Top | Kitchen Limbo

Family dinner

(article, Carrie Floyd)

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The other night, I offered to take my kids out to dinner. Instead of jumping at the chance, they both declined. 

My daughter said, “I have homework.” And my son said he’d rather stay home.

Such is the plight of a modern, fun-loving parent, with two button-downed, law-abiding children.

Though I had suggested a couple of destinations, I wasn’t attached to either; after all, my goal was a reprieve from cooking dinner. So I sweetened the pot: “Is there any place you guys want to go?” 

No from Missy, and a Thai restaurant on the other side of the moon for Sonny.

[%image familymeal float=right width=400 caption="The salad days of family dinner." credit="Illustration: Ximena Maier"] 

Who doesn’t want to go out to dinner? When I was a kid, it was one of my favorite things to do. Had my offspring graciously refused my invitation, everything would have been OK, but the way they turned “Mom” into a three-syllable word worked against them. Whining combined with blatant opposition never brings out the best in me. 

I confess: a teeny, tiny tantrum ensued. Something to the effect of “Fine, then. You guys can make your own dinner when we get home.” 

And they did. Happily. 

For him, a cup of yogurt and a toaster pop (naturally flavored, organic). For her, leftover rice reheated with butter, a couple of kiwis, and a glass of milk. I threw together a very spicy quesadilla, poured myself a glass of wine, and danced the jig of a new voter. 

It just so happened that we all congregated at the table at the same time and shared a bowl of oranges. Chocolate ice cream followed, which my daughter generously offered to scoop. 

I felt liberated. I had dinner with my kids without the usual hour of prep in the kitchen. Granted, our cobbled-together meals failed to work in a single serving of vegetables, but there’s always tomorrow for putting salad or stir-fried broccoli front and center. 

The truth is, I make dinner most nights of the week. I don’t do it because of what I’ve read — that kids who eat dinner with their families are more likely to succeed in school and less likely to take drugs — although these are compelling reasons. I rally around dinner because it’s what I grew up with, and for me it’s a big piece in the family puzzle. Did I realize all that I was digesting at my parents’ table? 

I understood that Mom liked “Hot food hot, and cold food cold,” which translated as “When dinner’s ready, sit down.” I learned that interrupting wasn’t tolerated. Grievances from the day about work and school were shared, stories told, jokes exchanged. 

My brothers and I would smile at each other when Dad said, ever so seriously, “I don’t want this to leave the table.” (Like we’d talk to our friends about Dad’s work.) But we appreciated being trusted with the conversation.

We never ate in front of the television. Reading at the table was forbidden, as was wearing a hat or singing. To this day, I’m still trying to make sense of the “no singing at the table” rule. 

Skip ahead to the present tense and my own family. In a given week, there’s a whole lot of coming and going. Dinner is the only time on a weekday when all four of us are in the same room at the same time doing the same thing. The table is our place to be together, to take a moment’s pause and express thanks for what we have. 

(Lately, of course, my daughter says, “I’m thankful Mommy made dinner,” while my son scans the room and gives thanks for whatever catches his eye: The cat. Legos. Cornbread.)

While we eat, everyone takes turns talking about his or her day. And should my husband veer too far into the recesses of work, my daughter winks at me from across the table. 

I have heard other parents say that some of the best conversations they have with their kids happen in the car. I’m not discounting these exchanges, but I don’t think they replace conversations that take place around a table. Being able to make eye contact and read one another’s expressions makes for a different kind of dialogue. A quiet child in the car is a godsend; a quiet child at the table might be sulking about something that happened at school, which, with a little prompting, comes gushing out. 

Perhaps it’s the act of being heard, not the act of eating, that accounts for the success of the family dinner.


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But the dinner itself — or, rather, the making of it — can be daunting. Time, money, and nutrition all play a part in what ultimately ends up on the table. For some, the biggest hurdle in cooking dinner is figuring out what to make. My chief problems are an excess of ideas and a compulsion for reinventing the wheel. Years of working in restaurants, as well as hoarding cookbooks and food magazines, have primed me for making chicken stock and grinding spices. 

It’s taken me a long time to realize that there’s a time and a place for complex cooking, and it’s not weeknights at home. To make anything remotely complicated on a weeknight puts undue stress on the cook (me) and those being cooked for (the family). Why? Because they all just want to eat. Now. Or at least before they go to bed. And not risotto.

Though eating out offers a welcome change, it’s not the solution. Salvation lies in examining the word “dinner” to see if there are any weird hang-ups — Rockwellian images, fixations with “homemade” — worth jettisoning. Planning meals in advance, and shopping accordingly, allows for both leisurely and quick-fix cooking. I used to try to make nearly everything from scratch. Now I appreciate the convenience of prepared pizza dough, store-bought sauces, frozen vegetables, and the occasional rotisserie chicken. 

At the end of the day, dinner doesn’t always have to be Dinner. 

Dinner can be whatever you want it to be: pancakes, sandwiches, take-out. Dinner can be “Make it yourself and meet me at the table.” Sure, it’s great to have a hot, home-cooked meal, but if the cooking becomes a chore, it’s time to be flexible and break up the routine. Variety, after all, is the spice of life. And so is dinner.

Also on Culinate: more on the family dinner.

p(bio). Carrie Floyd* is the Culinate food editor.

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