Loathe or love them – what can replace the conversation around the dinner table? I would love to sit here and proclaim that our family dinners are joyous occasions – that we all gently talk about our day, our achievements, our challenges, the general humdrum of everyday life. But then I’d be lying.
What’s For Dinner Mom?
By the time I emerge from my office late afternoon, I’m beat. Working for a UK company means very early starts. I’m a morning person so that suits me but come the afternoon, I’m lagging. The kitchen doesn’t offer me a warm welcome. The fridge glares smugly, knowing that I have forgotten to get something out of the freezer. I wander listlessly from pantry to fridge to phone, seeking creative direction from an inspired online chef willing to offer a ready solution for a tin of black beans, some spinach, two eggs, and 5 carrots. That unopened pack of bacon is only just hitting the used-by date so we can throw that in there too!
Scratch Cook For Life
I have always cooked from scratch for my family – a discipline I imposed on myself from the maternal desire to nourish but also, the hope of creating a daily place of togetherness, of family time. We have always eaten together. Even when the kids were tiny, we never segmented our eating schedules, conforming to the kids’ body clocks to ensure we were together.
The Hangry Child
From aged 5 to 8, my youngest (and if I’m honest, my husband too) would turn into a wild, screaming, demanding, unrelenting monster somewhere between 4 pm and 5 pm. It took a few short weeks to cotton on to the fact that he was hangry – his body clock ready for food far earlier than the rest of us. Snacking didn’t resolve the issue so our clocks moved forward and we all joined the table around 5 pm. With each mouthful, like a character sketched on a Disney movie, his facial expressions softened, his tone descended a couple of octaves and the smile returned.
Something about dinner time promotes heightened energy in our house. Maybe it’s the anticipation of tasty morsels, maybe it’s the food endorphins kicking in but about 5 minutes before everyone sits at the table it is chaos- voices raise, play wrestling starts, the dog joins in and it’s a ridiculous hullaballoo. The boys go round and round like a whirlwind, older now so energy levels are more powerful, and inevitably, we step over the line into the Scream Zone. Only mothers of boys know this place. All hell breaks loose, fun time turns into fight time and the only way to stop is me screaming.
The Quiet Place
For the first few mouthfuls, peace ensues. Everyone’s taste buds ranking tonight’s offering.
Why do I put myself through this ritual?
- It’s our check-in – informal gauging more from what isn’t said than what is.
- Home-cooked meals are more nutritious, no added preservatives
- We connect and build our family unit
- We debate and discuss
- We challenge our taste buds as no two meals are the same
- It’s a discipline, a routine that is good for everyone to maintain
- It brings respect (sometimes) to those providing the meal
Tips For Being A Home Cook
Despite family mealtimes being hugely beneficial to kids, only about 30% of families manage to eat together regularly according to Anne Fishel, executive director of the Family Dinner Project. This statistic saddened me as families are missing out on so much. If you want to start or improve your family dining together, here are my suggestions:
- Just get started. No expectations, no fuss. Simply cook your first meal.
- Don’t set yourself up for failure. Plan to cook once a week and if it works, start to increase the number of days, week by week.
- No phone zone. Be strict with everyone joining you that phones do not have a place at the table. This is 30 to 60 minutes of digital freedom.
- Be gentle on yourself. You will not be a Michelin star chef but you can be a fabulous family chef.
- Seek easy recipes online – aim for 5 or 6 ingredients max to start with.
- Encourage participation in menu decisions, food prep, and cooking and cleanup afterward (we have a rule that the chef doesn’t clear up after which is perfect for me as I’m a terribly messy cook)
Family dinners should not be relegated to hi-days and holidays. They are a critical cornerstone of family life which if enjoyed regularly, will create well-nourished children and well-versed children!