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Newsletter: August 2019

Family Dinner in an Empty Nest

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As the summer winds down, many families are thinking about back-to-school time. But at a certain point in parenting, “back-to-school” season becomes something new: Empty nest season. Older kids head off to college or move out into their own apartments and homes, leaving empty seats at the family dinner table. It’s easy to assume that once the kids have left home, family dinner is no longer an important ritual. In fact, sharing meals with loved ones can be just as important as ever — and maybe even more vital to staying connected and caring for our social and emotional well-being.

“Family dinner” doesn’t have to just mean parents and kids eating together; it can mean eating with anyone who feels like family. As kids grow up and head out on their own, family dinner might become two parents eating together at home, or a single parent who makes a standing dinner date with good friends. It might mean creating a tight-knit group of friends at college or in a new city with neighbors who get together regularly, or carving out Friday nights to eat with a roommate. No matter how you redefine “family dinners” in this new phase of life, you can still use food, fun and conversation as a way to connect with others. And if you want to keep the family dinner experience alive and well even across the miles, here are some suggestions for creating new habits and traditions.

  • Make decisions about what dinner will look like in your household. Dr. Anne Fishel has great advice for families navigating the sudden silence of an empty nest, and how to take a step back to decide what the new dinnertime normal might be for you.
  • Try setting up “framily dinners.” Chances are, there are other families in your community who are dealing with similar changes. Try gathering a group of friends who are also new empty-nesters for a weekly or monthly “framily” meal.
  • Set up the kids for dinner success. After feeding them for 18+ years, one of the questions parents often can’t seem to stop asking when the kids leave home is “Have you eaten? What did you eat?” Try sending “family dinner care packages” with items like favorite simple recipes, various good-quality pantry staples, or the (shelf-stable) ingredients for some favorite meals. You could even look into surprising your young adult with a grocery delivery of healthy staples that you know they’ll enjoy.
  • Use technology to bring you closer together. Screens at dinner are often distracting, but in this case, they can serve a wonderful purpose. Use programs like Skype or Facetime to set up the occasional “dinner date” with an absent child, so you can still enjoy food, fun and conversation together. However, it’s a good idea to follow your kids’ lead on this; some may need more time and space than others and balk at the idea, while others might be more homesick if you introduce a remote family dinner too soon after the transition. Give everyone a while to adjust to the new normal before proposing a tech-assisted get-together, and be sensitive to your young adult’s cues.

Adjusting to life without kids at home can be a big challenge, but take heart — those empty seats at the dinner table mean that you’ve done a good job raising independent adults who are ready to tackle new challenges. And don’t worry; chances are that holiday dinners, school breaks and other unexpected opportunities to sit down together face-to-face will be filling your calendar before you know it.

Family of the Month

Two families who have weathered the “empty nest” transition are the Burroughs family from Minnesota, and the Langs from New York. Both have unique insights to share about how kids and parents can stay connected through family dinners, even when everyone is grown up and living on their own.

Real Family Dinner Projects: The Burroughs Family
Family Dinner Spotlight: The Lang Family


black bean soup

This super-simple recipe for Black Bean Soup is a good one for novice cooks. And you could easily send the ingredients by mail!

Black Bean Soup


Try keeping the family dinner fun going with a long-distance Cook Along Challenge!

Cook Along Challenge


Ask yourself these important questions from Dr. Anne Fishel to help guide you in redefining your empty nest family dinners.