As the pandemic grinds on and winter’s dark closes in, Boston Children’s Hospital clinical nutritionist Tara McCarthy is starting to hear a nearly identical confession from many parents: We’re eating dinner at 5 p.m.
“It’s almost like they’re ashamed,” she said.
But, she admitted, she’s doing it, too. “We start talking about dinner at breakfast.”
Remember the good old days, when Americans callously mocked the early-bird special crowd? Who’s laughing now? Precisely no one. We’re too busy wolfing down meatloaf at 3:30 p.m.
Wait, you might say. What’s wrong with eating early? Isn’t it even healthier? Maybe from a physical standpoint. But as Jerry Seinfeld might say, the early dinner — like wearing sweat pants — is a sign you’ve given up.
Yet between the Nov. 1 time change that makes dusk feel like midnight, the nation’s growing anxiety and depression, and the fact that we’re constantly home, maybe the real wonder is that we’re holding out until 5 p.m.
People who admitted their early-bird habits to the Globe all spoke of trying to fight it off, as if they were being forced to make dinner at gunpoint as “General Hospital,” the daytime soap, plays in the background (yes, it’s still on). And with so many people experiencing food insecurity, they’re of course the lucky ones.
“I will not eat dinner before 4 o’clock!” insisted Faith McKinnon, of Peabody. “That is the limit.”
Well, maybe. But the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. When McKinnon was working — at the Tremont Market, the Peabody store her dad owned until his death earlier this year — she and her husband ate a little after 6 p.m.
But now that the store has been closed and she’s home all day, the couple’s routines are gone. First they were eating at 5:15 p.m., then 5 p.m., and then a few Sundays ago, the dinner gong rang at 4 p.m.
McKinnon told herself it was because the Patriots’ kickoff was at 4:25 p.m., and it was a Sunday, but she knows it’s something deeper. The pandemic has left her feeling stressed and rootless.
“Sitting down to dinner feels like the only normal thing we have left,” she said.
Hey, here’s an idea. With all we’re going through in 2020, maybe we should stop beating ourselves up and pretend Jimmy Buffett was singing about pot roast, not “something tall and strong,” when he crooned, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”
About that 5 o’clock hour … remember when we used to do things at that time, even if we complained about them? Like commute, or drive a carpool? Or we were out having fun, at a happy hour, or even a dull work function that we’d kill for now.
Now the only activity anyone can think of at that hour is eating. The shift can be seen at Bountiful a Somerville-based service that delivers locally sourced dinners in the Boston area. The company just moved its delivery window earlier by several hours and now drops off dinners between 3 and 6:30 p.m.
“We lost some customers because our delivery times were too late,” founder Julian Cohen said. “It was 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.”
7 p.m.??? Where does Cohen think he is? Spain?
In Wellesley, Hannah Lefkowitz feels dinner’s siren call as early as 5:30 p.m., or even 5 p.m., if she’s being honest. But as a child growing up in Cambridge, she was raised to have dinner at the adult hour of 7 p.m., and finds this early pull unsettling.
“It’s not civilized,” she said.
She is staving off dinner until 6:45, “by force of sheer will,” she said. Eating early, she explained, would mean giving into “pandemic ennui.”
“I can’t control what is happening in the world, [but] I can control what’s here in this house,” she said.
Dinner is an activity, of course, but also a gatekeeper. If you weaken and allow yourself to eat too early, said Lisa Rothman “you’re facing an endless night — 14 hours in your bedroom.”
“My goal is to stay downstairs, even if it’s just lying on the couch, until after the evening news has wrapped up,” said Rothman, a real estate agent with Rutledge Properties in Wellesley. “I mean the 6:30 news, not the 11.”
Meanwhile, as people in the prime of their lives joke about turning into their grandparents, do you know whose dining habits aren’t turning him into a grandparent? Actual grandparent, and World War II veteran, Murray Cooper, of Tewksbury, that’s who.
“Cheese and crackers and a glass of wine help delay the urge,” said Cooper, 96, a retired clothing designer.
At his age, keeping to a schedule is crucial, he said. “If I slip into a more relaxed mode, that will bring the ultimate end.”