Family Dinner: Not Impossible, But a Feat…

Miss me? Sorry, readers.  I know I’ve been sporadic lately about posting.  Last week was a doozy that culminated in P. getting very, very sick with a respiratory infection; believe me when I tell you that trying to manage all the needs of the household AND blog while holding a 23-month-old who’s suddenly decided to channel a clinging baby koala is not something I recommend.  However, a week, and weekend, of challenges in the household-management/food and cooking arena has inspired today’s content, so I’ll consider us all the beneficiaries of life’s ups and downs.

I had planned to write this post anyway, but it’s particularly timely that fabulous Bettina over at The Lunch Tray just happened to ask the question: Are family dinners just too hard to pull off? At the same time, a new reader visited the comments board here at RRG and asked how I manage to get a home-cooked meal on the table every night, since J. and I both have full-time jobs and we’re doing the evening daycare pick-up, just like so many other families out there.  So it appears that today, the stars are aligned perfectly for this topic.  (I love it when that happens.)

Hard to pull off?  Yes, sometimes, and I am fully aware that they’re probably less difficult for me, at this stage of the game, than they are for many, many others.  I don’t know what it is — I just seem to have inherited some genetic ability to plan, organize, and cook meals that makes it a little bit easier for me (much the same way that I bet lots of you have gotten the cleaning and household organization gene, which I seem to lack).  But questionable genetic advantages aside, the real secret is this: I Expect Feeding My Family To Require Some Serious Effort.

That’s it.  See, cooking and parenting are similar in that they both require of us to manage our expectations wisely.  If you expect that your 2-year-old will sit calmly through a five-course meal at an upscale gourmet restaurant at 9 p.m., you are probably not managing your expectations realistically (and yet, so many people still attempt this type of feat!).  Likewise, if you expect that you can juggle all the demands of your life — family members’ needs, household needs, work needs if you happen to be employed, etc., etc. — while effortlessly putting a flawless meal on the table every single night, you’re not only managing your expectations poorly, but you might actually be somewhat delusional.

I don’t mean to be a downer.  It’s not a negative thing, this expectation of effort.  I prefer to view it as a realistic set-up for accurate planning and execution.  If I think it’ll take me some time and energy to get all these meals planned, organized, cooked, and served, I can organize my life around that expectation and MAKE SPACE FOR MYSELF TO DO IT.  That might mean making some concessions, such as cooking or doing prep work at 9 p.m., or making myself get into the kitchen during the boys’ afternoon rest time on the weekends (when I’d rather just be resting myself!); it might have a ripple effect through the rest of my household chores, such that I’m throwing towels in the dryer at 11 p.m. or cleaning the bathroom sink at 7 a.m. while brushing my teeth and getting ready for work.  But the stuff gets done.

The other expectation I have, by the way, is that every once in a while I will have to let some of it go.  Not in huge amounts.  Not whole days of carefully planned menus; not expensive groceries out the window.  But in little ways.  Witness this weekend’s Sunday Dinner:

Eggplant Parmigiana and a Green Salad

OK, it didn’t photograph that attractively, but it tasted great (and the kids loved it).  Here’s the thing about Sunday Dinner this week — on the meal plan, you’ll note that it was supposed to be accompanied by pasta.  I’d also planned to bake some homemade breadsticks.  I’d also thought I’d set out some fresh fruit.

