Meet the Sterenbergs! This family of five from Ohio is juggling a full plate of priorities and finding ways to make room for family dinner, the one time of day when they find they can focus on each other.
Mary and Jon Sterenberg of Columbus, Ohio, and kids Paul (11), Luke (8), and Jillian (5).
Despite busy schedules for all five members of the family, Mary and Jon believe in making family dinner a priority and aim to get everyone to the table five nights a week. It’s a constant balancing act, but the Sterenbergs believe the effort is worth it. “So much of our day revolves around things that need to get done or places we need to go. We’re nagging the kids to pick up their shoes or finish their homework, and we’re missing the opportunity to really talk to them about their day or how they’re feeling. Dinner slows things down for a little bit and lets us focus on each other. It’s a refueling point in more ways than one,” Mary says.
The Sterenberg family, like many of the families we’ve met over the years, finds that time is the biggest challenge in building a dinner routine. One constant struggle is the family’s ever-changing schedule. With three school-aged kids in sports and activities, the days and times on which various family members might have commitments changes by season. That means disruption to not only dinnertime, but meal prep time as well. Mary and Jon find it frustrating to have to constantly change the family routines to fall in line with the different sports practices and commitments that come up throughout the year.
Fortunately, Mary and Jon have come up with several different ways to help them manage the hectic pace of life while still adhering to their family dinner goals. First, they’ve looked at the family schedule itself. The Sterenberg kids are limited to choosing one sport or activity per season, which helps keep the calendar more manageable — but as Mary points out, since some sports and activities require multiple practices or meetings per week for a single child, just keeping the activity schedule limited doesn’t entirely solve the family dinner dilemma. To help them manage despite the kids’ busy lives, the Sterenbergs credit carpooling and flexibility with making dinner doable. “The nights I don’t have to drive give me time to make the dinner and be ready when everyone walks in the door,” Mary says, adding that dinnertime in their home is whatever time all five family members can gather. Many nights, dinnertime might not be until 7 p.m., as the last child is being dropped off by a carpool friend, but being flexible about the timing of the evening meal and working it around everyone’s schedules has meant that dinner stays on the calendar more often than not.
Meal planning and being honest about the amount of time they’ll have to devote to cooking or food prep on a certain day has also been a big factor in helping the Sterenbergs establish their family dinners. Mary says they never meal plan without having the week’s schedule laid out in front of them, and try to account for their work schedules, the kids’ needs and carpool duties when making their plans. On nights when the kids will be driven by others, Mary and Jon might plan a meal that takes a bit more hands-on time, while on nights when they’re the drivers, the Sterenbergs plan to have leftovers or a slow cooker meal available. And planning for the unexpected helps, too: Mary slips a list into her planner at the beginning of the week, with all the meals she can quickly make using ingredients that are already on hand. She also makes sure to keep the ingredients for two fast “fallback” dinners in the house at all times. That way, if things don’t go according to plan some evening and the Sterenbergs aren’t able to make one of their planned meals, there’s a list of fast and easy options ready to go to help keep them on track.
When they’re able, Mary and Jon also like to try to get the kids involved in the cooking process. “We don’t always have the time or energy, but I really love what happens when we work together,” Mary says. “Complaints about what we’re having go down, the kids feel really proud of themselves, and we end up with good conversation while we’re working in the kitchen. Plus, I’m raising these kids to be productive adults — which includes cooking healthy meals that taste good!”
All five Sterenbergs love tacos, which Mary says show up on the dinner table in a variety of forms — taco salad and taco tater tot casserole are two variations that get a big thumbs-up from the whole family. The kids also love breakfast for dinner and pork chops with applesauce.
As a busy parent who also writes a blog for working mothers, Mary believes in the importance of sharing the benefits of family dinners with other parents. “I know what it means to my family, and I had seen some research in passing that supported my personal experience…The Family Dinner Project offers an amazing blend of solid facts and helpful resources for my family and the working moms who read my blog.”
The Best Part:
“Stories and information always seem to come out at dinner that never surface at other times of day, even when I ask how the day went or what they did at school,” Mary says, adding that the family dinner table is a constant source of bad jokes and laughter. 11-year-old Paul adds that he likes to eat dinner with the family because it gives everyone at the table a chance to share their own stories.
Do you have your own family dinner project to share with us? We’d love to hear from you and consider featuring your family! Contact Us.