Family Dinner: What I Wish the Experts Knew
We have all read articles about the importance of family dinner. The importance of coming together over family dinner and discussing the day’s events is cited as a way to connect with children. You know, general family bonding. Everyone seems to agree that eating dinner together is important.
I know they are right. I know family dinner is important. Yet, I can’t seem to achieve that happy family dinner. I can see it like an elusive butterfly fluttering along on the breeze – family dinner where everyone sits down together, shares opinions, listens, laughs, eats. It sounds wonderful.
It is just not my reality.
Dinner time could quite possibly be one of the most stressful times of the day. It is absolute chaos at our house. As I read another article on how important it is to have these dinners, I’m thinking – Am I missing something?
I understand the importance. I really do get it. All the family bonding aside, everyone in the house has to eat an evening meal anyway so eating all at once makes sense.
Family Dinner – My Own Experiment
I would propose an experiment. Actually, it would be more of an observational study of a family in their natural habitat. The experts need to see the chaotic reality of an everyday family dinner.
I can tell you what they would see.
For full family dinner experience, you have to observe the work of preparing the meal. Even a simple meal may take 30-60 minutes or more.
Questions – What’s for dinner? At least one, if not all, children will come into the kitchen at various times to ask this question. Three out of four children will make a face like they smelled a skunk and say “ugh”. One out of four may actually retch.
I will inform them that it is rude to make noises like that when someone is trying to cook dinner. They will argue that you eat that particular meal (unless of course, it is spaghetti, mac and cheese, pizza, or a breakfast food) every day. To which I will reply, “No we don’t. Leave the kitchen.” If they ask me what it’s called, I tell them it’s yucky surprise.
Can I have something to eat? The answer is always no. I’m making dinner, it will be ready soon. Usually, the questioner makes pitiful wailing noises and says, “But I’m hungry.” Good, you’ll eat your dinner.
They are then sent out of the kitchen. Unless…
Help – It always seems like a good idea to have children help in the kitchen. They are less likely to whine about the food if they help prepare it. I have to admit that 50% of the time they do whine less if they help with the meal.
However, the other 50% of the time the child’s shoulders will slump and in their best nasally, whiny voice they will say, “Why do I have too? Why can’t so-and-so do it?”
I don’t explain why they are the chosen one. I ignore the sulking and explain their job as though they are happily skipping around the kitchen ready to do it. They then sulkily mope around the kitchen helping with dinner.
Table Setting – While preparing a lovely balanced meal, I will also have children set the table. I attempt to divide the work so that all children have a job. But inevitably, whenever they all can’t do the exact same job, they fight. Nobody is happy except the 4-year-old who is too young to know he shouldn’t be excited to help.
Sitting down – You would think sitting down to the table would be the easiest part of this whole scenario. No. It is not. In fact, it can be the most infuriating because it should be so easy.
I ask everyone to come to the table for dinner.
Enter chirping crickets.
Suddenly all the children, who were so hungry while I was trying to make dinner, don’t move or react in any way. (Unless, of course, I am making one of the above mentioned favorite meals.)
After repeating myself a couple times, either my husband or I will ask, “Do you need a wedding style invitation? Come to dinner.”
They slowly come to the table.
Eating – By this time, all adults at the table are tired, frustrated, and hungry. All the children are looking at the food. One has a plugged nose and another asks, “Have we had this before? Did I like it?” I like when they ask this question because we always say yes in the hopes that the child will eat the food.
We say a prayer and the battle begins. Once everyone has their food, my husband and I take turns reminding children to eat it because they seem to have forgotten why we are at the table. One has taken mouse-sized portions in the hope that we won’t notice and she won’t have to eat much. The youngest openly protests the muck on his plate and demands cold cereal, which isn’t going to happen. Another has tears in his eyes and is sure that he is going to die if he actually has to eat the food.
After they’ve complained, wrinkled their noses, and made rude comments about the food they realize they aren’t leaving the table without eating it.
Except for the one hold out that refuses to eat. After telling and telling and telling this child to eat their food, we have had it. If it is an older child, they have to sit at the table until they eat.
But younger ones enter into dessert negotiation. We tell the child that they don’t get any dessert unless they eat their dinner and the amount of dessert they get is proportional to how much dinner is eaten. Unfortunately, dessert was never in the plan but, out of desperation to NOT spend the rest of our lives sitting at the table waiting for the child to eat one bite of mashed potatoes, it will be now.
The child wants to know what is for dessert to see if it is worth eating the yucky surprise.
I desperately gaze around my kitchen looking for something dessert like that will provide a sufficient bribe. When there is no sugar in the house, I get a little desperate. Luckily for me, they’ll eat their dinner for a piece of gum.
Through all this, there is one blessed child that actually eats the food. She may not like it but she’s realized that resistance is futile. For the record, it’s not always the same child. In general, they take turns.
Clean Up – We don’t get as much resistance here. We have a good routine that for some reason everyone is able to abide by better than before or during the meal. Plus , my husband is usually home and the higher parent to child ratio makes a big difference.
However, there is the usual bickering over who has what job and why they have to do it. Blah, blah, blah.
(Before I continue, I have to say, I have great kids. They aren’t whiny and complaining all the time, at least not all at the same time. But this is a pretty common dinner experience at our house and I think their reactions are pretty typical.)
I wonder what the experts would say. Probably that having dinner together is still important because – it is.
Begrudgingly, I agree with them. As much as dinner time is awful 3-4 days a week, I can see the benefits to my children.
They are learning to:
- Be grateful – Even if they aren’t good at showing it
- Prepare a meal – Food doesn’t appear magically on their plate
- Contribute to the family – We all work together
- Try new things – It won’t kill you
- Use manners – Sort of
I hope that if we don’t give up on family dinner that someday when my children are older we will have that meal where we happily talk about our day. Everyone will eat the food, whether they like it or not, and will have the manners not to complain about the appearance, smell, or taste.
I hope it will happen.
If not, we will look back and laugh at all the awful family dinners we’ve shared together.