The Why and How of Family Dinner

Growing up our telephone would ring like clockwork every night at 5:30.  It was dad, calling to let us know when he would be home.  He would ask whoever happened to pick up, “What are we having for dinner?”  We knew not to be on the phone at 5:30 (this was before call waiting) so that this critical call could make its way through.  You did not want to be the person causing the busy signal.  He was hangry before hangry was cool.

My parents had a traditional role sort, with my mom loving to cook and my dad loving to eat.  He anticipated her dinners so much that he would starve himself throughout the day so that he could justify gorging like Joey Chestnut at a Coney Island hot dog eating contest.  Every night was an event, where dad ultimately fell asleep in his chair while one of his three sons scratched his feet with a fork.  Expressions of love and appreciation can take unusual forms.

THE WHY

Between digging in and forking my dad is where the magic happened.  Dinner was to be respected.  We understood the effort our mom put forth in preparing the meal and the hard work required by our dad to pay for it.  We said grace.  Beverages were served in pitchers, and hats were not allowed.  We talked about our day, teased each other, got yelled at for not practicing our instruments.  My parents shared stories about their lives before we knew them, which on a dark winter night with a fire roaring seemed mystical.  We received lectures on issues ranging from politics to malpractice to the importance of education.  As I reflect on my childhood, most of what I learned about my family, country, culture, ethics and the world outside of my bubble either occurred or was cemented at that dinner table.  What also strikes me is the consistency of those dinners.  If I were to hazard a guess, I could probably count on two hands the number of times in a year that family dinner didn’t happen.

As I reflect on my childhood, most of what I learned about my family, country, culture, ethics and the world outside of my bubble either occurred or was cemented at that dinner table.

THE HOW

How did my parents pull off this nightly production, and how can it be replicated in the world we live in today?  As I considered my own family and how we might come close, I settled on the following:

Set an attainable goal.  Most households today have two working parents.  Many of us travel for work.  If you never do dinner together, start with one night per week.  If you can do it more, great.  It may take planning and sacrifice, but as parents we can’t forget the long game in the midst of the tactical.

Going out, or taking out, doesn’t count.  In our world of celebrity chefs, we ironically have fewer people who know how to cook.  The beauty of cooking is that anyone who can read can cook, and with practice can even become quite good.  On our Stay-at-Home Dad podcast episode, Eric remarked at how far he had come since becoming the family chef.  What matters is that your family sees the effort and care you put into the meal.  They’ll appreciate that even if it’s barely edible, and in time you’ll find a few signature dishes that everyone grows to enjoy.

Create the mood.  If you have a dining room, use it.  In many houses dining rooms become a staging area for side projects.  If you don’t have a dining room, you can still create an environment that matches with the effort being put forth.  Use glasses and real plates.  If your kids are beyond the toddler phase you can probably even get away with clothe napkins.  Turn down the lights and crank up the candles.  Invite Kenny G to serenade you in the background.  Have fun with it.

Assign tasks.  Setting the table was my task growing up.  We also all pitched in to bring food to the table and to clear when done (if you weren’t on fork duty of course).  Have your kids put some skin in the game.  You’re working to make this happen, so should they.

Ask each other questions, and take turns talking.  No devices!  Simply inquiring, “How was your day?”, opens up a world of possibilities.  Listen for chances to share life lessons.  Come armed with tall tales.  Your kids will be bored of your stories soon enough, but for now they’re brand new.  They want to know you before them, and your experience informs their own identities…which they are working to grasp every day.  You are shaping them more than you know.

Sit around after you finish.  Just because the food is done doesn’t mean that dinner is over.  In my family’s attempts to have a dinner ritual, this has been the most enjoyable aspect for me.  Basking in the conversation and the meal just consumed, look around and appreciate the unit that is your family.  In the rush and haste of modern life, it might be the only time that happens all week.  Try getting a fork foot scratch.  It’s compelling.

Family Dinner

A family dinner and birthday celebration from my childhood. complete with candles, napkins, place mats and pitchers.

FAMILY DINNER – WORTH THE EFFORT

Despite what we might conclude, largely as a result of the 24 hour media cycle, there is a lot of good in the world.  The dinner table is the perfect place to recognize and celebrate that good.  If we can use dinner time to deepen our relationships, teach respect and humility, and help to lay a foundation for our children’s future success?  That’s gravy.  Damn good gravy.  Pun intended.

And of course, starve yourself prior if you are not responsible for meal preparation that night.  Nothing makes a chef happier than someone who wants seconds.