I've made a lot of mistakes as a parent. The one thing I know I did right, I get no credit for as I merely recreated a ritual I'd learned in childhood: the family dinner.
Years of meals with my parents, sisters and brother blur together, but I know I laughed so hard I snorted milk from my nose, my mother threatened us with no dessert unless all vegetables, including hated lima beans, were consumed, and my father imposed one rule: "What we say at the table, stays at the table." My sibs and I followed that rule, mostly because we thought our friends would be bored silly with reports that someone had spilled milk three times in a row and someone else had tattled about me slipping a grocery-sack book cover around a mystery so I could read while pretending to do homework.
When I became a mom, I had definite opinions about cloth diapers (pro) and anesthesia during childbirth (con). Over time, I'd change my mind about those issues and many more. Raising kids is a lifelong lesson in humility, in figuring out what works and what doesn't, and in staying flexible.
Oddly enough, my new-parent self didn't have an opinion about family dinners because I didn't know there was an alternative. When some friends admitted they fed their children at five and ate dinner with their husbands at seven (with wine!), I didn't copy them because I couldn't face preparing and cleaning up after two meals. Besides, I returned to work when my second child was nine months old, and there were days when the four of us were lucky to sit down to eat at eight p.m.
Dinner became our time to decompress and talk. That's not to say meal times at my house were marked by deep, thoughtful conversation. Often, one or all of us couldn't wait to be excused from the table. We had stand-offs about food, and I'm not talking about vegetables a lot of kids are reluctant to try, like eggplant and
sprouts. My daughters refused to eat pasta and, bless their hearts, recognized it even when it arrived in the shape of wagon wheels or shells. Brussels
Our dinner conversations sometimes ended in tears or with a kid stomping off to her room and slamming a door. Nevertheless, we ate together as a family most evenings, even when sports and school activities meant the meal didn't happen until nine or nine-thirty. The food wasn't always prepared by me. Hubs cooked one night a week, and when the kids got bigger, they played chef one evening out of seven. For many years, Friday meant take-out pizza.
One daughter qualified as a picky eater, and only one chicken dish pleased her. In the interest of peace and filled bellies, I made it a stand-by: chicken thighs marinated in salad dressing, coated in ground-up Triscuits, and baked. Foodies we weren't.
By the time my kids were in middle school, they knew not all their friends ate dinner en famille, and when my oldest daughter was in high school, she made it clear she wished we'd ditch regular meal time. During their college years, however, my kids' attitude toward mealtime morphed. They'd come home on break and ask me to make "my" King Ranch chicken or "my" stew. Now that they're grown with responsible jobs and places of their own, they tell me they miss our nightly meals and appear to look forward to our Sunday dinners together. They still don't eat pasta, though, the brats.
Parents tote plenty of guilt, and, God knows, I'm the last person to heap another burden on the over-worked and over-scheduled. As one whose kids are grown, though, I look back and know the family dinner was our best, most-enduring ritual and bonding experience.
Is a shared meal the only way to achieve such togetherness? Of course not. Didn't I say raising kids is a lifelong lesson in staying flexible? I have friends who insist the best bonding time happens in the car when ferrying kids from one school event to another. My brother-in-law swears he got to know his kids by coaching their soccer and ice hockey teams.
I have trouble keeping my eyes on the road when chatting with kids and am meh at sports. For me, dinner was doable and turned out to be the glue that held us together.
A national Reclaim Dinner challenge began Monday, September 23, but it's not too late to join the effort. http://www.reclaimdinner.com/ (Thanks to Jonathan Fields for the link.) By the way, this is not an all-or-nothing deal. If you eat together at home two nights a week now, the challenge encourages you to bump it up to three. Baby steps.
That's not all, folks. If you'd like a month's worth of dinner recipes plus ideas for conversation starters, go here. (The Tuesday recipe was for a ratatouille-like dish and the conversation starter was the movie Ratatouille. Isn't that a smart and sneaky way of keeping the family together for three hours? And there could be popcorn!
Your turn: what family ritual/bonding experience meant/means the most to you? Is it dinner, talking in the car, sports, travel, a week at the shore, or something completely different?