Growing up, it was a rite of passage. If someone could survive an “Elliott family dinner,” the person was okay in our book.
What happened at these dinners? We shared stories. We made fun of each other, even berated each other, but in love: I don’t think any of us is in therapy because of them. We all had the chance to laugh at my dad’s perfectionism and my mom’s quirks, as well as each others’. My brothers and I played out movie scenes we memorized, all taking on different characters such as those in the “Coming to America” barber shop scenes. My older brother always had a quick-wit, and we laughed hard. My younger brother was funny and a performer who kept us giggling. I was simultaneously the most studious child in my family and the one with the least amount of common sense, asking stupid questions in an entirely unsafe environment where I paid dearly for it. And the stories we share of these family dinners still get repeated over and over again when we are together.
My own experience – along with scientific proof that family dinners are impactful – are reasons why having dinner together as a family is something I work hard to make happen. To name a few benefits, family dinners help with health, brain growth, vocabulary and family relationships, as well as promote good behaviors and stave off bad ones.
If I haven’t lost you already, I’m hoping you’ll stick with me. My husband travels a lot and my kids have activities some nights that make eating together impossible. This means we currently eat together as a family about three nights a week. On the nights we can eat together, I work to make these count. Here are some things I’ve learned:
- I keep our meals simple. It’s okay if family dinner is Chipotle.
- It makes me SO MUCH HAPPIER when everyone enjoys their food. That means I make a lot of the same meals for the sake of peace.
- I make big pots of spaghetti, chili, soups and stews so I can freeze the leftovers for a night when Greg is traveling or to give to a family in need.
- When I had babies and toddlers, I gave them what we were serving as early as possible. Once a child is about 1, there is very little he cannot eat if you cut it into small enough pieces.
- I used the Deceptively Delicious cookbook when the kids were younger to help get more fruits and vegetables in them. I’ll write another blog about healthy eating strategies for toddlers – someday …
- Now that they’re older, I often serve raw vegetables or a salad as the side dish and let the kids pick the ones they like. They eat vegetables and there’s no arguing, gagging or nose-holding.
- Everyone has to at least TRY all the food.
- If you don’t like it, we’re not making something else for you. I have a friend who grew up in a family with six kids, and the alternative if you didn’t like dinner was a microwaved, scrambled egg. (That sounds more disgusting to me as an adult than an asparagus and Brussels sprouts pie would have as a child.) Come up with something that works for you if you are concerned your child might not eat.
- Though we don’t always remember to do it, we have a “thankfulness journal” where we write down something each of us is thankful for at dinner. This is a favorite for everyone, but especially our most reserved child, who gets a chance to be thoughtful and heard over the louder two.
- Another conversation starter is the “roses and thorns” concept. Everyone goes around and shares his or her rose (high) of the day and thorn (low) of the day. I actually got that one from the Obamas!
When I prioritize an activity in our family life, I often ask myself, “Will I regret doing this or not doing this when I look back some day?” And then I remember my childhood family dinners – which sometimes went very wrong – and how they make me smile. My mom’s spaghetti, roasts, chicken and dumplings … these foods take me back. And none of my family will allow me to forget the night the Domino’s commercial came on television announcing (in my defense, with buffalo flying through the sky, flapping wings) that it was now selling buffalo wings. And I looked at everyone, and before I could process the question that came to my mind, I blurted out, “Wait – do buffalo wings come from real buffalo?”
I want my children to have their own “Elliott family dinner” memories. And based on our meals so far, I’m sure they’ll have plenty to talk about when they’re older.