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Why we don’t do family dinner – meal-planning for little kids

Meal-planning in a house with little kids

By Bari Nan Cohen |

When I was growing up, my best friend’s mom used to roll her eyes a bit (good-naturedly, of course) at my family’s dinner habits. Why? Because we waited for my father to get home from work before we ate. My best friend’s mom, Mrs. T, like most parents, fed her kids at 6 p.m. on the dot.

“The kids need to eat at six,” she would say, “So I always tell Robert that if he isn’t in the door by the time we sit down, his plate will be in the microwave.”

To me – the child of a family whose dinner hour was as established as a pile of quicksand – this seemed like a great policy. My mother swears we didn’t start waiting for my dad to come home to start dinner until my sister and I were old enough to hold out until 7:30, so I’ll take her word for it. But when I had my own kids and started listening to other moms discuss the gyrations they put themselves (and their kids) through in order to have dinner at an hour when everyone (read: Dad) was home, it quite frankly made me question their sanity.

For starters, I heard more than one mom describe plying her preschoolers with carrot sticks and cheese squares until the actual dinner happened – at the very hour I usually tucked my own preschooler into bed. That seemed unfair to everyone, and a rather unpleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Not that I can totally blame them. When my first son was born, I had images of lovely dinners as a threesome – my husband, baby and me relaxed around a table – dancing in my head. But it was clear in his infancy that mealtimes were going to be memory-makers of a different kind. More than once, my husband fed me forkfuls of takeout as our offspring engaged in a marathon nursing session.

Quickly, we established a new routine (in the name of survival and sanity, the way all the best routines are born, no?). After the baby was fed and ensconced in his bassinet, my husband and I would eat dinner together. Granted, this dinner happened in front of the TV more often than not, but we chatted while we watched, catching up, mooning over the latest cute smile or yawn the baby had accomplished.

Still, we made the attempt to eat as a family – grabbing a restaurant meal at a kid-friendly hour, sharing something simple and homemade at the actual table on the nights my husband made it home in time for such a meal. And Shabbat dinner every week. But, secretly, in spite of all the reading I’d done on the merits of family dinner (basically, “Eat dinner as a family and your kids won’t do drugs”), I craved the 7 p.m. switchover: TV shows got good, grownup conversation prevailed. It was a nightly, or near-nightly, in-house date with my husband.

Around the time my older son started kindergarten and his little brother was about 18 months old (old enough to ask for pancakes or French toast for breakfast), I found myself making a real meal at breakfast, morning after morning. My husband rearranged his schedule so he could take our son to school on the way to the office, so we sat and ate together. Cereal got relegated to mom or dad’s late-night snack as breakfast became an event. “Don’t mess with breakfast,” I’d intone to my kids in my best cowboy-mom voice. The baby would offer funny faces, his brother would tell us what excited him about the day ahead (“It’s show and tell:can I take the dogs?”), and my husband and I would revel in their cuteness. The day was too young for anyone to be cranky. No, not true, my kindergartener was an ace at cranking his way through the meal. But we didn’t care. It was, after all, a shared meal, a family ritual. The stuff drug-free kids are made of.

Of course, we still sit with our kids while they eat an earlier dinner – sometimes making an appetizer of a piece of fruit while the kids dig into a full meal. And, we have almost every weekend meal as a family; Shabbat dinners are often an event, and Sunday dinners are a kind of touchstone for all of us – my husband, the best cook in the house (it’s not even a close call), slips out to Whole Foods around 4 to “get inspired,” and comes home to create a feast. The kids make a game of rating the meal among his bests. I put another hash mark in the column marked “Drug free” and usher the kids into a bath. And then, after they are read to, tucked in and fast asleep, my husband and I share dessert in the glow of the TV. Too bad, kids, it’s grownup time!

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About Bari Nan Cohen

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Bari Nan Cohen

Bari Nan Cohen was most recently the Entertainment Editor at Good Housekeeping. She has also filled that post at YM and Self. She blogs at www.barinan.com and writes on topics of parenting, entertainment, health and psychology. A resident of Park City, UT, Bari Nan and her family spend winters skiing and summers in their RV. She is not embarrassed to admit the RV has two flat-screen TVs.

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12 thoughts on “Why we don’t do family dinner – meal-planning for little kids

  1. Grace says:

    Breakfast can be a great shared meal and an important family time. I find mornings to be very rushed and not the same as family dinners. You sound like to at least have a tradition of weekend dinners.

    One problem with always having separate kid and adult meals is that you easily fall into the rut of just serving kids “kid” food and thus support the “picky eater” syndrome. It is hard to imagine this when your kids are little, but regular family diner is a way to stay connected to them as they get older, not just a way to keep them off drugs! It’s all connected. I write about family dinner at eatdinner.org.

  2. Jenna Boettger Boring says:

    I had the same beautiful family dinner delusions but we ended up letting the little monster eat when she’s get hungry (read: earlier than us) and having “grown up dinner” when she’s gone to bed. Grace, I agree with you about the kid food rut. We get around that by giving her the leftovers from the night before, she still gets breakfast and lunch made fresh for her so I don’t feel too bad about it.

