The Meal Deal
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One thing the experts don’t tell you when you have a child is to start a day planner just for them. As most parents will agree, their children have better social lives than we do; the kids get way more party invitations than we do. As they get older, add in homework assignments and project due dates. Then there may be piano lessons, some religious ed and of course, sports practices.
When are we supposed to eat dinner as a family?
Who schedules these team practices? Why are they usually at dinnertime? And once children get into junior and senior high, the activities may add up and the question is not dinnertime, but when will the child get home—from drama rehearsal or a field hockey away game, chorus practice or working on the yearbook?
If the “experts” had their way, we would sit down as a family and eat dinner together at least five times a week. Children like the predictability of dinnertime, family gathering, and the opportunity to talk with parents, according to many experts, including those who sponsor a national Family Day (http://casafamilyday.org/familyday/). This year it will be Monday, Sept. 28.
“The more often kids eat dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink or use drugs,” according to The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, which has conducted research on this topic for more than a decade. The group boasts that 1 million families in the United States pledged to have a dinner together on Family Day last year.
As any parent can tell you, that’s easier pledged than done.
When I asked my husband, the main dinner cook, how we juggle dinnertime, he replied with one word: “Frustrating.” To start, we each get home from work at different times each day, although one of us is home to meet the school bus each afternoon. Then the real scheduling difficulties begin: piano lessons, team practices, doctor’s appointments, life.
Our answer: We eat late. Like 7 p.m. late, sometimes even later. Yes, we know, that’s bad for bedtimes, so we shoot for 6:30 p.m., but you know… However, we do eat as a family, which means all four of us are there, usually sitting around the dining room table (too many papers on the kitchen table), and we talk, all of us, ideally not at the same time. I call this factor in scheduling dinnertime “flexibility.” We could set a permanent time, say 6 p.m. for dinner each weeknight, but it’s not going to happen if a parent has a late meeting or a child has a team practice at or near that time.
Other factors contributing to some parents’ success getting families to eat together include planning meals in advance, getting kids involved in food preparation, and keeping meal times fun and interesting.
My friend Maugie, who has two sons, swears by her slow cooker. She tries to use it at least once a week, so dinner’s ready to eat when she gets home from work and a 45-minute commute on Long Island. She also makes double batches of anything that can be frozen, like lasagna. So there’s one for this week and one for the future.
She and her husband, who’s from Ireland, also do special “tea times” on weekends when they and their two boys are home. They make a pot of tea, gather around the table and have a chat with cookies, and it feels special.
When her eldest, now a college sophomore, became capable, he took on the role of “grill man” and grilled hot dogs and hamburgers for the family—weather permitting—once a week. Getting children and teens involved in planning and preparing dinner keeps their interest in dinnertime and eating healthfully, according to the experts at Nemours, a nonprofit children’s health organization (http://kidshealth.org/parent/kh_misc/nemours.html).
Bennet Schaber, a Syracuse father of two teens, agrees. “The only strategy I have had that works when they are around is (my son) likes to cook dinner.” Both father and son are vegetarians and enjoy creating tasty, nutritious meals for the entire family. His son, who heads to college this fall, even experimented with vegan chocolate-chip cookies and blueberry muffins.
“When he makes something he’s very keen to share it, so that then involves all of us getting together at the table because it’s an interesting acknowledgment of the work he’s done,” Schaber says. Their family definitely abides by the flexibility rule. “We may eat dinner at 6 or we may eat dinner at 8:30.”
It’s not like the old days, Schaber recalls, when he showed up for dinner on time or his mother would say, “The kitchen is closed.”
Now that I’m a busy mother, I remember with longing my own mother’s highly organized preparation. On Sunday afternoons, as she lined up her outfits for work that week, she cooked a stew on the stove or boiled a ham that would be served for a quick dinner the next night. My goal this past summer was to make and freeze enough pesto to get us through the school year. So far I’ve got enough ready for two meals, but there’s still time.
Families’ routines for dinnertime conversation can keep children looking forward to more than just the food. My sister’s family each named one good thing and one not-so-good thing that happened during their day. My son likes to revisit our hopes and dreams, asking: “If you could have any power in the world, what would it be?” Web sites, like the one for Family Day, offer lists of other conversation-sparking questions like “Which animal would you like to be?” At our table we like to ask “How was your day at school/work?” I chuckle to myself every time a child asks about work now, but I know they’ve learned an important conversational skill.
Last spring we felt fortunate that our kids both had sports practices on the same night. One practice ended a half-hour earlier than the other. Whichever parent drove to that practice also had the job of picking up the pizza (and sometimes hot wings, too) on the way home. When we all returned, it was our special pizza and TV night. We were together, we were eating dinner, and it was—and remains—one of our special routines.