A mother of two admits in a recent New York Times article that her family rarely eats a traditional family dinner sitting at a table with all the members present at one time. Here’s part of what she wrote.
“Ten years later, my daughter is on the brink of middle school, my son is well into his grade-school years and both are athletes. They play club sports, which means they practice two to three times a week, with a game or three most weekends. My son’s choir differs from a club sport only in that it doesn’t require him to run. When you factor in their seasonal, recreational activities, managing the after-school schedule requires skills familiar to advanced Tetris players. Some seasons, one or the other of them will have a weekday or two off, but I never do. The schedule is intense, relentless and year-round. I can’t say, “This will be over in three months,” because it’s never over. Once a week, from now until forever, my son has 20 minutes to eat his dinner in the car between activities. We’ve had maybe two weeknight family dinners in the past two years….”
“I surrendered. Now, instead of aspiring to a single evening meal, I feed my kids like hobbits: they eat breakfast, a substantial snack, lunch, an after-school snack, an early dinner and a middle dinner, and my husband and I eat the late dinner. We’re not eating more, just differently. At various points during our busiest hours, someone will pull up a stool to the counter for a small meal: a side dish here, a heap of pasta there, a second helping of protein or salad before bed. Call it grazing, or default dinner, or parenting by tapas — we’re happier, calmer and probably better fed.”
There are multiple interesting issues here I want to discuss:
1.Do you have to be sitting at a table to have a meal? If you’re talking with one or two of your family members while they eat aren’t you still accomplishing the checking in that the family meal is supposed to provide?
I have one mom friend who made meatloaf and veggies for dinner one night last year but then ran out of time to serve. They just all took it into the minivan to eat on their way to their activities. So the kids had a home-cooked meal and I’m sure they talk along the way, they just happen to eat it in the minivan. (I also think about those Quaker oatmeal commercials where the kids take the oatmeal in a cup to eat the car on the way to school.)
2.Does every family need a set dinnertime every day like on “Happy Days” or “Downton Abby” that doesn’t waiver no matter what the activities?
At this point my family is able to schedule most of our activities before 6 p.m. so we can usually sit down and eat between 6 and 7. With that said, Michael is only home by then sometimes. Sometimes we wait to eat and sometimes we don’t – it just depends on how hungry they are. Michael thinks I need to have a set dinner time so everybody knows what time dinner is and won’t over-snack. (However, even if I set a time that doesn’t mean he will be home for dinner every night.)
3.Grazing, tapas, multiple dinners: I liked her descriptions of how her family eats in stages.
I found it interesting that her family has second and third dinners because that’s what my kids always want. Michael gets really irritated when they wander back into the kitchen at 8:30 p.m. for leftover chicken legs, yogurt or fruit. He says they didn’t eat enough at dinner. Sometimes I think they didn’t eat enough (often my youngest who is picky about meat) but often I think they are just hungry – especially my boy. During the school year we even had to set a “kitchen closed” time because it seemed like they would always want to eat when we said it was bedtime.
So what do you think: What makes it a “family” meal? Can a family meal happen in a minivan? Can it happen in stages around different activities? Do you need a set dinnertime? Is grazing – which you see a lot with toddlers – bad for older kids? What are your dinnertime habits?