When my children Matt and Emma were young, I read many articles about the value of family dinner. It saved lives, preventing drug abuse and reducing the likelihood of all kinds of social pathology. It even boosted IQs so I devoted myself to the ritual, using my Aunt Kay’s example. Just about every night, I turned out a fresh-cooked Family Dinner. It was so stressful. Putting all those fresh-from-the-farm foods on our table wore me out. I was on another planet by the time I sat down.
Until age three, Emma cried because she was tired and Matt ate his food at lightning speed and popped out of his chair as soon as he could. My husband sat in misery. He even asked me once if we had to have dinner together every night, while we were all sitting at the table. I nearly had an aneurysm. Yes, we did! I persisted because I believed that Family Dinner was the key to life.
Everything I read so long ago seems laughable now. I still believe in Family Dinner but for different reasons. Other than road trips, the dinner table is the place where we are most engaged as a family. Every now and then, you feel a soulful strengthening of a bond as we sit and talk. It is not about the food; it’s about the conversation.
When my son came home from college freshman year, he told me he missed family dinners. I was surprised they meant so much to him since he was always the first one finished and anxious to leave. He graduated from college two years ago, and now he stops by for dinner on his way home from work once or twice a week.
Last summer, with my daughter Emma home from college and Matt living nearby, we shared lots of family meals. For fun I texted them the dinner menu in the morning with fanfare and embellishment. I started putting the word “family” in front of anything related to eating. We did a tour of Atlanta breakfast spots that I called Family Brunch. We had Family Cocktails at 6 in the living room on weekday evenings.
Then we moved things outdoors and started sharing “artisanal meats and cheese platters” in the backyard. We enjoyed sitting in the spot furthest from the house, almost in the woods. On a picnic table covered in cloth and topped with flowers and candles, we ate with our hands from a large platter filled with cheeses, meats, vegetables and bread. We all agreed it was a new favorite family ritual.
We try out hundreds of things when we raise children, hoping to give them the best life possible. My husband Mark and I have spent a cringe-worthy amount of money on piano lessons and club sports. I am embarrassed to admit that I thought it would be a crisis if my children didn’t learn to ski. I am a terrible skier, and my husband Mark doesn’t even ski.
All this time, it’s been family dinner. That’s what mattered the most. And we didn’t even have to pay extra for it. What a great value.