Family Meal Makeover

by Dan Bucatinsky

Family Meal Makeover

Reheating the family dinner traditions of my youth didn't work with my kids. Here's what did: letting them add the spice.


On a recent Google excursion to find out how to remove a Popsicle-stick splinter from my daughter's tongue, I stumbled across a story about family dinner. Higher grades and self-esteem, less depression, increased socialization and better overall health are all connected to regular family meals. One study even linked it to healthier hair and skin. Or maybe that was grape-seed oil.

“The soundtrack to the meals from my youth wasn't laughter or conversation, but the quiet clinks of silverware.”

Who can refute this evidence? After pulling the pesky splinter from my kid's tongue, I made a decision: Every night I would assemble my children, now 5 and 7, and my husband, Don, for a family meal. We'd talk about our days to a soundtrack of singsongy chewing sounds and polite “pass the salts.”

We tried it for one week. It didn't go as planned. One kid wound up in a time-out for throwing cheese. The other put her head down next to her chicken parmesan and pretended to sleep. She had recently gotten on this new kick about chicken making her sleepy, but I'm sure it's just a ploy for pizza.

Ah, the challenges of family dinner in 2012, a time when it's every parent's desire to manufacture this statistically valuable bonding ritual. We had family dinners every night when I was a kid. While I didn't do drugs and did well in school, I'm reluctant to credit that period between 7:00 and 7:12 each night with my success. The soundtrack to the meals from my youth wasn't always laughter or conversation, but the quiet clinks of silverware and spats over schoolwork.

Clearly I needed to take a “saucier” approach to family mealtime. We would light candles and play cool music. Or we could adopt the Obama family's ritual of Roses and Thorns, where everyone shares their favorite (and least-favorite) part of the day.

Record scratch! I was doing it again: trying to manufacture a bonding “moment.” But then, gloriously, the moment happened! I was preparing dinner, and the kids bopped into the kitchen and asked if they could help. “Sure,” I replied. Jonah brought a step stool over to the counter and helped me make pink lemonade. Eliza pulled a blanket from the den to make a “picnic” on the living room floor. Jonah brought the food by loading it all onto his Radio Flyer wagon.

Suddenly, miraculously, we were all in it together. How did this happen? By allowing everyone to have a voice in our new family ritual. The kids expressed themselves in a way that was authentic to them. It was the little moments around the Big Moment where we connected the most.

Dan Bucatinsky is the author of Does This Baby Make Me Look Straight? Confessions of a Gay Dad ($15;  He lives in Los Angeles.