We all know the benefits of family dinners— less picky eating, lower risk of obesity and eating disorders, higher academic achievement, lower risk of teen pregnancy and substance abuse, the list goes on and on. And we all have that idyllic idea of what it should look like—perfect table manners, no tension, everyone together, beautifully prepared meals.
The reality, though, can be very different. People can feel frantic, tired, and stressed. Family members can arrive late. Someone refuses to eat the meal in front of him or her. The presentation of the meal is haphazard. Or family dinners just aren’t even happening.
The truth is that family dinners can be a challenge, but they are a challenge worth having.
From my own childhood I have memories of long family dinners with wonderful food and tons of laughter from a seemingly endless stream of puns (yes, I come from a very verbal family), but I also have memories of tears, slamming doors, and meals I found unappetizing. The truth is, that is what family dinners are. They are a chance for us to be our best selves and our worst selves. It is an opportunity for everyone in the family to be themselves as they are in that moment, and to still be loved at the end of it.
A lot of my clients feel really guilty about what their family dinners looks like. People stressed, less-than-perfect food on the table, or not everyone eating together. And what I tell them, and myself, is that it is ok. We are doing the best we can and making due with what we’ve got.
So in an effort to help to take some of the angst out of the concept of family dinner I thought I would share what our family dinners look like at this stage in our family life.
My husband is in a busy time at work, which means he often in unable to be home before 6:45 or 7, which is just too late for my 5 and 7-year-old sons to start dinner. So I cook one meal for everyone and I eat twice. I sit down with my boys for dinner around 6 or 6:15. I offer them everything that I have prepared—sometimes they eat it all, sometimes they eat one thing, sometimes they pick at different items—and I try my best to not push. While I am sitting with them I eat a little bit and usually focus my own eating on the vegetables that are being served. This is in part because they are often my favorite part of the meal and also because I want my sons to see me happily eating them.
As we eat together I ask them to each tell me at least two things about their days. Sometimes this conversation lasts 5 minutes, sometimes it lasts 45. I usually share a story about something I did during the day as well. Sometimes, if they are really tired from a long day, I will read to them while they finish eating. This is something that I am trying to move away from, since it distracts them, but sometimes they just need that comfort. And my rule is that reading only happens after we have shared about our days. If my husband gets home early enough, he will also get a small plate of food and eat with us, so that we can all be together, at least for a minute or two.
On the nights when my husband gets home late, he and I will eat together after the boys are in bed. I try hard to keep my portions small at both meals so that I am not overeating. Most of the time I do ok at this, sometimes I don’t.
Then, on the weekends and on any evenings when my husband can get home early enough, we make a point to have as many meals together as possible.
In order to keep things pleasant at the table (for everyone) there are certain expectations we have for family meals:
- There is always at least one thing on the table that each person likes.
- Trying all of the food is encouraged, but not obligatory.
- You are allowed to say that you don’t like something, but only after you have tried it. And words such as “yuck,” “gross,” and “disgusting” are not allowed.
- Condiments and seasonings (salt, pepper, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, herbs, ketchup, Parmesan, etc.) are always welcome if that will help someone to try or eat a food.
- Everyone clears his/her own plate and helps to clear the rest of the table, if asked.
Have you managed to find a family dinner set up that works for your family? If so, what does it look like? If not, what are the stumbling blocks?