I’m about to drop my oldest child off at a six-week summer program. We’ve been doing all the usual preparations, like shopping, packing, last-minute haircuts, and medical appointments. We’ve also been preparing in other ways for our first long separation. What will it be like? What will change in our day-to-day routines? One immediately noticeable change will happen at family dinner.
“This is what it’s going to be like,” my 13-year-old son observed recently, looking at the empty space beside him. His brother was only away from dinner for the evening, but already, it was sinking in that mealtimes would be a little lonelier very soon.
It’s not all glum. The boys have differing food preferences, so while the elder is gone, we can make more of the dishes his younger brother loves. And with a whole summer of focused parental attention ahead of him, the 13-year-old can look forward to grabbing more of the spotlight – choosing conversation topics, playing the dinner games he likes best, and getting his first pick of ice-cream parlor or takeout joint on special evenings. I haven’t pointed out to him that being a temporary “only child” also means he’ll be the only one available to take out the garbage, help with the dishes, or set the table. He’ll figure that out soon enough!
For our family, the changes to dinner are somewhat temporary. By the end of August, we’ll have our boy back, and he and his brother will be shoving for space on the bench seat as usual. But there are lots of families out there who are preparing for bigger changes to the nightly routine. Kids are going to college, or moving into their first apartments. Work assignments or military service might take a family member away from the table for many nights a week, or for months at a time. New faces may appear at dinner, too – a new marriage might blend families, an older relative might move in to give or receive care, or a new child might join the family.
Whether you’re facing sleepaway camp, college move-in, or another type of long-term change to your family dinners, any shakeup of routine can be difficult. Here are some tips to help you cope:
Decide what’s most important to you about shared meals, and figure out how to make it happen with your new family set-up. Is the best part of dinnertime getting a chance to learn about everyone’s day? Or having 20 minutes to sit and relax with the family between obligations? Maybe you really enjoy cooking together and trying new recipes, or you love playing games while you eat. Focus on that one most valued thing, and think of a way that you can still enjoy it, even if it doesn’t happen at dinnertime or can’t always include every member of the family.
Create a new ritual to help you move forward. As Dr. Anne Fishel points out, rituals are different from routines. If you’ve got a family dinner ritual, like always lighting candles on Friday night or starting each meal with a round of “Rose and Thorn,” sticking with it during a time of transition can be a big comfort. But you can also honor a time of big changes in your family life by creating a new ritual together. Maybe you’ll start setting the Sunday dinner table with your grandmother’s china, now that the kids are older. Maybe you’ll welcome an older relative into your home by bringing a different family photo to the table every night, so you can share stories and memories together. Or maybe you and your partner will take advantage of a newly empty nest to try a new food, new restaurant, or new picnic spot once a week. Whatever you choose, let it be the start of celebrating your new household make-up, even as you miss the way things used to be.
Creatively connect with absent family members. If possible, find a way to include absent members in your dinner, at least once in a while. Technology even makes it possible to have virtual dinners together if everyone has the time! But you could also be more casual about connecting. Maybe you start an online family joke swap or funny video thread that can be shared at dinner once a week. Maybe it’s a recipe challenge, where you take turns finding new recipes to send to one another, and everyone makes the chosen dish on the same night of the week. While my son is away this summer, we’ve already agreed to swap dinner photos, so he can see what we’re serving and we can get a glimpse of the dining hall food. You could adapt to a no-tech camp environment by sending a weekly family joke or story by mail, or packing a book that the whole family will read during the summer and talk about when the child gets home.
Balance the old and the new. Often, as routines change, our natural tendency is to start to let things go by the wayside. A child goes off to college, and parents start letting the remaining sibling eat in his room if he wants to. A new baby is born, and the parents are so overwhelmed by the adjustment that they stop having meals together. An elderly relative comes to stay, and we change our menus and routines to adapt to their preferences. But we change so much that we miss out on favorite foods or a lingering conversation at the table with a partner. Don’t be so focused on adjusting to your new circumstances that you let go of valuable moments of connection.
Life is full of transitions and turning points. But sharing meals with our loved ones is one of the most flexible, reliable rituals we can hold onto in the midst of change. If you’re facing a big transition – for a few weeks, or for the long term – remember that even though the faces around the table might change, the bonds you create there can remain.
Try something new with this summery dish from our friends at GoodCook!