In Search of Family Dinner

This is a piece I wrote for the magazine. I haven’t asked what their policy is on posting pieces elsewhere (this will be printed and our content is currently unavailable online–that is supposed to change soon), but I figure it’s fine to do so here because it will never get back to them. I might take it down in November, when the issues goes out. Until then, enjoy (and comment if you’re so inclined, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic).

Family dinners were a big part of my life growing up. Every night we came together around the table to connect with each other and enjoy my parents’ incredible cooking. The table was always impeccably set, the kitchen somehow already clean before we even sat down to eat, and the meal perfectly balanced and homemade. Despite her full-time job and my father’s frequent business trips, my mother made it seem effortless to assemble all of us around the kitchen table. I grew up taking delicious family dinners for granted.

Fast forward a couple of decades and suddenly I am the mom whose job it is to get family dinner on the table. Despite the increased presence of fathers at home, the majority of cleaning and cooking remains in the purview of the mother—and I am failing. Miserably.

I will admit, family dinner was a torch I was never interested in receiving, though I knew it would eventually be passed. Almost immediately upon leaving home I realized I had no interest in cooking for myself; I was completely content to heat up a can of soup and eat it in front of the television. Nothing about cooking was enjoyable and the fact that it took three or four times longer to prepare a meal (and then clean it up afterward) than to actually eat it solidified my aversion. Cooking required way too much effort, and the stuff out of a package tasted pretty darn good.

This was all fine and good when I lived alone, and when I got married, thankfully my husband never seemed disappointed in my lack of culinary enthusiasm or skill. It wasn’t until I had children that my distaste for all things cooking really became an issue.

Now, with a four-year-old poised to internalize our routines, I recognize that I am failing at one of my most important jobs as a mother. Increasingly, this gaping hole in my parental resume causes shame and a significant amount of guilt. Something has to be done.

The Pinnacle of Good Parenting

In my attempt to address this shortcoming, I have come to believe that family dinner is the ultimate embodiment of good parenting, and I panic over the distressing fact that we are not having it. If I can rectify this one glaring, daily mistake, maybe I can silence the judge and jury in my head that have already declared me unfit to parent. At the very least, I’ll have better evidence on my side when I make my formal appeal.

I’m not sure if I am reaching back into my own childhood when I put family dinner on the ultimate pedestal, or if my dinner worship is based on those vague notions we read and hear enough that they eventually become parenting gospel. Either way, I am sure family dinner is the cure to all possible parenting failures. Sitting at the intersection of balanced nutrition and quality time with kids, family dinner is the apex. The problem is, I don’t think I will ever reach the summit of this towering behemoth. My anxiety is considerable, my attitude bordering on defeatist: How can I possibly make family dinners a regular occurrence when my preschooler doesn’t want to eat anything, my husband gets home from work late most nights, I work full-time, and, most importantly, I really don’t want to cook?

So, I do what I always do when I am facing a personal crisis: I start reading, talking to other people, and reading some more. I must know anything and everything about family dinner, and it turns out, people have a lot to say.

Falling in Love with Family Dinner

Early in my search, I am directed to Dinner, a Love Story, a blog (and now book) by Jenny Rosenstratch. Ugh, I groan. Who creates a whole blog as an ode to family dinner? But Jenny’s blog is more welcoming to culinary-phobic mamas like myself than I am expecting. On her “about” page, she lists all the reasons she knows I will want to “fly the white flag” and I find myself nodding my head in vigorous agreement.

“Your kids refuse to eat anything, your fridge is full but your brain is blank, you don’t know how to cook, you have no desire to cook, you have a big project due tomorrow, you have no help with the cooking or the planning, you can’t even get everyone seated at the table at the same time, let alone eating the same meal.” Yes! I think. This is an impossible endeavor! I begin to wonder if maybe family dinner isn’t worth all the sacrifice and that we would do better to focus our efforts elsewhere.

Except that Rosenstratch absolutely thinks it is worth the effort. In fact, she made a promise to herself after becoming a mother that she would only work full-time if she could manage to get food on the table most nights of the week. Obviously, she isn’t struggling to make family dinner happen, but her blog—full of quick, healthy recipes and useful tips—makes it clear that she is a powerful ally for those of us who want to commit to family dinner but don’t quite know how to execute it.

One of the reasons family dinner scares me so much is that it is presented, at its most basic, as a meal with at least one vegetable artfully integrated into a cohesive whole (that a preschooler will supposedly eat). As a woman who only overcame her picky eating tendencies in college, I have zero experience creating healthy meals, let alone the kind other people (ahem, preschoolers) might want to eat. The whole enterprise—finding recipes I can tackle, keeping fresh fruit and vegetables stocked, and actually preparing it all in a pleasing way during the limited time I have every evening—seems downright impossible.

