Last week there was an article posted on Slate called “Let’s Stop Idolizing The Home Cooked Family Dinner.” The basic premise of the article is this: a research study published by two sociologists from North Carolina State University points to evidence that the stress of putting together family meals is not worth the tradeoff and that we (as a culture) should stop idolizing/perpetuating the “stereotype” that family meals are necessary and important. How can I put this delicately? I call bull poo-poo on this article. Let me be clear — the challenges to making family dinners happen are real. The stress for women to “do it all” is unimaginable but the way to deal with these stresses is absolutely not to do away with family dinners, in my opinion. Family mealtimes are beneficial to children and families on just about every indicator available. See research here, here, and here, — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I don’t have a research study, but I do have lots of stories from people who eat dinner together, as well as the experience of the family in which I was raised and the growing family I’m shepherding with my partner in crime, Elias. Here are seven reasons I think family dinner is worth fighting for.
1. It forces a disciplined schedule – If we can’t find an hour (more like 40 minutes, start to finish) to sit down together on a regular basis, something is off. We’re over scheduled and we have to fix it. Sure there are days when we can’t all do it –of course there are. I know that as my kids get older and sports and school activities and lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) creep into the schedule, it’ll be even harder to find that time to get everyone together. All the more reason to make it happen. It’s hard, hard work, and I see families having to guard their calendars like ninjas to make it happen, but they do.
2. It’s a time for connection and conversation – Let me tell you, dinner conversation in our house is pretty dull right now, especially if Elias or I is absent from the table and it’s just one of us with the boys. “Hey, boys, what else starts with the letter ‘A?” Then there’s the ever popular “What are you going to do tomorrow?” conversation with a 2 and 3 year old. Enthralling. Except not really. I look forward to days when our conversations will be more complex and I really really cherish memories of my family conversations at the dinner table when I was growing up, though I am pretty sure I didn’t really value them at the time.
3. It’s a great time to pass on faith and values to children – Of the 50 family faith practices in my book, five of them can be practiced right a the dinner table, and a good many more (if not all) can be talked about at the dinner table. That doesn’t even include blessings over the meal, reading sacred stories after dinner is over or other traditional faith practices. Even families who don’t identify with a particular faith tradition can appreciate that the dinner table offers a moment for reflection about the day and about the choices that day had to offer.
4. It provides structure – Not just for kids — for everyone. We need routines, all of us, because this world is hard.
5. It forces us to look our family members in the face – I heard this great interview of poet Marie Howe awhile ago. She was talking about how the number one face she peered into over the course of a day was the face of her phone. This is true of so many of us. Screens, phones, computers, iPads. We need a consistent time, every day, (or as many as we can manage) where we put our screens away and look our family members in the face.
6. It’s the time for individual families to do their own thaaaang. What is your family about? Are you silly? Do you tell jokes? Do you sing together? Do you have a crazy game? Family dinner is when you can practice it/do it/celebrate it/live it. Family dinner is where cultures and traditions can be explored and celebrated, too. Do it your way.
If you’re still with me, I’m guessing you either already have a practice of family dinner or you’re thinking about beefing it up or starting it. I want to share as many resources as I can so that it might be successful. As I mentioned, my family is young, so I’m going to be pointing to some resources from others as well as what’s been working for my family so far.
1. Lower your expectations – The article I referenced at the very beginning is valuable for this warning — parents (and especially women) are so pressured to do too much, be too much, do it all, be perfect. Scrambled eggs and tortillas is a legitimate menu in our household. Ditto fried egg sandwiches, Mac & Cheese from the box, bean and cheese tostadas and pancakes. Sometimes I make fancy food (that the boys usually like less than the aforementioned options) many times we eat very simple, very inexpensive food.
2. Make a Plan – I’m not a fan of planning and lists, but I work hard on this for family meals because if I didn’t, it would come completely unglued. I think it’s probably of very little value to share my system because I would imagine that everyone would need their own system that works for them, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I do:
– On the inside of my cabinet I have a running list of literally every possible thing we could have for dinner. (Read: things I know how to cook that we all like to eat.) It’s divided up into categories: chicken, meat, eggs, soups, grains, and other.
– Once every week or 10 days – sometimes as many as two weeks, I go through and pick one (or two) things from the list that I am going to make based on how busy the weeks is, what’s on sale, what we feel like and what we haven’t eaten in a long time.
– Off the plan of what we’re going to eat, I make a list based on what we have in the house.
– I put the plan of what we’re going to eat on a piece of paper on the side of the fridge (now a fancy whiteboard — ooooh! Fancy!)
– I cross off the meals as we eat them. I used to plan what we would eat on which day (Monday: Meatloaf, Tuesday, Pancakes, etc.) I stopped doing that because sometimes I would have planned something complicated on a day I was exhausted and sometimes we had so many leftovers in the fridge I wanted to have a “leftovers” night. I know lots of people who do plan what they have for the specific days, though. I used to save the papers with the weekly plans so I could repeat them, but that morphed into the master list of all the meal options.
– Another handy thing that I do is post all of the things that we eat all the time on the inside of a different cabinet so I’m not forever checking recipes on the internet or in books. I just folded a paper into eight so there are eight little squares and each time I looked up something I had looked up a million times I wrote it down. Over time the paper grew into another and it’s really handy. One of these days I’m going to type it out all pretty and fancy like. Today is not that day.
There are many, many, systems apps and ideas for other ways to do family dinners, I couldn’t even begin to list them all. A few resources that are worth it, I think:
Once a month meals – I love this in concept – I don’t have the ability or brain capacity to make it happen. Our meals are also way simpler than the meals on this site.
Dinner: A Love Story – Great Blog, Haven’t read the book, but it’s on my to read list.
The Family Dinner – This book was inspiring. The only critique I have of it was that it seemed to prescriptive and limiting in the way it thought that family meals have to be done. I think each family needs to find their own way and have their own rules and systems. What worked for the author wouldn’t necessarily work in my family. Still, I agree with the general premise.
What’s your favorite memory of a family meal, either from long ago, or recently?