Lately there has been a lot of discussion in the media about family dinners. In case you didn’t know, family dinners will apparently solve all your family’s problems – from health issues, to mental health, to school performance and more. There has also been a glut of cookbooks lately that claim to make cooking family dinners easier and more accessible. Then there has been the backlash by plenty of women who say that these books do nothing more than set unreasonable expectations. Family dinners have become a battlefield in the media.
As the author of two cookbooks, both of them created to make cooking a little more fun, a little less stressful, and a bit more kid-friendly, I understand both sides of this discussion.
I do believe family dinners can be an important part of parenting and connecting. Over the years we have had so many interesting and important conversations at dinner. Eating together creates a sense of intimacy and forces you to be face-to-face with your family. It’s a time to check in with each other, to plan, to discuss politics and religion, and to just feel a bond. But you can achieve this whether you make the food or get take out – making the food yourself is not the magic in this equation. It’s taking the time to look at each other and listen to each other that makes dinner matter.
I 100% agree with the women who talk about what a drain it is to have to make dinner every night. I too have that feeling of dread when 5 pm rolls around. What am I going to make? How am I going to pull yet ANOTHER dinner out of my hat? It was even more challenging before our daughter left home. She eats only chicken and fish. My son strongly prefers red meat and will not eat fish at all. I was often making two dinners. It’s exhausting. The planning, shopping, organizing, time, and energy that goes into making dinner most nights is at least a part-time job. And there is pressure and expectations involved. If you make your kids arrange their lives around dinner time, you have people expecting you to feed them. If your spouse comes home hungry, planning on you to provide food, you’re on the hook. You can’t just skip it. By trying to do the “right” thing and make dinner regularly, we set up a vicious cycle of pressure and expectations that can really feel very oppressive.
There are nights when my husband works late. I admit I have a huge sense of relief on these nights. I don’t have to cook! There is no point in making a full meal my teenage son will only pick at. Instead, everyone is on their own for dinner and I always turn to one of the following fall backs for my meal: a baked potato with raw veggies, a salad, or a homemade veggie pizza on a piece of gluten-free flatbread. Those are my three perfect, easy meals that I can happily eat. The husband and son turn to their own personal fallbacks and everyone is happy. I eat in front of the TV (shh! I know that’s yet another taboo) and the husband doesn’t eat until late at night (another bad thing, supposedly). We all survive and don’t die of malnutrition. My teenage son has yet to become a delinquent because he has to make his own dinner maybe 3-4 nights a month. These nights are the exception not the rule in our house. If I had ONLY these three solo meals as my options, I would get really tired of them quickly.
Although I love to get a night off, I continue to attempt to make dinner almost every night. Just because I’ve written cookbooks doesn’t mean it comes easily to me all the time. Writing a cookbook is nothing at all like making dinner for your family. In fact, in the months when I was writing my books, both on crazy short deadlines, I didn’t make dinner! Dinner was leftover test dishes. The only reason dinner ever gets made here on normal nights is because I make lists. I make lists of recipes to make. Then I make a list of what to buy that week. I keep staples on hand for my tried and true easy favorite recipes. I’m not out there making my own pasta and encouraging yeast to rise on any regular basis. I open jars and cans. Sometimes I even use frozen French fries (gasp). This ensures I can usually figure something out, if I am able to tear myself away from work soon enough to get it made in time. I don’t look forward to making dinner all the time. Some nights I totally dread it. Some nights I don’t mind because I’m hungry and what I’m going to make is going to be good. And sometimes, I really love it. I like to try new recipes, flavors, and techniques on occasion. I don’t want to be in the kitchen for hours on most nights, but sometimes I like to spend a Sunday afternoon making my own spaghetti sauce, trying to figure out how to make gluten-free croissants (still unsuccessfully), or baking a pie. Doing that is a hobby and a way that I relax. Cooking dinner on a nightly basis is NOT however. I work all day. I have responsibilities and people who count on me. Making dinner can be a complete annoyance at times.
As hard as it is to get something on the table every night, I would much rather make my own food than buy takeout or prepared foods or go out to eat often. Honestly, I find most of these choices to be subpar and I don’t want to eat food that is just bad. Of course there are amazing restaurants, but who can afford to eat out at those on any regular basis? Given the choice of a bad frozen lasagna, lukewarm takeout pizza, or a greasy rotisserie chicken, I will almost always choose to throw something together myself. There are rare nights when I surrender and we go out or order that underwhelming pizza. But I almost never buy store-prepared food. If I have to go to the store to buy that I might as well buy something I can cook quickly myself that will taste infinitely better.
When it comes down to it, I cook dinner because food matters to me. I like to eat things that taste good and are good for me and I’ve yet to find a way to achieve those two things any other way on a regular, reliable basis. Cooking for me doesn’t mean gourmet meals most nights. It doesn’t mean inventing a new recipe every night (or even often). It means pulling something together that tastes ok and gives us nutrients with as little of the bad stuff as I can manage (and I regularly succumb to cheese so I’m no saint). And the only reason I am able to do this is because I have the skills. I was taught how to cook as a child. I had grandmothers and a mother who knew how to make great food and they taught me. My husband never learned to cook and if he were on his own, he would rarely cook. So much of cooking dinner is about what skills you have. If cooking isn’t something you know how to do or are comfortable doing, then don’t do it!
We eat dinner together because it is part of our family culture and something we are comfortable with. There are definitely other ways to connect with your kids. It doesn’t have to be dinner. It’s what works for us and if other parents can achieve the same thing by sitting next to their kid on the subway, watching movies together, or throwing a football together, I’m all for it. I also don’t judge people who don’t like to cook. If you hate it, don’t do it. Eating out or buying food isn’t the end of the world. Everyone has to do what works for them. This shouldn’t be another woman on woman war (like stay-at-home vs. working moms or the whole debate about “leaning in”). We pick and choose what is right for own families. Some people think cleaning your own house is non-negotiable (not me! I will pinch and save to be able to afford a housecleaner). Some think that exercising as a family is a must (not us – we each do our own thing). Others limit screen time for their kids (not us either). You pick and choose the family life that works for you. So, I cook (most nights). And sometimes I hate it and sometimes I love it, but in the end, it’s just who I am.
Lately there has been a lot of discussion in the media about family dinners. In case you didn’t know, family dinners will apparently solve all your family’s problems – from health issues, to mental health, to school performance and more. There has also been a glut of cookbooks lately that claim to make cooking family … Read more