Blueberry pancakes, bacon, egg and vegetable scramble

Family dinner or family breakfast? Both could work.

Last week, I wrote about the new challenge we’re facing in our household with a schedule that now doesn’t allow us all to sit down together each night for dinner.  I shared my thoughts on how to manage that kind of schedule conflict, and talked a bit about the motivations that led me to determine that a family dinner routine that stays solid for me and the boys – even though it excludes J. many nights – was the best way for us to roll with the punches.  The obvious next question, though, is this:

How do you instate that new routine, without totally shutting out the importance of quality time with the family member who isn’t at the table with you every night?

Time with all family members is important, no doubt. My boys (and I) dearly miss Daddy when he’s not home with us, and while they’re certainly getting the benefits of eating and bonding with me each night, they equally need to connect with their father.  Whether your mostly-family dinner cuts out Dad, Mom, or one of the siblings, here are some strategies you can try to make sure that the absent family member’s importance to your whole unit is still honored.

Find a way to make them a part of dinner.

Of course, you’ve already tried to figure out how to get everyone to the table at the same time, and you couldn’t make it work.  I get that.  But someone doesn’t have to be fully present for the main event to be remembered and represented.

  1. Set the absent person’s place anyway.  There are four seats at our table, and setting for three makes it seem, visually, as though we’re neglecting our fourth family member.  We lay J.’s place setting every night, whether we think he’ll be home to eat with us or not.  This action has the added benefit of welcoming J. home with a nicely set place at the table, letting him know that we haven’t forgotten about him and have a meal waiting for him when he’s ready to eat.
  2. Get everyone involved in caring for the absent family member’s needs.  For us, this means anything from letting the boys choose which piece of chicken should be saved for Daddy, to having them pour a special beverage for him or serve his food to him when he does arrive home.  Making an extra effort to have everyone consciously remember and care for those who aren’t home for dinner keeps them present (and builds the empathy skills of young kids).
  3. Look for schedule overlaps.  Is it possible for your family to have a scaled-back version of the dinner experience together?  You might serve dessert or fruit and milk to the kids at the table when the parent who missed dinner sits down to eat, or have a salad course or cheese and fruit available to the whole family for a sit-down appetizer while a teenager eats dinner before running off to a sports practice or other event.
  4. Make a “dinner conversation” box and place it in the middle of the table so when kids share something that they wanted the other family member to hear, they can write it down and put it in the box.  Later, when everyone’s home together, take a few minutes to go through the box and catch up on the whole family’s dinner table news.
  5. Break the no-technology rule.  In this era of Skype and Facetime, some families might really benefit from connecting virtually during the dinner hour.  If Mom or Dad is working late, but can spare 10 minutes to make a remote appearance at the table to share in the conversation and news of the day, it can really provide a boost to everyone’s spirits.

Plan for the absent family member’s arrival.

Sure, you know when your partner or busy teen will arrive home, but does every family member have a good grasp of time?  And when they do get in the door, is there going to be a mad rush to greet them and a tussle for their attention?  Setting expectations around what happens when that last family member gets home each day can provide stability and calm.

  1. Make a plan that allows for “togetherness” as soon as everyone’s home, but don’t expect the person just walking in the door to immediately transition to “on” mode.  Set the expectation with everyone in the house that when Mom, Dad, or big brother gets home, s/he will be going to change clothes, wash face and hands, and put away personal items before joining everyone else.  Those extra five or ten minutes can help make the transition less chaotic for everyone involved.
  2. Make sure everyone understands what comes next – is it dessert while the newly arrived family member eats their meal?  Is it twenty minutes of playtime or reading time before bed?  Try to be as consistent with this as possible so it becomes as valuable a part of the day as the family dinner itself.
  3. If Mom or Dad won’t be home before the kids are asleep, set up a nighttime ritual to let the kids know that the absent parent looked in on them.  For younger children, you might designate a special stuffed animal to be tucked in to bed with them by the late-arriving parent, so they can wake up in the morning to evidence that Mommy or Daddy was there.  For older children, a note on the nightstand or another “secret signal” that you create together can be a meaningful way to remind them that you are always thinking of them, even when you can’t be together in the evenings.

Have “Family Dinners” Outside of Dinnertime.

The real point of family dinner, of course, is the time that you spend connecting and sharing a meal together.  Whether that happens at 6 p.m. or 7 a.m. isn’t nearly as important as the fact that it happens regularly.  For some families, getting creative with timing is the best way to keep a routine that works for everyone in the household.

  1. Have family breakfasts.  If everyone’s awake and able to make it to the table at the same time in the mornings, then breakfast is your best bet – just make sure that you can really commit to a good 30 minutes of table time, not just a gulp-and-run-to-catch-the-bus moment.  Make-ahead breakfast recipes like stratas, egg casseroles, and overnight French toast bakes are a wonderful way to not only make your family breakfast feel more like a family dinner, but also start everyone’s day with plenty of healthy fuel.
  2. Can’t do breakfast or dinner?  Try for Saturday lunches or Sunday brunches.  Even if it feels like all is lost, take a closer look at your family’s schedule.  Do you often find that you’re all home on Saturday afternoons, after sports and activities?  Make a point of taking that time to serve a healthy, communal snack and gather around the table.  Do you feel like you could have a family dinner if eating in the car counted?  Throw a picnic blanket in the trunk and pull over.  It’s the rare family that can’t find at least one night a week to eat together; if you combine one or two weekly dinners with some other creative shared eating times, you’ll boost your number of opportunities to confer some of the benefits of a family dinner on your clan without feeling like you have to serve a pot roast and homemade pie seven days a week.

Obviously, having everyone together at the dinner table as many nights a week as possible is the ideal, but when you’re not living in an ideal world, having a good plan that respects everyone in the family is key.  These strategies can not only help keep things running smoothly when not every family member can make it to the dinner table, but also keep the principles of family dinner — connection, togetherness, communication, shared values — at the center of your household routine.