On a recent evening, my family was consumed by the hectic schedules that always seem to come with the holiday season. We’d had constant split-shift dinners, and even though I usually love to cook, our meals were becoming more and more basic by the day. One Wednesday, I threw together a pan of baked gnocchi, hollered for my husband and older son, and rushed out the door.
When I returned with my youngest – hungry and tired from sports practice – the pan was half-eaten, the other two members of the family were gone for the evening, the dishes loomed, and I was out of steam. Without even discussing it, my twelve-year-old son and I scooped food onto plates and did something we very rarely do at dinnertime – headed straight for the couches. Both of us grabbed a cozy blanket and, breaking another of our rules, our laptops. And for the next 15 minutes, we communicated only by passing our screens back and forth, finding internet memes and videos to make the other person laugh. Our whole “family dinner” was silent, except for the snorts and giggles (and telling the dog to get down and stop begging).
Was this an ideal shared dinner? Far from it. But it was clearly the experience we both needed that night. When our plates were clean and we’d giggled ourselves out, we were refreshed enough to do the dishes and trim the Christmas tree together. By the time my husband and older son got home that night, the two of us were calm and relaxed and watching a movie together. So maybe it wasn’t the best family dinner we’ve ever had, but then again, it was far from the worst.
As 2022 begins, there’s a distinct lack of optimism in the air. For any number of reasons that are too tiring to list, families are feeling as stressed and stretched this New Year as they have in recent memory. And I’m sure the last thing anyone wants or needs is a cheery list of ways to make this year’s family dinners the best ever. Maybe instead, what we could all use is some coping mechanisms – more hit-the-couch, pass-the-memes kind of evenings. Here are a few ways to have the family dinners you want and need, instead of the ones you think you should have, this year.
- Re-evaluate. Family meals matter, even in stressful times; but this might be a good time to look at your own expectations and whether your dinner routines are actually serving you well. What’s working, and what’s not? Is it too much work, is the conversation too strained, are you setting the bar unrealistically high? Be honest about whether your current family dinners are actually adding to your family’s connection, or creating tension.
- Less is more. In almost every aspect of family dinner, doing less can actually be more rewarding. How can you back off this year? Maybe two or three calm, well-organized family meals a week, when everyone has time and energy, would be better than five or six harried, stressful dinners you squeeze in around everything else on the calendar. Or maybe you’re trying so hard to start meaningful conversations that you’re actually pushing some family members (teens, anyone?) away. Is there room for flexibility to occasionally eat on the couch or the floor or in the backyard? Can people sometimes bring screens to dinner, as long as they follow a few easy guidelines (like using screens to further the conversation)? Can you overlook imperfect table manners to allow for a more relaxed environment? There are so many ways most of us could do less at dinner – try one and see how it changes your experience.
- Fed is fed. Of course we all want to provide great nutrition for our families. But my husband sometimes gently reminds me, “Tomato sauce is a serving of produce.” In other words, when I’m rushing and stressed and even making a salad to serve with the spaghetti feels like an insurmountable task, I could let myself feel guilty – or I could accept that an evening without salad isn’t going to do my kids any harm. That doesn’t mean we should all start going through the drive-thru every night, but it’s probably just fine if not every meal is perfectly balanced. As my grandmother used to say, “Crackers and milk make a fine dinner in a pinch.” And she lived past 90, so she was probably on to something!
If you’re ready to hit the ground running in 2022 and have the best, most organized, most picture-perfect family dinners ever: Great! Go for it! Otherwise, consider this your permission to do only as much as you can. Keep the things that improve your family life; get rid of what doesn’t. This year, our family dinner resolutions are all about staying realistic. Yours can be, too!
These beef stuffed shells are the definition of a realistic dinner – easy to make and freezer-friendly, so you can always have a pan ready to heat and eat!
Easy Cheesy Beef Stuffed Shells
On those totally overwhelmed evenings, the Try Not to Laugh Challenge – either with screens, or without – is a great way to relax and enjoy some time together!
Try Not to Laugh
When everyone is stressed, tired or tense, conversation can feel more difficult. Get back on track by reviewing these “stoppers” and “deepeners,” and reset your dinner dynamics this year.
Conversation Stoppers and Deepeners