Didn’t happen.  Clearly.  I had to let the extras go and trust that the eggplant and salad on their own would be enough.  (They were.)  Because Sunday happened like this:
7:30 a.m.: Wake up, stumble downstairs.  J. and I decide over my desperately-needed coffee that P. should probably stay home from church, but L. should get to Sunday School.  J. volunteers to take L. to church; I think to myself that if P. can detach from my shoulder for more than 10 minutes, I’ll be able to start some prep for dinner, because L.’s got a birthday party this afternoon.
8:00 a.m.: J. asks if I’ll make him breakfast.  Like, real breakfast, requiring a skillet and eggs and other stuff.
8:15 a.m.: L. spies Daddy’s breakfast on the stove and starts haggling for a hot breakfast of his own.  Since he doesn’t like eggs, he talks me into making cheese quesadillas.
8:30 a.m.: P. decides he can’t be left out.  Asks for a quesadilla like his brother’s.  Spits out the first bite and runs away.
9:00 a.m.: I finally start eating something of my own, then try to get L. ready for church.  P. freaks out and begs to go with Daddy and L.  Now it’s a sprint to get every member of the household dressed and ready to get out the door for 10 a.m. services.
11:15 a.m.: We return from church; I eye the clock and realize that I’ve got just about 2.5 hours to get everybody fed, napped, and changed into play clothes; birthday gift wrapped; cajole L. to sign his friend’s card himself (we’re working hard on those fine motor skills); throw a load of laundry in; and start dinner prep, because if we return from that birthday party any later than 4:30, there’s no way eggplant parmigiana is getting to the table for 6 p.m. without a significant portion of the work done ahead of time.

Whew.  Long story short, I got the sauce made, the cheese shredded, and the eggplant sliced and salted before taking L. to the birthday party, but yes, it was a commitment.  And an effort.  And when we returned from the party (at 4:30), I still had to bread the eggplant, cook it up, and layer the whole thing together before popping it in the oven.  It may not take a lot of time or effort to cook some pasta; it may not be that hard to slice a bunch of fruit and set it on the table; but I frankly did not have the energy or the will to do anything more than what was absolutely necessary.  I wanted to sit down and spend time with the boys and J.  I wanted to let P. curl up in my lap, which he’d been dying to do all day.

And that’s a SUNDAY.  The supposed day of rest.  So the answer for today is…no, family dinner is not impossible.  But it is a feat, sometimes.  If I didn’t plan ahead of time, have an arsenal of quick-cook options available to put on that plan, and use my slow cooker liberally, I can’t imagine how we’d survive the weekday rush.  That’s why I keep planning; that’s why I keep prioritizing family dinners; and that’s why I continue to expect that feeding my family well requires a good deal of commitment and effort from me.  If I didn’t, it would be too easy to let it all fall by the wayside.  There are some things in life that are too important to let them yield to our modern, harried lifestyle, and this is where I draw my own personal line in the sand.

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20 Responses to Family Dinner: Not Impossible, But a Feat…

  1. Bri – I’m late to the party, as usual, but first, thanks as always for the lovely shout out. You know the blog love is mutual! 🙂 Second, so great to read this post and the comments of your readers.

    Family dinner IS a challenge, even for someone like me who is isn’t tied to an office anymore. Sometimes cooking is a pleasure, but sometimes there’s nothing I’d rather do less after a long day. And don’t get me started on clean-up. (Mr. TLT is quite good about doing this, but when he brings home legal work to do, which is most nights, I take pity on him and do all the kitchen clean-up myself.) But the rewards, as you know, are huge. Just that small act of sitting down together each night over something nutritious (and hopefully tasty) sends some powerful, if unspoken, messages to your kids about food, family, conversation, manners, traditions, etc.

    And to Kim B. — don’t know how old T. is, but when my kids were quite young, we also fell into the early dinner for kids/later dinner for grown-ups pattern. There were some nice aspects to that — a glass of wine, adult conversation, and alone time with one’s spouse – that I actually miss sometimes! But eventually we merged into one dinner (around when my oldest hit kindergarten) and one thing I did was try hard to come up with dinners with components that could be discreetly separated out for kids. In other words, I didn’t want to give them an impression that I was short-order cooking a separate meal for them (bad idea!). Sometimes it was as simple as saucing most of the chicken but leaving some plain. Or creating sides that were pretty complete in and of themselves, like a corn pudding, so if that’s all they ate, it was a perfectly OK dinner. Things like that. Just a thought!

