The Family that eats together, or “Help! I can’t make my kids stay sitting at the table through the meal”

English: The end of dinner

Question: What is that that you’re trying to achieve with “family” dinners?

I don’t make my kids stay at the table until everyone’s finished eating. Never have. Rarely will, even with the elder two. But guess what? Now that they’re 10 and coming up on 8, they’ll often―usually―choose to stay at the table through the meal. Even when it’s one of those festive family meals that drags on together.

On “regular” days, although we almost always eat at home, we don’t always eat dinner together as a family. And here’s why.

When your purpose is to create a time that’s special, shared and valued–a time, place and space where the family comes together and builds itself, strengthens itself–how can that possibly occur when that togetherness is enforced and participated in unwillingly? The “family that eats together” myth is so ingrained in our culture — the picture of the family sitting down to dinner together such a sacred cow — a lot of us don’t really think critically about what it is that we are trying to achieve — and how we may be subverting our actual goals by the “we’re all eating dinner together goddammit” action.

There are so many other ways to come together over food if a ritual meal time is something you’re after:

Picnics.
Tea parties.
Dessert.
Appetizers.
4 o’clock tea
8 o’clock snack.

It doesn’t have to be dinner. In fact, depending on the ages of your children and the work schedules of the adults, dinner may be the worst possible time for a ritualized get-together: too late for the children, too much in the middle of too many other things for the adult who’s come home from work and needs to rush off to a meeting…

It may be so much more pleasant for everyone involved if young children eat their meal (meals) an hour or two before the parents eat their dinner – and then everyone can come back to the table or kitchen for drinks, dessert, cleaning, the post-dinner game, whatever. Or get the togetherness you’re shooting for from cuddling together on the couch, wrestling on the carpet, going for a walk, going swimming―at another time of the day. After dinner. On the weekend. Before bedtime.

The ritual power of the joint meal is huge, I get that, totally–the most important events in my calendar are our community potlucks, family dinners and food celebrations with friends–but their strength comes from voluntary, joyful participation.

I know from the example of my elder two children that my toddler will one day happily join us at the family dinner table for a prolonged meal. But it probably won’t be this year. Or next year. And that’s okay. He’s learning the power of ritual and community and family even as he runs laps around the dinner table―or eats two hours before us, and is asleep by the time we have our meal.

What do you think? Do you eat together as a family? Is that important to you? Does it work for you? If it does―how do you make it work? If it doesn’t… why do you keep on doing it?

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8 thoughts on “The Family that eats together, or “Help! I can’t make my kids stay sitting at the table through the meal”

  1. Nope. K eats in about 1 minute and then is gone. k will often be the last one lingering. I just figure we all have different bodies, are hungry at different times, have to go to the bathroom at different times. So how can I possibly force them to sit and eat if they don’t want to. Sometimes everyone is in sync. But often times we are not. I too see the older they get the more they do decide to stay though for the talking factor – usually because that is the time when Dad gets home.

  2. Yesterday I was thinking that the reason Ender lived til bedtime was because I fed him on the couch while he watched a show. And I’m pretty sure “my kids will never, ever eat while watching TV” (never mind on the couch!) was on the list of things I was never going to do when I had kids. 🙂 I’m so very, very pleased I shed most of those… dogmas.

  3. Pingback: Secret to raising healthy eaters: don’t feed your kids crap; don’t force “good for you food” down their gullets | Nothing By The Book

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  5. Made me remember. I am a grandma now, but I do have little ones living in the house once again. Yes, they like to eat all day long in spurts, rather than at meal time. Parents get uptight, It all comes out in the wash, as the old saying goes. LOL

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