  3. Bonnie Pelletier Komick says:

    We have all meals at our table together, no TV on, and we all eat the same meal together. granted, Dad isn’t home for some of them, but whoever is eats together without outside distractions. That few minutes at breakfast or lunch or supper is sometimes the only quality family time we have together in a day, so it’s important to us. As long as you have that time happening somewhere, it’s whatever works for your family.

  4. Bari Nan Cohen Rothchild says:

    Grace,
    I can’t wait to read your work. Luckily, my kids are adventurous eaters. Often, their idea of kid food is stuff even their grandparents won’t eat (sushi), or my homemade chicken soup. Yes, I rely on Annie and Amy for organic prefab stuff when the after school commitments bleed into their dinner hour, but I find that by offering some “kid favorites” in the traditional mac-n-cheese, bean burrito sense mixed with food that is for all of us makes them crave the kid stuff less, and deletes the picky eater button. And I look forward to the time when they’re able to eat later..it can be a hassle to be in perpetual dinner service for hours on end!

  5. Lori Nizel Colan says:

    Bari Nan, it’s as if you were writing the article about my family. Husband fed you dinner? check. Kids in bed by 7? check. Love the after 7:30 grownup date? double-check.

    Husband is home at six, and the kids can stay up till 7:30, so we eat dinner as a family about 2-3 times a week now. The kids dread it. I sometimes regret it. Glad to hear there’s a good mom out there who doesn’t do it much either.

  6. Anna at tallgrasskitchen com says:

    Despite no ‘official’ nightly family dinner, you sound like you are doing a fantastic job of having many valuable family meals each week. Just like families all look different, so do our mealtime traditions.

  7. Gigi Centaro says:

    I love Bari Nan Cohen’s solution of creating a family meal at breakfast. As long as the family is coming together to share a meal, conversation and family time it doesn’t make any difference what time of day that meal occur.

  8. Mel Woods says:

    This is exactly what our family looks like :)
    My husband has actually been turned off family dinners I think – he had the traditional strict family dinner rules ‘no albows on the table!’ and was forced to eat the family meal ‘everything on your plate’ – so much so that he doesn’t think of family dinner time as enjoyable. My upbringing was more relaxed and I admit I had visions of fun family dinners in my mind when I had children, but practicality won out ;)
    In the end, we try to make meal times suit the people having dinner. I actually found this article because I was curious as to how grown adults manage to eat dinner as early as 6pm every night without starving their kids or forcing the parents to eat as soon as they walk in the door. Yay for other families that have adult evenings ;)

  9. Mel Woods says:

    I meant ‘elbows’ (perhaps I’m more pedantic about my spelling than my dinner routine, lol).

  10. Rebecca Tillman says:

    I work over nights and my husband works during the day while our daughter goes to her Nanna’s. By the time he get off work, I am heading to work and our little one is coming home. Daddy and daughter get supper time together and I am usually sleeping in the mornings when she leaves. I get my off days with her and him and we make a big thing out of it. We cook dinner together letting her help as much as we can, setting the table together and talking and laughing as long as we can. We try to have eaten by 7 p.m. so we can put her to bed for the night (a time she sat for herself when she was about a year old.) and then it’s mommy and daddy time the rest of the night. When we get the time (once a week) we play toddler games and watch Disney movies with her. It’s my catch up time with her and her daddy.

  11. Carmen Grant says:

    you have NO idea how happy this post made me. Its hard for us to have family dinners – for starters, my husband is in the military and gone half of the year, or more. – then when he is home, he doesnt work 9-5…sometimes its 7-5, 7-2, 7pm-6am…its insanity! plus we have kids in activities from 5-6 some nights and 6-7 other nights and the only time we are all ever at home together is probably around 9pm…it doesnt work. So i make dinner and whoever is hungry when its done gets to eat (usually me and two little ones)…my husband eats when he gets home or after a workout. I stopped felling bad about not having family dinners because at the end of the day, the goal was to have everyone fed, bathed, and in bed before 9….so having to be flexible has saved my sanity.

  12. mom of 2 says:

    I think the important thing is that you do have a family meal. We do family dinner when we can because it’s the only weekday meal we can do, and yes, it has to wait until 7:00, sometimes later. My husband has a long commute so he leaves for work before anyone is even awake for school, let alone ready to eat breakfast. When they were toddlers I used to feed them separately and bedtime was only a few minutes after Daddy got home, but now that they are school age, the family dinner has become important again. It is literally the only time during the week that we can all sit together and share a meal, so if it has to be an hour or more later than the ideal, so be it. They tend to be STARVING after school and will eat a lot at that point, so waiting that extra hour, which is spent in after school activities or doing homework anyway, makes a lot more sense than trying to stick to that “traditional” 6:00 dinner. I guess my point is, give it time. In a few years you may feel differently about it.

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