33 years – that’s how many years Russ and I have been sitting down to dinner together.
Actually, more if you count the cafeteria at Seattle Pacific University.
There were dinners at the group home where we worked the first year of our marriage.
Later we dined in our 6th-floor apartment near Pike Place Market, me eating with one hand while simultaneously nursing our first baby.
Across the country, several years later, we shared dinner each night with the sisters of Alpha Phi sorority where we were house parents at Cornell University. Depending on who you ask, our children either entertained or irritated the women. Likely a little of both.
Last week I wrote, For the First Time In 13 Years, a post about our table expanding over the years to accommodate our growing family.
The table, our 10th wedding anniversary gift to one another, is now contracting as leaves are removed to adjust to the family we’re becoming.
The post prompted questions from readers.
How do we “do” family dinner? What does it look like?
Let me offer four basic tips:
1. Make dinner a happy time.
This is not the time to discipline children, discuss failings or disappointments, or talk about emails received from teachers, unless they happen to be glowing reports.
Although it’s tempting, I also don’t think dinner is the time to be heavy on teaching table manners. There are other meals during the day and, at our house, dinner is the one meal we share with dad; I don’t want to spend the entire time harping on manners. Soft reminders, yes, constant reminders, no.
I want my children to love dinner time.
I’m also not extremely strict about food. I know lots of folks disagree with me on this, but food is not a hill I’m going to die on with my kids.
Selfishness, taking so much others can’t get enough, yes. Cleaning your plate? No.
I wrote this post, Our Two-Step Approach to Food Challenges, about a method we came up with for helping one of our kids overcome picky eating habits.
2. Have Conversation.
Dinner is the time we try to have conversation, even if we need to provide structure to make it happen. In addition to learning how to speak, the kids also practice listening to one another.
In our home, it looks like this. Once the food is served, rather than everyone talking at once, or the one most talkative child dominating the conversation, we go around the table giving everyone an opportunity to speak.
They have two options:
They can share something interesting about their day – it can be good, bad, or something they learned. It just has to be something they found interesting.
Alternately, they can answer three questions: share one thing they did that was kind, one thing that was brave, and one time they failed that day. This teaches kids it’s okay to fail; even their parents fail every day. Sometimes I share a funny failure or a time I was afraid to do something and then was brave enough to do it. It helps them see we are still learning too.
3. Keep it Nice and Simple
If having a family dinner is new to you, keep it simple.
Create a two-week rotating menu and follow it until it’s so easy to accomplish you are bored. If that’s too much for you, make it a one-week rotating menu.
Set the table and sit at it – better yet, teach your children to set the table. I love a pretty table, even if it simply means candles each night.
We lost our routines during baseball season and I need to find my way back before football season starts.
I found this post in my archives from 2009, Large Family Tips: Setting the Table.
As I reflect back on those years, I’m rather astounded I had time to even think about it.
It must be evidence of how desperately I was clinging to normalcy in our lives in a time of trauma and chaos.
Which brings me to point #4.
4. This is Not a Burden to Bear.
What I mean by this is, do not add creating better dinner times as a burden on your already weary shoulders.
I know many of you are parenting kids who had a hard start in life. These little (or not so little) ones, joined your family after they were harmed in some way, often unintentionally, but harm was done.
It may be all you can do to put a meal on the table at all.
My tip for you?
Set the bar low.
Try to put one food on the table each person likes – if possible. Maybe it’s rice, or fruit, or chicken.
[Bonus tip: If you have lots of little ones, cut meat into small pieces before putting it on the table. It saves time after everyone is gathered making for happier kids, and it’s far easier to cut up meat on a cutting board in the kitchen than at each plate.]
Put each hard kid next to an adult or responsible big kid, if you have one.
Serve your most food-traumatized child first, even though she has to wait to begin eating until the rest of the family is served. She will see there is enough and her fears may be slightly calmed.
When your most challenging child is done eating, see if she can tolerate telling you about something interesting in her day, or one thing she did that was kind. If not, see if she can tolerate listening to one of her siblings answer the same question. Then, if she is anxious to leave, excuse her from the table – taking her dishes with her.
Maybe she’ll make it through listening to one sibling each night this week. Next week maybe she’ll answer the question herself and listen to a sibling.
Perhaps you’re reading this thinking, I can’t imagine dinner where there isn’t major drama. I hear you, sister.
When Kalkidan was young, we had one night a week when she had dinner with Aunt Michele.
That was one night each week when we all relaxed and knew we would have a calm(ish) dinner.
She grew, she learned, she healed. Thanks be to God.
And even with all that, I don’t think dinner was ever easy for her – but she learned to manage her fears.
I could write so much more about family dinners and gathering around our table.
If you have questions, please leave them in the comments. I would love to share thoughts, and hopefully wisdom, from my thirty years of mothering – ten years with children from “hard places.”
I’m in Seattle as you read this. Please pray for my father who is having open heart surgery tomorrow, 7/11/17. I would be very grateful.
With love to you and courage for the journey,
P.S. Just in case you noticed, in the pic at the top of the post, Wogauyu is covering his mouth attempting to resist the urge to blow out Beza’s birthday candles. It makes me smile every time I see it.