Early in parenthood, I felt pressured to pull off gold-standard nightly family dinners. I’d heard what the experts were saying about its importance and always imagined a movie-worthy scene around the table, with our four happy kids. But the demands of commuting, raising a big family, and having a partner who travelled for work made it more like a horror film than a feel-good family drama. I was impatient with my hungry, overtired kids and short with my husband on the nights he wasn’t home in time to join us. One particularly stressful and teary evening, with a squawking baby on my hip and three other miserable children waiting to be fed, I realized the dinnertime vibe in our home was nothing like the one I remembered fondly from my own childhood.
When I was a kid, my dad worked the late shift every third week. On those nights, my sister and I arrived home from school to find plates of dinner left out for us. Even though our mom was a whiz in the kitchen, she kept it very simple for our TV dinner nights. As soon as the theme song from our favourite cartoon came on, we would race from the kitchen to the couch. It always felt like we were breaking the rules, and it was such a thrill. My sister and I loved it.
It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I understood our 1980s-era TV dinners were a break for our mom, too. In what was surely an act of self-preservation, she kept herself busy somewhere else and had dinner with my dad, long after we were in bed.
Sit-down family dinners were still the norm whenever he was home to help, and we knew the couch wasn’t an option. On weekends, we often went out for a big breakfast—a good way to connect and make up for all the dinners we spent apart.
The stressful scene I was setting for my young kids every night—with unrealistic expectations and overambitious meal plans—wasn’t working. The baby, long overdue to be nursed, would be sobbing at my breast under a quasi-clean tea towel that I’d thrown over her head so I could shovel food into my mouth, all while bargaining with a toddler who didn’t want to stay in her high chair. There would be no energy left in me to also coax my older two kids to try whatever palate-expanding meal I thought I needed to be feeding them. Spoiler alert: a lot of it went untouched.
I wanted us to look forward to dinner, instead of just gobbling our food and getting it over with. It was time to free myself from the endless dinner tyranny. So here’s what I decided to do differently:
1. Keep it simple
I made a list of easy-to-prep meals and put them into weekly rotation. If it took more than 30 minutes to get on the table, it didn’t make the list. I also stopped doling out snacks to hold the kids off, because it ruined their appetites.
2. Make dinner earlier
We switched to eating earlier, without my husband, and enjoyed each other’s company a lot more. My husband’s plate (when I managed to make extra) waited in the fridge so he could spend time with us when he came through the door. He ate after getting the kids to bed, and I joined him at the table to chat and catch up. If he was able to make it home at a reasonable time, the kids and I had an after-school snack and waited excitedly for the sound of his key in the door.
3. Self-serve is totally fine
As my kids get older and busier, we’re juggling schedules that make our heads spin. Many nights, more than one plate of food is set aside for a latecomer. It feels like our kitchen has a permanently revolving door, dinner goes on for hours, and I’m fine with it now. (And I’m happy to report that I haven’t seen any issues with proper restaurant behaviour and table manners when we do go out for a more formal meal.)
4. Eating on the couch is cool
Once a week we have an “eat wherever you want” night for all four kids—with no obligation to sit down together at all. Like my mom used to, there are plates of a very simple meal left out on the counter, and no rules about sitting at the table or eating at a certain time. Our youngest loves to park herself on the couch with a favourite show, our oldest prefers to sneak away to her room to do homework, and our two middle kids still like to eat in the kitchen. We always eat dinner as a family on Sunday nights. My husband and I appreciate each shared meal a lot more now, too, because we know these gatherings are becoming fewer and farther between.
Before the era of parenting do’s and don’ts, I think my parents did what they had to when it came to family dinners. They didn’t have the luxury of worrying about whether it was picture-perfect. Today’s families have similar pressures and challenges, whether they’re single parenting or navigating work schedules that make sit-down meals during the week impossible. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but we no longer treat dinner as a set time on the clock. I don’t feel bad about a few empty chairs multiple nights a week. Sometimes, it’s just going to be two of us (instead of all six of us) catching up on the couch after a late-night middle-school band rehearsal. Sometimes it’s a mess of takeout containers, or a frozen pizza and chopped veggies.
While feeding our kids healthy food and setting an example for mealtime etiquette is important, the most wholesome part of any family dinner should be how it feels. I know the relaxed moments we share over plates of food—homemade and piping hot, or store-bought and reheated—will be among my kids’ favourite memories. And for me, that’s better than any Hollywood movie could ever be.
This article was originally published online in December 2019.