    • Bettina, thanks as always for reading and commenting. 🙂 Clean-up…yikes…not even something I dared broach in this conversation, but so true, huh? Luckily the rule in our house tends to be that whoever cooks does NOT clean up…and since J. can’t cook…!
      I think the idea of making one meal, but allowing the components to be separate, is crucial to family dinner success. I mean, yes, if we’re having lasagna or something like that I do expect L. and P. to eat it as is. (can you imagine separating the noodles from the sauce and the cheese?) But I do often adjust the amount of sauce on a dish for them, or if it’s easy to do, I’ll put the foods next to one another rather than all mixed up — for example, when I make my mom’s Pasta Poulet dish, it’s easy to put some chicken on the kids’ plates first, then noodles, before I toss the finished dish together for the adults. Luckily we’re at the point now with L. where he’s truly, and miraculously, eating almost anything we give him, so we don’t have to do that anymore — but with P., it can mean the difference between dinner success and dinner disaster!

  2. This is a GREAT post. Real, honest, and yes, to the point. When people ask how I have the time to cook from scratch I answer that I MAKE the time. And then point out how much time we all spend watching TV and online. Even us moms.

    And yes, this is an important line in the sand.

  3. Grace says:

    Love this post and your site. It’s so true. I never say that family dinner is easy; I say that the hard work is worth it. And different families get there in different way, and I think more of us who “do” family dinner should speak up about it: the benefits and challenges. I’m not really a weekly meal planner, personally, but I shop with specific meals in mind and we have many 20-30 min quick meals that both my husband and I can whip up. I write about family dinner and have resources and tips. Look forward to keeping up with you!

    • Hi Grace! Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words. I’m so pleased to see you reading — I just saw Bettina’s write-up about your blog and had been planning to stop by your site today as well. I’m thrilled that there is a small but growing army of family dinner advocates like us who are willing to expose the good, the bad, and everything in between about making the family meal a top priority. I agree that what works for one family does not work for every family, so the more people who add their voices and methods to the discussion, the better off we’ll all be — I’m hoping that every person out there who struggles with the family meal will find their solution in somebody’s blog!

  4. Karen Bannan says:

    It’s really hard coming up with something that’s easy to make, the kids will like, and won’t require too much prep or cooking time. Your dish looked delicious, though! Hope the little one is feeling better.

    • Karen! So sorry to have not responded to your comment sooner — I just found it buried in my spam filter. Ack! Hopefully that issue is fixed. 🙂
      Thanks for visiting and thanks for the kind words! Hope you’ll stop by again sometime.

  5. bmd4me says:

    OMG I can feel your pain! Went through all that for years while my boys were small and even now when they’re pretty much AWOL most of the time its still a challenge to not only make dinner but to just have the energy to even THINK about it! I’ve always said if it wasn’t for my slowcooker, we’d never eat a decent meal! Another really awesome thing that’s come my way is my new programmable oven. When I have the time, I prep and freeze dinners meant to be baked. Then in the morning, I take them out of the oven frozen solid, throw them in the oven, program it and voila!!! dinner is nearly ready when I walk through the door at night. I also cook and mash 10 lbs of potatoes at a time and freeze meal-sized portions. I do the same with noodles and rice. As long as you’re cooking these things, might just as well do a lot and have it on hand. Saved me many, many times!

    • I’m jealous of those programmable ovens! I’ve heard about them before and have daydreamed of all the great things I could do if I had one, but it’s not anywhere NEAR being in our budget for the next, oh, 5 years at least!
      Freezing dinners and sides is a great strategy, though, and even if you don’t have freezer space, making extras of certain foods and then keeping them on hand in the fridge for the week is a good way to help yourself. I think I’m going to cover that today on the blog, so more to come…

      • bmd4me says:

        If you ever get the chance to buy one, do it. They’re the best thing ever for busy families! They’re really not much more expensive than a regular stove/oven combo. I wouldn’t have had one either if it hadn’t been for the fact that my oldest son destroyed the top of my first stove (glass top) by shattering it into a million pieces. He was showing off to a girlfriend by doing a handstand and managed to bring his foot down on top of the glass top. He must’ve hit it just right because the thing just exploded! I guess that’s one way to update my kitchen appliances! 🙂

      • HA! Yes, that’s certainly one way to go! We just bought a new stove/oven about 4 or 5 years ago, which still works great, so we’re not due for a while. Plus, there are many other appliances in the house that desperately need updating — fridge and dishwasher come to mind — so I’m working towards those first! But that’s my next oven, for sure.

