What 3,285 family dinners taught my daughter about winning (and losing) at life

I’ve learned that with family dinners you have to play the long game. And with my daughter, all that work is starting to pay off.

Photo: iStockPhoto

Judging by the mountain of Harry Potter party cupcake rings, “happy birthday” banners and matching plates heaped on my dining table, it’s almost time for my oldest daughter to turn nine.

That’s nine years of family dinners. Almost every night.

Eating together is something my husband and I committed to early on, inspired by our four-year stint in Italy, where three of our four babies were born. But it hasn’t always been easy. We’re now a family of six. I’m the only cook, and there have been plenty of nights when I’ve called for pizza, served scrambled eggs with toast or made popcorn and declared dinner done. (Yep, the kids loved it. So much so, they relayed the whole buttery story to my mother-in-law the next day. #momguilt.)

But whether dinner is popcorn or homemade pot pies stuffed with organic chicken isn’t really the point. Every time we’re elbow-to-elbow around a table, that counts for something. Connection. Companionship. Threats to stop whining or Mommy will throw away every last Shopkin in this house… Wait. What was I saying? Ah yes, family time! All the experts tell us how good it is for kids to eat together. Kids will have higher test scores, they say. Lower chances of drug abuse, eating disorders and depression. What parent wouldn’t want all that? The only hitch: Family dining ain’t for the faint of heart.

Cooking—and parenting through dinner—is hard work.

Food is still love…and maybe more
I haven’t always been a cook, but all it took was one episode of The Barefoot Contessa. After watching Ina Garten laughing her way through that Hamptons kitchen, I was in. Like many Gen-X parents, I am head-over-heels into this parenting thing, and cooking just happens to be my outlet of choice. Some moms craft, others coach. I cook.

Two kids resist eating vegetables 10 ways to tame dinnertime dramaFamily dinners were strict in my house growing up. Full of praise and thanks for the cook. And you better believe you ate everything, or there was hell to pay. Sound familiar?

My 2.0 version is softer. There are no rage spankings. Number of kids who’ve had to leave the table to put their nose to the fridge: zero. Instead of ruling with a fist on the table, I’ve learned that with family dinners you have to play the long game. It can be hard at times, frustrating, tiring and monotonous, but all the effort (especially in the early years) pays off. Really. It does. My oldest has the most experience around the table, and you know she’s the easiest to feed. (Not to mention the most fun to share a meal with.)

When I take the time to cook for my kids, to prepare the kind of food that becomes a lifelong habit of eating well, it shows them that I care. When we eat together, they see that spending time as a family is a priority. That we matter to each other more than almost anything else. I swear eating together is the antidote to feeling like life is rushing past you. We connect with them every night around the table. Face to little face.

Oh, the complaining
Sometimes it’s all a mess. An experimental dinner goes off the rails. Tired kids fuss through the evening like mini Real Housewives (with fewer Botox injections and more milk moustaches). But it’s still worth it. And here’s why: My kids, including that near-nine-year-old, see something really important going on in our home, day after day, year after year: a job that needs to get done and someone doing it without complaining.

Now, lest you think we’re living in some kind of Oz-land with robot munchkins who agree to everything, let’s get back to the whining. With four kids under the age of nine to feed, there’s a lot of feedback at my table. That’s why my husband and I are on it. Constantly encouraging the kids to just try everything. To say nothing if they don’t like it. Or wait until I ask them what they think. We never offer a second option because you won’t always like everything in life. And guess what, we’re so lucky that there will be another dinner tomorrow! Hot, fresh and full of different ingredients they’ll probably like better. That’s just math. That’s also consistency.

And anyway, we have more important things to talk about. “Who had something exciting, hard or interesting happen today?” That’s my new favourite question. It has a surprisingly high success rate. Like 100 percent.

But even with all these plans and strategies in place, there’s another way dinner can go, and sometimes it does: straight to screaming. I admit it. I’ve lost it at the table and so has my husband. That’s another lesson. Parents are people! We have all the same feelings our kids do and when we’re pushed and pushed, we get upset, too. That’s when I play my last parent card: the art of the apology. It’s never my proudest moment, but when I apologize, I’m teaching them again. How to connect in a more meaningful way, to explain our actions and to agree that we’ll all try harder next time.

All this—all this love and frustration—is part of life. And it can all be learned around a table.

Bit by bit, all this effort has started planting a seed of kindness in our kids. On Saturday mornings, you can bet that I’ll get breakfast in bed. Scrambled eggs. French toast. Tea. The works. Yes, it’s usually cold by the time it’s delivered, but that smiling face with two giant teeth sprouting in like a bunny makes every lukewarm bite worth it. As a family, we’ve taken meals to elderly friends, hosted Food Drive birthday parties and made care packages for the homeless during play dates. But when this same eight-year-old whipped up a batch of banana muffins for a sick neighbour all by herself, I knew she’d gotten the “food is love” memo.

Charity Curley Mathews is a former VP for marthastewart.com and hgtv.com who’s now a contributor to Food Network and blogs at foodlets.com.

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