The Family Dinner Conundrum: Sitting Down To Dinner
Family Dinner at the Table Can Become Your Family’s Reality. Really.
- Is a family dinner a dream or a reality in your home?
- What is your routine or is there anything that resembles a dinner routine?
- Between varying schedules, food dislikes and time, do you have or make time to eat at home?
Ask Moms and Dads where they eat family dinner, what they serve and how it is accomplished and the answers range from eating in the car to cooking individual meals per eater. The reality is far from the desired sitting around the family dinner table of passing filled plates from one pot scenario. Often the reality is that children are passed a little white bag with a toy from the fast food drive-thru for dinner because you are thinly spread between school pick-up, work, and sports, and ultimately that is what they equate as dinner. Couple that with the nights you are at home, and you are cooking a meal per person to accommodate the varied eating demands, dinner is equated with stress. With some simple steps, you can eat a family dinner at home on a nightly basis, cook only one meal, and make that romanticized vision a reality.
Once upon a dinnertime…
The family dinner was a sacred time. My Mom worked full time. She came home. She cooked. We all sat down and ate. She prefaced every meal with, if you do not like what’s being served, there is peanut butter. We seldom ate peanut butter, we sat at a table to eat, talked about our day and what was going on in the world, and we ate what was served. She did not have time to cook three different things and she did not really like to cook. Cooking was purely perfunctory. Sports did not go past 5:00 pm, music lessons took place at school or on Saturday morning, and family time meant family time. My generation changed that. Sorry.
Step one – Family Dinner means making the time and involving the family:
I cooked with my grandmother. I ate at my mother’s table. My mother cooked because we had to eat. I love to cook, probably because I have a love of wanting to eat good food, and started to think of the kitchen as a laboratory as soon as I could reach the counter. My first food experiment was with my high school best friend and consisted of a mashed potato omelet. The potatoes were probably leftover in the fridge and they seemed like the perfect omelet stuffing. If I recall, we plopped a mound inside the egg and ate away. It felt gourmet and we were on our way to becoming gourmands. Our second experiment was a buttercream frosting for my mother’s birthday cake. We did not have enough butter, so we used Crisco. No one ate it and we had fun stuffing it down the garbage disposal. Gross, as all this may sound, being free to experiment in the kitchen, made me want to be there.
IDEA: Give the children an age compatible job when making dinner and when they are old enough, let them have a go at it alone.
Time is on your side and long as you make it so:
Making time for dinner from the time of the bouncy seat and carrying that through the years of sports practices, helped to create the family dinner in our household. Before my older one was born, I promised myself that we would eat at home as often as possible. The children ate at the table with us (or frequently with me, my husband traveled for business on a weekly basis). Be it the bouncy seat on the table, the high chair with tray and then without, or actually using utensils instead of hands, food was eaten at a table. Starting early, they equated eating with being at a table. I recall watching one friend who would chase her son around the house to get him to eat a morsel of food. If he ran upstairs, she ran with a forkful of whatever after him. He had one food dislike after another, and to this day is a picky eater.
IDEA: Make it a family rule that food, be it a snack or a meal is eaten at the table.
Reality vs Routine:
Does your family head for the back seat of the car when you say it’s dinner time? If family dinner reality is three children sitting in the back seat together and you driving, always haphazard and on-the-go, then that is what they conceptualize as routine. Planning takes time, and keeping your eye on the prize – the family sitting around the dinner table is the goal, not buckling up – then the time up front is worth it.
How can children help, if they can barely reach the stove?
They can be part of menu planning, grocery shopping, thinking through what goes into each meal.
- Offer children age-appropriate tasks.
- Buy small, not too sharp knives and colorful cutting boards.
- Let kids fold napkins however they want to, and set the table as they see fit.
- Let each one pick a favorite meal or part of the meal on a rotating basis.
- Buy smaller peelers and kitchen tools that they can handle.
- Measure the salt and seasonings for them that they can then pour into the bowl or sauce.
- If a little mess before dinner makes them feel engaged and part of the process, go for it.
IDEA: Have rustic mashed potatoes (a fancy name for lumps) and let the kids mash them the old-fashioned way with a potato masher.
How do you eat dinner when one or more has a practice or other activity?
