The Importance of Family Dinner: Past, Present, and Future
Frequently, it feels like a masochistic, self-torture ritual, and other days, it is parenting utopia - that is family dinner with 3 young children. Growing up on a farm, in a woodsy, beautiful neighborhood had many perks. I rode around Hillside Street on my blue banana seat bike and had regular ink berry fights with the boys down the road. But when 6pm hit, my Mum rang the old cow bell and all 7 of us would run to the round kitchen table. My Dad (who owned Thayer Nursery) rose from the field and the rest of us scrambled to the table, hoping to get a “seat on the outside” - a suppertime golden ticket to avoid being squished by siblings on the bench against the window. My Mum always prepared a well-rounded meat-and-potato-type meal and I ate what I felt like. Buttered rice and corn were always my favorite and there was not pressure to eat the spinach. It was a little loud and hard to get a word in, but it felt easy. Regardless of the day, the table was set, the cow bell rang, and a hot meal was served at 6pm. If the phone rang during supper, there was no way it was to be answered. Dessert tempted us from the counter and we indulged only after everyone finished their meal. When our bellies were stuffed (or not), the plates were cleared and everyone picked a cleanup chore to tackle. It was simple and expected. No questions asked, no debate. I imagine many people have a similar story. So, where did we diverge? Why have we moved away from family dinner as a culture? Why is it chaotic? What the heck happened!? Granted, I was born almost 10 years after my closest sibling so I might have missed the anarchy phase or have a completely idealized memory, but very few of my current day, family dinner experiences resemble the ease of my childhood supper. Sigh.
I am sure this is at least a moderately romanticized picture of my childhood but I know there is truth in this memory. Family dinner was simply “supper”, not anything special to announce we were eating together as a unit. It was part of the fabric of life, a beat in the rhythm of the day. I wish this was the case in my own home now. Instead, it is something I work at, research, and write about; an activity I enjoy on a good day, and one that burns me out the next. The psychology journals tell me that my future adolescents will be less likely to use drugs, have lower rates of depression and anxiety, and perform better in school because we eat dinner together, and I buy into that, but I sit with my kids over a meal mostly because it just feels right in my gut. So, I mentally committed to cooking and eating together most of the week (+/- husband), and as long it is feasible given the day. After reading a lot about this subject and practicing the routine, dinner has gotten easier for a few reasons: 1) I changed my expectations, 2) I always have something everyone will eat, and 3) my kids continue to get older. After listening to a nutritionist speak at preschool, I learned that little ones really do not need to eat much to get nourished. As long as they try everything (even a tiny bite), they are free to eat what they want from their plate. But, if they have to eat at least some meat or veggie to get dessert. I don’t stress about quantity much. I gave up the power struggle of forcing a certain intake each meal. Secondly, if I prepare a more adventurous dinner, I always have baguette and cheese or romaine with homemade ranch dressing as well (both crowd pleasers). As long as they take a nibble of the new food, they are free to eat what they want. And lastly, what I can’t control, and ultimately don’t want to rush, is that all of this has proven itself to get better as my kids grow up. Each month, it seems that nanoseconds increase between feisty little hands reaching out and touching one and another. Refer to #1, change expectations.
At the end of the day, I know my family dinners won’t be an exact replica of supper on Hillside Street for many different reasons, but mainly because it is a different era. Although I sadly do not have a cow bell and unfortunately always know where my kids are, the fundamental element remains the same – it is vital to take reliable and consistent time for each other, to nourish our bodies, and bring pleasure to the family through food. There is no right way to ‘do’ family dinner except to just do it in your own beautifully, unique way.
Mum’s (Marge Oldfield’s) Throwback Stringy Chicken
(originally from Campbell Soup)
1 1/4 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1 can of Condensed Tomato Soup
1/2 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning or dried oregano leaves, crushed
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
½ - 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese or 1 fresh mozzarella ball sliced
3 cups cooked rice or pasta
Heat the oven to 400°F.
Place the chicken into an 11 x 7 x 2-inch baking dish. Stir the soup, Italian seasoning and garlic powder in a medium bowl. Spoon the soup mixture over the chicken.
Bake for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through. Sprinkle the chicken with the cheese. Serve the chicken and sauce with the rice or pasta.