  6. Donna says:

    I think it all comes back to what is important to each individual. For me, getting a decent dinner on the table is more important than certain things, like catching up on the magazines piling up on my coffee table. It’s just a matter of priorities. I remember getting the strangest look from a colleague when I said:

    If I ever got to the point where I was so busy that I had to eat dinner in my car instead of at a real dinner table (be it at home or a restaurant), that’s when I would know my life has failed.

    And that, in a nutshell, is where my priorities are. Sure, I have 2 jobs, other commitments and volunteer work and I rush around from place to place. Sure I’m sleep deprived. But my husband and I still sit down to a nutritious meal every night. And if you know that’s what you want, as you said, you will plan and set your expectations at that level.

    • Donna, I love that image — knowing that your life has deteriorated past reckoning when you’re eating in the car. Sadly, there are so many people we know for whom this is reality! A large part of it, also, is overscheduling in general. J. and I are busy, but we try not to sign the kids up for a million activities, especially not at this age; L.’s therapy appointments and therapeutic horseback riding are about as much extra stuff as we can handle with them right now. But so many of his classmates, even at 3 and 4 years old, are going straight from Pre-K at 5 p.m. to a 6 p.m. gymnastics class or a piano lesson or are spending their Saturdays and Sundays in kiddie soccer leagues and swim meets, and that eats away so much family time that I can see how dinner would become a lower and lower priority on the list.

  7. Kim B. says:

    I really enjoyed this post. It’s helpful to have my expectations re-set and to know that even for an apparent “Supermom,” it’s not as easy as it looks to get dinner on the table. [And I mean “Supermom” with all due respect! 😉 ] I too am guilty of using nap time on the weekends for rest, when I know I sh0uld be in the kitchen or at least cleaning the house. I’d love to hear how you do it on a weekday – is everything prepared ahead of time? That’s been working fairly well for us (preparing all the week’s meals on Sunday), but kind of falls apart when we have a Sunday committment or go out of town for the weekend (like this long weekend). The other thing I struggle with is knowing that T. is not likely to eat whatever delicious dinner I prepare. So I often relapse into feeding him what he likes (chicken, rice, & beans) at 6 pm and plan to make dinner for the grown-ups later, but wind up heating up pasta or eating cereal after T. goes to bed. Bad habits die hard!

    • Hi Kim! Thanks for the nice feedback. I always giggle when somebody refers to me as a Supermom or an Uber Mom, because only J. and I can really see how crazy stuff can get in our house and how many things sometimes fall through the cracks! I don’t think you’re “guilty” of using weekend naptime as rest time — you’re sane and reasonable, and as much as I can, I try to do that too…but I often end up compelling myself to get something done around the house instead. I’m sure there are tons of people out there who could tell me all the reasons I should be napping instead of cooking!
      I think tomorrow I’ll have to do a weekday rundown — the good, the bad, and the ugly. 🙂 In a nutshell, nope, things are not generally prepped ahead of time (unless it’s slow-cooker night); almost everything we make on a weeknight is designed to be made in 40 minutes or less from start to finish, and I strategically place certain dishes on certain nights of the week to accommodate the way that particular evening will tend to go (I usually have more time on Mondays and less on Wednesdays, for example). If I relied on cooking on the weekend to set up for the week, I think I’d run into what you are describing, with commitments taking that time away from me — especially now that L. is older and starting to get a social life, and I have my choral commitments which sometimes eat entire weekends in a single gulp.
      And as to feeding T., you’re human. 🙂 More to come on that.

  8. Blanca says:

    Absolutely loved reading this one!

  9. I think you are amazing. That’s a perfect point…anything worth doing well will take time and effort. If don’t plan for that-you are setting yourself up to fail.

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