As the early evening light streams through the dining room windows, my daughter folds cloth napkins and places silverware atop the triangles of calico. Home from work early, my husband takes his seat at the head of the table. I untie my apron, and pour two glasses of crisp white wine and one glass of fresh, homemade almond milk for the little one. I dish servings of the healthy, from-scratch meal I’ve made onto my family’s plates. My daughter smiles with glee because I’ve made her favorite — asparagus gratin. We celebrate our togetherness, once again, for our sacred family dinner.
Ok, seriously, I’m about to gag just writing this. The scene above has never, ever happened in my house and I’d probably pass out from shock if it did.
Yet, back when I got married and we started our family, I imagined that we’d share nightly meals that looked like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. After all, everything I’d read (and I’d read A LOT) told me that family meals were essential to a kid’s future. Big dinners not only developed a child’s palate, they also helped them bond, taught communication skills, prevented obesity and addiction, and even raised IQs! If I didn’t want my daughter to grow up to be an unhealthy failure, I’d better get a cookin’!
I made my best effort, I swear, but to my disappointment, I quickly realized that family dinners weren’t going to happen for us. My husband had a long commute, sometimes two hours, and often he wouldn’t get home until 8 PM. On the nights he did make it home earlier, most of the time he wasn’t in the mood for a big dinner.
While I’m more of a three-meals-a-day kind of person, my husband is a grazer who prefers smaller snacks throughout the day. On top of that, we have totally different taste buds, so my meat and potato dinners weren’t appealing to him. Turns out, they weren’t appealing to our daughter either. When it comes to food, she’s a grazer much like her dad, plus she has her own food quirks. She’s a kid after all, so her eating habits are fickle, and sometimes the things she’ll eat are pretty limited.
So, I found myself spending hours cooking elaborate meals that only I was eating. I was furious, and still dead-set on having my way. We were going to eat family dinners if it killed me! I had to stick to my convictions on this one. After all, I had a ton of research to back me up. I was right and could prove it.
So I fought and I argued and I tried to boss my family around. I tried to bully them into sitting down and eating what I’d cooked because this was good for us! Except that it wasn’t good for anyone. Everyone was miserable, especially me, and I felt like a failure.
The idyllic dinnertime that I longed for never came to pass. By trying to force my agenda, I managed to create tension, misery, and disappointment, and I knew there was no way that could be healthy; so I waved a white napkin over my head and surrendered.
Dinnertime looks much different these days. Our evening meal could be nachos in the living room, a snack of fruit and nuts on a blanket in the backyard, or veggies and dip standing in the kitchen. Sometimes my husband whips up a quick pan of fried rice or sometimes I’ll heat up a pot of soup. There are nights when we skip dinner altogether if no one is hungry, and I’m not opposed to occasionally pouring a couple bowls of granola splashed with almond milk (not homemade) and calling it a day. The point is — we eat what and when we feel like and our family time isn’t centered around eating.
When I gave up my expectations about family dinners, everything got better. Evenings were enjoyable and relaxed again! I had a lot less to clean up for one thing, so I was actually spending more quality time with my husband and daughter, which was the whole reason I pushed for the dinners in the first place. On top of that, our grocery bill went down because I wasn’t buying ingredients for elaborate dishes that went to waste. I even lost weight.
More importantly, we were happy because the needs and idiosyncrasies of each family member were respected. No one was being forced to sit at the table when they’d rather be doing something else. No one had to eat food that they weren’t hungry for.
In a flexible atmosphere where we could decompress from our busy days, conversation flowed naturally, sometimes over a snack in the kitchen, and sometimes during an evening walk around the neighborhood. We found we bonded better over a shared family bedtime ritual than we did over food. Bath time, stories, and cuddling in bed replaced chopping, sautéing, and dish washing. We had communication and quality time in abundance.
Our daughter was still learning the same important skills, and even more. I continued providing healthy food choices and she was learning to be in control over her own hunger, what she ate and when, which will hopefully lead to positive attitudes about food later in life.
It’s important to keep the studies about things like family dinners in perspective. When we become too rigid with our expectations we can actually create the opposite of the desired effect and cancel out any potential benefits. Remember, not everything works for every family and that’s ok. Giving up family dinners turned out to be the healthiest choice for us, and hey, I now wear a smaller pants size because of it!More On