One night, when I couldn’t think of anything to make and didn’t have the energy to make it anyway, I came up with the idea to have our first ever “make-it-your-own dinner.” I told the children in a flash of inspiration, “Let’s have a make-it-your-own dinner!” “What does that mean?” they asked. Making it up on the spot I said, “It means you can have anything for dinner as long as you can make it and clean it up.” “Can we have cereal?” (My kids love cereal.) “Sure,” I said. Through all three floors of our home, I heard the kids talking to each other. “Yes, we can have anything we can make!” “YES, SHE SAID WE CAN HAVE CEREAL!” Genius. (Meaning me).
“What’s for dinner?” is sometimes the deadliest question at the end of a long day. No matter what you say, it will be the exact opposite of what the kids want. It’s not that they always actually know what they want. They really only know what they don’t want and about 90% of the time, it’s whatever you are making. I also had a finicky eater, so unless it was hamburgers, hot dogs or pizza, he was never going to like it.
It became a routine, “Mom, what’s for dinner?”
“What kind of food?”
“The kind you eat.”
“MOM—what’s the name of it?”
I would use some sort of name like George, Henry, etc. I answered the question seriously for the first 20 years. After that, I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Unfortunately, dinner comes at the end of the day when chances are, we are all tired. However, there have been studies on the positive effects on children when the family eats dinner together. It is important. I am not suggesting we add another chore to our list by coming up with a mealtime conversation plan spreadsheet, but there are some ways we can use mealtime to interact, converse and connect with our family every day. (Although I’m talking about dinnertime, it doesn’t have to be. It can be breakfast, lunch, dinner, family social time: anything that works for your family.)
I think the first way to have success at mealtimes is to let things happen naturally. One day, my daughter Stephanie had a really hard day. She had made brownies for dessert and noticed that the other kids were a bit down, too. She took a page out of the movie “Notting Hill.” In a scene in the movie, there was one brownie left, and the person who could convince everyone else that their life was the worst got the last brownie.
So, Stephanie played the same game. Each person in turn tried to make their case for their life being the sorriest of the lot, with the last brownie going to the winner. Their stories became wilder and even more pathetic as they went around the circle. And amidst the laughter, the brownie became almost inconsequential.
I can tell you that I never made one plan for dinnertime conversation or games. Dinnertime was eventful enough, and I learned a lot. It was at the dinner table that Michael announced that being shut in a dryer and going around in circles was fun. (He has three older brothers; I think we can all do the math on that story.)
Regardless of my lack of planning, for 30 minutes each day, life stopped and we all sat down with each other. There was laughter, arguing, finding out about un-started, sometimes enormous homework assignments due the next day (none of which had been previously disclosed). Then there were other times, when real, meaningful conversations happened, conversations that started with the meal, but continued long after the food was eaten. With children spread apart over 14 years, a husband who traveled a lot, and a really tired mom at the end of each day, we easily could have, as a family, lived parallel lives and fended for ourselves at dinnertime. But during the time it took us to eat dinner, our lives intersected. For better or worse, dinnertime is a wonderful opportunity for everyone to see each other.
Despite what I said before, plans can be good too!
1. Discussions about trips, events and issues that need to be addressed with the whole family have a place and time to happen. 2. Planned dinnertime games can be fun. Stephanie has a box with questions inside and about three times a year, the children will remind her they haven’t played the dinner conversation game. They grab the box and each choose a question to answer. 3. Include your children in the meal planning. I didn’t always do this, but occasionally I would let each child choose a meal for the week. That helped a lot on the days they didn’t want to eat what was planned; I could remind them that their choice was coming up. 4. About once a year when I was a child, our family played “restaurant.” My mom would come up with the menu and we all took turns setting the table, taking all the orders, and serving the food.
I have been known to say, “You don’t need to serve Beef Bourguignon when peanut butter sandwiches will do.” We all have ways of complicating and overthinking things. But if we concentrate on what is important and generally what we would like to accomplish, we can in very simple ways accomplish our goals.
What are some of my favorite meals? Anything that can go in a slow cooker in the morning. Some days I would go by Panera Bread and buy bread bowls, warm up a can of potato soup, pour it in, and my family would think I had slaved all day. Other days, I took my time and made lasagna, baked chicken and vegetables, or tried out a new recipe. Fajitas were always a favorite and vegetable stir fry was not. Sundays, we always had pancakes and once a week, back in the day, I would make homemade bread. Bread day was always fun. As my mother had done with me, I had all of the children take turns punching the dough, holding it up in the air and slamming it down on the counter. They would stay close by when they knew it was in the oven and then it was devoured with copious amounts of butter, honey and jam: one of my favorite memories.
More important than what you cook (or didn’t cook) is the sitting down together part. Sure, there were nights I wanted to take my food and go in the other room and eat in peace and quiet, but I am glad I didn’t. AND the irony in all of this is that when your children grow up and leave the house and then come back for a visit, they start requesting their favorite meals, the very ones they said they “hated” when they were children. At first, I couldn’t figure out why they would ask for the very foods they complained about as children. And then I had the realization that their requests were not so much about the food, but more about the memories. As with most things, it will take time, but the mayhem that happens at mealtime will lend meaning to the close of each day and will create memories and lasting bonds that will bless your family. The children will remember a mom who fed them, the time when all paths intersected across a dinner table.
Despite the spilt milk, the food dropped on the floor, or the arguments, memories were made. They may not remember specific days, but mealtimes are remembered as a feeling and expressed every time they say, “Mom, when I am home can you make—(fill in the blank)”