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How Often Do You Have a Family Dinner? (How Often Do You Enjoy it?)

Erin Zammett Ruddy

In an effort to get back to some semblance of reality after our summer-o-fun, Nick and I have been trying our damndest to get our children—and ourselves—on some kind of normal weeknight schedule. Over the summer it was day after day of “Oh, it’s Tuesday and 80 degrees of sunshine, of course we should cook steaks and eat late and drink wine…” or,  “Yes, swimming in the pool counts as a bath and we should definitely stay at my parents’ too long and feed Alex pizza and then order takeout at 9 p.m.” Now that it’s fall, we want everyone in bed earlier and we want to eat earlier and healthier and we want to spend less money on food and alcohol (I swear, if Nick and I became anorexic teetotalers we would be rich). Hence The Family Dinner at 6:30 p.m. Or, I should say, the attempted family dinner….

Growing up I had a family dinner every single night. We all sat together over a healthy, square meal (I remember lima beans making an appearance more often than I would have liked) and ate and talked and caught up. We also bickered a lot—three girls who think it’s all about them and will fight to the death over who cleared one more dish kept things exciting. But no one ever missed it. In my house, the family dinner was as important as not doing drugs, not sneaking the car out before we had our licenses (a popular thing to do where I grew up) and getting good grades. Some studies say family dinners are the reason those other things don’t happen. And to me it was one of the best things about growing up a Zammett girl. And there were a lot of good things to choose from. There is plenty of research and new books out that back all this up. And I know it’s true. But here’s my question: When does this ritual need to start? Because, so far, I’m finding the family dinner to be a pain in the %$@!

A recent kids-only meal. When we all eat together I make something we all like(ish) but if it's just for Alex, this is a typical dinner. (Not to be a mompetitor, but everything on this plate is organic, which makes me feel a little better about feeding my kid chicken nuggets)

Here’s a glimpse of how things go when all four of us eat together lately:

While Nick or I are prepping, say, turkey tacos, Alex pitches a fit about having to sit in his booster seat (strapping him down is a necessity), Nora crawls around the kitchen floor picking up the tiniest scraps of dust and eating them, then Alex jumps up on the oven for the twelfth time nearly burning his hands and Nick takes him to his 5th time out. Then we all pile around our too small kitchen table that doesn’t quite fit in the place we have it and the fun really begins. Within seconds of beginning, Alex decides the food is too spicy/hot/disgusting and spits it out midbite, then accidentally knocks over his milk (we’re off the sippy cups, but I may need to reinstate), Nora starts whining about the baby food she’s eating (she literally drools over our people food, poor thing) all while we try to talk about our days. Just as a conversation begins, Alex announces he has to poop, which he goes and does with one of us escorting him. Did I mention we’re eating turkey tacos? Five minutes later he’ll say he has to pee and will get up and halfway out of the kitchen before saying, “No I don’t!” This might happen two or three more times, often with a sly look in his eye. (He’s become the boy who cried pee. It’s an issue.) Eventually we’ll decide to end our sad attempt at a family dinner, bellies full enough, Nick will take the kids up for a bath and I’ll start to clean the kitchen that literally looks like a bomb went off in it.

Nora is just starting to eat real food and loving it. Lentils are her favorite so far. Makes her a much happier, if messier, dinner companion.

Now, sometimes, if the stars are all aligned, our family dinners are really nice. We all go around the table and say how our day was (Alex either tells us of working on his computer and emailing all day or cleaning out the gutters and putting up crown molding, none of which he’s ever actually done), we eat good, healthy food, we laugh, we feel lucky. There are other pros to eating with the kids, too:

  • Nick and I eat less because dinner lasts exactly 15 minutes.
  • We are finished eating by 7 p.m. at the latest and therefore do not go to sleep with full bellies
  • We have free time after the kids go to bed rather than having to eat and cleanup—again.
  • I like that Alex sees us eating the same(ish) food as he eats. And drinking milk. Unless we opt for a glass of wine (see stressful scenario, above).
  • We have all hands on deck for bath and bedtime instead of one of us running back and forth to the kitchen prepping the adult dinner.

Being able to help keep Alex on task while he eats is key. I had to do the Lady and the Tramp spaghetti kissing trick to get him to eat all his greenbeans but it worked!

But there are other downsides too:

  • Cooking for four people—two of whom require variations on a theme—while kids are underfoot means all my prep work gets left on the counters and extra pots and pans get inexplicably dirty. The kitchen is a disaster.
  • Even though we have that free time after 8 p.m., we’re so emotionally and physically drained from our family dinner, we often just waste it watching TV.
  • And, if I’m being completely honest, it’s not just about the stress level and the cleanup. Nick and I also like our adults-only time. It’s one of the things that keeps our family happy and healthy and functioning (if we’re not getting along, everyone suffers). So getting to sit down together at the end of a long day is one of the things we cherish. And we both really like food. Good food. We love to cook it and eat it and talk about. And linger over it (i.e., overeat). And that’s just not a possibility when we all attempt to chow down together.

The shirtless kids play on the dirty kitchen floor while we clean up. Classy.

Last night we had planned to eat together and I even had nice chicken breasts in the fridge. But I never found time to marinate them or prep the roasted potatoes and green beans and make a salad dressing so when 6 p.m. rolled around and both kids were hungry, I heated up some Amy’s Organic Black Bean Chili, grated some cheese and made soft tacos with it for Al, which I served with a side of steamed broccoli and sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil. Nora ate some of the black beans and loved. The food actually looked decent and I was getting hungry so I looked at Nick and said, halfheartedly, “What do you say? Should I make a few tacos for us?” Silence. We both knew the answer. So, the four of us sat together like we always do, even if only the kids are eating. We still talked about our day and the bonus: Nick and I weren’t shoveling our food into our mouths so we could help our kids do it. They cleaned their plates. Now, doesn’t that still count as a family dinner? We were all present. And after bath, books and bedtime for both, Nick and I sat down to a few sushi rolls (I had a coupon I’d been wanting to use—always an excuse!) and a glass of wine and had uninterrupted adult conversation which we both really needed. 


Gotta love the bathing a deux. Our family(ish) dinner ritual has led to an earlier bath and bed time for these two. Next we work on the parents....

Maybe we’re selfish, maybe we have no willpower, maybe we're food snobs or maybe I just need to learn to multitask and get a family-friendly dinner prepped earlier before Nick and I can refuse it (to that end, I recently bought Time for Dinner, which is a fabulous book I can’t wait to start using!). All I know is that with a three year old and an eight month old, the family dinner cannot be a daily occurrence. Right? I would lose my mind. Once they get a little older, absolutely. But for now, I think it’s going to be an as-needed ritual. Like tonight. Dinner for four, 6:30 sharp. I just have to figure out what to do with that damn chicken.

OK, what’s your family dinner ritual? Do you have it together every night? How old were your kids when you started? Let's discuss! 

Also, check out Chrissy's post about family food traditions and Sarah's on what the heck to feed a one-year-old. Food is on the brain this week!