How do you plan for a family dinner routine when not every person can make it to the table?

Children with foodCan you even have a family dinner without the whole family present? That’s a big question these days, I think. I’ve heard from lots of people who struggle with schedules and the needs of different family members, for whom a “real” family dinner – one with every person in the household present – is too much of a feat to accomplish every day.  Up until recently, I could understand the challenge, but I couldn’t necessarily relate on a personal level.  From the time J. and I got married almost 10 years ago, we’ve nearly always had a family dinner, whether it was just the two of us, or us plus a kid or two.  Sure, there were years when I had a long commute or worked some evenings and we might have missed a night or two in certain weeks….but basically, those were the outliers, not the daily reality.

A couple of weeks ago, J. started a new job that takes him far from home on a daily basis. It’s an adjustment for all of us in many ways, not the least of which is that I – the queen of all non-morning people – am now getting up with the roosters, because the aspects of the morning routine in the house that were once handled by my dear husband are now on my to-do list.  (This is not my favorite part of his new job, I admit.  Not the chores bit; the loss-of-sleep bit.)  But despite the sunrise duties, the thing I notice most as we settle into the new routine is the change to our family dinners.  Where once there were four bodies at the table, there are now three, putting me squarely in the midst of the dilemma I’ve answered for others these many years: Is it still a “Family” dinner if part of the family is absent?

Luckily, I’ve had plenty of time to think about these matters, and since I’m in the habit of coaching others to help them reach optimal dinnertime satisfaction, I already knew the answer, long before we had to put this scenario into practice.  Yes, it’s still a family dinner; but in my mind, it’s only a family dinner because I’m eating with the kids.  If I fed them first, then waited until J. got home to eat with him, I wouldn’t consider our routine a family dinner at all.  Confused?  Here’s how I got to this place.

Family dinner is good for kids.

Sure, family dinner is good for all of us – people have known for centuries that the act of taking a meal together makes most of us happier, healthier, and less stressed than we would be if we just snarfed down whatever we could get our hands on, alone.  But when we think about family dinners as a practice to institute in our homes, the ones who arguably stand to see the biggest benefit are the kids. They’re the ones who have never had a mealtime routine, so they’re the ones who need one now.  Research shows that children who engage in regular family dinners are likely to have healthier habits, a lower risk of drug and alcohol abuse, higher grades, and better self-confidence than kids who don’t have a family dinner routine.  Given all that evidence, it’s smart, when rearranging your household schedule, to put the kids at the core of whatever new system you establish.

Kids eat like the people they eat with.

Those of us who have sent a child or two off to elementary school recognize this immutable truth of kids and food, because we’ve probably seen the lunchbox come home barely touched or had a kid beg for the school lunch or the latest “cool” snack. Those phases don’t have to be lasting if you handle them properly, but they serve as a good spotlight on the fact that children are likely to imitate the eating habits and behaviors of the others at their table.  That means that if you feed the kids first, but don’t eat with them yourself – even if you sit with them to “monitor” the meal or provide social interaction – they won’t get all the benefits they could out of the dinnertime experience.  Seeing you eat the same foods, model appropriate dinner behaviors through action instead of words, and make decisions about portions and proportions (how many vegetables? How much starch?) helps your kids to ultimately grow into those positive habits on their own.  It also provides one more source of positive role-modeling to counterbalance any sibling negativity that may be going on.

Eating with the kids sends a different message than eating by yourselves.

When families are apart all day, at work, school, sports, and other activities, it’s important (I think) to establish simple touchpoints in the routine that show children that time at home is time for togetherness.  Keeping meals segregated (children vs. adults) keeps everyone in the mindset of being in two different worlds, not coming together at the end of a day as a family unit.  Even when one member of the family can’t join in the regular dinner hour during the week, keeping one set time for meals that the majority of the family members can participate in sets a clear expectation and priority around dinnertime.  It says to children, “This is when we eat our meal, and whoever is in our home at that time joins in eating at the table, because this is part of what we do to connect and show togetherness.”  Families are teams; just because your quarterback might be sidelined for the game, doesn’t mean that the rest of the team members don’t go out there and play together.

Keeping the routine majority-centered helps with consistency throughout the week.

We’ve got to eat dinner without J. on most weeknights now, because he gets home later than is really optimal for the boys to eat their evening meal.  However, on weekends, we’re all together and can resume family dinners as usual.  Keeping the routine orderly and centered around those who are home at the appointed hour makes the transition from weekday to weekend seamless; when Daddy is home, we have four people at the table.  When Daddy’s at work, there are three.  Everything else remains the same, which is comforting to all of us.

That’s the “Why” of creating, or continuing, a family dinner routine even when the whole crew can’t make it to the table on time.  In the next post, I’ll be covering “Hows” – how do you make sure that you’re not just cutting out the family member who can’t participate?  How do you work and re-work a household schedule to make sure you’ve looked at every possibility to get all the members to the table?  And how do you foster togetherness so the family members who aren’t able to get to dinner most of the time are still able to bond equally with everyone?  Hard questions, with lots of possible answers.  Stay tuned.