Why We Don't Do Family Dinners In Our House

by Wendy Wisner
parenting mealtime kids

This is how dinnertime looks at my house:

A healthy vegetable lasagna is in the oven. But both of my kids are starving now even though it’s only 3:30 p.m. (and yes, I gave them snacks an hour ago to prevent this problem).

My older son sits at the table with a comic book out and asks for pasta, bread—really, anything white. My younger child wants Goldfish, Pirate’s Booty—any salty snack. I can’t listen to one more hungry whine, so I give my older son a small bowl of plain, leftover spaghetti, and I pour my younger son a little bowl of goldfish.

As I’m chopping up red pepper for a salad, my little guy eyes it and needs a bowl of it right now. I can’t say no to a vegetable eater, so I give him half the pepper. Mind you, all of his eating happens on the floor. I set down his little bowls of food like I’m feeding a puppy. He pulls on my sweatshirt sleeve and sort of pants at my feet.

As it edges toward 4 p.m. (this is what we call “dinnertime” at my house), my husband walks through the door, hungry. The lasagna is ready. As expected, my big kid won’t touch it. But he’s willing to drink a smoothie made of banana, peanut butter, almond milk, and frozen spinach. Again, not one to say no to a vegetable eater, I blend it up for him.

Now it’s dinnertime, but neither kid is really hungry. So I give my husband a plate of lasagna and set out to clean up. Of course, as I’m cleaning, my little kid sees the lasagna and wants some, but only from Daddy’s bowl. And the big kid calls out from the den that he would like another bowl of pasta and a smoothie refill. The only saving grace is his “please” and “thank you, Mom!”

At no point has more than one member of my family sat at the table at the same time, and at no point has anyone eaten at the same time. And I have prepared at least four different plates or bowls of food.

An hour after “dinnertime” began, I lock myself in the den and eat a plate of lasagna (warmed up in the microwave, thank you very much).

This all sounds a little crazy, right? Stressful, unruly, and totally not how a family is supposed to do meals together. I mean, if I had read this before having kids, I would have scoffed and been a teeny bit horrified by such parenting choices. I was looking forward to cooking meals for my kids, sitting down all together at the family table, maybe saying a blessing, and then eating, conversing and laughing together. Plus, it presented the opportunity for daily structured family time.

Somehow, it has just never worked out that way. Maybe it will someday, when the kids are bigger. And every so often we get a more normal sort of meal together. But usually, it’s pretty much like this.

But I’m OK with it, and here’s why.

First, as much as I want my kids to learn about structure and boundaries, I also want them to be in touch with their hunger. Eating schedules are definitely useful for making your day cohesive, but with all the overeating and obesity in our country, I’d rather err on the side of having my kids listen to their bodies as much as possible when it comes to eating. So while I try to move things in the direction of “mealtimes,” I will never tell them not to eat when they are hungry or to continue eating after they are full. Plus, it’s normal for kids to have smaller, more frequent meals than adults (their itty-bitty bellies are the size of their itty-bitty fists).

Also, I have empathy for their pickiness because I’m picky too! I have always had strong preferences about what I will or won’t eat. Why should I expect my kids to eat something that just doesn’t look appetizing to them? I wouldn’t expect myself to do the same.

Most importantly, as long as my kids get the nutrition they need overall, it’s OK if it doesn’t happen all at once during a meal. As long as my kids eat greens at some point during the day, or at least a few days a week, I’m cool with that. They often have little interest in protein during our “mealtimes,” but will later sit and eat 10 nuggets or a giant bowl of nuts. I try to look at the whole day’s worth of food in terms of nutrition—sometimes even the whole week.

Of course, it can be harrowing for me (as the one who prepares their meals and organizes our lives) to have such a loose meal schedule. I used to complain about it all to no end, and I still do, quite often. But I have realized that part of my problem is that I was comparing our mealtimes with some idealized version in my head of how kids are supposed to eat.

Kids are kids, and they’re only that way for so long. When they’re little, life is simply going to be a little chaotic and crazy, including mealtimes. That’s the nature of things. And I don’t know one family out there who has pristine meals with their kids sitting still at the table and eating perfectly balanced meals without argument or substitutions. My way of doing things may be less organized than some, but I think we can all agree that, like many aspects of parenting, feeding kids is almost never simple or straightforward.

As my kids get older, there are more and more times that I have been able to put a few plates of food on the table, have most of us sitting down, and actually eat together. My husband and I look at each other, incredulous, and smile because these times are anomalies. But I know that in a few years, there will be more and more times like this.

I bet I’ll miss those crazy evenings when I was feeding my little ones five different meals at five different times. I’ll miss their small hands as they shovel spaghetti into their mouths. I’ll miss the way they asked for one more bowl of “yo-yurt.” And I’ll miss the way they were totally in their element, being their sticky, silly, hungry, wild little kid selves. You know what? I miss it already.