It seems like everyone these days has an opinion about what should and should not be on the Thanksgiving table. For some, the box of what’s essentially seasoned bread crumbs that come to life with some hot water is the only way to go for stuffing. Red chile in lieu of gravy is a given in these parts, but even that isn’t always a unanimous choice. Even the main course is up for debate: Do you roast a bird, give it a bath in dangerously hot oil, throw in on the smoker, or forgo the notoriously dry turkey altogether? 

Nearly all of us are foodies to some degree and are probably guilty of snubbing our noses at what we see as a sub-par Thanksgiving meal. Or maybe that’s just me. 

I was recently reminded of how easy it is to miss the experience for the meal.

My youngest son’s elementary school recently held its annual Thanksgiving lunch. It’s a time-honored tradition of parents filing into their kids’ cafeteria and squeezing into tiny lunch tables for a hot-ish meal of holiday-ish food. I hadn’t planned on going, but when my wife couldn’t make it, I had to unenthusiastically pinch hit and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. 

I knew my day was going to be filled with edits and layout plans and taking a break for a styrofoam plate full of food wasn’t going to do me any favors. 

Parents whose schedules allow for the yearly lunch know the drill: Show up, buy a ticket and eat, all while thinking about those TPS reports back at the office. This year was no different. 

My son’s school asked that parents arrive 15 minutes before lunch, which immediately irritated me. 

“So, I have to be the one to wait?” I grumbled on the way there.

I, along with the other handful of punctual parents, stood awkwardly against a wall in the cafeteria waiting for my lunch date. All I could think about as I tapped my toe and watched the time was how little I actually wanted to eat whatever awaited me in a steam tray behind an industrial sneeze guard. Even my son, who’s normally adamant about eating school lunch, opted to bring his lunch because he doesn’t like mashed potatoes, the roll and turkey are both dry every year and the green beans are the only thing worth eating. 

But my cynical exterior started to melt away after I saw the excitement in not only my kid’s eyes, but also the joy all these other families were experiencing.

Sure enough, the turkey—which was not much more than a slice of deli meat—was dry, the gravy was underwhelming and the apple dessert suspiciously had the texture of canned pears with some cinnamon sprinkled on top. But during the short time I was there, I started to have a real moment of appreciation that I have a job that allows me to ditch out long enough to hear my son gab about the trials and tribulations of elementary school. I also got a flood of memories of my time in elementary school when my mom didn’t have the luxury of popping on over to Mitchell Elementary for a bite. 

The whole experience also made me think more about Thanksgiving itself and how I’m all too quick to complain about the holidays while tons of others wish they had my problems and how there should really be a holiday all about being thankful. 

This is my son’s last year as an elementary student, which means no more Halloween carnivals, no more spring flings and no more family Thanksgiving lunches at school. Even though I had to eat my slice of turkey loaf with a plastic fork and the peas and carrots medley was so unappealing they went untouched, it was a good reminder to not only be thankful for what I have, but also to really be in the moment. Work was still waiting for me when I got back to the office, but that enthusiastic 10-year-old will someday be an obstinate 11-year-old and eventually a teenager who wouldn’t dream of sharing a plastic meal with dad.

Andy Lyman is a veteran New Mexico journalist. He is currently the editor of The Paper.