Woman is cooking in the kitchen


Family Dinners Are A Lot Of Work With Little Reward — So I’m Done

Aug 2, 2019

I was pretty relieved to hear the news that family dinners aren’t all they’re cooked up to be.

Because, frankly, family dinners aren’t all they’re cooked up to be.

It’s no wonder that family dinners can serve up a lot more stress than pleasure.

I came into parenting with the notion that eating an evening meal together as a family would inoculate my clan against the hazards of modern life. Gathering around the dinner table, I believed — largely because social media and parenting pundits and news outlets told me so — would shield my kids from depression, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol use, delinquency and obesity. It would set the stage for good grades, good health, good relationships and good outcomes.

But you know? That’s a lot of responsibility for some chicken and rice with broccoli on the side. Especially at the end of a long and busy day, when people are tired and cranky and have homework or are rushing off to hockey practice or piano lessons. With that much riding on it, it’s no wonder that family dinners can serve up a lot more stress than pleasure.

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I, for one, am tired of racking my brains each week to come up with a diverse menu of meals that are both healthy and acceptable to my 11-year-old — meals that invariably take longer to plan and cook (and clean up) than they do to eat. I’m tired of doing all that planning and cooking and cleaning only to have my kid take one bite and decide he doesn’t like what’s on offer. (And then ask if he can make eggs instead?) I’m tired of trying to live up to the expectation that dinner will be a time when we can give each other our undivided attention and have stimulating conversations about current events, and the best and worst things about our respective days. My son is not interested in such conversations, especially when they feel coerced. He is interested in eating his food as quickly as possible so that he can leave the table to play guitar or hang out with friends or enjoy the rest of his evening’s allotted screen time.

So, I’m saying it here: I’m done with dinner.

I will invite my son to try the things I cook, and I will refuse to take it personally or be upset if he doesn’t like them.

More specifically, I’m done with the idea that dinner is an acceptable proxy for my family’s and my offspring’s health and future successes. I’m done with feeling as though every family dinner is a test, and that a rejected Mexican taco salad bowl or tears over Instant Pot chili are failures of that test, failures that will inevitably lead to my child one day sleeping under a bridge.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m still going to cook. But I will cook things I like, when I feel like cooking them. I will invite my son to try the things I cook, and I will refuse to take it personally or be upset if he doesn’t like them. Sure, I will say, go make yourself some eggs. As he says, “I’m a tween. I’m not supposed to like your cooking.” I like my cooking, and that’s good enough for me. I’m not going to insist that he answer empty questions about school. I’m not going to keep tabs on how long anyone has spent at the table, or insist that people clean their plates.

I’m holding onto my ban of phones at the dinner table (I mean, I need some standards), but I will also encourage my kid to build a dinnertime playlist and DJ the meal — because he likes listening to and talking about music, and it’s fun. I’m going to leave newspapers and magazines on the table, because whenever I do, my son inevitably scans the headlines and starts asking questions about what he reads; a few nights ago, that led to a long and interesting discussion about the politics of mass incarceration in the United States. Other evenings, it leads to quiet reading. Both are fine with me. And sometimes he ignores the paper and finishes dinner in five minutes flat, and that, too, is just dandy.

Because, you know? I have plenty of other opportunities to spend meaningful time with my kid. We listen to podcasts, play guitar, toss a baseball back and forth in the backyard, wrestle or just hang out. Ironically, one of our best times together is before dawn: we’re both morning people, so we tend to be up early with plenty of time to eat before school; I drink coffee while he is delighted to eat (and more often than not cook for himself) toast and eggs pretty much every single day. It's that time we listen to the news together and talk about what’s going on in the world.

Read Another Story From Susan: Why I'm Not Writing To My Kid At Summer Camp

Gathering around the dinner table is not — and should not be — a predictor of a child’s or a family’s success. I sincerely hope that my child (and yours) never finds himself sleeping under a bridge, but if he ever does, it won’t be because of that week where he had grilled cheese with cucumber for dinner four nights in a row or those times we gave up and ate popcorn in front of the TV. As families, and as a society, we have more important things (like, say, mass incarceration) to worry about than achieving Pinterest-perfect dinners every night. Enjoy family life doesn’t happen only around the dinner table, so enjoy the meal, or don’t, and then get on with the business of living.

Article Author Susan Goldberg
Susan Goldberg

Read more from Susan here.

Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer, essayist, editor and blogger. Her articles and essays have been featured in, among others, Ms., the Globe and Mail, Today’s Parent, Advisor’s Edge, Corporate Knights and Stealing Time magazines, as well as in several anthologies, a variety of parenting and lifestyle websites, and on the CBC. She is co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is one of approximately 30 Jews in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she lives with her sons and a changing cast of cats. Read more at susanlgoldberg.com.

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