for Family Dinners
By Pamela White
I wrote this in September
of 2002. The sentiments are still ones I hold dear, and the
advice is always true.
What a year we've been through.
A year of losses, grief, tears, fear and feeling an unfathomable
It's also been a year of
dance classes, soccer matches, baseball games and basketball
tournaments. A year of homework and homeschooling, birthday parties,
field trips and report cards. We've lost jobs and found new ones,
replaced broken appliances and decided to keep the old car for
another six months. We've given birth and gotten divorced.
And still we move forward,
sometimes slowly, often painfully.
In the midst of crises and
celebrations, let the family dinner bind us together. Coming
together, breaking bread and sharing news of the day is a healing
ritual resulting from taking the time to slow down in our fast-paced
world. Imagine the food on the table, members of the family sitting
around looking in each other's eyes, talking and listening. This
simple tradition has the power to transform teens and toddlers
alike, and provide a moment of peace in a world at war.
I imagine the ideal would
be a daily family meal, children with hands and faces freshly
scrubbed, parents smiling and passing the homemade rolls and
But we live in a world of
sports competitions, after-school activities, staggered work
shifts, joint custody and blended families. It's a challenge
well worth rising to when we find our own path that combines
our hectic lives with time together. We must seek a way to make
the most of the one day a week or one weekend a month we have
as a family to create, cultivate and cherish the bonds of family.
Finding the time for a meal
together may mean tossing out the family dinner and instituting
the family breakfast or Sunday lunch, depending on your work
schedules, and the ages and schedules of your children.
In my own family, I've been
amazed at the trust that has grown between my three children
and their stepfather once we made our own mealtime rituals --
dinner four nights a week.
Here are six steps toward
creating the time and space for family dinners and making them
1. Frequency is important.
Why do so many Thanksgiving dinners end up ruining everyone's
appetite? We bank on this one fabulous meal a year to bring our
scattered families back into the fold. That's quite a demand
on one 25-pound turkey and three pumpkin pies.
Visualize eating a meal,
albeit a less elaborate one, as a family, five or even three
times a week. Suddenly the odds are in your favor that in a 12-month
period you'll have some amazing conversations, loads of laughter
and a closeness you only dreamed of before. A few blow-ups, burnt
food, or no-shows when someone is running late or gets a last-minute
invitation to eat with a friend won't hurt. The conversation
and communion will continue with the next table gathering.
2. Examine your expectations
for a family dinner. Babies require a lot of attention. Does
a family dinner mean feeding a baby first and putting her to
sleep prior to feeding toddlers and parents? Remember your teenage
years? Sometimes, teenagers won't speak except to utter the dreaded, "Whatever!" Casserole
experiments go awry, dogs pull the tablecloths and everything
hits the floor, someone gets sick... are you relating yet?
Think of the good times
you've had over a meal. Was it a picnic? Did the children make
the salad and set the table? Did it involve a food fight? Perhaps
you enjoy elegance and candlelight, with good table manners.
In my family, if one of the children is out of sorts, we try
to include him or her, but don't let a bad mood ruin our time
together. For the last two years, we've had back-to-back activities
on Thursday nights, yet these have been some really great dinner
times, even when we have only 15 minutes. How? Read on.
3. Having no time to prepare
a dinner at home is today's reality. Make the slow cooker your
friend, and use it to cook stews, soups, beans and pot roasts.
Buy a slow cooker cookbook to get you started if you're having
trouble envisioning a good meal coming out of a ceramic pot that's
been cooking all day.
Freeze ahead. Deborah Taylor-Hough
has written Frozen Assets, a book that gets harried
cooks started cooking enough on one day a month to freeze for
four weeks of meals.
Think picnic food. Short
on time? Make giant submarine sandwiches to order in ten minutes.
These can be made in the morning, wrapped up and served for dinner.
There are other make-ahead
meals like baked ziti, lasagna or tacos. These are wonderful
ways for parents of infants to keep dinner time simple. Prepare
the casserole or taco meat and fixings while the baby sleeps.
Put in the oven or warm up and serve when dinner time rolls around.
These also work for when you have time the night before or that
day at lunchtime but maintain a hectic after-school schedule.
Salads can also be made way ahead -- think luscious lettuce salads,
piquante pasta salads or crisp crudite platters.
Fast food may give you a
night together. Order pizza or bring home burgers. Eating in
fast-food restaurants offers a less harmonious atmosphere for
bonding. But sitting at home, with pizza and wings for a Friday
night treat (for everybody), creates a relaxed, open night of
4. Prepare a topic of conversation.
It may sound phony but having ideas in mind can get the table
talk started. Avoid questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." For
example: "Did you have fun today?" If a question is too general
-- "What did you do today?" -- older children may hold back and
younger children may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of possible
Begin by sharing a humorous
tidbit from your own day: "I was standing on the porch today
shoveling snow when a little icicle broke from the gutter and
hit me on the head." Or tell of a frustration: "I was shocked
today when the grocery cashier was rude to a teenager in front
of me." Follow up with a question: "What was the funniest thing
that happened to you today?" Or, "Would you say anything to the
cashier if you had been there?"
5. Turn dinner time into
game time. This works best with preschoolers to preteens. My
son brought this game home from school. One person starts with
a letter of his choice. (For example, G.) The second person adds
a letter, as does the third, as the game goes around the table.
The goal is to end up with an actual word, so the second person
might toss out "R." The third could add "O." The last letter, "W," might
end the word, but it doesn't end the game. The family member
who added the last letter is the one who begins the next round
by choosing the first letter of the next word. Or play tell-a-story
where each person adds a sentence to the story as it goes around
6. Don't force it. Trying
to make the meal the most elaborate dinner you've served puts
a great burden on you or whoever is cooking the meal. Expecting
an in-depth sharing of emotions stirred up over current events
can leave you feeling like a failure when your elementary-aged
son and high school daughter begin kicking each other under the
table for entertainment. Soon the time will come when your children
bring conversation starters to the table and when next Thanksgiving
comes around, you'll realize your family's new or continued closeness
is truly something to be thankful for.
Need more help? There are
resources available to inspire new ways to turn dinner time (or
breakfast time or lunch time) into an opportunity to strengthen
family bonds and offer sanctuary in these turbulent times:
Around the Family Table:
365 Mealtime Conversations for Parents and Children by
Ronda Coleman, Robins Lane Press, 2001
Frozen Assets: How to
Cook For a Day and Eat For a Month by Deborah Taylor-Hough,
Champion Press Ltd., 1998
Pillsbury One-Dish Meals
Cookbook: More Than 300 Recipes for Casseroles, Skillet Dishes
and Slow Cooker Meals by the Pillsbury Company, Clakson
Potter Publishers, 1999
Deborah Taylor-Hough's website
Family Dinner Rap, an e-mail
newsletter available from http://familyeducation.com