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Savoring our last year of family dinners

Celia and Andrew at mealtime. (Aviva Goldfarb)
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“Mom, are you or dad going to be home for dinner tonight?” our 17-year-old high school senior asked me. Did I notice a tone in her voice that was preparing for disappointment, or was that the sound of my own guilt?

Lately, work and social events had kept me out more than usual in the evening and I had been missing too many family dinners. On top of my husband’s more demanding work schedule last month, I realized that Celia, who was in the midst of college application stress and a minor health challenge, was feeling our absence and the absence of our nightly routine.

Family dinners at our house are central — and centering.  In the mornings one or more of us race out of the house by 7:15, exchanging few words. After school, my husband and I work and Celia often has ultimate Frisbee practice, homework, or other commitments.  But at 6 p.m. most days, I am in the kitchen pouring my energy into making dinner for our family. In addition to being the focus of my meal planning business, The Six O’Clock Scramble, family dinner is the heart of our family time.

At almost exactly 7 p.m. we sit down together to eat. Even our 11-year-old yellow Labrador, Suerte, takes his foot-warming spot under the table. Family dinner is one of the few times when we have a chance to connect and converse with each other.  We keep the topics low stress — no college app or test talk at the table, for example, unless Celia brings it up.

Afterward, we share the cleanup and continue the chatter.  When our son Solomon left for college last year, I worried we would feel a loss at dinnertime.  But we soon resumed the routine and found that, while we miss him a lot, a bonus is that Celia talks more when she doesn’t have to share the air with her brother.

Since Celia is a senior, I am keenly aware that this is the last school year that we will enjoy regular family dinners with either of our kids.  While we each sometimes have a commitment that keeps us from the dinner table, every time the three of us are together, or even when I cook with and share a quiet meal with Celia, it feels poignant, a lovely taste to savor before it fades from my tongue.

So what happened last month to throw us off course? In a way, I think I have been overcompensating. With Celia’s impending departure for college — although still nine months away — I have been steeling myself to face weekday dinners with neither of our children at the table. For any parent, that prospect is probably daunting.  For one who has built her career around fostering family dinners, it’s devastating. Even our beloved dogs are ever more gray in the muzzle. Life changes loom large.

Ever since the minor trauma of my family moving cross country and away from my friends and extended family when I was 11, my coping mechanism for change has been to embrace it early and enthusiastically to minimize and guard myself against the shock. I’ve been saying yes to more evening activities because subconsciously, I believe, I wanted to reassure myself that I would have plenty to keep me busy and stimulated even after Celia leaves, in the misguided hope that I will feel her absence less acutely.

As I write this, the aroma of a whole chicken and vegetables simmering in the slow cooker for tonight’s chicken soup, I am filled with gratitude that Celia spoke up when she did. This week, I will be home for dinner every night.  If Celia makes other plans one night, I may consider getting out of the house, too.  But if she craves her spot at our little wooden table, Andrew and I will happily settle into our chairs — he to her right, me across the table like always.

As 20 years of family dinners dwindle to the final nine months, I’ll count on these last meals to fill my soul until she leaves.

Come next September, I’m sure Andrew and I will continue the family dinner hour, though Suerte will have a little too much room under the table for our tastes. But how will I fill that empty spot in my heart that will ache at 7 p.m.? A new passion project? More classes at the gym? Tequila?  I have little doubt I’ll figure it out when the time comes.

Aviva Goldfarb is a family dinner expert and founder and CEO of The Six O’Clock Scramble, an online healthy family meal planner. Get inspired with easy family dinner recipes on her YouTube channel and blog.

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