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

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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