How I Finally Let Go of Family Dinner

by Carla Naumburg
Originally Published: 

If you read the studies and listen to the experts, family dinner is crucial. Children who gather ‘round the table each night with their parents are smarter, kinder, more capable, better looking and more likely to run a successful hedge fund once they graduate from an Ivy League college having never, ever tried drugs.

That’s all fine and good, but there’s just one catch for me.

I can’t stand family dinner.

My daughters are on the Early Bird Special schedule, which means that four nights each week, the girls and I sit down together before their father gets home from work. Nine times out of ten, it’s pure torture. Uber picky kids make for stressful meal planning, and even if they would eat something other than noodles and strawberries, I don’t enjoy cooking. Ever.

The minute we sit down, I turn into a grumpy, irritable gremlin of a mother, nagging them to sit up properly and stop playing with their food. Sometimes they actually eat, sometimes they just smear hummus into their hair and yogurt into their chair cushions. Almost inevitably they end up singing ridiculous songs they learned at farm camp. Their latest favorite is: “Moose, Alpaca, Moose, Moose, Alpaca, Evil Mr. Coconut turned into a palm tree!” (WTF?) I usually enjoy their singing, but I can’t handle it at the dinner table. About halfway through the second round, I snappily remind them that there’s no singing at the table, and then I get up and start washing dishes in a passive-aggressive move that goes right over their heads.

I was bemoaning all of this to my therapist, expecting her to respond with kind but gentle reminders of the importance of family dinner along with a few suggestions for how to make it better.

Instead, I got this life-saving breath of fresh air:

“Don’t worry about family dinner. Let it go.”

She went to explain that family dinner, per se, isn’t the point. The point is having something each day, some ritual of coming together on a regular basis. A time of paying attention and listening to each other, without nagging or staring at screens or fussing over school lunches. If the structure of a nightly meal works for you, then rock on! But if forcing your kids to sit still during the witching hour so you can watch them reject your food while they belt out the kindergarten version of “99 Bottles of Beer On The Wall” doesn’t float your particular boat, then don’t worry about it. Find some other way to connect with your kids each day.

Well, shit. That, I can do. I can read to my kids and color with them and listen to them chatter from the back seat the whole way to school, and sing to them and snuggle with them at bedtime, and I can even sit with them at breakfast (coffee is powerful force for good).

And so I’ve let go of family dinner. Don’t get me wrong. I still feed my kids every night (every damn night), and sometimes I even sit with them. But other nights we carry our plastic Hello Kitty plates out to the front porch and the girls nosh on their nuggets while they run up and down the steps, saying “hi” to the neighbors and gathering stones for their rock garden. Some nights they eat while I tidy up, as moving my body helps me stay calm. Other nights I read to them while they eat; we made our way through the entire American Girl Catalog one week, which I found significantly less annoying than my girls’ bickering.

Now that we’ve ditched family dinner, I have no idea if my kids will make it to an Ivy League college or not. But I do have a lot more confidence that we’ll all make it to their 18th birthdays.

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