We did sports and after school activities, as many families did and still do. In fact, it was my generation of parents (and I wholeheartedly apologize again), who created this hamster wheel of eating in the car and not sitting at a table. My answer was to make a fierce commitment to not eating in the car. And it was really hard to stick to. Two reasons to not eat in the car: one the friend who had to pay to have the back seat replaced due to the odor and stains when she returned the car; two, the habit of eating on the go becomes the norm. If the goal is to sit together at the family dinner, then the time has to be made to do so. We sometimes ate at 4 pm. Yes, they got picked up from school and sat down to dinner. Tea is the British word for an early dinner, and we took to calling it such. My friends thought me odd, but my children sat the table, and they ate. Either I had prepared dinner before they got home, made extra the night before, or they helped to make something. The helping dinners were the ones that they felt the most connected to and would be more amenable to trying something new.
IDEA: Make a list of priorities about what dinner time means to you and your family. Ignore the commentary and outside noise. You know what is best for you and your family.
Step two – Single meal cooking is possible:
Getting a single meal cooked, that everyone will eat, rather than cooking a meal per person is a monumental task. Why we capitulated to our children’s eating demands and coddled them, I cannot say. As the “mommy of millennials” and having had children who usually ate what was served, I want to share what worked (and did not work) to get my children to sit through dinner and actually eat what the grownups ate. Everyone has food likes and dislikes. My older one would not eat eggplant until a couple of years ago when it showed up as the dip called Baba ghanoush. Yes, even a 27-year-old likes to dip his food. As grownups, there are things we will not eat, skip the okra for me, thank you very much.
IDEA: Start by cooking the foods that your children will eat to help establish a want to come to the family dinner table in the first place.
Children eat what they are exposed to early on:
We have this preconceived notion that children will not eat certain spices, seasonings, textures, and items. To a slight degree, this is true. Bitter and sour are two flavors that are lower on the list of instantaneously attracted to foods for babies and small children. Add sweet, fat, and/or salt to the mix and they may be asking for more. Babies eat what they are fed early on. Cuisines that include spicy seasonings are fed to children. Garlic and onions abound in Mediterranean cuisine, and who does not love shrimp scampi over pasta? When the children are old enough to start of solids, maybe the Habanero is held, but the jalapeño is not. Should you run across a child squirting Siracha Sauce on his/her eggs, they might have had spicy seasonings to begin with.
IDEA: Food does not need to be bland to be child-friendly. Go slowly, and see what they are attracted to. Children’s tastes adapt as they are exposed to different flavors and textures.
Child/Grownup friendly food moments:
Instead of thinking about “child” friendly foods, which frequently are prepackaged things like chicken nuggets and fish sticks, make them from scratch. Coating chicken tenders or cutting strips of fish, such as cod, which hold together, make a meal that parents and children can enjoy. The children think they are the “real” thing and you know they are the real thing. Healthy alternative. Happy family dinner.
Fun ways to make it happen:
- Serve tomato sauce for dipping instead of ketchup. Less sugar, still red, and everyone gets to dip.
- Give everyone an individual bowl of sauce to dip into. How much fun is that? Dad and Mom like it spicy, add a squirt of Tabasco to their bowls and dip away.
- Quiche is a perfect family meal to plan and prep. Use different ingredients. Buy mini pie tins to make individual quiches.
IDEA: Use a meal planning app to easily track family-friendly meals and rotate them throughout the month.
From picky eaters to adventuresome eaters:
- Child #1 who freaks out if the chicken touches the rice or the orange vegetable is too close to the green (divided plates work really well for this).
- Child #2 wigs out if the grilled cheese is not cut a certain way (concede and cut in the desired direction).
- Child #3 likes drumsticks, but not white meat (make a whole chicken that has both components).
I told my children that they could each choose the two things that they really did not like and I would work very hard to not cook those things on a regular basis. Depending on the number of children you have there may be some overlap. Those foods or serving methods would be avoided as much as possible. Eggplant and grilled cheese directional cuts were doable, no carrots, broccoli, etc… was a few dislikes too many. By giving in on each one’s individual dislikes, it was easier to negotiate for trying things. Eventually the negotiating ended, but I cannot recall exactly when. Frequently they would “cross the food line” and begin to be flexible on the dislike and drop it from the list. Garlic was a segue food for my older one. When he finally decided he liked it, he wanted it in everything. Good thing he was not dating yet.
IDEA: Establish food likes and dislikes. Do the things that are easy to get the routine established and as the routine gets set, start to add in new ideas to get you to that Family Dinner.
Food in disguise can backfire:
If you want to break the food trust, disguising food and having your children call you out on it will accomplish that breakage to occur. I did it. It backfired. When they went through their “green” food aversion, I would purée broccoli into the pasta sauce (kale was not an “it” food yet). That worked until it didn’t. Then they began to think that sauces contained mystery ingredients and became suspicious of foods with certain consistencies. It might work on a 2-year-old, but not a 5-year-old (they are pretty food savvy by then).
