We don’t usually eat dinner together as a family.
This is not a decision we formally came to, but more of a gradual shift that we first resisted and then finally accepted. The dining room is still the center of our house, surrounded by our prettiest artwork and covered with candles. We have one of those wooden high chairs without a tray so that the baby can sit at the table with us. But we rarely all sit down at the same time and, when we do, the experience can range from absolutely delightful to quite unpleasant. And I’m finally totally okay with that.
Family dinner is one of the most commonly recommended habits for keeping families together. This is why I was so hesitant about letting it go. But it just started becoming more and more ridiculous. At least half of the time, the five-year-old gets to the table, looks at the food, and announces in a casual voice, “I’m not gonna eat”. Then the two-year-old either copies his brother or decides he IS going to eat which means an enormous mess all over everything. The baby still has to be spoon fed and/or mostly thinks that food is a toy. In our family, if I consistently insist that everyone sits down and eats together I will actually be preventing family unity and harmony.
I think the prescription of family dinners is an overall good one. I don’t have older kids, but I imagine in that age group when eating isn’t such a battle and kids are all over the place all day long, that the family dinner truly is a respite and a connecting point. Not to mention, I LOVE good meals. I was an only child, so my parents took me to lots of interesting and adventurous restaurants as soon as I was old enough to behave reasonably. We all fell in love with the art of good meals and the memories that come with sharing them. Not to mention, as a Catholic, the idea that meals can be sacred is engrained upon my heart, and I truly do believe in it.
But, take it from someone who has almost no refined sugar in the house and who raised her first son on mushrooms and charcuterie… it seems like kids will always prefer milkshakes and tater tots. Sometimes they prefer to play with their food. Sometimes they prefer to not eat anything at all. And while you can offer natural consequences like “no dessert if you don’t finish,” or “I only cook one meal; you can eat it or be hungry” you can’t do much else to make them eat.
I think the root of the good in family dinners is not in the joint consumption of food. It’s not eating that is sacred. It is feasting. And let’s be realistic, nobody can feast for every single meal.
So what does my family do instead of a consistent family dinner? How do we feast? Now, I do usually cook us all dinner at the same time and put the dinner on the table. But I just don’t care as much about who eats what or when. Tonight my middle son and I ate at the table together because we are the ones who seem to like food the most. While we were eating, my husband and eldest son were building a lego house for a bumblebee with the baby happily watched them. I don’t remember what everybody ended up eating, but once everybody was done with consuming or destroying or rejecting “dinner,” we said our prayers and sang together. Because every night we pray and sing. And the children dance and play instruments. And we celebrate. And anyone who ate a good amount of their dinner gets a (relatively healthy) cookie. We don’t always have meals together. But we do make sure to feast together (especially on Sundays when we have donuts for breakfast).
One day, we may get better use out of my pretty dining room and it won’t be such a mess on the floor and my children will eat chicken and carrots like civilized creatures. But for now, we’re making great memories over and, I hope, gaining the benefits of a traditional family dinner with cookies and prayer and music.