My New Year’s Resolution: I Quit the Family Dinner

Over the holidays, I found a beautiful tablecloth tucked away in the top of a closet. White linen with a damask pattern, it fits an eight foot table and has snowy matching napkins. It had been wrapped in paper since the day I opened it as a wedding gift, and had not seen the light of day in the 22 years Anthony and I have been married.

I was not a white linen tablecloth person when I married. I’m still not. And yet, I registered for the thing. In my mind was an image of what family dinners were supposed to look like, and over the years, I have given them my best effort – but I’ve never quite needed that tablecloth.

Finding it got me thinking. I have spent a LOT of effort in the last 15 years to attain an ideal of my family eating a healthy, home cooked meal together around the table every night. I’ve worked and sweated, threatened, tempted, cajoled and jollied. And I think it’s time I quit.

Not in exasperation or resentment. Not in exhaustion or resignation. But gleefully, happily, with relief and relish.

That’s right.

I QUIT.

Yep, I know all the benefits of the family dinner. Every single one of them. Because the exact moment science/culture/the sanctimommies are done guilting you about breastfeeding, they start in about family dinners: having dinner together as a family means your child is less likely to end up a homeless drug addict, fends off cancer, spiders, diabetes and ebola, and ensures entry into the Ivy League college of their choice (with full scholarship).

And I bought in. We did it all; cooked wholesome, whole foods dinners; involved Adri in meal planning, shopping and prep. Had her set the table. Modeled an egalitarian kitchen where both parents cook, and whoever isn’t cooking does dishes. I came prepared with background music, with DISCUSSION QUESTIONS, for crying out loud (what are the three best things that happened to you today? What was one hard thing? Who were you kind to?). We never had difficult or discipline-related discussions over a meal, because we wanted dinner to be something we looked forward to, and never engaged in power struggles over food for the same reason – if she didn’t want to eat what was offered she could make herself a PBJ or be excused until the next meal.

We did ALL OF THE THINGS. Not just because of societal pressure. Both Anthony’s family and mine are rife with metabolic issues, and we wanted to give Adri a fighting chance to avoid them. It was a lot of effort, but it wasn’t wasted; as a teen, she is adventurous about food and interested in healthy eating without being obsessed. We eat pretty well.

It’s that damn table we’ve never been able to conquer.

Despite my best efforts, we can’t resist the siren-call of eating in the living room, with the comfy squishy chairs and…here’s the deepest, darkest part of my confession….the television. We do exactly what you’re not supposed to do: eat in front of the TV. Trying to make us do otherwise has been exhausting and futile, and I’m not going to swim against that tide anymore.

It’s probably better for my overactive sense of mom-guilt if I call this a retirement, or an evolution, rather than a resignation. After all, I’m able to do this in part because she’s aging out of my having to be much involved in what she eats. She makes her own choices and, having recently become vegetarian in a household of omnivores, is doing more of her own cooking.

We’re also scaling down dinner in order to have time for other things – chiefly, physical activity. Gym class at school is just eight weeks out of the year, and the rest of the time she needs regular physical activity to manage stress as much as her parents do, so we fired up a family membership at the local gym. With work, school and extracurriculars, we don’t have time to do this if we spend two hours every night making, eating, and cleaning up dinner. Everyone’s still properly fed if we’re skipping the pot roast in favor of a bento box we prepped on the weekend, in order to get to spinning class on time.

And what about all that wholesome conversation we’re missing, while we’re eating in front of that evil TV? In my experience, butts in chairs around a table are no guarantee of connection. Kids rarely have the kinds of extended conversations we expect, in the ways or places we imagined, and we have to jump through those windows whenever they open. So we make an effort to encourage connection whenever we can – in the car, at Sunday breakfast, out for coffee. And mindfully chosen television programs (Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars have been recent favorites) have provided a great springboard for talking about relationships, sex, communication, drugs and alcohol…many of the topics we struggle to find openings to discuss.

I did find a use for that tablecloth during the holidays, draped over an eight foot plastic rental-style table I was using as a buffet. Still, if you’re in the market for a lightly used linen tablecloth and matching napkins, let me know. I’ll throw in my unused set of ‘good china’ for free.

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