single gallon of milk and a carafe of orange juice.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.