I have been dealing with a (minor) parenting crisis as of late: dinner time. This isn’t the normal dilemmas where my child won’t eat anything or that we’re constantly running to different events so we can’t get a good dinner in.
Luckily my daughter will try almost anything, and we have followed Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in eating so we very rarely have fights during dinner about the food. I also work to curate our schedule so that we aren’t running all the time, every night of the week because I know how that go-go-go schedule burns me out so I can only imagine how it would affect my five-year-old. My dilemma comes from the stories I tell myself about a “good” family dinner.
I grew up privileged enough to have sit down family dinners with my whole family (dad, mom, and older brother) and I don’t necessarily remember a lot of individual meals, but I remember the feeling I had and the cumulative effect these meals had on my attitude and well-being even on days when I was the less than perfect little sister or daughter. Family meals meant everyone sitting at the table and the food was passed around as everyone took their helpings. Talking about the day or whatever came to mind. Most of the time our meals were the traditional meat (usually a beef product because my dad hated chicken unless it came in a bucket), starch (potatoes or rice) and vegetable (corn and broccoli seem to be the two that stick out in my memory). Looking back, I was incredibly lucky to have the food security and family time that was not available to everyone and these mealtimes have impacted how I view mealtime for my own family.
However, as my daughter has grown up, I’ve become more beholden to the ideal and the “should” around family dinner than the reality.
My partner works a shift job that often has him out of the house for dinner and it is usually just the two of us. Sometimes as this pandemic has worn on and I’ve had to balance on the ever-shifting sands my job in education requires I am too emotionally and physically spent and unfortunately my daughter gets what’s left some nights (let’s not talk about the guilt that has brought on in the past year — I’ve worked on rectifying that which has made a difference) and the reality that as a working parent in general creating the family meal is just sometimes exhausting.
I have new appreciation for my parents who seemed to get a complete, relatively balanced (for the 80s) meal on the table most nights of the week. But as I’ve explored this I have new appreciation for their prowess in the kitchen and how they ended up getting it done when they were both teachers themselves; I’ve also started to remember that sometimes it was pizza, sometimes it was fried chicken, sometimes we just went out to eat. We didn’t always eat at the table; sometimes it was dinner in front of the TV (on TV trays) and sometimes it wasn’t all four of us at once with different members of the family involved in different things. Sometimes there were “fly bys” (my mom’s phrase for drive-thru) — it wasn’t always this idyllic Normal Rockwell scene gathered around the table.
While there is a lot of research to suggest having a family meal is helpful to everyone’s well-being it almost always comes with the signifier “regularly”. What does regularly mean? It doesn’t mean every day and it doesn’t always have to mean dinner.
There is a growing body research that describes the effects family meals have on parents and children but does that research mean that I need to provide a perfect family meal every night? As I’ve worked through this story in my head the answer is a resounding no. There are just not enough hours in the day or energy in the tank sometimes to prep the meal and sit at the table eating it but the flip side is that sometimes there is enough.
I’ve realized that I should capitalize on the nights when there is enough time (not Tuesday) and enough energy (not Friday) to sit down at the table and eat with her — even if it’s just the two of us because having that time to talk and be focused on each other does do wonders to improve our “family functioning” which is a fancy term the scientists use to discuss interactions and relationships between the family members.
Even without the scientists telling us that family meals are important I intuitively knew that sitting down at the table with my kid is a good idea. Remembering what it felt like as a child myself to have those times with my family was something, I didn’t need the scientists to tell me. I recognize that talking with her about her day also clues me into what she’s thinking, feeling, or going through because I know if I don’t lay the groundwork now, I might be shut out in the future.
However, now I also realize when the risk-reward ratio is off and heaping this “should” onto my shoulders for the day would make it too much. There are days were forcing myself to do a family dinner would not improve my relationship with my kid or myself. I have come to understand and accept that while family dinners are important to me, they are not a hill I need to die on making them happen. There are many ways family dinners can happen: we can “eat watch” (my daughter’s phrase for eating in front of the TV) or we can have cereal at the dinner table. This doesn’t always have to be an all or nothing scenario.
We also build our relationship and spend quality time together in other ways as well so hopefully all of these things together will give my daughter the same comfort and security my parents were able to give me even if it’s not always at the dinner table.