A Household Word
Meals on Wheels

The kid just stood there. He wouldnít get into the backseat of my car with the other 7-year-old soccer players.

"Get in," I admonished.

"I canít," he said. "The seat has crumbs on it."

I whacked at the crumbs with a road map. "Who do you think you are, Howard Hughes?" I asked.

He stared at me blankly, then opened his backpack, took out his windbreaker and spread it on the seat to protect himself from any contaminants that might still be lurking in the upholstery. He cast a doubtful look at me as he edged tentatively onto the backseat.

"Why is your car so messy?" he asked.

I have to admit that my car is a disaster area. I blame it on my kids. If I werenít a mom, there wouldnít be seven linty pacifiers, two dead bananas and a decapitated X-Man figure under the driverís seat of my station wagon. If I werenít a mom, my car would be clean. Iíd have a cute little litter bag to hold an occasional tissue instead of the big black Hefty bags that I seem to fill up almost daily.

I wanted to take the little neat freak and tell him all about kids and car pools and drive-through McDonaldís. I wanted to ask him how come the same kid that comes to my house and smears grape jelly on the guest towels in the bathroom is squeamish about getting into a car thatís got a couple Cheez-Its ground into the floor mats?

My mother doesnít let us make crumbs in the car, another child piped up from the rear as I passed a bag of pretzel sticks to the backseat. Hate her, I thought.

Oh sure, when our car was brand new, I was determined to keep it crumb-free. I made the kids take off their shoes, spit out their chewing gum and empty their pockets before they climbed into the backseat. That was on the way home from the dealership. Since then, in order to preserve my sanity and my familyís quasi-dysfunctional lifestyle, Iíve had to relax my carís cleanliness standards.

Frankly, shuttling three kids around town to piano lessons, soccer practice and scout field trips means that the car is our second home. OK, maybe itís more like a second kitchen. In fact, if I didnít let my kids eat in the car, I donít think that they would eat anything at all. All I know is that my kid, who refuses to eat lunch in the kitchen before we drive to the supermarket, is guaranteed to be ravenous the minute the car key is in the ignition.

We eat our meals en route to school, soccer and scouts, then I use car snacks as all-occasion bribery. "Come shoe shopping and we can stop and get an ice-cream cone to eat on the way home" or "Donít complain on the way to the doctorís office and you can bring a bag of popcorn (the cardinal sin of auto-snacking) with you." As long as the snacks hold out, the kids are reasonably cooperative.

For longer trips, snacks are a necessity. Our station wagon doesnít have a CD player, a videotape machine or even a very good radio. The only entertainment available in the backseat is fighting or eating. My kids fight less when their mouths are full. And who knows, the moldy apple cores that they discard under the driverís seat and the stale Cheerios that have worked their way into every crevice of the car could be our salvation if we are ever stranded in a snowstorm in the Dakotas or broken down in Death Valley. The way I figure it, if people werenít supposed to eat in the car, God wouldnít have made cup holders.

Weíre planning to drive four hours to visit relatives over Thanksgiving. To preserve the peace during the trip, Iíll pack plenty of crackers, mozzarella sticks, animal crackers, apples, graham crackers, bananas and Chips Ahoy. Iím sure that my sister-in-law will understand when she passes the platter of turkey around and my kids shake their heads and say, "No thanks, we already ate in the car."

Carol Bandís chuck wagon covers the suburban roads of New England.