I grew up in a family that had dinner together almost every evening. My mom is admittedly neither an enthusiastic or an accomplished cook, but night after night, she'd make a pot roast, meatloaf, or the house specialty (breakfast for dinner) and gather us around a table, where, depending on how old my brother and I were, we'd either scarf down our food and beg to be dismissed or linger to discuss our day and soak in a few uninterrupted moments of family time.
The only phone was our landline, and if it rang, my father would answer and immediately tell whomever was on the other end that they'd have to call back because we were in the middle of dinner. Although we could see the television from our table, my mother would only allow it on if there was a particularly important game on that my dad didn't want to miss. I'm sure that if she was raising us now, she would have required him to DVR it and watch it after our family meal.
At the time, I just thought that's what families did: stopped everything to sit with each other for a daily meal. Now I know that it's not that easy, because my little family of four? We've sat together for exactly one dinner in our home . . . ever.
It's not that I don't see the value of a family dinner. In fact, I'm pretty confident that those dinners were a vital reason I look back at my childhood so fondly. They strengthened my connection to my parents and brother with every bite of overcooked chicken. But I just can't seem to figure out how to make them work for my own family, which includes a 6-year-old girl who prefers her meals come with sides of ketchup and ranch and a 3-and-a-half-year-old boy who I'm convinced is currently 60 percent composed of grilled cheese.
Most of my own family dinner problems are purely logistical. Despite eating decent-size breakfasts and lunches and approximately 100 snacks a day, my kids usually claim to be starving by about 4:45 p.m. My husband doesn't get home until around 6:30. So I can choose to either make that 101 snacks (a mom has to have her limits), feed my tiny monsters the chicken nuggets and corn dogs they want at 5 p.m., or hear them whine about how close they are to dying of starvation for 90 full minutes. You better believe I'm firing up that microwave every time.
Then there's the fact that both of my kids prefer to survive on a diet that mainly consists of fried and encased meats, cheese and bread products, and the occasional carrot or applesauce packet. The spicy, eclectic menu my husband and I prefer would never pass through their little mouths without some serious complaining, so basically, I'm making two dinners no matter when or where we all eat.
Meals out are a different story. When my husband and I can muster up the courage, we do occasionally take our kids to a restaurant, preferably one that doesn't mind temper tantrums and delivers food no more than seven minutes after we order it. In those moments, we might sit together and talk for a few minutes, until my son decides he wants to check out the public restroom for the eighth time or my daughter starts whining for us to move on to the nearest ice cream shop.
And then there's the universal palate pleaser, pizza, which we order at least once a week. While it's the one meal we're all equally excited to eat, for some reason, it's also the one we've decided should be consumed in front of whatever movie my kids can agree upon. While eating, the majority of our family conversation is limited to my children fighting about whose movie should win viewing rights.
I'm hoping that as my kids get older and more willing to eat foods that haven't been previously frozen, our family dinners will also naturally evolve into a regular habit instead of a rare occurrence. I'm hoping my husband and I can silence our phones and that my children will learn that 30 minutes without Disney Junior or YouTube won't kill them. I know it needs to happen, even if we're just eating my mother's less-than-stellar meatloaf. It's not about the meals; it's about the family bonds they create.