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Finding the Middle Ground of Family Dinner

Posted on: September 25th, 2014 by Bri DeRosa

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of family dinner. If we didn’t believe in it as a valuable tool for building stronger families, we wouldn’t have created an entire project devoted to getting people to spend some time gathered around the table together to share food, fun and conversation. Because of our obvious passion for family dinners, we’ve been closely following a recent study – and the subsequent follow-up articles and op-eds – that suggests cooking a meal each night is too stressful, and that family dinner isn’t worth it for most modern households. One writer who supported the premise declared that family dinner is so challenging in his household that he and his wife have simply decided to eat separately from their kids so they can have a peaceful mealtime with salmon, wine and adult conversation. (Sounds appealing, doesn’t it?)

Let’s be honest. Who hasn’t been there? We can all relate to the challenges that have been shared as the discussion moves from site to site across the internet: too many kids’ activities scheduled at all the wrong times; work schedules that don’t allow us to be home at a reasonable hour; picky eaters (of all ages); exhaustion; behavioral challenges; and financial struggles. As the study points out, sometimes those challenges can seem so insurmountable that the whole idea of family dinner becomes exhausting. Who has the time, patience, or energy to get everybody to the table for a scratch-made meal seven nights a week?

Not very many of us! And that’s the secret. Nobody we know is having perfect family dinners every single night. Not even our team members, who spend their days helping others improve their mealtimes, are having perfect family dinners on a daily basis! That’s because there is no such thing, and what’s been largely missing from the recent debate has been the acknowledgement that dinnertime doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing event. Most mealtimes in the households we know embrace a sort of middle ground instead.

Instead of seven nights a week…

Why not four? Or three? Or even one? Showing up counts!

Instead of weeknights…

Why not a single Sunday dinner that the whole family commits to? Consistency helps build familiarity.

Instead of dinners….

Why not breakfasts? Timing can be flexible.

Instead of spending hours on the perfect pot roast…

Why not serve turkey sandwiches, pancakes or a rotisserie chicken you grabbed at the market? Doing your best is all that’s required.

Instead of expecting kids (or adults) to love everything you serve…

Why not serve some “new” foods and some “familiar” favorites each time, and allow them to grow in their tastes and preferences over time? Experience is a great teacher.

Instead of expecting perfect behavior at the table…

Why not let family dinners be a place where mistakes are made and lovingly corrected, so every member of the family learns how to interact positively? Manners are a muscle that needs exercise to grow strong.

Instead of the pressure to be perfect…

Why not relax and let the good-enough family dinner be good enough?

The research doesn’t show us that only a seven-nights-a-week, from-scratch, four-course meal inspired by June Cleaver has any positive impact on families. In fact, when it comes to family dinner, it really is the thought that counts. A regular effort to get everybody together for a shared meal, at the time and place that works best for you, is all that’s required to start a routine that can offer wonderful benefits to every member of the household.

Just as you wouldn’t completely give up on a new exercise regimen after a couple of sore mornings, don’t quit on family dinner just because it doesn’t always seem picture-perfect. Family dinners should be as unique as your family itself, and as filled with love, good intentions and even imperfections. Look for the middle ground that allows you to get everyone to the table and see what unfolds. If you find yourself needing help, inspiration, or resources, why not sign up for our free program, Food, Fun and Conversation: Four Weeks to Better Family Dinners? You just may find that those imperfect family mealtimes are more meaningful than you realized.