This is the last school year that our family will have both kids living at home. In the fall our son, Solomon, will move to Philadelphia for college. Our dinner table will have an empty chair. And that will be a new thing for us—because ever since our kids were old enough to sit up and eat solid food, those four chairs have been occupied almost every night for our family dinner.
That ritual of sitting down together, unplugging from our devices, stepping back from the rush-rush of our days, and nourishing our bodies and our souls with homemade food, companionship, and conversation, has been a family priority despite the tug of other commitments and activities. Consequently, our son and daughter have become skilled conversationalists and adventurous eaters. They know how to make eye contact and discuss a newspaper article, clear their plates, thank the cook, do the dishes, and ably employ the stove and food processor.
Sometimes dinner has meant a main course like Sizzling Korean Beef or Crispy Tofu served with steamed brown rice and roasted broccoli; other nights, we managed only scrambled eggs and bagels, with some sliced oranges thrown in for fiber and color. There were even some nights when we ordered or heated a pizza.
Making family dinners a priority isn’t always easy. At times over the years we said no to teams or activities that would keep our kids out for the dinner hour too often. For those we did commit to, if I thought a game might go late or a coach might keep one of our children past the committed stopping time of 7:00 (ugh!), I’d do my best to accommodate the change in schedule and make dinner around it. Sitting down together is that important to me.
And yes, it does get harder when the kids get older. As our kids have become teenagers who play varsity sports, attend religious school and work, and my husband and I allowed ourselves to take on more evening commitments, we might all only eat together four or five nights a week. But the norm that we all look forward to is still sitting and eating together around 7 p.m. If it doesn’t happen, we feel its absence.
Recently when I asked an online community of parents how many nights they have dinner as a family, the average was five or six – which was so encouraging – but one parent left this comment:
“Enjoy it while you can. With little ones we had dinner together every night. When they started getting involved in sports and got jobs, dinnertime together went out the window.”
While I understand why the ritual of family dinner gets harder as the kids grow, I contend that we parents can do more to make sure family dinners happen in our homes most nights, even if they have to happen earlier or later. The benefits of family dinner are incontrovertible and worth fighting for.
Other parents spoke of eating at 4:30 or 9 p.m. to make sure that everyone could be together. Single moms talked of elaborate carpool choreographies to make sure none of their children would eat alone, despite differing schedules.
Some parents set rules on activities from the outset. “We limit weekday activities to one activity that only happens twice a month,” one parent said. “Once we had to make up a Saturday ballet class on a Monday night and I was devastated to see how many families were out on a weeknight. I kept asking myself, ‘When do the kids do homework and eat dinner?'”
Making dinners together five nights a week doesn’t take more time or money (in fact it saves both!), but it does take a little forethought.
Here are five steps to making family dinners happen more often and with less stress:
1. Plan ahead. Before you shop, plan four to six meals and make a very specific grocery list.
2. Prepare on weekends. Shop on the weekends (or place an order) for those ingredients so you won’t have to stop at the store on the way home from work or practice.
3. Make it easy. Focus on simple meals that take less than 30 minutes to pull together—often much less.
4. Embrace your slow cooker. Not only do slow cooker recipes require less advanced prep, they also keep food warm until the family can get together and allow the extra flexibility of eating right away when you get home later than usual.
5. Teach your kids cooking basics. Even if they just have the ability to make a salad, cook pasta, or preheat the oven to bake the casserole, that can make dinner possible when you are driving another child home, get stuck in traffic or are running late.
If all else fails, make a commitment, at least one night a week when everyone can be home for dinner, to cook for your family (or have another family member do it) and linger together over a meal. Those experiences and memories will likely nourish your family well beyond the actual meals.
Recently my husband and I were both out for the evening. When I asked my kids the next morning what they had done about dinner, they told me they had made nachos together and sat down together to enjoy them. I was both amazed and thrilled that our kids have grown to associate dinnertime with family togetherness, and have learned that meals are meant to be shared.
As our dinner table shifts from four chairs to three, and then to two when our daughter goes to college, I will mourn the loss of family dinners with our children, but I will know that the thousands of meals we shared at our table have sustained all of us in more ways than we can count.
Aviva Goldfarb is a family dinner expert and founder of The Six O’Clock Scramble, an online dinner planning solution for busy parents. Aviva treasures dinner time with her family but was fed up with the stress of having so little time to decide what to make and cook healthy meals that everyone would like. So she created an online family dinner planner for busy parents like her, with a weekly dinner plan and grocery list delivered via e-mail or phone.
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