IDEA: Disguise, if you must, but use caution about the extent of doing so. Honesty is a better way to go.
Healthy, practical, and controlling what is consumed:
I am certain that the confusion of what is healthy and what is not, which changes from one day to the next, has added to the confusion of what and how we cook to what children will and will not eat.
Twenty-some years ago eliminating everything that occurred naturally in food was the style. We were told that if we fed our children high-fat foods like cheese and whole milk they would become obese. Consuming egg yolk was a food crime, and a lifetime of cardiac and cholesterol problems would ensue. High cholesterol, obesity, cardiac problems, diabetes – we were told to run scared of anything that tasted remotely good. Along came high-fructose corn syrup, low-fat dairy to low-fat baked goods, and the obesity and diabetes rates soared. People ate more to feel full and satisfied, more and more additives entered our food supply in an effort to cull fat calories and maintain taste. Fat is a flavor carrier and sweet is a taste we crave. It blew up in the kitchen. We were confused, felt guilty about everything we thought about consuming, let alone ate. It was also the time when baked brie stuffed with candied walnuts or jam came into fashion. Go figure.
With tremendous effort, I decided not to cave on all the fluctuating food fads. I did not buy low-fat products, soda pop was not a drink and fast food was never on the menu. My daughter at the age of 21 has still never been in McDonald’s (not because I do not allow it, she simply does not want to eat it). I fed my children whole milk products. Cream and butter were used in cooking and as a result, the food tasted good. We lived a non-sedentary life and no one gained weight or has chronic health issues. Twenty plus years later, the trend is to eat whole foods and avoid pre-packaged food as much as possible. My friends gagged when I served whole milk. My daughter had a friend who would drink a half a gallon of it on a sleepover because she was not allowed anything but skim at home. We now know that babies need fat for brain development. Sweet foods are eaten on a regular basis, as well as fast food which is high in calories and gargantuan in portion, created the health problems that we see on such a grand scale, not a slice of full-fat cheese.
Being a total naysayer to convenience will drive you crazy. I do not advocate for all or nothing. Be practical about what will work for you when it comes to what you eat. Use bouillon cubes, use pre-made seasoning blends, and run the other way when you see the low-fat stuff. Everything in moderation.
IDEA: Have go-to things on hand such as pre-made sauces that are sugar-free, keep a variety of seasoning blends that can be sprinkled on chicken to make each meal seem different, and add a little fat and salt to enhance flavor. Your family will thank you.
The worst food aversions with my children were not really over dislikes, but rather when they went to a friend’s house and they brought the aversions home. From each child getting a specially cooked meal and being whined at why I could not provide the same, to eating on TV trays, to being asked to cut the crust off of the bread are but a few of those moments. Every now and again, I made/make two vegetable side dishes. I allowed the TV as a special treat, such as a holiday special on at dinner time. The crust is the best part of the bread, I exclaimed with a mouthful of crusty baguette. Pick your battles; I refused to trim the crust.
IDEA: Be willing to make exceptions here and there for the sake of peace.
The bottom line:
There is no magic broccoli that solves the eat at home, eat the same meal dilemma. There is compromise and give and take. Be practical about what works for you, your family and your lifestyle. A healthy attitude about food equates to a balanced and healthy life. You are a Mom or Dad and you have good common sense about what is good for your family. Do what is right for you, not what the neighbor does, and ignore your friend’s critique of how you eat.
Personally, we eat as much of a whole food diet as we can. We eat butter. We call the kitchen a lab. Both of my children enjoy cooking and eating. They live with friends and I am always proud and shocked to hear that they are the only ones who keep food in the fridge and actually cook. Both started with egg dishes, and the older one is more into savory foods while the younger one bakes. Together we always get a full meal.
Make your Family Dinner dreams come true…
- Define your priorities. Stick to them.
- Have food in the fridge and freezer that can be cooked in a relatively nominal amount of time.
- Keep spice blends, premade (sugar-free) sauces, and bouillon cubes on hand.
- Involve the kids in planning and prep.
- Keep a list of likes and dislikes in an app on your phone for easy access when you go to the grocery store.
- Make the time and the time will become a routine part of the day.
A sit-down family dinner is on the horizon.
Kate is the owner of Bleuberet Artisanal Foods & Gifts and Bleuberet & The Blog, a recipe and foodie blog bleuberetblog.bleuberets.com. She is the Mom of two millennials who are cooks and gregarious eaters. Helping people to feel confident in the kitchen, enjoy a healthy relationship with food, and sharing foodie info is her passion.