The One Phrase That Made Me Feel Better About Our Lousy Family Dinners

by Leigh Anderson
An angry boy in a navy and white striped shirt waiting for the dinner holding a fork and a knife

Our family dinners are often lousy. This bums me out, because you can’t read a parenting article that doesn’t extol the benefits of family dinner—kids learn sociability, develop their palates, hone their manners. And we do try: I cook. I set the table. We follow Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility, so I no longer spend the meal cajoling my kids to try a bite of this and that or bargaining with them to at least taste the broccoli. So why are our dinners so often, to put it frankly, a shitshow? It seems so simple: Cook something good, have a conversation and everyone’s happy. It so rarely happens that I wondered if I was doing something wrong, but then I met a woman in the park who set me straight.

This was back when I was a stay-at-home mom with a baby and a preschooler, and I was feeling overwhelmed by the daily routine of child care, housekeeping and cooking. I felt like I was failing on all fronts already, and I was considering going to back to work. I sat at the sandbox and watched her manage her 18-month-old daughter and 5-month-old son. In the course of our chatting, it came out that she had a job that kept her and her husband in the office until 5:30 every night, so I asked her how they managed the dinner-making. I am a slow cook (I’m a slow everything actually), and I couldn’t figure out how to walk in the door at 6:15 and get a decent meal on the table in 15 minutes.

When you think about it, family dinner is complex. A lot of unpredictable factors have to come together: meal planning and grocery shopping, cleaning the kitchen from breakfast and lunch, and then meal prep. Then there’s the actual cooking. Then clearing the table of art projects, keys and someone’s hat, and then the setting of the table, during which I invariably forget the salt, the salad dressing or the water glasses.

Then two kids, ages 5 and 2, have to not burst into tears, not whine about their meal and not throw their potatoes on the floor. They have to not ask us to get up five times during the meal for more milk or ketchup. We adults have to make a good-faith effort at conversation and not be too preoccupied with work or other concerns.

Family dinner requires not only long-range planning and executive function but also short-term concentration skills (for example, chopping carrots while sautéing onions while testing the doneness of a pork chop while answering questions about Batman’s secret lair). It requires that the moods of four people be good, or at the very least, no one is sobbing. It requires stamina: Once you’ve actually cooked the meal, you’ve got to get it onto four plates and onto the table before it gets cold but not when it’s too hot. Once everyone has eaten there’s a long Act III called “cleaning up the kitchen.”

What I’m saying is, family dinner is not nothing. It’s a combination chess game/choreographed ballet/crapshoot, and we home cooks don’t give ourselves enough credit for how complex that part of our lives is. In fact, I feel bad that it often doesn’t go well, that the kids don’t like what I’ve made (or I don’t), that the meal isn’t “colorful” enough, or that one or more of us is in a mood and is silent or irritable at the table.

But this woman I met in the park, the woman with two under 2 and a full-time job, was serene about family dinner. I asked what meals she served, and she listed seven things: frozen tacos from Trader Joe’s, pre-made crab cakes from the fish store, packaged chicken salad over spinach in a box and so on. All were quick-cook or no-cook items, either frozen or otherwise quickly assembled. Her husband bought everything on Sunday, and every night of the week was mostly the same, with the occasional weekend wild card of takeout.

It was an entirely different list from my own menus, which were more diverse but also more labor-intensive. Before kids, I actually liked to cook—chopping while listening to the news and caramelizing onions while drinking a glass of wine. I tried to keep this up, this hour or two of from scratch cooking an ever-changing menu, every night, well into my mom life. The other mom said she’d been like that too, but when kid No. 2 arrived and she went back to work, something had to give.

And then she said serenely, “This is just not my time to cook. There will be time for cooking when they’re older and don’t need my attention every second. For now, it’s the same seven meals. There’s no thinking about what to make, or whether or not I need to stop to pick up a lemon. I open the crab cake box or the taco package, get the kids washed up, and we eat 15 minutes later.”

This was a revelation, not so much for the simplicity of her menu planning (certainly lots of parents have developed a pared-down menu) but for the lack of self-recrimination she exhibited. I’d so internalized the idea that “good parents cook from scratch” that I felt bad about feeling bad about cooking. I’ve often thought about what she said since, when I’ve slapped together some hard-boiled eggs and toast for dinner: “It’s not my time to cook.” It has been before and it will be again, but for right now, not all components of the meal have to be perfect every night for family dinner to be a valuable experience. It’s our time to eat something together, to make a feeble attempt to get the 5-year-old to put the napkin on his lap, to encourage the 2-year-old to sit still for 90 seconds. It’s our time to enjoy one another’s company, even if sometimes one of the four of us is crying. It’s our time to do the best we can. It’s not our time to cook.