On a good night, our dinner table conversation might range from the science of hair follicles, to the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, to the difference between being "nice" and being "kind." They clear their plates without being asked, crank up the music, and work side by side without complaint until the kitchen is clean.
On a bad night, our teenagers might take it upon themselves to attack the "arbitrary rules" my husband and I insist upon at dinner. They might start eating before everyone sits down.
Though these "bad" nights are few and far between. Whether we're eating a labor-intensive home-cooked meal or take-out, our family dinners have really shaped us as a family — more so than any other ritual.
Here are a few tips for fighting through the resistance to make your own family dinners a celebrated tradition.
1. Start when your kids are young.
We started dining together as a family when our son was an infant, even when it meant I had to nurse him in my lap while I ate. By the time my son was seven, he had three little sisters. As the four of them have grown up, it's simply accepted among all of us that as often as we can, we sit down together and share a meal. Nobody resists the idea because it's what we've always done, and it is a great force of stability and connection.
2. Establish a set time.
Our dinner time has been 6:30pm for the last 18 years. It worked well with bedtimes for babies and toddlers, and now that the kids are in middle and high school, the dinner hour (which is really more like a half hour), fits neatly between after-school activities and homework. Our two eldest, who drive themselves and keep their own schedules, never have to wonder when we're eating.
3. Develop a ritual that works for YOU.
Our dinner ritual is a blend of traditions and priorities. The food isn't passed, but lined up on the counter, buffet style, because that's what has worked best for us, plain and simple.
And since this is family time, cell phones are left in their charging stations in another room, and if the home phone rings, we let the call go to the machine. Napkins are placed on laps, because my mother taught me that is the way civilized people dine. Forks remain on the table until we're all seated, nobody leaves until everyone is done, and only one person speaks at a time.
4. Don't worry about the food (ironic, I know).
If you love to labor in the kitchen creating a beautiful meal, my hat goes off to you. But if you don't, that's totally OK, too. The food isn't fancy in our household, because fancy food isn't important to my husband or me.
That said, I care a lot about the macro- and micro-nutrients that go on our table — low sugar, high protein, lots of vegetables — but I no longer feel like a failure if the best I can do is a chicken roasted by our local grocer. Self-acceptance feels more important.
5. Don't turn dinner into a battle over what kids eat.
When my son was a baby, I read Ellyn Satter's Child of Mine, which I still consider the Bible on kids and food. Satter taught me that it's a parent's job to decide what food goes on the table, and a child's job to decide what and how much he or she eats.
If parents turn mealtimes into a battle over food, dinners will be perceived by the child as a time to resist, not relax or share. A child will survive if he/she doesn't eat her vegetables at dinner.
6. "Don't cry over spilled milk."
Kids don't spill on purpose. Our kids rarely spill now, but we probably didn't make it through a single meal in our first decade of parenting without at least one tipped-over glass or stained t-shirt.
My husband has always been wonderful about treating spills as expected events, not accidents or mistakes. It was not so easy for me, but in time, I learned that it isn't children spilling that ruins a family meal, it is parents' overreactions.
7. Include cleaning up in the dinner ritual.
Cleaning up after dinner is great opportunity to teach your kids about cultivating responsibility and care for their space (and more) — without having to try that hard.
Once the kids were old enough, dishes became their job, each and every night. Sure, they complain sometimes. But more often than not, the four of them crank up the tunes and dance as they work.
8. Give yourself a break now and then.
When I had four kids under the age of eight, sometimes it was all I could do to get through breakfast, lunch, and two snacks. Sometimes the question of dinner filled me with unreasonable dread. Looking back, I wish I'd given myself a break more often, and not felt guilty about it.
Now, when my husband isn't home for dinner, the kids and I sometimes sit at the kitchen counter and share a pizza and a store-bought salad. Once in awhile, we really go crazy and eat off paper plates.
There is still almost never a night when my husband doesn't have to remind the kids to put their forks down until everyone is seated. Does that mean we've failed?
Nope. I think it means we've taught our kids that just because something is difficult doesn't mean you give up on it. Sustained effort is worthwhile when something really matters.