The Stress of Cooking

It turns out I am not the only one who finds executing the many components of family dinner stressful. Recently, a study called The Joy of Cooking? came out of North Carolina State University. The authors argue that the time it takes to cook, and the burden of pleasing all members of the family, makes it increasingly difficult for mothers to create the home-cooked meals that are idealized by public health officials and the media. A quick synthesis of prevalent messages today suggests that home-cooked meals are the solution to most childhood health problems and to the current childhood obesity epidemic, and mothers are responsible for providing them. As the authors of the study put it, “one could say that home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen.”

It helps to have definitive research corroborating my theory that there exists an ideal vision of family dinner and that mothers are expected to provide it. (See? I’m not just making this stuff up!) I’m even happier with the author’s suggestion that we should re-imagine family dinner “outside the kitchen” and envision “more creative solutions for sharing the work of feeding families.” Maybe without the pressure to make this all happen in my own kitchen, I won’t be so afraid to attempt it myself.

It’s Not What You Eat, It’s What You Say

The thing is, I don’t just want to attempt family dinners—I want to eventually excel at them. Fortunately, not everyone believes the foundation of family dinner is a perfectly balanced, home-cooked meal. In fact, there are those who believe that a successful family dinner is more about quality time with loved ones than quality cuisine. If that’s the case then maybe, just maybe, I stand a chance.

In The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler agrees that family dinner is essential—he cites research showing that children who eat dinner with family are less likely to do all the things we don’t want them to do (drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, commit suicide, or develop eating disorders) and are more likely to have all the things we want them to have (larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and high self-esteem). Evidently, there is even research indicating that how often children eat dinner as a family is the “single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems.”

Luckily for moms like me, it’s not what we eat, but how we spend the time eating that makes family dinner so crucial. Feiler argues that it’s the time spent together, the connections made, the family history shared, the conversations had, and the “intergenerational identity” created that makes family dinner an indispensable tool in the parenting arsenal. He also offers that many of the benefits of eating together can be enjoyed without sitting down together every night.

My informal polls of friends and GGMG members suggest that most parents already seem to understand this. When I ask other moms what they hope to achieve during family dinner, almost nobody mentions eating an organic, home-cooked meal. Instead, most parents want to check in as a family, hear about everyone’s day, connect with their kids, engage in meaningful conversation, talk about current events (if not while their kids are young, then when they are older), and solidify a family identity and belief system. Teaching table manners and including children in setting and clearing the table are also goals. It is clear that for most people, the traditions that are forged are what really matter, not what is served.

Most moms I talk to are similarly open-minded in their expectations of what family dinner looks like. While some families only consider a meal “family dinner” if all members of the family are present, most moms assert that if one adult is sitting at the table with the kids, it “counts.” Other common expectations are that dinner be a technology-free affair (no TV, phones or iPads present) and for all family members to participate, even if someone is not hungry. As for where family dinner takes place? While most families agree that when at home, family dinner takes place at the table, restaurant meals and even picnics in the park are considered family dinner if everyone is there to enjoy them.

The more I talk with other mothers about family dinner, the more confident I become that I can actually pull it off. Already we have migrated most of our meals to the dining room table (we used to feed our daughter mostly at her smaller table, or—gasp!—in front of the TV) and we are maintaining our new no-book-reading-at-the-table rule (though off-the-cuff Batman and My Little Pony stories are still requested). During every meal we share our highs and lows as we help our daughter develop her recall and conversation skills. We have the basics down; we just need to make it happen more often.

How to Make it Happen

Thankfully, almost everyone I talk to has great tips for how to make family dinner more accessible, even for the busiest, most culinary-averse families.

Keep the pantry and freezer stocked. Be sure to always have staples on hand, like oil, basic seasonings, dry pasta, canned sauces, pre-cut frozen veggies and easy proteins (frozen chicken or tofu).

Plan ahead. Keep a calendar of what and when you plan to cook and shop accordingly.

Enjoy leftovers. If what you’re making freezes well or will keep in the fridge, double the recipe and enjoy it a second time.

Embrace one pot wonders. Include a couple of one pot meals that incorporate all components into the rotation; if it can be ready in the Crockpot when you get home, even better.

Combine prepackaged and fresh foods. Add chopped veggies to a canned sauce or thawed chicken to a frozen stir fry. The I Love Trader Joe’s Cookbook series has great ideas for this.

Have breakfast for dinner. Serve Sunday morning breakfast on Wednesday night. It’s easy and everyone will love it.

Enroll support. Get help from a food service like Munchery, which does the heavy lifting (chopping and measuring veggies, etc.) for you.

Eat when your kids are hungry. If that means dinner is earlier than you used to eat it, so be it. If your kids are hungry, they’ll probably eat.

One of the best tips I got was to stop focusing so much on family dinner and start thinking about family meals. If the most important aspect of family dinner is to connect, it doesn’t have to happen in the evening. We’ve been enjoying big family breakfasts on the weekend for a while now and it’s nice to know that those are just as effective at establishing a family identity and belief system. I appreciate concentrating on when we can all come together instead of succumbing to the pressure to make family meals happen after long days of work and school.

