I've Given Up On Family Dinners, And Everyone Is Happier Now

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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I’ve heard it all before. You’ve probably heard it too.

“Family dinnertime is the most important part of the day.”

“A family who eats together, stays together.”

You may have even seen the research showing links between family dinners and higher grades, lower risk of drug use, healthier eating habits, increased family bonding, and lower rates of asthma. Or the research saying kids who have family dinner every night are at a lower risk of depression and suicidal thoughts.

It’s enough to make a parents like me – who rarely have formal family dinners – totally wracked with guilt and worry for our kids’ futures and livelihoods.

But I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on the whole thing. I don’t think you need to eat dinner together as a family to raise happy, well-rounded, healthy children. There is definitely more than one way to do that – and honestly, the idea that family dinner is the only way is based on an antiquated, out-of-touch model of family life that just isn’t realistic for most of us.

First, let’s talk about what dinnertime looks like for the vast majority of us. Many families are made up of two parents who work – and many families are headed by single parents, most of whom work as well.

Even if there is a parent who stays home with the kids, he or she is likely totally swamped with childcare and household maintenance because goodness knows most stay-at-home parents get little or no outside support.

The point is that the vast majority of us simply don’t have time prepare, serve, and organize those picture-perfect family dinners.

But let’s say you do have the time and inclination to have a sit-down family dinner. Let’s talk about what the hours between 5-7 p.m. look like for most families. You are likely dealing with either (A) homework battles; (B) schlepping your kids all over the planet for extracurricular activities; or (C) the normal witching hour/kid/parent meltdowns.

While we are being brutally honest here, let’s talk about the fact that you are probably cooking more than one dinner, because you have at least one picky AF kid. Or maybe you are simply reheating chicken nuggets and nuking some mac and cheese. Who knows, maybe it’s cereal for dinner night.

Whatever it is, unless you are given an hour of uninterrupted silence, an unending well of patience, or a chef or a babysitter, dinner time in your house is probably a total and complete shitshow, amiright?

Oh, and did I mention that in 90% of two-parent heterosexual families, it’s always the woman who does the cooking? And the cleaning up. So even when you do make family dinner, you are rarely able to sit down and eat it with your family.

It is for these reasons – and so many more – that a huge number of us have just flat out given up on family dinners.

I, for one, gave up years ago. Evenings – especially during the work week – are total chaos in my house and it’s not worth the stress. It’s not that I don’t do family dinners at all, ever. We have family dinners most weekends, and they are awesome (and chaotic and imperfect).

But during the work week? Dinnertime looks like me cooking a few things for my family (try as he might, my husband is just not the family chef and I’m okay with that). Often it’s a combination of a few quick, healthy foods I can easily microwave or throw in a skillet.

If people are around to come to the table to eat it, so be it. If someone is in the middle of homework or not home from work/after-school activities, they can eat a little later. Not everyone is hungry at the same time either because of variations in lunch/snacktime, and we go with that too.

My top goal is to get everyone fed, as healthfully as possible – and to get through the slug of homework/dinner/clean-up/prep for the next day. The truth is that there is just too much do to wholly concentrate on family dinner.

However, that doesn’t mean we don’t bond with our kids. It doesn’t mean we don’t talk to them or spend one-on-one time with them every day. I think what the family dinner proponents are talking about is a daily ritual of putting away your distractions (i.e., phones!), looking each other in the eye, and making sure to spend quality time together each day.

I believe in that. I just don’t think family dinner has to be the time and place to do that. Modern life is such that we all need to think outside the box when it comes to upholding age-old traditions. Oh, and stop judging people if they do things differently.

For my family, bedtime is our sacred time. It’s quiet then. The chaos has calmed. We are done with all of our evening responsibilities and chores. Bedtime is long and drawn out in our house because we read to the kids for at least 20 minutes, and then lie there and talk to them until they are out. It is our sacred time, and I do think it makes a huge difference in their lives.

If family dinnertime is that for you – and if you can find a way to make it a peaceful, non-stressful experience that works for everyone in your family – I think that’s wonderful. But if not, I’m going to give you permission to stop worrying about it. Seriously. We are all doing the best we can.

Family life looks different than it did 50 years ago. Most of us are doing it with a whole lot more responsibilities and a whole lot less help.

I want you to ponder this: If your family has ever been chastised for not doing family dinner, I’m going to guess it’s the woman of the house who got blamed. Because even though the vast majority of us are doing every goddamn thing in our house, it is still our sole responsibility to create a June Cleaver-like portrait of a family.

That’s some serious patriarchal bullshit right there.

So do family dinner if it work for you. But if not, please don’t sweat it. Feed your family. Love your family. Do it how it works for you. And drop the guilt.

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