Before kids, family dinner went something like this: My husband and I would cook a meal together, talking in great detail about our respective days like we had all the time in the world (because we did). Then we’d take our steaming plates of food out to the futon couch and watch “Party of Five”. Yes, we’re that old. (And no, we don’t have a futon couch anymore.)
After kids, family dinner became a three-ring circus crossed with outtakes from “Nanny 911″. I was suddenly making dinner alone at the early-bird-special hour of 4:45pm with a baby or toddler clinging to my leg. Those meaningful conversations my husband and I used to have? Some nights, we’re lucky if we can communicate a single idea to each other without being interrupted by an urgent ketchup request or steady stream of questions about the Battle of Naboo. There are meltdowns. And time-outs. When Sam went through his recent dinner strike, there were many, many nights when family dinner ended with me, my head resting in my hands, totally demoralized.
Yes, dinner is a balancing act. But I don’t typically have trouble getting a well-rounded meal on the table: Two general dinner rules around here are that everyone eats the same entree and everyone gets a vegetable. And because Sam is too young to have any evening events and we limit Henry to one activity at a time, we have no trouble sitting down for dinner together most nights of the week.
What I struggle with is the balance between family dinner benefits and family dinner chaos.
The universal truth is that family dinner can be challenging–and many nights, not much fun–when you have small kids. Our cozy 8:00 dinner-for-two has turned into 5:30 mayhem-for-four. We’ve slogged through some tough evenings together around the table. But we’re consistent because we know it matters.
And there are glimmers of hope. There are nights when the stars align–when Henry and Sam share stories about school or make up silly jokes that crack us up, when everyone’s using good manners and the boys are so hungry that they quietly devour their meals with no complaint.
And I know that someday, in the not-so-distant future, clubs and sports and friends will mean family dinner isn’t a given every night. And I know that, as insane as it sounds right now, I will yearn for a noisy, hectic dinner of spilled drinks and dropped forks and everyone talking at once–and that I will miss the mayhem.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a dietitian, educator, and mom of two young kids who blogs about the trials and tribulations of feeding her family at Real Mom Nutrition. She has also been a freelance writer for 15 years specializing in nutrition and health, and her work has appeared in numerous consumer magazines including Parents, Family Circle, and Fitness.