I’ve been pondering the state of family dinner in our house for quite a few weeks now, trying to come up with something illuminating or insightful to say about this routine part of our day. I could talk about how we do it; how to organize and plan so that it’s possible to sit down as a family each night; what to eat and how to cook it. I could talk about kids’ eating preferences and what we have learned (and continue to learn) about managing them. I could talk about dinner table behavior and decorum and why the phrase “Forks do not belong in your underwear” has been used more than once in our house.
I’ve addressed most of those topics already, one way or another, but what has struck me as I’ve thought about family dinner most recently is that in a sea of rules, mantras, and well-ordered expectations about what should and should not happen at the table, our family does NOT approach dinnertime with any of these things in mind. I’m reminded of that movie, “Fight Club,” in which a key line goes something like: “Rule #1: Don’t talk about Fight Club.” In our house, we don’t talk about family dinner. It’s not necessary. It just happens.
Oh, I know. I sound like some sort of fairy godmother-cum-Martha Stewart domestic robot, talking about the effortless family dinner scenario. I don’t mean it that way. Family dinner is NOT effortless and should not be effortless, from a plan-it-shop-for-it-cook-it-eat-it-clean-it-up standpoint. There’s quite a bit of work and commitment that goes into making all of those things happen. But as far as the actual institution of sitting down together each evening at the same time, with the expectation that there will be some sort of food placed before us – that is something that has happened each night since my husband and I were married, and it is something that will continue to happen, and there has never been any thought about doing things differently.
We don’t talk about family dinner or think about the rules of family dinner because it’s as much a part of our life together as bedtime stories and trips to the playground. More so. It’s as much a part of our routine and our landscape as getting dressed and leaving the house each morning. My kids are so conditioned to expect that eating means sitting together and keeping company with one another that 2-year-old P. now demands that I take my morning coffee at the table with him while he dawdles over breakfast. He simply doesn’t want to eat without knowing that somebody’s sitting there beside him.
I was forced to ask myself, in writing this piece, whether I should be doing MORE for our family dinner experience. Why don’t I feel motivated to try fun family-dinner ideas like having a set of topics to talk about, or letting each kid take a turn picking the menu and the topic of conversation, or eating dessert first on Fridays? Why don’t I want to make it extra-special?
I think the answer is: I don’t want to do those things because the family table is just what we do. Participation in family dinner is an expected behavior, just like putting your laundry in the hamper or brushing your teeth at bedtime. (Which means that it’s an expected behavior for Mommy and Daddy, too – to shop, cook, and clean up from dinner. Everyone has a role.) That doesn’t mean it’s a joyless chore; just as our kids like to get their clothes into the hamper basketball-style as they chase each other around the house, just as we sing songs and tell jokes while brushing teeth, we enjoy our time at the table and bring as much fun to it as we can. Sweet potatoes become “rocket ships,” we tell terrible knock-knock jokes, and sometimes, we dine wearing pirate hats and heels because, hey…every reputable establishment should have a dress code.
That’s it. That’s the whole big secret of family dinner in our house – it works because it’s no big deal. We just started doing it one day, and kept doing it, and as with all habits, it became natural to each of the four of us to expect that family dinner would happen. It makes me smile inside when I pick the kids up from school each day and, without fail, L. grabs me in a loving vice grip and squeals, “What are we haaaaving for diiiinnnnerrrr?” He knows I’ll have an answer, and he knows that no matter what else has happened in his day – excitement, disappointment, good times or bad news – within less than an hour of my appearance at the classroom door, we’ll all be at that table together again. And that – the very ordinariness of the routine, its place in his life – is what makes the family dinner experience magical for me.
Brianne DeRosa is an aspiring locavore foodie who’s juggling a full-time day job, a part-time choral singing gig, a blog (Red, Round, or Green), and a family. She started really thinking about the impact of food and its quality when she had her first son, L., and has really gone off the deep end (in a good way, she hopes) after the birth of his little brother, P. Her major inspiration for cooking and eating fresh food from scratch, no matter how busy life gets, comes from her grandparents, who grew up on farms and only knew how to eat what they could grow or make.