More and more, we’re hearing from families that their dinners together “don’t really count” because the whole group isn’t able to sit down together at the same time. It’s a common misconception that family dinner can only be, well, family dinner if there’s not a single person missing. But with families getting busier, is it really true that we have to let go of family dinner when schedules separate us in the evenings?
Good news: Your mealtimes can still be meaningful and beneficial if big brother’s at basketball practice or a parent is working an evening shift. Of course it’s ideal to have every family member present at the table whenever you can, but the “split shift” family dinner can be a practical and enjoyable solution on busy evenings. Try these tips to make split shift family dinners a rewarding experience in your household!
No one eats alone. We learned this household mantra from our friend Beth, a busy mom of five, and it’s a great rule of thumb for getting the most out of split shift meals. Look at the schedule and see how you can create “pods” within your family unit so at least two people are sitting down together at any given time.
Consider courses. If one family member will be absent while everyone else is eating dinner together, try having a healthy dessert like these pocket fruit pies ready to go for later in the evening. That way, when they return, the rest of the family can gather and everyone can share dessert.
Leave notes. To help everyone feel as though they were part of a shared experience, choose a few common conversation starters to leave on the table for the evening. The first group to sit down to dinner might write down their answers or leave a recorded message for the next dinner shift, and so on.
Plan menus accordingly. A freshly cooked pork chop might be wonderful for the early eaters, but consider how appealing it would be by the time the last family member sits down to dinner. Split shift meals should ideally be items that hold and/or reheat well, or things family members can build for themselves: A slow cooker full of stew or chili and a basket of rolls, a big salad with dressing on the side and a lasagna, or a platter of sandwich fixings and a bowl of fruit.
Build in responsibility. Split shift meals can feel overwhelming if one person has to oversee every detail. Make it clear what each person’s responsibility is at their mealtime. Can a spouse or teenager take care of baking the lasagna and washing the prep dishes? Will each diner — of any age — be responsible for helping to clear the table and get dirty plates into the dishwasher after they’ve finished eating, so the mess doesn’t pile up for the next shift? Can the last person to eat pack up the leftovers and wash the lasagna pan? Set expectations, leave reminders and don’t forget to praise efforts, even if the job isn’t completed perfectly. Small steps over time add up to big results.
So if your family dinners this fall can’t always include the whole family, don’t stress! Make it a goal to gather everyone when you can, and when you can’t, consider the split shift dinner as a “good enough” backup option.
Get More Great Dinner Tips from the NY Times
We’re honored to be recognized by the NY Times in their wonderful comprehensive guide to family dinners!