The other evening during dinner, I found myself standing at the stove again, eating a few bites of food here and there, as I bustled about the kitchen, while the rest of my family sat the table. When I finally sat down, I was in a hurry to finish, urging our preschooler to please eat all his veggies, and thinking about all the things I needed to do later that night. Meanwhile, the kids were either giggling or arguing, or both, and I was growing more irritated and anxious by the minute. As soon as I could finish my food, I jumped up and headed to the sink to begin the clean up process, which lately seems to be my favorite part of family meals.
Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed that I don’t really enjoy eating dinner together as a family as much as I should, and sometimes my negative attitude spills over into everyone else’s experience. Things never seem to go as smoothly as I hope they will at the table. The kids are loud and messy, and my husband and I don’t talk as much as I’d prefer, mainly because we have to talk over the kids’ interruptions or misbehavior. It probably doesn’t help that in my head, I often picture other smiling families, sitting peacefully at the table, saying grace, and then enjoying a good meal. Our family dinners rarely measure up to this image of the “perfect family dinner” in my mind, so I often leave the table feeling like a failure.
When I hear about the many benefits of regular family dinners, I feel even more guilty about trying to avoid them. So, why are family mealtimes so difficult for me to enjoy? Why do I rush through the meal and try to rush everyone else? And why do I often feel stressed when I sit down—sometimes for no good reason at all?
As I considered these questions, I thought back to my childhood, and how my family mealtime experiences might have shaped my experience today. My mom is a great cook, but as a single mom raising three kids and trying to run a business, she rarely had time to cook, much less finish a meal herself. Most of the time, we ate on the run. When we did sit down to eat , meals were rushed, and often involved some kind of family blowup.
During the few years she was married, we ate more regular meals at the table, but my step-dad’s hot-tempered presence left us all on edge. The worst times were when my stepbrother refused to eat—until his dad dragged him back to the bedroom to whip him with a belt.
Dinnertime was more peaceful during my occasional visits to my father’s house, but too often involved him trying to get me to eat and enjoy spicy Arabic foods, making the process of eating dinner with him a little stressful. But one thing I noticed when I’d visit is how unrushed mealtime was in my dad’s Lebanese culture, and how the family used it for more than just consuming food, but also to tell jokes, vigorously debate politics, and just enjoy being together. It was the kind of thing that was nice to see, but felt like more of a glimpse into a life that wasn’t completely mine.
Looking back now, I can see why I find it hard to enjoy eating together as a family, and why I overreact when things don’t go exactly as I planned. Lately, I have been trying to make changes to help improve family mealtime, so my husband and I can give our children the kind of experience with both their parents that neither of us ever had. Here are a few things that have helped me, so far:
- Allowing my husband, who—unlike me—actually finds cooking relaxing, to cook more weekly meals.
- Putting more food on the table before we sit down so that I am not tempted to stand at the stove but can sit with everyone else to eat. This helps ensure we all start the meal together, and gives us a chance to pray over the meal as a family.
- Trying to avoid discussing tense topics or family issues during dinner. This is a hard one for me since I like to address problems right away, but it’s important for keeping dinner stress-free.
- Trying to remind myself in the chaos of dinner with young kids that we are giving our family a great gift by the very process of sitting down to eat a meal together. It doesn’t matter if we are eating take-out, frozen pizza or a meal cooked from scratch. It also doesn’t matter if my preschooler makes a huge mess or burps every few minutes to make his sister giggle (although we are definitely working on his manners!). This time together may not be perfect but it’s priceless.
I don’t want the stress of my broken childhood to mar my kids’ experience of family mealtimes. Despite the noise and mess of family life, I’m committed to overcoming the past and enjoying mealtime with my family because I know we are creating memories for our kids that they will carry to their own family dinner tables one day.