We met Denise Walter through a professional conference. Denise is a big fan of family dinners, and shared some of her tactics with us. We were so impressed that we asked if she and her daughter would like to be featured on our site! Here Denise, a single mother of a teenage daughter, gives us a glimpse into family dinner in her house.
Denise Walter and daughter Grace, 15, from Dobbs Ferry, NY.
Denise has been working on improving her family dinner preparedness. While she says she feels it may be easier for her, as a single parent, to get her “whole family” around the table than it is for families with more members at home, she also bears the responsibility for making dinner happen despite her work schedule and Grace’s commitments. “I used to shop whenever,” she says, “buying the same staples and then ‘cooking’ whatever after standing in front of the fridge lamenting that I only had the ingredients to make steamed veggies and frozen veggie burgers.” Determined to change her habits for her sanity and for the health of both herself and her daughter, Denise now writes a weekly meal plan and shops — “with a list!” — each weekend. It’s a new habit that she started in the New Year, and the goal is to continue planning and shopping in an organized fashion so she can continue varying meals and trying new things.
Getting dinner on the table at a reasonable hour. Denise says that due to her work schedule, she often doesn’t get home until almost 7 p.m., making it difficult to cook a meal and sit down with Grace much before 7:45 p.m. But mealtimes are crucial to the family: “Since I work full-time, it’s important to me (and her, too, I think) that we connect, especially now that she has homework that takes all evening most nights.” Without dinnertime as a break in the day for conversation, Denise and Grace might not get a chance to spend quality time together during the week.
Because their diet used to be limited to 5 or 6 basic meals that Denise would make in rotation, meal planning — often with the help of favorite recipe websites — has helped Denise and Grace to try new things and increase their consumption of vegetables. A favorite trick in the Walter household is to use a panini press — “they’re really fun!” — to make quick dinners with lots of interesting combinations. Denise says that using the panini strategy has helped introduce them both to good cheeses and breads that they might not have otherwise tried. On nights when cooking feels overwhelming, the Walters fall back on eggs or leftovers, ensuring that they can still sit down together for a meal.
To make sure that dinner is a time for bonding and staying connected to each other, Denise has found some unique strategies over the years! “My daughter has never been the chatty type,” she says, echoing a common challenge we hear from many families.
“When she was younger, I couldn’t get much out of her beyond the ‘How was school?’ ‘Fine.’ type of non-conversations. So I started asking her ridiculous questions. ‘Did anyone fall off their chair today at school? Did anyone fart in class? Did anyone burst into giggles and couldn’t stop? Did anyone trip over their shoelaces today?’ Answering these yes or no questions would often lead to her response, ‘No…but this did happen….'”
In addition to the unusual conversation starters, the Walters have developed a unique nightly game ritual. “We’ve been playing a never-ending game of UNO at the table,” Denise shares. “So far, we’ve played 550 rounds!” They estimate that by the time Grace goes to college, they will have reached a goal of 1,000 rounds of UNO at the dinner table.
Denise and Grace don’t eat pork or red meat, so much of their diet revolves around vegetarian options, with some chicken and fish. Favorite dishes include vegetarian tacos, sweet potato pie, pasta with feta and walnuts and black bean burgers with sweet potato fries. Of course, panini dinners also figure heavily into the rotation! Denise says working hard on menu planning has been a pleasure because it constantly introduces them to new favorites.
Having good conversation starters is key for Denise, who values the daily “check-in” time with Grace. Whether using the silly questions she developed when her daughter was younger, or starting with something like Rose, Thorn and Bud to help them both reflect, Denise likes to have a way to “launch” the conversation at the table.
The Best Part:
Both Denise and Grace name their never-ending UNO games as a highlight of dinnertime; Grace says the games “make the time more fun and interesting.” They also enjoy having the chance to check in with one another and stay involved in each other’s lives. “Family dinner is a peaceful and relaxed time to eat a great meal and share about my day, as well as hear about my mom’s day,” Grace says.
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Tags: busy, family, family dinner, real family dinner projects, schedules, teens