Months after our commitment to embrace family dinner, we’re getting there. Now we have a white board for planning out two weeks worth of meals before we go shopping; it helps to see where my husband and I will be every night and know when we’ll be able to eat as a family. I ordered a Cooking with All Things Trader Joe’s cookbook (we shop there almost exclusively) and we’re making Sunday trips to the farmer’s market part of our routine. They are baby steps, but we’re taking them in the right direction and for the first time in my life as a parent, I don’t feel like I’m failing at one of my most important jobs.

Family dinner (or better said, mealtime) is absolutely an integral part of every happy family’s dynamic, but for reasons and in ways different than I originally suspected. It doesn’t matter when or where you eat it, or how long it took you to make; it’s not the quality of the food that’s most important but the quality of the conversation. Basically, the most important part of “family dinner” is the first word—not the second. For that, this mama is thankful.

8 Comments

  1. Jeff and I recently had a… erm… discussion, trying to coordinate our work schedules and bus dropoff and afterschool program pickup. He had a number of morning meetings, which caused me to have to go to work late, which meant that I missed dinnertime. For three days in a row, I have not been home for our family dinner. I HATE it.

    I would describe myself, actually, religious about family dinner, I think it’s so important to gather around our kitchen table, electronic-free (except when we’re talking about something and need to google a fact), just us to talk and share a meal.

    What we eat is absolutely secondary. We have family dinners over pizza, we have family dinners where Jeff and I have a spicy black bean (crockpot! super easy!) soup and O eats leftover pasta with butter. Or leftover pancakes.

    The thing is, though, we sit together and have discussions about our “good choices” and our favorite things that happened that day, and we talk about our plans for the next day. It’s the gathering part that’s important – NOT the meal.

    Because left to my own devices, I’d heat up a trader joe’s chicken burger and mash up half an avocado and eat it in front of the computer while I blogged or surfed the internet or wrote.

    I have to say, when you’re juggling, the best thing you can utilize is your crockpot. Seriously, I’m happy to email you the recipe for our black bean soup. It’s forgiving – you can have it in the crockpot for up to 12 hours! – it requires very little prep, and I’m certain you can get the ingredients for it at Trader Joe’s. Let me know if you want it!

  2. “Despite the increased presence of fathers at home, the majority of cleaning and cooking remains in the purview of the mother”

    This doesn’t have to be true for any individual family, even if true on average, unless there’s no father at all and no money to hire help. If husband gets home late every night, then why can’t he batch cook some meals on weekends? Or get the crockpot ready the night before or the morning of?

  3. I love cooking. But I like to cook what I want and hate juggling everyone’s food preferences. Many, many times my son ate Cheerios, string cheese and apples in front of the computer for dinner.

    We went away for a weeklong vacation in August, and I discovered my kids couldn’t sit through dinner. I was embarrassed and wanted to change that. Two months later, Monkey no longer questions that dinner will be at the kitchen table. And I’ve gotten better at making meals that can be adapted to multiple preferences. I am surprised but pleased to find it’s actually working, and eating dinner with my kids (and Coffee when he’s there) is actually relaxing.

  4. I idealize family meals too because we always had them growing up. I still have an idea of what I think “Sunday dinner” (aka lunch) should look like, even though ours does not look like that because pot roast, for example, is not something my vegetarian husband is going to embrace. But we do okay — I am the meal planner and my husband does the cooking. It works well for us and we already started talking at every dinner with Miss E about what our favorite part of the day was, which is really rewarding.

  5. Family dinner is definitely super important in our house. I’m trying to get better about meal planning for financial reasons, but the secondary benefit of this is that I’m better about prepping things ahead of time when possible OR if my husband gets home before me, he knows what I had in mind for dinner and can start the water boiling or the bacon cooking or whatever. Even if Stella isn’t hungry, she has to sit at the table with us and talk until we are all done eating. I truly love it -it’s our more centered, calm, technology-free time of the day, even if it’s only for 20 minutes or whatever.

  6. Love this and good for you for making these changes that you are comfortable with. Good tips. Totally second the slow cooker. LOVE IT. And meal planning. Really reduces stress. We are lucky to live within walking distance of a few grocery stores so we tend to shop for what we need that day; there are pros and cons to this. But we do make eating at the table a priority. Though we have a bad snack/meal ratio going and I’m trying to curb all of the snacks we offer/eat. Every family has something (or a kazillion things) to work on!!

  7. Hm, good food for thought (no pun intended!) Usually when DH and I get home, the kids have already eaten and are in full-on play mode. But we still maintain the family bed, so we have a good long bedtime ritual that involves conversation, story time, highs and lows, and so on. I do long for a real family dinner ritual but I don’t see it happening in the near future.

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